'We’re heading to Switzerland' – how quarantine altered my family's Grand European Tour

·8-min read
The first stop on this "European Grand Tour" was the pretty seaside town of Deauville – cue a minor domestic about which route to take - getty
The first stop on this "European Grand Tour" was the pretty seaside town of Deauville – cue a minor domestic about which route to take - getty

Once upon a time, my ready-to-go, sling-on travel bag used to hold a passport, a credit card, a toothbrush and a spare pair of knickers. If I forgot everything else it didn’t really matter.

Now I stare in horror at what is called the “family car” with a new roof box on top.

When I bought the latter, I went for the smaller version, but from where I’m standing it looks aggressively oversized, in one stroke killing the aerodynamics of the car and my reputation for travelling light. But my partner swore that we needed it for the mega-tent, five sleeping bags, the bag of trainers, the bag of puffer jackets, art supplies, tool kit, swimming float, football and more. Perhaps he was right.

The boot is surprisingly small given the size of the car, and already crammed with only a couple duffle bags and a cooler; strewn everywhere else, like a yard sale, are sun hats, sarongs, water bottles, wipes, teddies, flashlights, hair clips, sick bags, flipped-open sunshades and books. What a mess. Even before starting the trip. 

Yet I don’t pretend not to love the chaos. There’s something seductive about family madness, like the panic of getting everyone ready for school in the morning, or returning to the noise of home life when I walk through the front door after a work trip.

The great outdoors in south-western France - BEN HOLGATE
The great outdoors in south-western France - BEN HOLGATE

Yet the morning of our departure for what I’d dubbed our European Grand Tour there was an unwanted layer of complication. We were rushing breakfast, clock-watching, when the three-year-old started to complain of a tummy ache. I batted off his moaning, telling him he had to finish his porridge as we had a long day ahead, which I soon regretted when he ran off to the bathroom to bring it all up — and thereby prove a point. My partner and I dithered for a few minutes about delaying the trip, but decided to press on and rely on our collection of airline sick bags stowed in the glove compartment. 

I ran through my new checklist, now in the plural (passports, credit cards, phones, masks, bottles of sanitiser gel) as I loaded everyone in, buckled them up and set the satnav for Folkestone. There were various yelps to retrieve forgotten items (strawberry-flavoured lip salve, a bug-catching magnifying glass, a model McClaren P1) and then one last round of pees, before we actually drove off.

At the first red traffic light, I asked everyone to pinch themselves and remember this moment. “This is the beginning of the greatest adventure on earth,” I proclaimed, hoping to get everybody razzed up. The children obediently pinched themselves, giggling, before taking it one step further to pinch each other. 

On went the mandatory family road trip song – track two on the Fashion Nugget album by Cake — and the five-year-old belted out the lyrics “going the distance, going for speed” to get us all in the mood. Except his seven-year-old sister was shouting even more loudly at him to pipe down. The little one, with the tummy ache, was chuckling at the pandemonium. Privately, I was too. 

We drove out of London, passing Heathrow airport, which made me suddenly feel sentimental; there were so few planes in the skies above. But I took solace in the option of other modes of transport, albeit those that necessitated roof boxes. The Channel Tunnel lay ahead, our escape route to continental Europe.  

After our inauspicious start it was a happy uneventful journey on the M25 and through Kent. We arrived at the coast, although never saw the sea, much to the children’s disappointment. Instead I focused them on the idea of “travelling under the ocean, beneath the fishes, with all that water on top of us”, which boggled all of our minds. 

"Landscape around us, from apple orchards morphing into fields of nodding sunflowers and drying corn, to the tidy rows of vineyards around Bordeaux" - istock
"Landscape around us, from apple orchards morphing into fields of nodding sunflowers and drying corn, to the tidy rows of vineyards around Bordeaux" - istock

Amazingly we managed to get lost between the Eurotunnel terminal and the shuttle. Wrong lane, wrong sign. That resulted in the first minor domestic of the day.

Back on track, we boarded the train, following the hand gestures of masked ushers, who intimidatingly squeezed us between a Bentley Continental GT and a Landrover Discovery. Our beaten-up car bleeped at us for being too close, front and back; I winced, hoping the ushers had gotten it right. 

On board, new Covid directives meant we couldn’t exit the vehicle so instead we clicked out of our seat belts and had a car picnic — of home-made sausage rolls my mother had baked, sticky peaches and Hula Hoops. “Now I know we’re on holiday,” one of the children remarked. 

As we began to move, we watched England disappear through one of the train’s windows. We all cheered. Half an hour later, we emerged in Calais, like exiting a cinema matinee with the same kind of indoor/outdoor wonder. And a strange sense of gaining an extra day. 

Arriving in France — in spite of the headlines and the flux on quarantine rules — was a joy, even a relief. Everything looked preternaturally beautiful. The slow-motion sails of gigantic white windmills. The fields of cylindrical hay bales. The road signs warning of deer leaping. It all seemed fairy-tale perfect. 

Our first overnight was in the pretty seaside town of Deauville but our two phones suggested two different routes. Cue: another minor domestic about which journey might be prettier versus quicker. 

But the greatest point of contention was when we almost ran out of petrol. We’d decided not to fill up in the UK, hearing it was slightly cheaper in France. But after seeing a sign touting over €1.30 a litre we drove on, unaware how far the next petrol station might be nor how fast we would be guzzling gas (blame that cumbersome roof box). We argued about whether to U-turn or continue. We argued about the most fuel efficient speed, settling on 55mph. Inevitably we shouted at the children to be quiet even when they’d done nothing wrong.

We must have been on vapours rolling up to the pump; we high-fived, realising we’d gotten away with it. 

After that close call, life took on a rosy tint again. The rhythm on the road was a chronology of map-reading, snacks, games (such as the Silence Game: who stays quiet the longest, wins), soft music, naps, loud music, more snacks, spoken word CDs, petrol/toilet stops, I spy, stopping to switch drivers. It turned out the one behind the wheel had the easier role. Whoever was in the left-hand-seat had to be navigator, sandwich maker, story reader, adjudicator of all games and squabbles, and critically toll booth payer.

There are numerous toll booths, or péages, on the French autoroutes. Sometimes, you have to toss €1.20 (£1.10) into a bucket, which is actually quite fun. At other times, it’s the arduous ritual of inserting coin after coin, while the car behind grows impatient. At one booth, we embarrassingly jammed the machine with a stray Swiss Franc and had to buzz for help. The cars behind reversed in frustration.  

Meantime, the kids held up in the face of our long passages, although there were unrelenting appeals for breaks at the sight of a playground or a tractor or an irrigation sprinkler, which they imagined would be a perfect antidote to a hot day in the car. The refrains from the back seats were inevitable: “How long before we get there?”; “I’m hungry”; “I don’t want to play this game anymore”. They quickly learned that “I don’t feel very well” was the fastest way to stop the car. 

But there were also treasured lines, such as: “I think Venus is following us”, as the evening star emerged, and “Can we drive forever?”. 

I cherished these days altogether, the sense of freedom, as well as the changing landscape around us, from apple orchards morphing into fields of nodding sunflowers and drying corn, to the tidy rows of vineyards around Bordeaux. We noted all the water towers, some painted with clever trompe l’oeil; the ruined castles; church spires; windsocks; sketched road signs heralding the next town; the arrays of solar panels; fat white cows in the fields, and a pair of French fighter jets cracking through the sky.

Our car — and our tent — became our home and we loved the mobile nature of both. We realised we hardly ever found ourselves indoors during this time away: instead we were consistently in the fresh open-air of campsites, beaches, gardens, woodlands and vineyards. We shunned restaurants for picnics; surfed the Atlantic rollers of Biarritz; explored working farms that kept rabbits and goats and turkeys; investigated rock pools for crabs and molluscs, and found instead an iridescent octopus. It did feel like the greatest adventure on earth.

For if there is any journey that is the destination, it is the roadtrip. Especially one with children. As I write this we’re shifting direction now and heading to Switzerland after the UK government’s announcement it is imposing quarantine on travellers from France. We’ll spend the last couple of weeks in the Swiss Alps, fly back from Geneva and figure something out with the car.

Thankfully, spontaneity has been the watchword of our trip, although even that’s being challenged now. We’ve loved not having fixed plans, the roundabout movement like the wind, perhaps just how travel should be. 

Eurotunnel Le Shuttle tickets start at just £72 per car for up to nine passengers (eurotunnel.com)

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