For decades, backpacking through Europe has been a rite of passage for young Canadians, and when the Maas family of Lacombe sat down to plan a European adventure this past spring, they liked the freedom of not having a set-in-stone itinerary.
Although there are some risks associated with this kind of travel, both parents had previously travelled this way and wanted to share the experience with their young-adult children.
For Doug and Laurie and their two children Kelsie and Kyle, the three-week European adventure began in May in London. Although they had pre-booked a two-night stay in a central London hotel, a three-night stay in Paris and a train ticket to Paris, those were the only arrangements they had made.
In London, they enjoyed a Thames River Cruise, a night out at the theatre and a traditional fish and chips supper. A double-decker hop-off, hop-on bus tour proved to be a great way to get around and to see the major sites of the city including Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and the Churchill Museum.
“The Churchill Museum is a real must if you are a history buff,” explained Doug. “The museum contains the original underground cabinet war rooms designed to protect Churchill and his cabinet from aerial bomb attacks during the war. There’s a lot of fascinating history in this museum. The War Rooms have been preserved exactly as they were when they were in use during World War II.”
After two nights in London, the family travelled via the chunnel train to Paris.
“As a French 20 project for Madame Weir, I had designed an imaginary five-day tour of Paris, and we basically did that tour on our first day,” said Kelsie.
“We walked down to the Louvre and spent about three hours exploring it. Then we walked through the Tuileries Gardens to Place de la Concorde and stopped at a bakery on Avenue des Champs-Élysées to enjoy French pastries and people-watch. We visited the Eiffel Tower and climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe.
“At night, we retraced our steps and saw everything again after dark. Paris needs to be seen both in the daylight and after dark.”
Other stops in Paris included Notre Dame Cathedral and the Palace of Versailles.
Kelsie and Kyle also spent an evening out at the Moulin Rouge, while their parents enjoyed a quiet evening in.
“Visiting Moulin Rouge was an interesting experience,” said Kyle. “It’s in a seedy part of the city, but there’s a dress code, so I had to buy some new clothes in order to go. Just being there was an experience. They served us champagne and the show was very entertaining.”
The next stop was Strasbourg, where they planned to visit a battlefield. Unfortunately, they got to Strasbourg and discovered that they couldn’t rent an appropriate car there on a Saturday.
So they cycled around the historic city centre, which is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, and travelled by rail the next day to Baden-Baden in Germany.
From there, they rented a car and drove back across the border to see the French Maginot Line, a vast military fortification that spreads along the French-German border.
“The Maginot Line was built to make France impervious to invasion,” explained Doug. “When France fell to the Germans in only a month, The Maginot Line held up well but the Germans outflanked it and found another way to enter France through Belgium.”
“It was very interesting to ride an elevator down inside the fortifications and see some of the war artifacts there.”
After several other stops in Germany, they made their way to Dachau Concentration Camp.
“You hear about the atrocities of World War II, but it’s something else to actually be there and see the places you have read about,” said Kyle. “It’s still a very eerie place. It is amazing how elaborate the concentration camp was.”
Next, the family drove along Germany’s Romantic Road and then passed through Austria into northern Italy and then into the Czech Republic seeing many sites along the way. Highlights included Neuschwanstein Castle near the German town of Fussen, an AC Milan soccer game in Udine, Italy, a stop in Venice, two days near the sea in Duino, Italy, and the Black Light Theatre in Prague.
“Driving in Europe was challenging — especially in the bigger cities,” admitted Laurie. “We got lost several times, but there were so many nice people who helped us along the way. We’ll never forget them or the experiences we had exploring Europe together. I don’t think the trip would have been as fun for us if we had been on a pre-arranged tour. For us, this was the best way to see Europe.”
If you go:
• Shoulder seasons are a good time to “wing it” in Europe. It is much more difficult to travel without pre-arranging your accommodations during the peak summer season. Airfares, hotels and restaurants are often more reasonably priced during the spring or fall months in Europe and the weather is still very pleasant.
• It’s a good idea to have a plan before you set out on this type of journey. Before leaving home, the Maas family spent a lot of time researching each country they planned to visit in Europe. Each family member picked one must-see stop and they planned a rough itinerary.
• When you are travelling with people of various age groups and interests, don’t be afraid to split up to enjoy different pursuits. While their children enjoyed a night out at the cabaret in Paris, Doug and Laurie had a relaxing evening in.
• Even though your overall plan may be to wing it, you can save money by pre-booking some things from Canada. Rail tickets and passes, flights, and car rentals are generally cheaper when purchased in advance. It may also help to bring a laptop computer with you. Many European accommodations have free wireless Internet, which could be used to book the next night’s accommodations or research upcoming stops on the trip.
• The Maas family particularly recommends the following accommodations and sites in Europe: Hotels: London Marriott Hotel Marble Arch (www.londonmarriottmarblearch.co.uk), Windsor Hotel Opera, Paris (www.hotelwindsor.com), Albergo Garni Auora Hotel, Duino, Italy (www.albergogarniaurora.it).
• Attractions: Palace of Versailles, France (www.chateauversailles.fr), The Eagle’s Nest, Obersalzberg, Germany (www.salzburg-hotel.at/en-salzburg_sightseeing-eagles_nest_obersalzberg_kehlstein.shtml), Neuschwanstein Castle (http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/palace/index.htm)
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.