After we crossed the Channel Tunnel from England to France (so much easier than the ferry, by the way) we began our month-long road trip through Europe by driving south east through northern France.
Our first overnight stop was in Reims, the capital of the champagne region – because of its location on the way to our next destination more than any desire to visit.
We’d booked a chambre d’hôtes at a working farm about 15 minutes outside the city, where the owner Joy made a fuss of Sam and his “beautiful blue eyes.”
Like many French cities, Reims has an impressive cathedral and – unknown to most people, I think – is actually the place where the Germans capitulated, ending WW2. (The definitive text was signed in Berlin the next day).
The former schoolhouse where the surrender took place is now a modest museum; we couldn’t help but feel history on our shoulders as we stood in the room where peace was agreed.
Here, another stranger took time out to bring a smile from our baby (he gives them out pretty willingly, as it happens). The Frenchwoman behind the museum counter looked on first sight like a battleaxe, but seconds after our arrival she was bending over wiggling her ample bosom and wobbly chin into Sam’s buggy. She was quickly rewarded with his gummy grin.
This warmth we felt from strangers all over Europe – many of whom looked most unlikely to coo and smile at a baby – was one of the most endearing and enduring things about the trip.
That evening, after Sam had gone to sleep, we sat in the courtyard of the chambre d’hôtes drinking a good bottle of French red wine we’d picked up for a couple of Euros. The local church was lit up and the night was silent.
Our first major day of travel had gone smoothly, and we’d had enough time to explore a new place. It was then that I knew we had made the right decision to do this trip, and it was going to be great.
After breakfast, Joy waved us off and from Reims we headed for Germany. Strasbourg was more or less on the way, so we stopped for a couple of hours over lunch.
(When working out our route we decided to do no more than around 4 or 5 hours of driving a day, and on travelling days we planned in a lunchtime stop somewhere interesting of 2 or 3 hours. This rough schedule seemed to work well for Sam, who usually napped while in the car, and it gave us a break too).
Strasbourg was just lovely, distinctively French but with a German flavour. Its historic city centre, the Grande Île, is a world heritage site. It was somewhere I instantly felt I could call home.
Dragging ourselves away from Strasbourg, we crossed the border and continued into southern Germany, where we stayed with friends for two nights. We had a lot of ground to cover in the first week, and it was good to have a day’s break from travelling.
I was itching to get into Austria though, and it didn’t disappoint.
In Salzburg we stayed at the Meininger hotel, which was fairly affordable (about £100 – hotels in Salzburg seemed expensive but we had left booking quite late), clean and good enough. It has parking and is about a 20 minute walk along a straight road to the main sights.
As in most places where we had one-night stops, we got to Salzburg mid-afternoon which gave us a few hours before Sam’s bedtime to explore the city.
Having not had lunch our first stop was for a bite to eat and after a glance at Trip Advisor we decided on S’Kloane Brauhaus which, handily, was on our way from the hotel to the centre. We lucked out with this place and managed to coincide our meal with Sam choosing to take a nap (*double thumbs up*). This pub has a lovely little beer garden and serves traditional Austrian dishes straight from the grill with great service. The prices are reasonable, probably because it’s a little further away from the main tourist hot spots.
Moving on, into the historic centre of beautiful Salzburg, we went to look at Mozart’s birthplace and home and after a little walk round headed back to the hotel, via a stop for coffee and ice cream. We decided to return the next morning to visit the castle.
The scenery as we drove through Austria was breathtaking. There was so much to see all the time it was impossible to take everything in. Alpine perfection was around every corner and the huge, craggy mountains had me awestruck.
We took a short break from the road to walk up to see Gollinger Wasserfall.
Unfortunately, we were a little disappointed with our destination for that night, Wörthersee, a large lake in southern Austria that is popular for swimming in – its water temperature can be 25ºC in summer.
We were hoping for a nice lakeside stroll, but instead there was a busy main road between our accommodation and the lake. Reluctantly, we got back in the car and drove to the nearest town, Velden. Here it became clear that Wörthersee is for the well-heeled and well-off. It was very pleasant but well-developed and in order to sit somewhere with a lake view you invariably had to pay for it by ordering an expensive meal.
Luckily for us – away for a month, on a bit of a budget – there was a street food festival going on so we could have €5 pulled pork burgers instead.
Early the next morning, I went for a solitary swim in our hotel’s outdoor pool. Like it had on that first night in Reims, my skin prickled with the excitement of what we were doing and what was to come.
It was day 6, and later that morning we reached country number four.
A few years earlier, we spent quite a magical weekend in Lake Bled, a stunning destination in Slovenia. The country’s capital, Ljubljana, does not tend to top many city break bucket lists but I’m starting to see it mentioned more and more on travel blogs.
For good reason. It’s a really charming, surprising city. It has everything I’ve grown to love about European cities while we were away: its size makes it easy to explore in a day, there’s a castle on a hill, it has colourful buildings, a river running through the old town, a cathedral, a big and bustling market and plenty of riverside cafés and restaurants for eating, coffee-drinking and people-watching behind sunglasses. (We had a really good lunch at Most, just next to the lock bridge, but indulged and spent rather more than we expected for a meal in Slovenia – €99!)
Top Ljubljana sights include the Triple Bridge and the Pink Church (I’m guessing they like literal descriptions). We walked up to the castle, which was hard going with a buggy!
We stayed at Slovenian House Vida, which opened in 2015 and is about 5km out of the city centre. We received a really warm and helpful welcome from the young owners, obviously very proud of their country and what it has to offer. Breakfast is served downstairs in the cellar of the old house, which has exposed brick walls and a vaulted ceiling.
Still to come, our travels in Croatia and Italy… :)