I have had the good fortune of enjoying many extraordinary trips. However, it is difficult to match my European trip of a lifetime. The travel memories are still clear as if it were last year.
This trip was not solo. It was before my husband passed and before the kids left home.
It was a family affair that involved one son in a Canadian school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland for 5 months; another (the youngest) I home-schooled; and my two older stepsons who came to visit on shorter stints. The trip was ten months in total, spending the first five in Neuchâtel and exploring the center of Europe and another five months going to destinations around the perimeter.
Ten months is definitely long term travel, which has many special benefits. It's a different kind of travel. Below are some of my favorite travel memories and what I learned about travel from my trip of a lifetime.
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What It's Like to Take that Trip of a Lifetime
The trip you've always dreamed of is never exactly as expected.
It's important to know that, like at home, not every moment is perfect. There are good days and some not so good.
But, I have to say, with all the stimulation, with the freedom to change plans on a whim, to slow down when needed, and the excitement of never knowing what a day will bring, it's pretty great.
Here are a few things I loved about our long trip of a lifetime.
1. A new meaning of time.
I found a new meaning of time as we traveled. Time was ours to define. What we would do with it was up to us. We could stay as long as we wanted in a location or leave it quickly. Time was our ally, whereas at home, it can be an enemy.
2. So much room for spontaneity.
With ten months of travel available, there was no pressure to stick to a schedule. We were able to change plans on a moment's notice. On one occasion in Sicily, we decided that we needed to leave. We were near Mount Etna. Could we make it to Palermo in time for the ferry? Maybe. We raced across the island and were the last vehicle to board the ship. Spontaneity leads to fun travel memories.
3. The choice of traveling slowly.
A long-term trip is about taking one’s time and feeling a new location and culture rather than just viewing it. There is no need to rush to many destinations to see lots of different things. When you go slowly, you see more deeply. You see lots of different things in one location. For me, going slow also means having time to read and meander.
4. The pleasure of getting lost.
My son likes to remind me of my inclination to get intentionally lost. If I tired of one road, I’d spin off in a new direction on the next roundabout – a little disconcerting for a young navigator. But why not? As long as we were heading in the general direction of our destination, it didn't matter. It provided adventure.
5. The option to take a break from the road.
The pacing of a long-term trip is different from other travels and it may require more than slowing down. It may require stopping for a bit. Towards the end of our trip, we decided to take a break from the road and rent an apartment for six weeks in Amsterdam. We rented bikes and lived the city like locals. I’m a cycling enthusiast anyway, but in Amsterdam it was fabulous.
Some of My Favorite Travel Memories
Below are some of my favorite travel memories from this trip taken 20 years ago.
It has been a long time since the photos and video of the trip have been watched. Yet, still, images of certain moments from this trip of a lifetime remain solidly cast in my brain.
1. The wonder of seeing the world through children's eyes.
Some days, we stopped planning and let the kids do it all. There is no better way to learn than to teach others. By taking the reigns for a day, they got to learn in a different way and do what they wanted to do. For us, we could relax and just follow them around. Better yet, we had the opportunity to see the world through their eyes. This was one of the sources of inspiration for our Wits and Wonder Travel Course.
2. My 12 year old’s independence.
The first five months we were in the small apartment in Neuchâtel where our second youngest went to school for a semester. We traveled out but also stayed in that small, very safe city of 30,000. Here our youngest son was able to stretch and develop independence and street smarts that wouldn’t have been possible in Toronto.
3. European parades.
In North America we control our parades with police on the sidelines keeping people off the street. In Europe, they don’t. Everyone can get involved and they’re a little wild. In Neuchâtel we went to the annual Fête des Vendanges celebration of the grape harvest. A lot of wine was involved and they shot confetti out of canons! In Vilanova i la Geltrú in Spain, they celebrate Carnival by tossing candies into the streets. Not just a few. The streets of the entire town are so thick with candies that if you stop moving it’s a struggle to get your foot off the ground again.
4. Toledo and Don Quixote.
Hilltop towns hold a fascination for me; you don’t see them in North America. My favorite was Toledo, Spain, just south of Madrid. We camped outside the walled city and walked in every day. This is Don Quixote country and one of my favorite travel memories is my son singing “The Impossible Dream” in the central square.
5. Haus der Musik in Vienna.
The Haus der Musik was my favorite museum in Europe, yet few people have heard of it. My son found it and put it on our itinerary for that city. It’s located in central Vienna near St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Vienna State Opera House. It’s interactive and playful and teaches the science as well as history of music.
6. Fields of olive trees.
One of the most beautiful parts of the trip was driving in central Spain. We drove for hours through rolling hills with olive trees in bloom.
7. Roman ruins.
My fascination with Roman ruins does not seem to end. Fortunately, you can see them everywhere in Europe, from Italy to Germany and beyond. My favorites are the aqueducts, like the one found outside of Tarragona, Spain. The ones that surprised me most were on the south side of Lac Neuchâtel where there was an incredibly intact Amphitheater at the Roman Museum in Avenches. There were absolutely no tourists when we were there.
8. The Alps.
The beauty of the Alps is truly breathtaking. I remember the first time I had a view of them in winter. The mountains were covered in snow with rocks jutting out against a brilliant blue sky. I was in awe. It is a sight one never tires of.
The Joy of Camping in Europe
Permeating all my travel memories is our time camping.
1. Our VW Pop-up Camper.
We spent 10 months traveling Europe in the VW Pop-up Camper we rented. That camper was transportation and accommodation in one. It was our kitchen, bedrooms, music room, and more. It was reliable, affordable, and, even though it had a diesel engine, could cruise at 140 km/h without a problem. I get sentimental every time I see one. Pro tip: book on the off-season. The reason we traveled 10 months and not 12 was because the cost of the van for the additional two months would have been about the same as the total cost for the first ten.
2. Creative cooking in a van.
Risotto is the perfect meal for camping. The ingredients do not require refrigeration and it is cooked in one pot. Serve it with a salad and a glass of wine and you have an elegant, tasty dinner suitable for entertaining.
3. Luxury camping in France.
In France I’ve camped in a luxury resort, on the grounds of a Chateau, and on a beautiful terraced hillside. Camping in France is a wonderful experience, especially when they deliver fresh croissants to you in the morning. Esterel, on the Cote d'Azure, was the most luxurious we experienced.
4. Priceless camping sites for a pittance.
There are so many interesting locations for campgrounds. Our site outside of Florence was on top of a very high hill. We drove up for a while and then the road became steeper. And then steeper still. So much so that we had to rev up the van to get it up the last leg and into the campground. But, from that vantage point, from our campsite on the edge of a cliff near where Leonardo da Vinci tested his flying machine, we had a view of the Duomo in Florence. Priceless for a pittance.
I certainly hope that you, too will be able to realize your trip of a lifetime and savor your travel memories.
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