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FAMILY VACATIONS: Europe

Continental Survival

Tips from a travelin' clan

May 18, 1997|JUDITH SCHULTZE | Schultze is a freelance writer based in Corralitos, Calif

Just when you think you're tired of traveling, of hassling with a strange language, different culture, whining kids, you walk onto a plaza like the one in Pisa, Italy, with the late afternoon Tuscan sun shining on it, and your heart almost stops. On the afternoon we were there, the crowds had gone home for the day and we had the place almost to ourselves. My family and I were mesmerized by it.

This is about traveling to Europe with children. Some would say that's a scary proposition, but truly, it is doable, and in fact, enjoyable. When my husband, Jim, and I took our two boys, James and Spencer, then ages 11 and 8, on a six-week vacation to Europe, we had lived overseas for seven years--first in Australia, then England--and we saw it as an ideal opportunity for an extended trip in Europe before we moved back to the States.

After many family discussions around the kitchen table strewn with maps of Europe, we decided to rent holiday houses: a beach house on the Atlantic coast of Spain, an old farmhouse in the Languedoc region of France (next to Provence, but not as crowded), and a Tuscan farmhouse near Florence. We stayed a week in each place, with a week or so of driving in between.

What follows is part anecdotal, part parental common sense and part advice born of experience.

Food

I remember a lovely, warm evening we spent walking around Aix-en-Provence, that small city in southern France with the charming little shops in the old streets. We'd had a big lunch, but by evening the boys wanted a snack. We stopped on a street corner, where a kiosk was selling slices of pizza, and the boys stood there and ate their pizza while we all marveled at the beautiful old plane trees and pretty fountains. Farther down the street, we had an ice cream from a vendor. A perfect evening of "fast food."

During all our overseas travels, our main rule regarding food has been to avoid American fast-food restaurants, despite their plentiful availability. On this trip, we kept this oath, despite considerable pressure from the boys, and at times, our own exhaustion.

As for sit-down meals, good quality and fairly priced casual restaurants are everywhere in Europe, from pubs in England and trattorie in Italy, to bistros in France, to name a few. They always welcome children, and in contrast to family restaurants in the U.S. where there is a lowest-common-denominator philosophy to food preparation, in Europe, the quality of food is equally good for children and adults.

Shopping in the local villages and preparing our own food was fun when we were in the rental houses, and provided welcome home cooking breaks. In Spain, the village we stayed in translated into "The Tunas," so we grilled fresh fish, made huge salads, and ate lots of locally baked bread. Nearby was an ice cream shop that the boys safely walked to on their own in the evenings. Meanwhile, Jim and I sat on the terrace of our beach house, drinking local Spanish wine, enjoying the view of the Atlantic Ocean, with Cape Trafalgar to the north and the tip of North Africa to the south.

When we were on the road, we often had our evening meal in the hotel or inn where we were staying. This is a good idea for several reasons: First, in France especially, the country inns have a generally high standard of cooking. Second, it eliminates the need to look for a restaurant after a long day of touring. And finally, eating at the inn is a good way for everyone to unwind. Our boys often finished their meals and went to their own room to play or watch TV (if there was one; they got a kick out of watching "The Simpsons" in a foreign language), so Jim and I had some time to ourselves.

In Italy, when we were on the road, on the Autostrada, we quickly discovered that for a coffee break the Autogrills are one of the best deals going. In small towns and villages, or in the big cities, we had our midmorning coffee, and the boys had delicious hot chocolate made with steamed milk from enormous, brightly polished espresso machines. We loved the drama that went along with making a cup of coffee. Even at the Autogrills, out in the middle of nowhere, off the freeway, there would be a handsome young man in a white shirt and black pants, seemingly dancing behind the bar, gracefully turning on his feet, handling several espresso cups at a time.

Then in the afternoon, our gelati break. One of my fondest memories is, after we had been in Italy for a couple of weeks, and had learned the gelati ordering ritual, 8-year-old Spencer, ever the independent child, marching into a gelateria in Siena and ordering, in a perfect accent. "Due mille lire gelati citrone, per favore. Grazie signor, ciao."

Sightseeing

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