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A Postcard From Europe 2016 Family

A postcard from Bad Wildbad

18/10/2016

It wasn’t perhaps my brightest idea, but every now and then you should do something that scares you, shouldn’t you?

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

Bad Wildbad, a fifteen minute drive to the north of Enzklosterle has the honour of being both the location of the nearest supermarket, and the nearest place to pick up 4G signal on your phone, big steep valleys in the middle of nowhere not being renoun for their phone signal.  So for much of both this year and last year’s trip it was where we went to Edeka and where went to plan our next steps. But every time we came out of the mountain tunnel and rounded the roundabout I’d wonder why there was a funicular train sat in the middle of the roundabout.  The answer of course is that Bad Wildbad’s pride and joy is the Sommerbahn; a little railway right up to the top of the mountain behind.

And so on our last Sunday in camp we set off, walking down into the middle of town, on a beautifully warm sunny morning, to climb a mountain the really easy way.  We knew our three were too little to manage the climb up, but thought that they would be ok doing the downhill version, so the plan was to pop up, have a quick look around the top of the hill, and then walk back down again.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

We were in for a surprise.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

As we climbed out of the station, all of Bad Wildbad appeared beneath out feet.  It is a stunning view, and well worth the ride for that alone.  But the top of the hill? Well I think in my head I expected something a bit like the top of a Lake District fell; lots of walking routes and the Sommerbahn station, but as soon as we stepped out we realised that we may have underestimated.  There’s a hotel and a restaurant and tourist information and about half the town seemed to have come up for their Sunday morning stroll.  There isn’t exactly a top either, the Black Forest doesn’t go in for distinct peaks so much as rolling mounds of mountain so there’s never exactly one point that marks the summit, and lots of places where you can look out across the valleys.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

But everyone seemed to be heading in one direction, towards a little wooden hut, and the start of a decking walkway out into the treetops.  People were going with buggies and little kids in backpacks and it seemed like such a lovely idea; to stroll out among the tree tops and have a good look at the view.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard I will claim to this day that I was lulled into a false sense of security by the German mamas and their buggies.  The truth is that I am not very good at outdoor heights.  Indoor heights are fine as long as you’re not asking me to stand on a pane of glass and look down through my feet, but outdoor is where I start to feel, shall we say, a little tense.  It’s not vertigo exactly, it’s the fear that my glasses will fall off and I won’t be able to get down because I am quite spectacularly shortsighted without them.  A short walk not too high up off the ground really shouldn’t have been a problem, I was absolutely fine on the one at the Eden Project, and I barely thought about the height before we headed off to explore.

The slight hitch in this otherwise excellent plan was twofold.  Firstly, there is a lot more wood easily available in the middle of the Black Forest than in Cornwall, so the walk was higher and longer, and went out over quite a drop (20 metres off the ground at the highest point), and secondly, this was the day when we forgot the sling.  It shouldn’t have been a problem; Pip is a pretty good walker and if he doesn’t want to walk then we pop him on our shoulders.  Except that having him on my shoulders way way up high off the ground seemed like a completely crazy plan, and letting him walk, whilst keeping his head below the parapet, also involved him trying to rattle the wire mesh fencing below.

Now I know that they’ve probably tested it so that you couldn’t drive a tank through that fencing, it’s a German tree top walk for goodness sake, but apparently my subconscious did not get the message.  I became utterly convinced that given half the chance my beloved baby was going to somehow throw himself off the decking. He was understandably less than thrilled at being clutched to his mother in the tightest hold known to man and started wriggling to get free, which made me clutch him all the tighter.  Oops.  Fortunately, H is much better at heights than me, so he and Pip enjoyed the view and I walked on with the girls holding my hands, far more for my comfort than their own.

I may not have taken many pictures, and spent more time than is ideal swallowing down my fears, but I did enjoy the view, and it is a brilliant tree top walk if you’re not being irrational.  As well as the main pathway (wide smooth, completely wheelchair and buggy accessible), they had little detour routes at various points which seemed to involve an adventure playpark high up above the trees and only a wire mesh beneath you.  By the time we were headed back inland, and with the return of terra firma not too far beneath my feat, all my worries evaporated, we found one of these alternate routes which we thought the girls could manage, and they and John scrambled through to their evident delight.

And then we turned the corner.

Space for the Butterflies - the tower at Baumwipfelpfad Schwarzwald

And no, that’s not quite the bottom either.

Baumwipfelpfad literally means “tree path” but this is a tree path with a difference.  The end of the Baumwipfelpfad Schwarzwald is a path that goes up and up and up in an every expanding spiral until you find yourself 40 metres from the top of the hill, with the forest rolling away beneath your feet.  I gulped.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

It is a point of honour for me that I made it until the penultimate layer, and I’m certain that Pip and I didn’t really miss out on that final bit of height.  John, Kitty and Elma made it all the way to the very top, and I’m told enjoyed the view; though he did later tell me that to take a photo over the edge he just held the camera out and hoped for the best.  It is an incredible view and I would have regretted not climbing up, almost as much as I was glad to be heading down.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard   Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

And had I not had Pip with me, getting down could have been very quick – for an extra €2 you can go down the slide.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

Yes, seriously, a spiral slide from a couple of layers down, all the way to the bottom.  It looked like so much fun, and the gentle murmur of the tower was every now and then overlaid with a muffled whoop and someone went spinning down.  To go back when the children are bigger and we can all slide down is definitely on my travel wish list.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Bad Wilbard

Even if I make no promised to be any less scared.

If you’d like to read some of our other postcards home from this year’s adventures check out:

Enzklosterle and the Black Forest

Stuttgart

A Postcard From Exploring Family

A postcard from Stuttgart

04/10/2016

Stuttgart starts with a tunnel. And then another and another and after you’ve driven through at least half a dozen mountains you emerge, blinking into the sunlight, right in the centre of town.

Our aim was to explore the old town, the Schlossplatz and the Oberer Schlossgarten; there’s a lot more to Stuttgart, including some stunning gardens, but little legs can only go so far, especially when the weather has turned against you.  This was the wettest day of our entire trip, and the rain gently trickled down all day.  No cloudbursts to clear the air and give us puddles to run through, nor a thunderstorm to curl up and watch from the windows of a coffee shop, this was damp, humid, incessant pitter-pat.  It felt just like home.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Stuttgart

But we are undaunted by a little water, it was warm enough, and after a while you just stop noticing that you’re wet.  It does explain why I didn’t take too many pictures though; I definitely notice my camera getting wet.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Stuttgart

The Schlossplatz was beautiful, with everything you could ask for in a town square if you were aged five, three or one; a tall avenue of trees to scamper up and down chasing pigeons, rose bushes to sniff and to hide behind, sculptures and ornaments to run around, and a fountain to dip your fingers in (and try to spray your sister with water without your Mummy noticing).  With all these distractions its a miracle they ate any of their lunch at all.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Stuttgart

On a sunny day I can imagine that the square is rammed, with a premium on every last blade of grass, and perhaps that’s the advantage of going somewhere on a rainy day; you get to really see what it looks like without all the people in the way.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Stuttgart

Wandering along the front of the New Palace, splended in all its reconstructed baroque glory, and around the corner led us to the garden.  It is absolutely beautiful; a curving lake dotted with yet more fountains (fountains seem to be a Stuttgart speciality) edged by a wide lawn and presided over by a flock of geese.

Huge and beautiful in their subtle colouring, Elma fell in love with them in an instant and sprinted off in their direction. Only when we went to intervene in the geese herding did we discover exactly what she was trying to achieve. I’m rather glad she never quite managed it as I doubt the geese would return her affectionate embrace.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Stuttgart

The formal gardens laid out to one side have even more fountains and it would be hard to say whether certain members of our party were wetter from the rain or from the fountains.

Wondering back through town, we came across the Stiftskirche, a beautiful church that marrys together old and new architecture and tops it off with some absolutly stunning stained glass.  We stopped a little while to take it all in, and to have a couple of moments of quiet in what had been a very hectic few days.  It was the glass that got me; I love beautiful stained glass, especially modern glass patterns that have been made out of recycled shards from an earlier work.  This was a beautiful example, fully of gorgeous colours, casting multicoloured ripples all over the floor.

And it was standing in the church that the penny dropped as to why Stuttgart had an air of familiarity.  I’d never been there before but I grew up near Plymouth, and now I live near Coventry, and they have the same feel; a very new town centre, all concrete and glass, with the occasional older building left like a refugee from a previous era.  It was the glass that did it, that modern patchwork so very familiar from John Piper’s windows in the new Coventry Cathedral.

Coventry was all but flattened in the Second World War, it was a major manufacturing centre before the war and its metal work and munitions factories went into overdrive when hostilities started.  Things all came to a head on the night of 14 November 1940 when the worst raid yet left the city irrepairable.  We live some way south of the city and yet there are older members of our church congregation who remember standing at the bottom of their garden as children and seeing the loom in the dark sky and the smoke as the city burned.  The old cathedral was left a shell and a new one (with the beautiful windows) was built next door.

Stuttgart, though partially protected by its surrounding hills, was still the target of 53 bombing raids and the recipient of an estimated 142,000 bombs, for much the same reason as Coventry, as a major site of manufacturing its destruction was considered of strategic importance.

I’d never been to Germany before last summer, and this was the first time I’d ever been somewhere where you could see the scars inflicted by the Allied forces against a native population.  It’s an uncomfortable conflicted sort of feeling; we enjoyed Stuttgart and standing there, admittedly in the pouring rain, watching the children enjoy the gardens there was part of me that felt almost apologetic.  We represent a country that caused a terrible hurt and took people’s lives; is it some sort of gloating to stand in a church and admire their beautiful patchwork of stained glass, when John and my grandfathers were part of the forces that turned the glass into patchwork in the first place?   And yet at the same time I’m not sorry that a sociopathic megalomaniac was forced to release his control over such a beautiful country, along with the rest of Europe.

Perhaps it’s that we are still close to that generation that fought.  When I was at school I helped as a researcher on a book that a teacher wrote about the wartime histories of the local area and interviewed a number of former servicemen.  I’ve heard first hand the stories of those who fought, and it doesn’t feel like history to me, not just yet.  In time and generations it will not be forgotten, but become less personal, just as I can quite happily go on holiday to Spain without feeling the need to apologise for Sir Francis Drake.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Stuttgart

When we had had enough time to look at all the windows, and for the girls to pick their favourites, we tumbled out for a last wander around, and found ourselves pulled inexplicably towards the bookshop.  I don’t speak anything like enough German to be able to translate even a nice craft book with pictures, so we all headed for the children’s section to see what we could find.  We might be in a different country, and using a different language, but where my three are concerned, a book is a book, and as the littlest two can’t read they don’t mind what language it’s in, as long as the pictures are good.

John can read a little German so he set off in search of a story, while Pip and I checked out our mutual level: picture books.  There’s a theory behind the immersion style of learning a language that if you can just get hold of enough nouns, and the occasional adjuective, you can probably make yourself understood, and I can see why it would work; it’s the way babies start to speak their native tongue, from “Mama”, “Dadda”, “ball” to “yellow train station” which is what Pip yelled at me this morning as I left the house to go to work.

So as John started to read Das Mucklemunster (the tale of a mischievious cat) to Kitty and Elma, Pip and I found a favourite of our own; “Welche Farbe?” (what colour?) and now we know that cherries are rot and frogs are grun.

We headed back to our forest, our tent, and, blissfully, some sunshine, knowing that we’d seen only a tiny fraction of what Stuttgart had to offer, but that we’d liked what we’d seen.  If we were to go back, then I’d head down away from town to the river; the gardens that started where we were, continue all the way down, ending on the banks of the Necker, right by a couple of car factory museums that I think I might just be able to persuade John he wants to see!

So from the old town, and the start of the greenery, let me share with you our little postcard from a very very wet Stuttgart:

A Postcard From Elma Family Kitty Photography Pip Video

A postcard from Enzklosterle and the Black Forest

28/09/2016

4.30 am we arrived Folkestone, having left home two and a half hours earlier, and last slept the previous morning.  We may have missed using the lounge and the wifi (and the complimentary croissants), but as the only people in the flexi ticket queue, and one of only a handful of cars lining up for the 5.45 crossing, we did get to be the very first people on the Shuttle, and when you have three little people in the back seat, who have been wide awake since the midlands because they are just so excited about finally getting to go on holiday, getting to drive down the length of the train is just about going to make your day.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

I’d love to tell you about the crossing, but truth be told this is the point that the not sleeping combined with the motion of the train knocked us all out for most of it.  I was just about awake when we got to the other end, but as soon as I’d got John on the right road out of Calais, I yielded to the siren call of the pillow, and next woke up a good hour later in Arras for a breakfast stop and my turn to drive.  And that’s how we spent our first holiday day, swapping between driving and snoozing as France rolled away behind us, until it wasn’t France anymore.

The borders in Europe aren’t usually much more than a road sign, but the moment when the signs for sortie turned into auchfart we finally started to allow ourselves to get excited about arriving.

We made it to our campsite in Germany at around 4.30 European time. Tired, hungry, a little stiff after sitting in the car for so long, but so very very happy to be there.  We pitched camp just above the stream, cooked supper as the last of the sunshine slipped away over the hill, and with one last look up to the hills around us, fell fast asleep.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

The plan had always been to get to Enzklosterle as fast as possible, and then have at least one day where we just stayed in the village to recover so our first morning involved porridge for first breakfast and then a happy meander down into the village for second breakfast at the bakery.  Warm pretzels, pastries and a gallon or two of coffee for John is exactly how all holidays should properly start.  From there we took a path up the hill behind us; Enzklosterle is nestled in the crossroads of two valleys and the hills all around are laced with cycle tracks, and occasionally slightly lost cyclists.  We took the low road, but even that revealed a beautiful view of the village, and sight of what we were oblivious to last year, the grassy swathe cut out of the far hill to be the village’s ski slope.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

Up on the bike tracks, sitting in the brilliant sunshine, and hearing the whisper of the trees around us, I breathed out properly for the first time in ages, and we all began to relax.  Crazy as it was, that long drive was worth it.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

If last year our Black Forest exploring centred around the towns and villages, this year it was about the trees.  We set off one morning with a rough guide to a circumnavigation of the forest courtesy of a campsite leaflet, and after a little detour a bit too far south, when serendipity found us not only a supermarket but a supermarket with a bratwurst stand outside just as we hit lunchtime, we found ourselves curving around mountain roads and driving down avenues of impossibly tall trees, wending our way through the valleys .  And our patience paid off as the forest offered up some stunningly beautiful views.

We stopped at Ruhestein where our guide suggested a walk out to Wilder See.  It would have been beautiful I’m sure, to see the lake tucked so far away and out of reah, but little legs weren’t quite long enough this year, so we just drank in the hills, the cows in the pasture clanking their bells as they grazed, and what was to us the incongruity of being in a ski resort without a flake of snow in sight.

I know that most places in the world that have similar summers to the UK, tend to have a decent dump of snow over the winter.  Protected by the gulf stream we don’t go in for extremes of temperature, and I think it conditions us to expect that snowy places have to be cold enough to keep the snow all year round (the top of Gornergratz for example!), and anywhere that’s as warm as home, can’t possibly get more than a few flakes.  The woodstores stacked up by every house in the area would tell you different, and while not quite as pointy as the alps, the Black Forest has a decent ski season.  Even when we knew, when we could tell ourselves that in winter the whole forest would be under a blanket of snow, my default setting would be “where are the mountains for all these ski lifts?”.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

From Ruhestein we headed along the Schwarzwaldhochstraße , literally the “Black Forest High Street”, and a great example of the joys of German as a language that produces quite impossibly long words, pausing where we could along the side of the road to look out over the foothills, and there all the way out on the horizon, the hills that mark the beginning of France.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

Mummelsee, tucked into the top of the hill was very much not what I was expecting.  When our little leaflet said lake, I thought of coming back down to the bottom of a valley floor, and a lake fed by streams cascading down the side of the hills, but the Black Forest likes its lakes right at the top, and we were surprised to come across Mummelsee at one of the highest points of the road.  It’s a funny little place, no more than a pond really, and nestled so closely into the rock that you could easily drive past it but for the tea shops and tourist traps.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

The path around the edge takes you away from the grockle shops and the pedal boats and the man dressed up as Neptune, and becomes a beautiful walk through the trees while the lake sparkles at you in the sunshine.  Mummelsee has mermaids in the same way that Loch Ness has a monster (hence King Neptune), and at the far end of the lake a full size bronze mermaid keeps watch over the water, and over anyone who chooses to paddle out to sit with her.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

I think the girls would have happily spent hours pottering around at the water’s edge or running up and down the path, and despite all the people visiting, it never felt too crowded.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

Last year we ate Black Forest Gateau in Baden Baden, and I was determined that this year we would again have Schwarzwaldkirschtorten in the Schwarzwald, and therefore make it a tradition that must be adhered to on every future visit, and my chance came at Mummellsee.  The cake came a mile high and a yard wide, and while completely delicious, two slices more than fed the five of us.

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Black Forest

It was the fulfilment of a wish and one of those moments where I wanted pinch myself that this was really happening, not just that we were sat in a beautiful spot eating cream cake, but that we travel at all.  It takes a certain amount of adventurous spirit to decide to take three small children camping and travelling around Europe, and I’m sure that there are holidays that we could go on that would be easier, but I don’t thin they’d be quite the same.  Part of the joy in the moment comes from knowing the amount of work we put in to make it happen, the cake only added to it.

And as always, I took little snippets of video while we travelled, to share with you the things that words can only try to capture; the first of our postcards home:

A Postcard From Elma Family Kitty Photography Pip {the ordinary moments}

A postcard from Start Point

10/07/2016

The Lighthouse stood sentinel over my childhood. Perched out at the furthest point of the bay, a small white sliver against the sky. Every night as the beam swept around the bay, chatting to the shipping out in the channel, it would cast a caring glance at the villages sleeping below as it wound its way full circle.

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The headland where it stands has always been one of my favourite walks. There’s something about being there, on the rocky spine, with the sea on either side that makes me feel very peaceful; as if there’s all the space in the world to stretch out into, while yachts the size of a doodle potter about below and far away out to sea the square might of the container ships slowly inch across the horizon.

Perhaps I planted the idea with the girls, or perhaps they’ve simply inherited my love of the sea but from the moment we said we were going to Grandpa’s house, they knew we were going to the lighthouse.

Only Kitty is big enough to actually climb the lighthouse so she and Grandpa scuttled off down the path to be in time for the tour. And while in the end she decided that she didn’t want to climb it, by the time we met up with them she’d heard all about the little cove at the very tip of the bay that the Lighthouse Keepers used for fishing, and to bring ashore the materials used to build the Light, about how the old foghorn had gone over the cliff in a winter gale, where the vegetable garden was (on what is the north (ish) facing slope because it’s the one that’s out of the way of the prevailing gales!), and about how the children living at the lighthouse had had to walk 4 1/2 miles to school each morning along a rocky cliff path and then 4 1/2 miles back again – it must have been a very long school day for them.

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Meanwhile H and I and the littlest two were making gradual progress down the hill. We found a beautiful spider’s web in a gorse bush covered in droplets of water, each one help perfectly in gentle suspension, and then as we got nearer to the bottom we came across the snails.

The girls have always been a bit wary of slugs and snails and tended to avoid them but Pip, oh that little boy can fulfil every bit of gender stereotyping when he wants to. He walked straight up to one, pointed at it, “Snay-ul”, and tried to pick it up.

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The poor thing shot back inside its shell and clung to the tarmac quivering, while I grabbed Pip so that H could relocate it to the nearest shrubbery in the direction of travel. He got the “look don’t touch” message pretty well, but the fascination was going nowhere, so we had to stop and look at each and every snail on the way, and apparently Sunday mornings is when snails like to go for a stroll because they were everywhere!

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By the time we got back up to the top of the headland the sun had chased away every inch of the morning’s grey cloud and so we sat out on the grass to eat our picnic with entertainment laid on by four paragliders who swooped and whirled like giant gulls, flying down over the lighthouse before catching a thermal and floating gently down the inside curve of the headland towards Hallsands.

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It looks amazing. Possibly the nearest you can get to flying without having wings. We could hear them chatting to each other as they passed and as they swung past overhead they waved to a very excited Elma.

I’m not sure she could work out how they were staying up in the air, perhaps she thought it was magic.

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The lighthouse won’t play the same role for their childhood as it did in mine, and why should it, their home is Warwickshire, and no matter how many of my memories we recreate, it will never be quite the same.  But sitting in the sunshine as I’ve sat a hundred times before, I got the feeling that they might just overlap.

Joining Katie at Mummy Daddy Me for The Ordinary Moments

A Postcard From Elma Exploring Family Kitty Photography Pip Video

How to travel around Europe with three children and a tent

01/12/2015

Space for the Butterflies - Camping in Europe with kids

When we were getting ready for our grand European Adventure this summer we read every little last bit of information we could get our hands on about the practicalities of travelling and camping in Europe, and especially with little ones.  Were we completely mad to be trying to go exploring with a four year old, a two year old and a crawling baby? How would we find campsites? How much would it all cost? What would we eat? Did we have all the stuff the car would need to go into all the countries we were considering? What about Internet access?

The questions could have filled a book. Some we found answers to, some we realised didn’t actually matter, and some we just made up as we went along.  We found Lucy and Hannah’s travel how-tos really helpful, and just in case all of our postcards home have convinced you that that’s what you should do with your next holiday (and if not, why not), this is our “How To Have a Blast Travelling Around Europe with Three Preschool Aged Children and a Tent.” Catchy title isn’t it.  This is all the nuts and bolts of what we did, and if there’s anything else you want to know, shout it out in the comments and I’ll answer as best I can.

What were we up to?

For three weeks in August 2015 we travelled around Europe with Kitty, then 4, Elma 2 and Pip, very nearly one. Our adventures and our video diaries were all included in our postcards home:

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from the Normandy Coast

Normandy

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Honfleur

Honfleur

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from the search for Monet

Etretat

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Giverny

Giverny – Monet’s Garden

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Paris

Paris

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Annecy

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from the Bernese Alps

The Bernese Alps

Space for the Butterflies - A postcard from Zermatt

Zermatt

Space for the Butterflies - the Black Forest

The Black Forest

 

The Kit

We took a four man tent borrowed from some friends of ours. That the front “lounge” section didn’t have an integral (sewn in) groundsheet was useful when Kitty tipped her supper all over the floor one evening – we just washed it out the door – but the rest of the time, the rain came in, and Pip could crawl out of any side; when we buy our own next year it’s going to have an integral groundsheet.

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In the sleeping pod we had two double air mattresses side by side. H and Kitty shared one and Elma, Pip and I had the other. For the girls we bought Hi Gear “Boom” sleeping bags (in hot pink naturally) which they loved and H treated himself to the grown up version.  They’re oval sleeping bags so you can curl up inside as if you’re under a duvet at home and much comfier than the traditional mummy style.  For Pip and I, we spread a quilt over our air mattress as a sheet and then he was tucked into his usual grobag and snuggled up in the crook of my arm with my normal sleeping bag opened out over us as a duvet.

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We all took a favourite pillow, nice at night but quite useful in the car too.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from the Bernese Alps

In our kitchen/lounge/dining room, which was outside unless it was bucketing it down with rain, we had a folding table and benches, folding deck chairs for the four biggest, and a picnic blanket for Pip. We probably didn’t need the deckchairs as well as the table and benches but they were a nice treat.  Cooking was all on two little portable gas stoves, the flat sort that take gas cartridges that look like aerosol cans.  They’re easy to pack, very hard to knock over and we never had a problem getting more gas either in France or Switzerland and I suspect it would be the same in Germany (we just didn’t need any more by that point).

We borrowed a set of camping saucepans from friends and I brought a few key utensils and our picnic plates and cutlery in a folding crate.  We brought pasta and a few jars of tomato sauce with us just for the reassurance that we definitely had supper in the car if we ever got totally bamboozled by supermarket opening times but it was only ever a security blanket not a necessity. Our washing up stuff lived in its own little green washing up tub (fixed with duct tape after we accidentally stabbed it with the sharp knife two days in – always pack duct tape)

Where the kids were concerned I think I overpacked on clothes and under packed on toys, the latter because we’d pretty much run out of space in the car by the time we got to toys.  We took their sketch books, lots of colouring crayons and a handful of Pip’s favourites and supplemented as we travelled with a lot more colouring books, Panda and Dolly Fleur in Paris and a selection of Petit T’choupi board books which remain Pip’s favourites.  They wore all of the clothes but it would have been easy to take two thirds of what we did and wash more often. We could also have done with a few warmer things; I don’t recommend Saltwater sandals for walking through snow oddly enough, and when we were in the Black Forest it got very cold at night; we were bundling the children up into jumpers and woolly socks until the sun got over the hill and the thermometer soared.

All of that filled our family car to the gunwhales.  My small craft stash that came with us was tucked under my feet in the passenger footwell and the camera was pretty much always in my lap or round my neck.  The only thing I think I wish I’d had would be a charge bar for my phone; using it to film and navigate wore the battery down pretty fast and there were a couple of days when we had to have the car on for ten minutes to work out where we were going for the day!

The Campsites

We found all of our campsites either through word of mouth recommendations from people we met, or through the Euro Camping website.  It’s a fairly international website with an international clientele as you’ll see from the reviews and we never found ourselves to have wondered into a British enclave, which for us is a good thing.

We stayed at:

France 

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Camping les Peupliers, Merville-Franceville, Normandy

Literally just over the road from a gorgeous beach, under beautiful big Norman skies, this was a perfect introduction to camping. This is where the French come for a week long holiday and they seriously glamp – gas ovens, tv, carpet, the works! We booked online before we left the UK and got a great corner spot behind a hedge with just enough space to squeeze the car onto the pitch too.  The pool was bliss but very busy but they don’t have a speedos only rule (gold star from H!) so we spent quite a bit of time cooling off in it or watching the girls at the playground, whose bouncy castle was always a hit.  There is camp entertainment in the evening but it stops before 11 and at that point the ‘street lights’ are turned down to their dim overnight settings so everyone can sleep.  The next village along, Sallenelles has a bakery that sells delicious croissants and is so pretty to explore.

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Camping de la Forêst, Jumieges, Rouen

Tucked away on the outskirts of a tiny village in the forest in a loop of the Seine, this was the most British-populated of all of our campsites.  It’s endorsed by the Caravan Club and from the high turnover I think is one of the main overnight stops on the way from Eurodisney to Calais but it also makes a great base from which to explore Rouen.  We phoned up the day before to book and they wrote my name down on a piece of paper which was enough to secure our pitch and is worth doing, it’s a popular spot and they were turning people away by 6.30pm. The campsite has two pools but does enforce the speedo rule, you get a cheaper pitch if you don’t want electricity, oh and the shop at reception does a very nice line in essentials (very cold Heiniken) and will order in croissants and bread from the village shop every morning.  They also win the prize for the nicest “espace du Bebe”, a little room with a baby bath fitted into a worktop like a giant sink plus changing table.  All of the French campsites had these except for Paris and they were genius, Pip loved having a proper bath, and we loved getting him nice and clean, and even Elma was little enough to fit in for a quick wash. I missed them when we moved on to Switzerland.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Paris

Camping International, Maisons-Laffitte, Paris

Sat on a tiny island in the Seine (yes really) and only accessible by the one bridge which has a manned reception most of the time and locked gates overnight, this was the biggest campsite we stayed in.  Located in Maisons Lafeyette in the suburbs of Paris, this was a top tip from some Dutch neighbours of ours in Normandy and we booked online while sat on the wall of Honfleur harbour. The pitches are small and it’s definitely worth paying extra for a pitch on the banks of the Seine, both for the view and the extra space.  The toilet blocks are basic (no baby bath here) but the on site shop is great and sells everything you could need and the restaurant does some great burgers. There’s a giant Carrefour the other side of the river in  that sells made to order sushi too!

This was also our most expensive campsite at €50 per night, which for a family of five doing Paris is not bad at all.  Travelling into Paris is a 10 minute walk up the hill and a straight train on RER-A (the red one).  Had it not been having engineering works the line would make the centre of Paris 20 minutes away and Eurodisney an hour. It might not have been our favourite for just hanging out at camp, but the location was great.

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Camping Le Panoramic, Sévrier, Annecy

Up on the side of the hills behind Sévrier and just down the road from Annecy, Camping le Panoramic wins the awards for ‘swimming pool with a view’ and ‘washing up with a view’ hands down.  We turned up at 7pm having driven all the way from Paris and they still had half a dozen pitches, possibly because of the rainy weather forecast.  They don’t take bookings, even by telephone, it’s turn up and hope for the best, but there are so many campsites in the Annecy area that you know you’ll find somewhere to sleep. This was our first choice, lovely pool, good bar for a drink while the girls scrambled all over the play park, and a tiny shop with fresh croissants and orange juice in the morning.  That it rained was not their fault

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from the Bernese Alps

Camping du Botza, Valais Switzerland

Located down the back of an industrial estate, this was the campsite where we wondered whether we’d made a mistake, but once we got inside it quickly became one of our favourites.  We’d booked online the day before and booked a bigger pitch to have a bit of space to run around, but the site was very quiet and we set up our tent across the middle of two pitches and the girls and Pip had empty space all around us to run around.  It was incredibly relaxing, stunning view of the mountains every time you looked up and the most insane swimming pool slide I’ve ever come across – they have pictures on their site – worth clicking over just for that alone.

There is a shop and a restaurant on site but we never worked out the opening hours of the shop and the restaurant looked a little fancier than was really going to work for us so we shopped at the Migros on the way to Sion and ate under the trees.  The owner, Jean-Nicolas, was really lovely and so much fun to chat to.  He completely won the girls over by giving them lollies and I think was trying to persuade us to come back in the winter – we’d love to, but maybe not in the tent!

Space for the Butterflies - the Black Forest

Camping Müllerwiesse, Enzklosterle, Germany

And finally, my favourite, the one I’m just a little bit reluctant to share because I loved it so much, the lovely blissfully peaceful camping Müllerwiesse.  Next year this is where I want to start, which probably says everything.

In terms of facilities there are two nice modern shower blocks and a good laundry. There’s no shop on site but you’re just at the top of the village so there are restaurants and the village shop within a couple of minutes walk and the bakery at the bottom of the hill is a must visit for breakfast. We didn’t even try to book in advance on this one, just drove and figured we’d work it out along the way and even in the middle of August there was no one night when it was absolutely full.  It is worth knowing that they don’t take card payments though, so you need to make sure you have cash but at €48 for two nights in August it’s very affordable.

Phones and Internet

Only one of our campsites offered free internet, and then only if you were sat outside the shower block.  The rest of the time we used the Europe roaming data and coverage package that my phone network provides (£4 per day) and purchased top up data when we needed it (£1-2); which was most days.  It meant that my mobile phone bills were quite spectacular when we came home, but we knew in advance that that would be the case so we could budget for it.  It was usually cheaper than buying campsite wifi and we had it with us all the time for map reading, choosing campsites, Instagram – all the essentials!

Food

In the three weeks away I don’t need to be wearing open sandals to count the number of times we ate out, and I don’t need all the fingers either if we discount two Golden Arches suppers at Rouen and Cherbourg on the way home because nothing else was open.  Self catering was partly what made the trip affordable, and meant that we could stay away for longer and go on unmissable expeditions like the trip up to Zermatt and Gornergrat.

Breakfast was usually porridge made with long life almond milk and maple syrup that we brought with us, lunch we made sandwiches, and for supper we dropped by a supermarket at the end of the day for a little inspiration.  It’s amazing what you can make on a camp stove when you put your mind to it.  Tomato pasta with burger ‘meatballs’ was Pip’s favourite, the girls loved the night in Normandy when we made ham and cheese crepes, but I think I was most impressed with H’s steak and chips – he bought a packet of frozen chips to act as an icebag for the steak and then fried them up in a saucepan – yum!

Car

Not knowing quite where in Europe we were headed we packed for most European countries by buying a kit that would cover France, Switzerland and Germany and adding extra hi vis jackets just in case we fancied going to Spain.  Happily the only bits we actually needed were the magnetic GB plate and the headlight deflectors, everything else is still in its nice little box for next time.

Fuel was never a problem and the only other thing we had to buy was a vignette for the Swiss motorways; available from every petrol station and a sort of universal toll.

Why do it?

It’s true, there are much easier holidays to go on, and there were definitely days when staying somewhere warm with walls, built in childcare and someone to bring you a drink on a tray sounded very appealing, but so often in life the things that are worth doing aren’t always the easiest.  This trip ignited the travelling bug in our children, showed them different countries and different cultures. I showed us just how little we need to be happy, and just how much we have in our house when we got back home, it gave us snow and mountaintops, beaches and sunsets and a fair amount of rain too. But most of all it gave us three weeks of time spent focussed just in being together as our little family of five before the big changes that the autumn brought.  The word life changing is horribly over used but I think I might be justified in using it here.

Space for the Butterflies - Me and Mine

If you are in any teeny tiny way even vaguely tempted to try it then all I can say is “Go!”  Book a ferry and a couple of nights camping in Normandy to see whether you like it; you can always come home if it rains, but I bet you won’t want to.