From chilly England to sunny France
Our unplanned England adventure in May was cut short by a surprisingly efficient UK Passport Service. I had my new UK passport in my hands just 2 weeks after I submitted the application.
We had been making our way over to Wales but the weather had turned so unusually cold that we were all a bit miserable. Without the right clothes to be out in the cold weather day after day it wasn’t a lot of fun riding or walking around in cool, wet and windy weather with the kids.
So we made a snap decision to leave England and head over to France. Our first stop was Paris – where we spent three gorgeous days exploring the city.
Visiting Paris in a campervan
Paris is such a beautiful city and I was very excited to return. Sunny (the campervan) is a large vehicle and the thought of driving him into large cities is a little daunting.
While it isn’t quite the same as renting an apartment or staying in a family-friendly hostel in the city, we found a great campsite west of the city in Maisson-Lafitte. Our site was on the River Seine and we caught the train straight into the heart of Paris each day.
Cities are expensive places to visit. As Matt and I visited Paris many years ago we felt less pressure to visit every major site. Our view is that the kids will most likely visit Europe as adults, so we don’t need to cover off every landmark. Despite that we still ended up having three very busy days as there is just so much to do in Paris.
We tried to have a mix of activities each day to keep the kids engaged and not tire them out too quickly. In between wandering the streets, admiring the views and eating wonderful food, some of our highlights were:
We visited Notre Dame on our first day. I thought the kids would enjoy being up close to the gargoyles leaping out from the rooftops. I had read about the queues in Paris but I figured it wasn’t peak season so they shouldn’t be too bad. I was so wrong! We arrived at around 10.30 and queued for over 1.5 hours to take the walk up the towers to the rooftop and belfry. I was amazed the kids stuck it out.
When we finally got to the front of the queue everyone enjoyed the dizzying walk up a gorgeous circular stone staircase. The views are spectacular. Once we had soaked up the city views we ventured out to explore the nearby city.
We learned our lesson from the queues at Notre Dame and made sure to get up early for our visit to the Eiffel Tower. For as long as I can remember, Amelie has been telling me how much she wants to visit Paris and the Eiffel Tower, so it was a pretty exciting day.
We opted to take the stairs to avoid some of the queues, which was a good decision. It meant we were able to take our time wandering up the 669 stairs to level 2 and take in the spectacular views of Paris from all angles.
The walk really wasn’t that strenuous: it meant we could watch the elevators flying up the sides of the tower and we were still able to take the lift to the summit from the second level. The kids absolutely loved it and named it their favourite outing in Paris.
In between sightseeing each day we made sure to visit some of the fabulous parks in the city. They are a great way to break up the day and give the kids a chance to burn off some energy.
One of our favourite parks was Jardin de Luxembourg. We visited the park on a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon. The park was a definite favourite of the kids’ as you can rent wooden toy sail boats to sail on the large pond.
For 30 minutes the kids were captain of their own little sail boat. With large stick in hand to launch the boat they had a fabulous time chasing their boat around the lake, pushing it back out to sea and trying to predict where it would sail next.
It made for a great afternoon – there were so many children gleefully chasing their boats around the lake (wielding sticks), a band was playing in the grandstand not far away and the sun was shining. The experience confirmed to us that our decision to head to the continent was the right one!
While the kids are reluctant gallery visitors I was able to tempt them to visit the Musee D’Orsay. The gallery has a great collection of Van Gogh and Monet artworks housed in a spectacular old railway station.
Amelie studied Van Gogh at school and was very excited to see Vincent Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles”.
To keep the kids interested, I had read of a great suggestion to go to the gallery shop first and get the kids to choose their favourite artworks from the postcards available.
They then spent time searching for the original artworks in the gallery. Unfortunately Harvey wasn’t able to find his artworks, so we also got them to chose their favourite artwork in each room. I love this gallery and only wish we could have stayed for longer.
The kids love souvenir shopping, even Harvey. In every country we have visited, they make a beeline for any shop selling trinkets. I don’t understand the fascination but they both love trawling through the shelves of knick knacks; comparing prices between stores, agonising over what to spend their hard earned savings on and trying to bargain the prices down.
It has become a bit of a ‘thing’. When we arrive at a new museum or sight they quickly determine whether there is a shop to visit at the end. They have become quite particular and let me know when they think the shops are not quite up to their standard!
Needless to say we have spent a fair amount of time on our trip discussing the price and comparative value of keyrings, bags, cups and games and the risks associated with purchasing snow domes while travelling.
According to Amelie and Harvey, while souvenir shopping in Paris has been good, the best shops so far have been at the English heritage sights in England. It has been a good way for them to start to understand the value of money – they have limited pocket money for the trip and they are having to make choices about how they spend that money all the time.
Food glorious food
The food in France is wonderful. On our first night in France in a small town campsite not far from Calais we were able to order fresh croissants for breakfast and they were amazing.
We have drooled over the spectacular pastries on display, enjoyed macarons from Pierre Herme and succumbed to buying spectacular cakes from Sebastian Degardin.
Many a lunch consisted of fresh baguettes, brie and ham in the park and we bought a decent bottle of wine for dinner at the supermarket for 3 euros. While we don’t have the budget to visit many restaurants we have thoroughly enjoyed the food in France.
As we settle in to life in the campervan and start to explore Europe I am rethinking what our trip looks like. To be honest we don’t have a route planned out and it changes on a daily basis. Most days when the kids ask where our next stop is, the usual answer is “not sure yet”!
The kids are not very interested in museums, galleries and churches. While this is frustrating it isn’t all that surprising. While we are trying to give them some context to what they are seeing, when you don’t have some level of understanding of the history or significance of what you are seeing, old cities and buildings are often not that interesting. I also understand if it isn’t fun for them then it won’t be fun for me either.
So while I will keep slipping in the occasional gallery visit, I think our adventure in Europe will see less time in large cities and more time in the outdoors where we can ride, walk, swim, paddle.. This seems to result in a much more successful outing for our family. The great thing is there are so many spectacular outdoor places to go I don’t think we will have any problem finding things to do.
Our next stop we see us heading south with stopovers in the Dordogne and Bordeaux regions as we make our way to Spain.