Our 3 week European family road trip itinerary
With three of our children living in Berlin, we are always looking for opportunities to travel to Europe and look out for side-trips and package deals to make the most of our airfares to Europe.
Neither Ian nor myself are comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road in Europe, so a self drive trip was not an option for us and we had been researching the possibilities of either a guided coach tour, river cruise or train/ bus travel for our next adventure planned for late 2018.
So when in January this year my Singaporean sister and brother in law invited us to join themselves and their two teenage boys on a family road trip, travelling through Germany, France and Switzerland in June, we decided the new carpet could certainly wait until next year.
Planning our itinerary
Kes and Philip are somewhat more experienced travellers than ourselves and my brother in law was, after all, the one who would be negotiating a nine seater minibus around Europe on the wrong side of the road and down narrow cobblestone lanes, so we were happy to leave much of the planning to them.
Nevertheless, many hours were spent online researching accommodation and possible itineraries, with hundreds of emails exchanged over the ensuing six months to plan a fabulous three and a half week European road trip taking us through Germany, France and Switzerland, which appealed to an extended family of 15 to 55 year olds.
With the much hyped terrorist threat deterring many tourists from visiting Europe at all, we chose to stay largely away from the major city centres, opting instead for the more rural destinations which actually provided us with a richer cultural experience. This enabled us to spend up to a week in one place, seeing “more of less” without spending long days on the road to make a fleeting visit to each destination.
Unlike the major cities, English was not widely spoken in the regions we visited, but with our “schoolgirl French”, my nephew’s current HSC French, a smattering of German we have learnt during our trips to Berlin and the help of Google translate, we got by with a few amusing interludes. By the end of our trip, even Ian who had resisted my pre-trip efforts to teach him a little French could even “parlez” a little “Francais”
Must see attractions and little known gems
Throughout the trip Kes was our tour-guide extraordinaire, leading us not only to the famous, “must see” attractions, but also little-known gems which enriched our holiday.
Philip meanwhile did an extraordinary job of navigating along foreign roads with the “help” of our GPS “Heidi” and her propensity to direct us the wrong way up narrow one way lanes, as well as the useful comments from the peanut gallery in the back two rows of the bus.
June was here before we knew it and we were off to catch up with the Berliners for a week to start our five week adventure, before flying back to Munich to meet up with the Singaporeans, load the minibus and begin our adventure.
Along the way we stayed in a mix of hotels, B&B’s and self catering holiday homes. We quickly found the benefit of a self drive tour, as opposed to an organised tour, was the flexibility. A quick refreshment break in a little village could turn into a couple of hours browsing through cobblestone lanes, and quaint ancient buildings, while if a planned stop failed to impress we could just move on.
We also had the advantage of interacting with the locals, who gave us some invaluable tips on where to go and what to see, as well as an authentic taste of their local culture.
Munich to Freiburg
The first leg of our trip took us on a four hour drive from Munich through Bavaria into the Black Forest to a spa resort hotel outside Freiburg, where we spent two days walking through the cool pine forests, exploring the medieval city of Freiburg, eating ice cream in the town squares and hiking up the hill to Schlossberg.
Freiburg to Dijon
Leaving the Black Forest behind us, we drove from Germany to France, over the border into the Burgundy region , with great excitement as the road signs announced the fact that we were finally “En Francais”.
Our three hour journey took us through Mulhouse with a stop at a large car museum, where my nephew attempted to photograph every vehicle in the building, from horse drawn carriages to modern race cars.
It was here that we enjoyed our first real French pate at the cafeteria – though by French standards I imagine it was like equating fish n chips with grilled Barramundi.
Our home for the next four nights was an amazing B & B seven miles out of Dijon in the quaint village of Ruffey-Les-Echilrey .
Staying in a French B & B
Ame de la Terre is owned by a French local and his German wife. Phillipe and Simone have successfully extended their historic 19th century villa with a sleek modern B&B, offering comfortable rooms, amazing breakfasts and outstanding hospitality.
After a challenging day driving on the wrong side of the road, the last thing Philip needed was to drive us back into Dijon for dinner, so we took up the kind offer of our hostess to put together a platter for us. What a spread it was! Local cheeses, pate, terrine, garden salad and fresh French bread all washed down with a local white wine.
From here we spent three days exploring the wineries, chateaux and museums of the Burgundy region, from cobblestone villages to the larger cities of Dijon and Beaune. We strolled through village markets, sampling the wares of charcuteries, fromageries and patisseries along the way, sampled real Dijon mustard and, of course, stocked up on Burgundy wines to sustain us on our journeys.
Visiting French Chateaux
Many of the chateaux we visited had survived countless wars, rebellions and revolutions over the centuries and a number had been in the same family for 1000 years. Each was unique in its own way, many were still lived in and opened to the public to assist with the massive upkeep, while others had been restored as museums or interactive displays.
The only drawback was that many of the smaller chateaux did not have an English guide, so we were limited to the printed English leaflets to read through the tour, unfortunately missing much of what would have been interesting commentary.
Relaxing in the cool of our B & B courtyard after a hot day’s sightseeing we could hear the village church bells chime the hour as the villagers went about their business, celebrating the summer equinox with their local folk music echoing through the still summer’s night
Dijon to Auxerre
The next leg of our adventure took us north to the Chablis region and the village of Auxerre, where our home for the next four days was once again a B & B this time in the converted outbuildings of an old chateau.
The rooms at Chateau de Ribourdin were decorated to evoke an authentic style in keeping with the original main building which remains the home of our hosts and their family.
Each morning we enjoyed a continental breakfast in the gardens to start our day, with helpful advice from our hosts in planning our day’s activities.
Set amongst rolling countryside, the chateau was our base to explore the wineries, chateaux and attractions of the Chablis region, as we quickly adapted to the French custom of closing for lunch in the middle of the day.
By noon everything was shut until around 3pm and it was time to find a restaurant or cafe, sheltering under an umbrella or awning from the scorching heat to sample the local delicacies – escargot, pate, canard and of course local wines, before resuming our day’s travels.
Among the many attractions we found near Auxerre was the historic 12th century fortress of Vezelay, starting point for two of the Crusades and the final resting place of the relics of St Mary Magdalene and one of the highlights of the trip- the natural limestone caves at D’Arcy Grotto, with prehistoric artwork dating back 28,000 years.
By evening we enjoyed a picnic dinner, sourced from the local charcuteries and boulangeries as we sipped local wine in the garden of our chateau or took a refreshing dip in the heated pool.
Auxerre to Talloires
The minibus packed not only with our suitcases, but many cases of wine from the local vineyards, we began the five hour drive towards Talloires, on Lake Annecy at the foot of the French Alps.
The spectacular views and pristine clear waters of the lake make this area a popular local tourist destination.
Our home for the week was a chalet set high on the hills above Talloires, were we would
relax on the deck with our family, watching the afternoon light play with the French Alps, as parasailers glided overhead, sipping a glass of French wine. C’est la Vie.
By day we enjoyed hiking through wildflowers in the alps at Mt, Somnez, listening to the echo of cowbells from the herds of goats and cattle who also traversed the paths.
Our days were spent visiting the museums and chateaux in the area, and of course strolling along the canals of the medieval town of Annecy, taking in the aromas of the market stalls offering everything from cheese and sausages to home make “glace” – ice cream like you have never had before.
It is possible to walk or cycle some 47 kilometres around the lake, however we chose instead to join the throngs of holidaymakers swimming, paddleboating and relaxing in the sun beside the pristine waters.
As Australians, the concept of paying 30 Euro to go to the beach at Talloires was somewhat foreign to us, so we contented ourselves with walking along the waterside past the old Abbey, spending much of our time in Annecy around five minutes drive away, where the beaches were free.
By night we enjoyed our lake and mountain views from the deck of our chalet, cooking local produce sourced from the markets.
Annecy to Grindelwald
A relatively short trip across the Swiss border, through spectacular alpine scenery brought us to our home for the next week in the fairytale alpine village of Grindelwald.
Another ski chalet Chalet Verbrennhausen, with spectacular views of the iconic Eiger north face and lush green alpine pastures, where the sound of cowbells echoed along the valley provided a very comfortable home for our family of six.
Fields of wildflowers and vibrantly coloured geraniums sprouting from windowboxes on traditional wooden ski chalets heralded spring.
From here we took advantage of the extensive cable car system and the free local bus service offered to tourists, to explore the surrounding alps.
We joined the many summer tourists hiking along hundreds of kilometres of alpine walking trail to enjoy spectacular snow capped mountains, alpine lakes, visiting the glacier gorge and enjoying our fill of schnitzel, apfelstruessel, raclette and Swiss chocolate.
By night we once again prepared our dinner with local produce, sipping our wine stash from the verandah as we enjoyed the awe inspiring scenery of the Eiger mountain and glacier.
Grindelwald to Lucerne
All too soon our adventures were coming to an end as we began our journey to Lucerne, checking into our fairytale castle on the hill high above the glittering lake for our final two nights.
Our first day in Lucerne was spent exploring the historic town, the famous chapel bridge, ancient fortress and magnificent churches, browsing through the crowded market place taking in the now familiar aromas for one last time.
Here we also found the massive transport museum and adjacent Lindt chocolate museum where we whiled away a rainy morning on our final day in Switzerland.
Waiting in the departure lounge back at Munich airport awaiting our flight home, Ian and I relived our amazing trip.
Aside from the thousands of photos we captured on our trusty Iphones, we took away many many memories that cannot be captured…the sounds of the church bells in French country towns, the smell of freshly made bread, the mouthwatering patisserie treats, the sound of cowbells in the brisk Swiss air, the aroma of the markets as fromageries, boulangeries, and charcuteries ply their wares, the taste of real French wine, of Swiss cheese, of German bread, and the laughter of a family on holiday.
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