Family Travel in Europe – Why Now? (3 of 3)

Family Travel in Europe – Why Now?
Part 3 of a 3 Part European Tour

The economy generally sucks, and the common wisdom is to keep one’s powder dry and plan a staycation. So why did I pack up my wife and two daughters for a three week vacation in Europe? Partly because we maintain a streak of contrarianism and partly because we had been sitting on a bunch of frequent mile and frequent sleeper awards.

We used points on a credit card to get to London, we spent some glorious time in Paris. But how to see a bit more of Europe? The same way college students have been doing it for years – Eurail Pass. But my daughters are too young and my wife and I are too old for that exact same mode of transport, so we opted for a first class Eurail Pass. Specifically, we used the Eurail Global Pass, which is valid for any 10 days of travel within 2 months.  Be sure to order and take delivery of your Eurail Pass before departing the USA.  We thought we had our complete European itinerary sorted out, but once we were in Paris we began looking over the 21 countries available to us via the Eurail Pass. 

The wanderlust bug bit us, and we decided that it would be a shame to omit Italy from our trip.  The traditional night train from Paris could get us to Venice, but we had to hustle to reserve our couchette.  For certain trains, use of the Eurail Pass requires a reservation.  We discovered that it is a bit like trying to get frequent flyer seats: there are a few Eurail seats available on the designated trains, but you can almost always buy a full price seat.  The best advice is to establish which of the trains require a reservation and book early.  It is worth the several dollars/Euros for the peace of mind, even if you change your plans and cancel the reservation.

We visited the market near the Bercy train station on the outskirts of Paris, laying in the provisions for our night train.  We assembled the ubiquitous meal of baguettes, wine, bottled water and fruits. Our daughters were giddy with excitement as we showed them how the seats convert to beds.  Eventually the steady rumble of the train and the French wine put the parents to sleep; our daughters were long gone.

When we awoke, our daughters expected us to be in Geneva. They were overjoyed to discover that the water out the windows was flowing into the canals of Venice.

Venice – Rialto Bridge (photo by Brad Auerbach)

The magic of Venice never ceases to amaze.  Although it was a repeat visit for my wife and me, seeing it through the wide eyes of our daughters was delightful all over again.  In fact, it is this sense of repeated discovery that makes family travel so enlightening.

The obligatory pasta Bolognese was found at one of the many trattorias straddling the canals.  We found the further from San Marco we wandered the more rustic the settings.  One evening the sun slowly settled over a square, in the center of which the restaurant had assembled its eight tables.  I was put in mind of Cinema Paradiso, one of my favorite films.

The price of a gondola ride has not tapered over the years, but we knew it was a required extravagance.  We booked at our hotel (the marvelous Hotel Colombina), and the gondolier was right on time.  Our daughters were giddy about stepping from the hotel’s dock (essentially a door off the lobby) into the gondola.  We skimmed for an hour through the canals.  The choice of either the Grand Canal route or the city route is easy: avoid the rougher ride in the Grand Canal and revel in the more intimate exposure to the narrow canals in the city.

As with most things European, the commerce around gondolas is controlled by a guild. A long apprenticeship coupled with limited membership (the first female has been allowed to start the process) ensures a tidy market. The gondola design has been stabilized in the last several decades.  The flat-bottomed boat is made of eight types of wood, and is always painted black. Contrary to popular belief, the mode of propulsion is not a pole but an oar or remo.

Our gondolier cleverly asked our daughters to help him navigate in one of the larger canals, so their eyes got even wider when they climbed back and grabbed the remo.  My wife and I were pleased that the gondolier kept a steady hand on the oar, steering the asymmetrical boat around corners and under bridges.

Venice – Our daughter, a temporary apprentice gondolier (photo by Brad Auerbach)

I woke up earlier than the family on a Sunday morning in Venice, slipped out of the hotel and strode 2 minutes to a stunningly deserted San Marco Square. The side door to the Basilica was open a crack, and I slipped in to the silence of the padre preparing the cavernous gold-walled architectural wonder for the 7am mass. Yes, it was ‘Sunday morning creeping like a nun’ as three nuns hobbled in wearing their crisp habits.  There were only about six people in the Basilica, soon there would be hundreds.

I sat and drank it in.

Amsterdam – one of the few remaining windmills (photo by Brad Auerbach)

Our Eurail passes allowed us to wend our way in the Dutch countryside. Most of what makes up Amsterdam today was under water 700 years ago. In the interim, the erstwhile Dutch built 160 canals, erected 1200 bridges, created 90 islands and now enjoy more bicycles than people. Mike’s Bikes is one of several such proprietorships in Amsterdam.  The eponymous Minnesotan opened for business a few years ago, and he runs a looser operation than his buddies at Fat Tire.  We paid for our Dutch countryside tour after the four hour ride, helmets were an afterthought (we saw no one else ever wearing helmets in Holland) and there were no silly waivers to be signed.  But the tour was simply marvelous.  Our leader Petra took us through the stunningly beautiful Vondelpark on our way out of the city, stopping to see one of only two Picasso public sculptures in the world. As much a respite as Central Park or Hyde Park, the 120 acre Vondelpark was breezy and beautiful. 

Amsterdam – Biking in Vondelpark past the Picasso sculpture (photo by Brad Auerbach)

We were soon pedaling our way past a houseboat community, bicycling along canals and over bridges of all sizes. Tours the world over have a symbiotic relationship with tourist stops, and our stop was a pleasant working farm.  We were given a lesson in cheese making and shown how clogs are cut from chunks of moist wood.  We were able to sample both, and several folks invariably bought souvenirs.

Much like pubs in Britain, the number of windmills in the Netherlands has dropped precipitously over the years.  A few hundred windmills remain for the benefit mostly of visitors.  Before circling back into the city, we stopped and marveled at the magical design and operation of a windmill.

The remarkable tolerance of the Dutch was evident throughout our visit.  Whether during the sobering visit to Anne Frank’s house, the subtlety with which cross-dressers mingled on the streets or the leafy offerings at the coffeehouses, the relaxed Dutch attitude was evident everywhere.

Eurail Pass

Hotel Colombina

Mike’s Bikes  

Anne Frank House


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.