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A Postcard From Europe 2016 Exploring Family Video

a postcard from Innsbruck

27/10/2016

The foothills of the Bavarian Alps build steadily on the German side, tracing the road up through the valleys until suddenly you round the corner, the road falls away beneath you and there, several hairpin turns below you, is Austria and the Tyrollean plateau.  It’s completely unexpected and breathtakingly beautiful, even half smothered in mist.

I think I thought of Innsbruck as being a larger version of Zermatt; tucked into the side of the mountain, nestled among the Austrian Alps, but they’re more of a fence, soaring hundreds of feet into the sky wrapped around the valley below.  Perhaps they’re not quite so awe inspiring as their Swiss cousins, but they still dominate the sky line; a solid wall of rock  and snow capped peaks to the south and west, with little green swards appliquéd on to the side, looking utterly flat compared to the mountains behind.  They looked completely inaccessible, and yet more often than not there would be a little village and a church tower perched up on top; dropped there by giants playing at keeping house.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

Innsbruck itself is beautiful.  We headed for the old town and its famous gold roof, meandering along the riverside as all of the past few days worth of  thunderstorms washed away downstream.  I’d started taking pictures of the pretty coloured buildings before we got anywhere near; they were the perfect oranges and golds to brighten the sky on a misty grey day while we waited for the clouds to clear, and reminded me so much of growing up in Devon where we paint out houses the colours of ice cream and think its totally normal.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

But by the time we found the gold roof all thoughts of beautiful buildings were entirely forgotten, even though we were in the heart of the pretty bit.  On the way in we’d been stopped by an actual traffic policeman (a first in itself) and redirected to clear the road to allow the police marching band to go past. I love marching bands, they’re definitely one of my guilty pleasures, and it seems that Kitty has similarly excellent taste in music as she insisted that we rolled the windows down and listened for as long as possible.  To our huge delight, as we turned around the corner to see the gold roof, we could hear a solid brass oompa-oomp-pa.  There’s something about that music that makes my toes itch to be moving, and Kitty and I sped up as we headed forward and around the corner to see the band set up in front of the old town hall.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

Exploring to do? What exploring.  John and Elma went for a little wonder but while Pip was busy batting out a beat on my back, Kitty was mesmerised.  She found a spot on the cobbles and sat in front of them, immersed in the music and utterly in the moment.  And with a bit of time to stop and look around we finally worked out what all the little white banners were about; we’d come to Innsbruck in the middle of Music Festival.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

Having thoroughly enjoyed one impromptu concert we lucked out again when our stop for a picnic in the Innsbrucker Hofgarten turned out to be just outside the Musikpavillion where a group of students from the Innsbruck School of Music put on a more classical concert to a packed pavilion and a good number of people just outside the door.  We couldn’t stay for the whole concert, but to hear just the start, and be able to watch the children running around quite happily outside was a serious treat.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

The reason for our scuttling away, despite the very excellent tree climbing trees, and the discovery of the princess and the frog in a fountain, was a castle.  Not the Habsburg Palace (beautiful though it is), but a gorgeous castle adventure playground, complete with tower, battlements and a nice swirly slide.  One of the two was always going to get the majority vote in our family and much as I would like to go everywhere and see everything when we travel, the priority for travelling with little kids has to be making sure that they’re having as good a time as you are, so play parks and good spaces for running around  have as much merit as very pretty palaces.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

The funny thing about being in Innsbruck is that it doesn’t feel like an alpine town when you’re just walking around the gardens, or along one of the main roads.  It’s completely flat, and it’s not until you suddenly look up about the roofline of the streets, or something that isn’t quite a cloud catches your eye, that you realise that you’re surrounded by these stunning peaks.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

In a day we were only ever going to scratch the surface of Innsbruck, and tempted though we were by the idea of a cable car up the mountain, or a visit to the Alpine Zoo, we opted to spend what time we had pottering around and soaking up the atmosphere.  And paying a visit to a yarn and fabric shop of course.  If you follow my handmade posts you’ll know that I have developed a serious addiction to making leggings for the children.  It meant that after owning it for four years I finally got around to figuring out my Mum’s overlocker (and promptly wondered what on earth took me so long) and it all started in Innsbruck when a window display of Christmas table cloths caught my eye and before I knew it we were standing in the middle of one of the biggest and loveliest fabric shops I have seen in years, facing a wall full of rolls of cotton jersey.  That I only came home with four lengths for leggings for the children, a starry cotton print to make Pip shorts next summer and the most eye-popping sock yarn I’ve knit for John to date I see as a testament to my restraint, though I agree that may not be a view entirely mirrored by everyone else within the household.  I have made all of the leggings though!

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

When the family finally tore me away, there were still little winding lanes to explore; grockle shops filled with miniature dirndls and lederhosen and every souvenir you’ve ever thought existed.  Splurging our pennies on ice cream instead, we peeked into a glass blower and became appropriately dazzled by the swarovski crystal displays in front of the museum; enough sparkles even for my glitter loving lot.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

Down Maria-Teresien Strasse we found a wonderfully pink church, and a little further on the Annasaule (St Anna’s column), also in pink, this time of the marble variety and therefore much admired.  By the time we arrived it was mid afternoon, the skies had mostly cleared and the sun shone; perfect timing because this is one of the views of Innsbruck; the street, the column, the church and the mountains.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

I know we want to explore more of Austria some day and we couldn’t help but love what little we did see, but this was the far point of our trip, the furthest we were ever going to be from home, all 866 miles of it, and I think we were all a little reluctant as we turned for the hills; back to Germany, and an acknowledgment that for this year at least, it was time to start making our way home.

Space for the Butterflies - a postcard from Innsbruck

I loved filming in Innsbruck and got slightly obsessed with the Police band and recorded quite a few snippets of their performance, so it seemed only appropriate that for our little film postcard home, I should turn the soundtrack over to the very talented Polizeimusik Tirol.

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

Walchensee

 

A Postcard From Europe 2016 Exploring Family Photography Video

a postcard from Walchensee

25/10/2016

Walchensee is a landscape painted in blues; all turquoise, teal and midnight.  We arrived on a scorcher of an afternoon, having taken far longer than we expected to drive the width of southern Germany and we were all hot, tired, and more than ready to arrive.  Curling our way down the mountain pass, dodging hairpin bends and bicyclists in equal measure, suddenly a glimpse of water opened up and through the trees, there was the lake, and it was all we could do not to jump straight in it to cool off.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

The lake is Walchensee, as is the village half way down the western shore, but the campsite (also going by the same name) is around the corner, over a bridge across the stream that could have been lifted straight from the Lake District, and along the side of a low spur pointing its finger out into the water.

Living in our beautiful island, a beach holiday means going to the coast; even from the very middle of the country it’s only a couple of hours drive to the nearest beach, and it wouldn’t take much effort to find a campsite somewhere near the seaside, and when you’ve grown up with that as your default setting you forget that it’s not the norm.  If you live in southern Germany, proper seaside holidays are two countries away down by Venice and so if you want to hang out on a beach, you go to a lake.  Walchensee is where the Germans go for their holidays, and in contrast to Enzerklosterle where we met mostly Dutch and British travellers, here we were the only foreign car in the car park, and 71% of the Brits on site.  And because of that, people potter about on site and get chatting to their neighbours; even if it is to take the mick out of the size of our tent; “Ist Buckingham Palace?!” (es is nicht Buckingham Palace, es ist beeindruckend

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

While the carvans have set pitches, the tent section of Walchensee is two grassy sections down by the water.  You pitch your tent anywhere you can find space for it, and when we showed up there was just about room enough to squeeze our lovely big green tent into the remaining gap, even if we had to forgoe pegging out large sections of the guy ropes.  With the rest of the space being filled with the teeny tiny sort of tents that people take up mountains, we did stick out a bit, and I definitely felt a lot less self conscious the second night when another nice big family tent came and made its home next to us.

The plus side of course was that we were mere metres from the water; beautiful deep clear water, blissfully cool and perfect for swimming; shallow enough at the shore line that the kids could paddle and throw pebbles and deep enough that we could swim properly without having to wade out for half a mile.  We were in the water less than 10 minutes after we finished pitching the tent.

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The lake was stunningly beautiful at all times of the day and night.  Our first evening we went for a drive to see if there were any other options to pasta and sauce (plenty of restaurants, no shops so pasta it was), and we stopped up at the northernmost point to turn back around.   All but the palest pearly pink light had faded from the sky, and the hills were midnight as they put on their cloak of darkness, and there was a stillness and a calmness that seeped into your bones.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

If last year was a “doing” holiday, this year’s intention was for a “being” holiday; just being together and not trying to bat round a million miles a minute, conscious that when we got back home I’d be straight back into work and the girls wouldn’t have that much of a gap before school and nursery started. Walchensee was where we embraced the just being.  We went on a day trip to Innsbruck, and we did the occasional run to Edeka and the petrol station, but mostly we sat on the beach and enjoyed that view; no circumnavigating the lake, no trying to climb a mountain to get a better view, just watching the children play along the water’s edge while I knit and John snoozed, or going for a swim, and then another swim because it was just too lovely to get out.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

Each night the children would go to sleep worn out from being waterbabies all day, and John and I would crack open the secret supplies of various German beers and catch up on the Olympics.  We were in Walchensee when the women’s hockey team won gold, willing the phone battery and the 4G signal to hold out as we went through to penalties.  Gold medal winning aside, it was lovely to have that bit of time together, just the two of us.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

And then, about eleven o’clock, every night, the show really started.  Our first evening we looked up at the weather, saw the beginnings of a clear night sky and the twinkle of the first stars, and decided to leave our swimming cozzies out on the guy ropes.  It was not a mistake we’d make twice.  Just as we were turning in, the first drops began to fall, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of light that might have been from a camera.  It wasn’t.  Thunder ripped through the valley and the storm started up with a vengance.  I’ve not heard thunder in the mountains before and unless you ever experience it yourself it’s had to imagine.  There’s no build up of humidity, or low rumble from miles away as the first sign, just a crack that sounds like the very earth is being wrenched in two and forged into a new arrangement.  The acoustics of the hills bounce the sound around, but there’s no mistaking when the storm is right overhead; rumble after rumble interspersed with sheet lightening and the rain pelting down on the roof of your tent a few inches above your face.  The tent did us proud though; not a drop inside, and very few wobbles when we considered how little pegged out we were.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

For every gently glorious day, the nights were a reminder of the violent beauty of stormy weather, and we came to expect them and even enjoy the storms, as we checked that the children were try and warm, and cuddled them in close.  They for their part slept right through every single storm; such is the power of paddling and rock throwing to wear you out.

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

Space for the Butterflies - Walchensee, Germany

It is a truly beautiful spot, and if our little film postcard home suggests that we spent nearly every moment in the water – could you really blame us?

 

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:

Elma Exploring Family Kitty Photography Pip

The Grand European Adventure 2016: Plotting

17/02/2016

Space for the Butterflies - Cherbourg

I’d say that as soon as the ferry left Cherbourg harbour last August we knew we’d be going back, but to be honest it was probably sooner, maybe in the falling snow on top of Gornergrat in Switzerland, or the first time we rounded the corner and saw Lake Annecy unfold before us, or in the quiet early morning of a Black Forest campsite.  As a phrase, “life changing” gets rather overused but I think our travels last summer genuinely were life changing.  They set the pattern for how we want to spend our summer holidays; travelling, exploring, adventuring and just being together as a family.

It won’t be quite the same this year, for one thing we will have to have a return date set, and probably a ferry or the tunnel booked, because I’m not sure I can really stretch “working from home” to mean “still in France on the beach with the laptop”, though for the record, I’m certain that sunshine, sea and readily available ice cream does make me terribly efficient at my job!

So two weeks it is, and with the whole of Europe opened up before us both H and I are indulging a few daydreams and planning out our trip.  We’ve thought about seeing some more of the Alps, going through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy, and maybe even as far over as Venice and the Dolomites, or heading down the Atlantic coast of France and in to the top of Spain, but the thought that we keep coming back to time and again is basically starting where we left off.

Space for the Butterflies - the Black Forest

In the very beautiful and deeply green Black Forest.  Our final campsite of the summer was just so lovely, so peaceful and so perfect for letting us relax and unwind while the children made friends and ran off all of their wriggles that I can’t think of a better way to begin than hot footing it east.  If I drive us down to Kent to the Chunnel in the wee small hours of the morning, and then H drives us through northern France and into Germany (lovely nice clear motorways almost all the way through France and speed limit free autobahn in Germany) then we could possibly even do it in a day, and easily do it in two.  And then we will sit, and listen to the stream and eat a lot of cake from the bakery down the hill. And I absolutely forbid it to rain on us.

But more than that, and to show you that I’m definitely not just wanting to go back to Germany for the cake, now that Pip is big enough to be walking, and the girls are even sturdier than last summer, we could try a few gentle little walks into the forrest itself.  We could see so many inviting trails and routes last year but we just weren’t quite ready for that level of exploring.  This year though it could be perfect.

Space for the Butterflies - the Black Forest

That’s as far as I’ve got to in terms of definite planning, and like last year we’re unlikely to book anything beyond the first night’s accommodation, but we’re also considering exploring Munich and the surrounding area (which I’m trying to wangle to include a trip to Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm to the north west, home of the headquarters (and shop) of the very lovely Wollmeise yarn).  Yarn aside, there are some very lovely looking lakes just to the south and it would make a great stopping off point too or from another serious contender on the list: Salzburg.

I’m told it’s a beautiful beautiful part of the world, and some campsite friends we made last year highly recommended it, but mostly, we just want to twirl across a mountain meadow singing “the hills are alive”. I’m only short four children; we’ll have to rope in some teddies to help make up the numbers.

If we then headed back along through Austria we could pop out in Switzerland for more mountains, and, if we’re going for a holiday theme of making my childhood reading come to life then there’s a little hamlet just up the mountain from Maienfeld in Switzerland that’s declared itself to be the fictional Dorfli and has Heidi this that and everything.  Some of it is supposedly incredibly tacky, but I hear good things about the Heidi Haus, and even just seeing the mountains that inspired the story would have me putting the girls hair in plaits and feeding them goat’s milk for breakfast.

I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of A Year of Living Danishly, which H and I both loved, it’s a great read/listen, and I had Denmark and Sweden on the list last year so there is a little bit of me that wants to try to head north as well to, as H puts it, “eat pastries and build Lego” and I think that one day we will have to do a Scandinavian trip, but it might just be a smidgen too far from a Bavarian starting point.

I think that’s as far as I’ve got, but as last year asking you all for suggestions brought us to Annecy (for which we are most thankful), I thought I’d ask again – if you were travelling in a Germany/Austria/Switzerland sort of direction, where would you absolutely not miss out?

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.