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Twenty Days in Europe, Part 1: A Family, a Fiat, and the Open European Road

Twenty Days in Europe, Part 1: A Family, a Fiat, and the Open European Road

Hanging Out in Pisa

Hanging Out in Pisa

Check out Part 2 of the series to get tips on base camp St. Witz.

By Bridget Barnes

For our last multi-week adventure in Europe, my husband, daughter, and I piled in a Fiat 500L and made a 2,000 mile loop around the continent. We wanted to have the freedom and flexibility that a car affords, and we wanted to travel in a way that many tourists are hesitant to try. Sure, we encountered a few surprises along the way, but we also saw parts of Europe that we would have otherwise missed had we taken the train or stayed in one city for the entire duration.

Because we had a car, we set up a centralized home base for each leg of the journey. By doing so, we were able to explore each region without having to pack up and move each night. While it takes much research and planning up front, I highly recommend selecting a city that will allow you to make day trips with a minimal amount of driving. Also, by selecting an out-of-the-way home base, you are able to find less expensive hotels. Staying in larger metropolitan areas like Florence or Paris will cost a great deal more than staying in smaller towns. I was able to find some great deals on hotels and even an old Italian farmhouse converted into agriturismo apartments. The trick is to be open to getting off the beaten path.

One of the many picturesque scenes we stumbled upon while driving across Provence.

One of the many picturesque scenes we stumbled upon while driving across Provence.

Some tips to consider if you plan to rent a car and hit the open road in Europe:

  • Buy a road atlas. Seriously. Buy one. Sometimes, Google maps isn’t correct, and it helps to have a backup plan. Plus, you have a pre-purchased souvenir! We bought the Michelin Road Atlas: Europe.

  • Make sure you have cash on-hand for toll roads. Some toll roads allow credit cards, but the machines are unmanned and don’t always work or accept cards without a chip. Always. Have. Cash.

  • When stopping for gas, make sure to use the pumps designated for cars as opposed to those marked for trucks/big rigs. We encountered this in Italy.

  • Familiarize yourself with each country’s driving laws, signs, and markers. You will save yourself a ton of confusion by learning the signs! We kept this helpful site on our phones for the entire trip:

  • Consider buying an International Driving Permit (IDP). We purchased ours from AAA. Even though we were never asked to show the permit, we felt better about having it in the event of being stopped.

  • Consider an international plan for your phone. Luckily, our plan allows for European data and calls. This really helped when we came precariously close to being too late to check in at our hotel in Castiglione Tinella. Also, you can use Google maps!

  • Be patient when you get lost. Part of the fun of a loosey-goosey road trip is getting lost. You just never know what you’ll find!

  • Stock up on snacks and drinks at local grocery stores. It’s much cheaper to have a packed snack bag! We found that the drinks and snacks at gas stations were a bit more expensive than those found at grocery stores. Plus, you’ll need to make less stops because everyone is hydrated and fed!

  • Consider using rolling duffel bags instead of traditional suitcases. I was happy that we made the decision to try them because our trunk space was limited! Duffel bags are much more forgiving and pliable than suitcases.

  • Before heading into a city, familiarize yourself with parking rules and laws. Some cities, like Florence, have strict driving and parking regulations. By doing your homework, you can save yourself a ton of money and headaches.

  • Speaking of driving to and through big cities—you are probably better off taking a train into a large metropolitan area. Often, it’s just not worth the hassle of navigating stressful driving situations in a big city. The train is your friend!

  • Stop and smell the lavender or sunflowers or fresh alpine air! Take your time and enjoy the view! Don’t become so consumed with “making good time” that you forget to pull over for a picnic or to take pictures. Part of the purpose of a road trip is to see the sights along the way. I promise you that the museums and statues will be at your destination, but the lavender only blooms for so long! Enjoy the ride!

Giessbach Falls on Lake Brienz near Interlaken, Switzerland

Giessbach Falls on Lake Brienz near Interlaken, Switzerland

My subsequent posts will cover the particulars of our journey, but here is the itinerary we followed. Each city listed was our home base, and we made our day trips from each location. Stay tuned for follow-up posts for the pros and cons, the lessons learned, and the suggested activities for each leg of the itinerary!

Day  1:  Depart from home airport

Day  2:  Arrive Charles de Gaulle airport (Paris); pick up rental; spend the night in St. Witz (suburb north of Paris)

Day  3:  Depart St. Witz and drive to Wilderswil/Interlaken (Switzerland)

Day  4:  Wilderswil/Interlaken

Day  5:  Saxeten/Mannlichen

Day  6:  Depart Wilderswil and drive to Castiglione Tinella (Piedmont region of Italy)

Day  7:  Castiglione Tinella

Day  8:  Depart Castiglione Tinella and drive to Serravalle Pistoiese (Tuscany region of Italy)

Day  9:  Serravalle Pistoiese

Day 10: Serravalle Pistoiese

Day 11:  Depart Serravalle Pistoiese and drive to Brignoles (southern France)

Day 12:  Brignoles

Day 13:  Brignoles

Day 14:  Brignoles

Day 15:  Brignoles

Day 16:  Brignoles

Day 17:  Depart Brignoles and drive to St. Witz

Day 18:  St. Witz

Day 19:  St. Witz

Day 20:  Depart from Charles de Gaulle for home


Twenty Days in Europe, Part 2:  Base Camp--St. Witz, France

Twenty Days in Europe, Part 2: Base Camp--St. Witz, France

Dancing Ladies

Dancing Ladies