In the October holidays, we took our first trip outside the UK in our beloved VW campervan. It was something we had been planning for a while – a road trip from our home in the far north, through Scotland, England, and over the channel to France. We wanted to see Paris, Disneyland, and also make a visit to Belgium, and the medieval city of Bruges in the Flemish region. Ten days, 2000 miles, two cities and a couple of theme parks gets a bit lengthy so I’ll share the first half of our adventure here. If you’ve ever fancied an epic road trip in a campervan hopefully this will give you some tips, itineraries, and inspiration. And if you’ve ever wondered what travelling through four countries in an enclosed space with your family for nearly two weeks is REALLY like, read on!
DAYS ONE & TWO – CAITHNESS TO PEAK DISTRICT
One of the downsides (if there are any) of living in the far north of Scotland is the time it takes to get literally anywhere. On the first day of our travels we were up with the birds (well, the birds that get up at 2am that is 😉 ) to make a good start on our half (yes only half!) -a-journey south. We had decided to stop over in the Peak District on our way to the Eurotunnel, which was due to see us across to Calais on day three of our adventure. Approximately nine hours of journey time later we arrived at the charming Chatsworth Park Caravan Club site near the village of Baslow, and not far from Bakewell, which we had time to explore over the weekend. First stop Bakewell tarts for the boys, obviously. After that we enjoyed a wander round the town and a bit of oohing and aahing over its pretty courtyards and little streets. A highlight for me was the love locks bridge over the river in the centre – so romantic. I was on my way to Paris, remember. All I could think about was love!
Our time spent in the Peak District also gave us some time to explore our campsite, and its neighbour, stately Chatsworth. My kids were enthralled by a ‘secret door’ that led from the walled exterior of the campsite onto a path leading to the House. We had a lovely walk there and enjoyed admiring the residence of the Duke of Devonshire and his family. Next stop, the local pub in the opposite direction, a chance to enjoy a little relaxation – and for me at least – a Manchester pink gin. Cheers!
The campsite we stayed at was lovely, rural and charming. It rained a bit while we were there and it was nice to see pheasants and ducks pootling about in the puddles as we watched them from the van. The sound of stags rutting in the park outside also added a majestic air to the whole experience. Who knew the noise stags make when they’re rutting sounds EXACTLY like Chewbacca from Star Wars when he wails?
DAY THREE – EUROTUNNEL, DUNKIRK AND BRUGES
Before we knew it, it was the middle of the night again and time to set off on another long journey. This time, we were hurtling (read: creeping through heavy traffic) on the way to the Eurotunnel and our passageway to France. A couple of tips here – don’t plan a journey to catch the Eurotunnel that crosses over Monday morning rush hour. And if you do, choose to purchase flexi-plus tickets for your journey – which thankfully we had. This was an extra expense that saved us a lot of anxiety on our journey (which we actually made in good time in the end – naturally!) But panic attacks aside, there’s another good reason for going flexi-plus – AKA the food. Our flexible tickets got us into the Folkestone and Calais lounges pre-boarding, which meant stocking up on sandwiches, drinks and newspapers before our journey (aside: there’s plenty of gluten/dairy free options if you’re gluten free like me). The kids – especially my youngest – count this experience as one of the best of the holidays – in fact his whole life maybe. It certainly got us off to the right start, anyway. Enough of the food drooling – onwards into France!
Being someone who is prone to being a bit anxious, gets claustrophobic and generally has a tendency to imagine the worst possible scenario in every situation, it’s fair to say I was a bit nervous about our journey on the Eurotunnel (heads up: anxiety will be a theme here 😉 ). But I have to say it was no problem – short, hassle-free and actually quite fun. The 35 minute journey time and our pre-lunchtime crossing meant we were in Calais in plenty of time to make the most of day three of our trip. We set off to Belgium, with a short pitstop at Dunkirk, to see the beach where thousands of Allied troops were trapped after retreating from the advancing German army in World War Two – a crisis that heralded the launch of rescue mission Operation Dynamo. Although the beach is now bordered by a ritzy promenade boasting bars and a casino there is still something quite eerie about it – I was surprised by the general sense of quiet all around. There was hardly anyone on the beach when we visited – offering the chance for a bit of peaceful contemplation. We left feeling quite small and humbled by the enormity of another generation’s sacrifice. If you ever get the chance to visit Dunkirk, it’s a trip I’d really recommend.
The rest of our day was spent travelling on to Bruges and settling into our campsite Camping Memling – a lovely site in a leafy suburb with easy access to supermarkets, bus stops and toilets – the one thing lacking in our little home from home. We had a wander, stocked up on supplies for the coming day and got our heads down. We were gearing up for a long day in Bruges (and a lot of Belgian-chocolate tasting, I might add).
DAY FOUR – BRUGES
The fourth day of our adventure was a day spent browsing the medieval centre of Bruges – which was just a short bus trip from the campsite. I have to say, hand on heart, that visiting Bruges was one of the highlights of our trip. Part of that was down to expectation – with Paris on the horizon I hadn’t planned to fall headlong in love with a city I only knew from a film starring Colin Farrell back in the naughties. But fall in love I did – this place is a picture postcard just waiting to be sent. All around are beautiful streets, colourful buildings and historic landmarks. Be sure to take a boat trip (around 25 Euros for a family) to get the best view of the tourist-friendly sights.
We spent our day visiting the chocolate museum and wandering around the cobbled pavements just drinking in the scenery. I spent a lot of time admiring pretty parked bicycles (there are cyclists everywhere in Bruges, and biking it certainly seems to be the mode of transport favoured by the crowd). We ate mussels and fries – the local speciality – and watched swans potter on the banks of the canal in the peaceful Beguinage area. To round off our day, we enjoyed tea and drinks opposite the Belfry and listened to the bells chime as buildings lit up all around the early evening square.
Bruges was a city that struck me as being very laid back, informal and friendly. Our Flemish is worse than our French, but English was widely spoken and our day there felt completely safe and hassle-free. I’d love to go back one day (and yes, In Bruges is now back on the to-watch list). But for now, it was time to plan the next destination…day out at the Palace, anyone?
DAY FIVE – GARDENS OF THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES
The fifth day of our holiday involved another big journey – to our campsite near Paris via a short trip to Versailles. It’s worth mentioning here that when driving through France you may encounter toll roads. We did on this part of our journey (and again on the final leg), but the arrangements were very easy to understand. You take a ticket from a machine as you enter the toll road, pop it back in as you leave and pay the allotted fee (which seemed to work out at roughly 1 Euro per 10km by my reckoning). Easy peasy – if a bit jarring on the pocket. Thankfully, we didn’t pass too many of them on our travels – I think our total outgoings on tolls amounted to about 40 Euros for the trip.
A *little* less stress free was our journey to Versailles which involved a few miles of journeying around Paris. I have to say, this was a horrible experience (anxiety!) with heavy traffic, motorbikes weaving in and out, the lot. There seemed to be little regard to stopping distances and a car in front of us ran into the car in front of it during a traffic jam. I have never been so glad of my husband’s quick reaction times and good driving skills in avoiding a collision of our own. Thankfully, we were soon en route to the Palace (which we’d imagined being set in a sort of rural haven but which actually transpired to be right in the middle of things). After a few more stressful moments finding the car park we had finally arrived!
We didn’t have time to visit the Palace interior (sad face), but did have a chance to explore the gardens which are quite simply a wonder to the eyes. They are exactly the stuff of regal extravagance – in fact, I’m not sure that I’ve seen a setting quite as magnificent in my life. They look like something straight out of the scenes of a glossy TV drama (oh wait….Versailles the TV series is also on the list!)
Before we knew it though, it was time to depart again and make our way to our next campsite about 45 minutes away. This is where I’ll leave it for Part One as my poor fingers are getting sore. It also gives me the chance to spout things like ‘I’ll see you in Paris.’
And I will of course. Very soon, right here on the blog!