My guest travel writer, Jill, is sharing more of her family-friendly trip to Europe today with some stories of her travels and travails (there are always travails when travelling with kids, rights?!)
For a fairytale to be true to form, there must be a lot at stake, and the prince and princess should surely have some major opposition in reaching the ‘happily ever after’ they so long for.
So too was it for us, a family of four, as we prepared to set off on a train adventure through Switzerland and France in the summer of 2017.
Sound pretty perfect? Afraid not.
First world problems are sent to refine us after all!
The drama started one week before our flights departed for Geneva. Our six-year old daughter’s Irish passport had expired. Are you joking? ‘Didn’t you check?’, ‘I thought you checked!’ These were the classic first reactions of us dumbfounded, idiotic parents. I mean, it’s 101 when travelling. Are the passports ready?
Thank goodness we had a week to go, and a Schengen visa was quickly arranged for her South African passport. But no time for the UK visa, and our return flights were out of London. 35k to change them. Oh well, stuff it, we will figure that out when we get there we decided… so long as no-one has to end up hitching home!
And so the trip became even more of a quest after all that stress. More determined than ever to make this the most epic travelling experience of all time, we covered nine towns in four weeks, with two little people in tow!
Switzerland saw us travelling Bern to Lausanne, Montreux and Gruyères, Zürich and Geneva; while in France we covered Chamonix, Annecy and Paris. It was wild and it was wonderful. Mostly.
There were three-year old meltdowns on train platforms. We overspent hideously on the wine budget!
Everyone and I mean EVERYONE you meet, from Swedes, to Brits, to Saffas, will declare vehemently, ‘Switzerland is brutally expensive’. But come on, you only do this once in a lifetime, so do it properly!
First class train travel made those moments surmounting the Alps unforgettable. And thankfully we did have our Eurail passes perfectly organised… couriered to our door in South Africa from Europe within 48 hours of ordering them.
The Swiss do everything properly, so do make sure you have written your daily destination inside your travel pass before getting on the train, otherwise you will get a look to kill from the conductor and may be accused of cheating. For the Swiss, their word is their bond, but you are still expected to play by the rules.
To travel by train through Heidi country is a feeling impossible to aptly convey in words. I just kept pinching myself, and after all those vistas of greenest grass and cows galore with their bells ding donging across the valleys, I did have an incessant urge to yodel.
I will never forget the mutual gasp heard from both my husband and I as we glimpsed the medieval old town of Gruyères for the first time. That sight really was something straight out of Belle’s village in Beauty and the Beast. We all ran around like kids in a storybook, up and down cobbled streets, stopping only for hot chocolate.
A fondue in Gruyères is an event not to be missed – it is the land of cheese after all. Fondue etiquette is important, but since we were only sharing with two messy little ladies, we didn’t adhere to the golden rule of never licking your fork to prevent germs spreading… it was lip-smacking delicious. We topped our meal off with some smooth Swiss wine that was surprisingly impressive, high praise considering I come from one of the best winemaking regions of South Africa. They keep their little secret well hidden over in Switzerland.
Considering every bus, train and boat arrives dead on time, you really can plan your day to fit a whole lot in. Especially since the night only creeps in after 10.30pm.
To ensure our little princesses knew that castles, knights and dungeons really do exist and are not just things of fairytales, we took a ferry to Montreux, the jazz capital of Europe, where Le Château de Chillon was top of our list.
A ferry ride is everyone’s favourite. The kids were beside themselves to hear the ‘toot toot’ of the steam engine, and hubby was stretched out on the deck chairs before they could say ‘all aboard’. Cracking open an ice cold beer at 10am is what holidays are made of!
The island castle on Lake Geneva ‘Château de Chillon’ has been preserved through three ages of historical significance since the 1300’s, from the Savoy to the Bernese era, and finally as we see it today, the Vaudois era.
The experience is so brilliantly catered towards little people and had us all enthralled for hours as we wound our way through the narrow staircases, towers and dark cellars beneath the surface of the lake.
Here the prisoner Bonivard spent six years, inspiring the romantic poet Lord Byron to pen the poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ in 1816, which made this castle as famous as it is today. It is chilling to think we trod those same worn paths of Chillon, captured in these first lines for all time…
ETERNAL SPIRIT of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art:
For there thy habitation is the heart—
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
But even fairytales must come to an end…
What is the most priceless memory I bring home? In drought ridden Cape Town, it is the awareness of the value of fresh water from those magical Swiss mountain sources. Swiss fountains are the epicenter of life, and there are hundreds dotted around every cobbled street and square . They seem to have a gravitational pull, so bring your compressible water bottle and drink for free of the most marvellous gift this earth can give.
Thank you Jill for sharing your stories. I loved following along on your Swiss family holiday and am feeling ever so motivated to find a way to get my own young family across to the continent of Europe. It’s one of my own favourite places to explore and I’d LOVE to introduce my kids to the amazing history and culture it holds…
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Words & Images: Jill Welsh