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Driving to and in Continental Europe

Why oh why would anyone choose to drive long distances to destinations in Europe?

“Are we there yet?”    “I need the toilet”    “Can we stop for food?”

“[insert frustrating statement here]”

Sharing a car with your family for a long distance, driving through the night, dealing with foreign signs and road laws can be a challenge.  But for many families, mine included, travelling by car allows you to afford and accomplish far more than you would have been able to do otherwise.  So I guess its about positives and negatives.  For us – the positives have always outweighed the negatives and until they don’t we will continue to have European driving tours as the main stay of our holidays.

Here are some pointers, not a comprehensive list.  Don’t let it put you off, just let it help prepare you for a great trip away.

Attitude – 

I’ve learned that much of this is about your attitude toward the task.

Its not that different.  Driving in Europe is like driving in the UK – traffic, motorway services, tunnels, bridges, tolls, polite drivers, impolite drivers.  Don’t think that its something massively different.  Its not.

Peace of Mind.  Invest in a good Sat-Nav.  And a back up if you want.  I bought a good, but not top of the line Sat Nav back in 2013.  It has lifetime map updates and has never failed us – through 13 countries so far.  I also bought a sat nav for my smart phone, that I could download and use off line.  And of course, if you can use your phones data plan abroad, you’ve always got Google Maps.  If you want to go that one step further you can use the street view on Google Maps to actually see the front door of your accommodation now.  For a couple of places we have travelled to, I printed a couple of pictures off.  Places that we would arrive to in remote areas at night.

Patience.  On a 4,500 mile round trip, driving a few miles an hour slower, or taking one or two extra toilet stops is not going to make a dent in the amount of hours that you are going to be driving.  But it will be a lot more relaxing if you try and take it all in your stride.  Better said than done, yes.  But whats the rush.  View the travel as part of the adventure.

Papers and Policies – 

Research all of this before you book your holiday, but have a clear view of what you want to do before you ring them up.

Car Insurance.  Of course you will need insurance.  Your current insurer might allow you to travel to EU countries anyway.  You might be able to buy an add on pack for the time that you are away.  If you have a people carrier and are travelling with others, you might be able to add on an additional driver.  Ring them and ask them.  You wont know until you know.

Break down cover.  Like insurance, this really is a must.  Again, if you already have cover a phone call might get you sorted for other parts of Europe.  If you have a mobility car, check their website for the latest.  We have found that a quick call to them has sorted out all of the above in just a few minutes.  Click here for motability details.

Documents.  Make a little folder and take with you printed copies of Insurance, Break down cover and all required emergency numbers.  Its also good to take the paper part of your driving license if you have it.  Depending on whether you own or lease the car, you might need a VE103 form that shows you are allowed to drive the car, if you don’t own it.

Medical Insurance.  The world is your oyster here depending on your needs and budget.  Don’t forget to declare any additional needs if you are travelling with a disabled person.  In the past we have bought policies for just the one holiday, annual coverage and used a monthly reward scheme from our Bank.  Again, print off the key information and keep it in your folder.

Blue Badge details.  This website provides great information on using a Blue Badge abroad.  You can even print off in the language of each country, a little paragraph that explains all the relevant information to any passing traffic warden.  Just display this along side your blue badge.  Keep them in your folder.

Equipment – 

European Driving Pack.  In most countries on the continent there are specific requirements about what you need to take such as spare bulbs for your headlights, things you need to have in the car like florescent jackets and recommended items like snow chains.  You can search for this on Google, buy ready made packs off Amazon etc.  The first time we travelled, I bought a large driving atlas.  The A3 one.  Inside on the pages that you never look at, it listed every country in Europe and the key information you needed to know.  It was excellent.  I made of list of everything that I needed.  The ready made packs had most if not all of it.  The bare essentials are – headlight reflectors, fire extinguisher, spare bulbs, jackets, triangle, breathalysers.  It sounds a lot, but all fits into a small bag.  99% of it is reusable for other trips, only the headlight reflectors really need replacing.

In Car Treats.  Sweets, drinks and nibbles.  Need I say more!  Its also worth buying a usb power charger for your phones etc.  A spare power lead for your Sat Nav.  We bought a little bag that hung off the back of the drivers chair.  Its like a small cooler back with sections to keep bits in.  Also, take a carrier bag for rubbish.  Its incredible how quickly the car can resemble the mess in my daughters bedroom.

Costs, Vignettes and Tolls – 

Pricing up the journey.  I use Google Maps and viamichelin to plan the trip.  Google Maps gives you times and distance.  Viamichelin gives you estimated fuel and toll costs.  No matter what they say, it will always take a little longer and cost a little more.  Also, you will be driving about during the day, not just going from point to point.

Tolls.  Some countries like Italy and France require toll payments at stations along the motorways.  Its all quite simple, drive up to the booth, take a ticket.  Drive for however many miles to the next booth, put your ticket in and use your card or cash to pay.  These all range in price.  A friend of mine used the French website to pay for a disc that he displayed in his windscreen.  It registers when he approached the barriers and just took the cash out of his account automatically.  This can be particularly useful when you are travelling alone or your passenger is asleep – as the booths are on the the other side of your car.  We have never used this though, just the old fashioned approach!

Vignettes.  Switzerland, Czech Republic and some other countries require vignettes.  These are in place of toll booths and are a one off sticker that you buy at or near border crossings and put in your window.  Again, they range in price and duration.  There are instructions on the back of them as to what you have to do, sometimes you need to write your Reg number on etc.

Crossing the Channel – 

Ferry versus Train.  This is personal choice.  Price does fluctuate between them, although we have always found the ferry to be cheaper.  The train is quicker.  We have never used the train, but have friends who use nothing but.  For us, getting out of the car, wandering about the ferry for a couple of hours, having some food, getting duty free is all part of the trip.  It feels like another experience and the views can be very beautiful.  We have never had a bad crossing (from Dover to Calais / Dunkirk).  We had a terrible crossing from Newcastle to Amsterdam – that’s an overnight ferry and covered in a different blog.

Trip Planning –

How to choose?  Surely, you must have some places you want to visit?  Venice, the Dolomites, Prague, Grindelwald?  I use this website to calculate how far I can get within a certain number of hours from one place.  For example, you are in Paris – where can you get to in 5 hours driving?  This tool maps that out for you, its a bit fiddly to use, but very helpful.  If you are struggling for ideas why not Google “top 10 European……cities, beaches, attractions” and so on.

By yourself or with others?   We have travelled long distances as a couple, with the kids, with the kids and 2 others in the same car (we have a people carrier) and in convoy.  All experiences are different.  If you are nervous about the adventure and can get more people in your car, or convoy, go for it.  There are strength in numbers and a problem shared is a problem halved.  Also, its really exciting.  And you have someone who you can talk about it all with [bore to death] when you get back.

Travelling at night?  On all of our trips we have done some travelling at night.  Its been a necessity on occasion to get to where we wanted by a certain time, its quieter and sometimes we’ve just chosen to do it.  Do not fool yourself though – you will be tired and other car headlights do cause glare.  Make sure you stop regularly and or share the driving.  Don’t be a hero.

Being organised.  I love planning.  Its all part of the holiday for me.  I’ve mentioned a folder a few times.  I have one sheet of paper printed out for every day of the trip.  It shows where we are, if we are travelling somewhere, how long it will take etc.  It lists out places of interest and any other bits I’ve found out when doing research.  I use it as a bit of a diary during the trip.  I just like having a folder with everything in.  It makes me feel organised and actually stops me thinking about stuff – you don’t need to remember it all, just remember the folder.

Is it all worth it?

That all seems like a lot.  It is if you have never done it before.  But you could get it all under you belt in a couple of evenings.  And once you’ve got all the bits together in your trusty folder, you can put it to one side and just get it out again on your next trip.  You might even get the bug and do it regularly.  As I mentioned above, it has allowed us to do more for less than we could have otherwise accomplished.  But more than that, its another experience under your belt, a sense of achievement and if you like it, a door you can open to many many more opportunities in the future.

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Posted in Gdansk, Poland

4 Days in Gdansk – the practical bits

Here are some of the more mundane bits and bobs that might prove useful. 


Where to Stay – 
I think you’ve got two main options 1) stay slightly out of the main town, closer to the main shopping areas and ‘life’ of the city or 2) stay in the more scenic old town area


If we went again, we would stay exactly where we did the first time – the marina area.  It was a very short walk to the sights and in a well developed area.  There is ongoing building work though so check up to date reviews before you book.


We were quite surprised at how many 4 and 5 star hotels were packed around the marina.  They all looked very nice.  We opted for an Apartment booked via booking.com


Our Apartment


Where to Eat – 


Tripadvisor is always my port of call here.  The places that we visited on its recommendation were all very good.  You can eat cheaply or spend more English range prices.  All food we found to be of a really good quality.


There wasn’t a massive amount of advertising like you see in other city centres.  So if you want local food – dumplings, soup etc you need to hunt it out.  We did see some waiters trying to get people into restaurants on the main streets, but they were very polite and not at all in your face.


We were paying way less than £10 for breakfast for the 2 of us – hot food, cakes, coffees, juices etc.


We paid about £2.50 for a beer, about £5 for a cocktail (….more for my very special one!)


Bottles of Vodka from the local shops were very cheap.  About £5 


Our evening meals were both at English prices, but we did push the boat out and ate like Kings.  Wendy had White Truffle Pasta in one place!


Food overall was either so cheap or so good that we did no cooking whatsoever in the apartment.


Our main food adventures were here – 


Goldwasser

Piwna47

Prologue

Where to Shop – 


The main streets were predominately Amber and tourist shops.


Local supermarket / corner shops were dotted about regularly.


For clothes shopping we went to two shopping areas.  One had 200 shops and was slightly out of town – we took a taxi but you could get the train.


Baltic Shopping Centre (Travel)

Madison Shopping Centre (Local)

It was good to go to the Baltic one on early in the trip, but in reality we could have got most of what we wanted at the local one.


Getting Around – 


All of the main town can be done on foot.  Its mostly flat, with large cobbled areas.


Due to the buildings being narrow (due to taxes!), they are all very high.  So be prepared to do many steps inside museums and landmarks.  Not very pram friendly.


There are a lot of trams that run to the north of the centre.  We never used them and they looked quite confusing – something when we feel a bit braver I think.


We used the trains twice.  Once to go to Sopot and once for Malbork Castle.

Both times we used the Regional Trains rather than the National ones.  The is a reception desk in the Gdansk Glowny station where an assistant was very helpful. (You have to validate or ‘punch’ your local ticket before you get on the train.)


There are no TV monitors or signs that help you out on the platforms themselves so its best to be clear what you are doing at the beginning or be prepared to ask people when you are on the platform.  


The trip to Sopot was about £2 – extremely cheap.  You get off at Sopot (there are about 3 stations with Sopot in the name – I’m assuming Sopot East, Sopot Centre, etc).  It took about 15 minutes.


The trip to Malbork was about 45 minutes and cost around £6.  You could have got there quicker on a National Train but it would have cost about £40.  Again, there were two Malbork stops, we opted for plain old ‘Malbork’.  We learned later that we could have got off at either stop – the walk to the castle was equal distance.


I don’t think either Sopot or Malbork cater for non Polish tourists – there are no signs directing you to the beach front, or the castle.  But its pretty straight forward if you use Google maps.  Neither places are particularly big.


Sopot Pier

Malbork Castle

Posted in Gdansk, Poland

4 Days in Gdansk – Day 4 and home

The last day of a holiday sees us rushing around and waiting around.


Of course you’ve got to be out of your accommodation by a certain time and then you need to be at the airport in good time, but what do you do with that slot in between?  Often, its too short to do something major, but too long to just sit and have a coffee.


We had about 4 hours.  We decided to have one last walk around the city, revisit the sights but this time under a blue sky.  I had wanted to visit the Town Hall earlier in the week so that was an ideal place to fill in an hour or so.

Town Hall on the right

Wowzers.  What a place.  Over the years Gdansk had seen lots of money and power.  You could tell in this Hall.  Parts were destroyed in the war, but some elements remain.  Again, it was refurbished based on pictures and memories.


One room had possibly the most impressive ceiling I had ever seen.  It was covered in paintings and sculptures, some probably half a meter long.  What really stood out was the quality of the pictures and the fine details they included.

The ceiling

Like many buildings here, the plain red bricks hid a ton of beautiful features inside.


One last ditch effort at getting gifts – proved unsuccessful.  And then a walk around the marina, a quick stop for coffee (and one last cake) and then the taxi to the airport.

 



Before we knew it, Marcus was running up to us in the arrivals area of Newcastle airport, we were chauffeured back to Mam and Dads.  Our favourite take away downed and back home proper.  Charlotte was out doing something fun with friends and when returned gave the typical ‘tween-ager’ apathetic greeting.


Back to normal routine.  But with another experience in our memories.  Not as outstanding as some other places we have visited, but it was unique, refreshing and good fun – everything a holiday should be.


14th – 18th November 2016

Posted in Gdansk, Poland

4 Days in Gdansk – Day 3

Our last full day.  What to do, what to do….


Although we had a few hours tomorrow before the flight, we didn’t want to risk leaving anything big till then.  Options on the table – Westerplatte, a defence post during WW2 – accessed by boat, more museums and sightseeing or a castle I had read about – Malbork.


We decided on Malbork. It was a train journey away, about 50 miles I think.  Again, the regional train was really cheap – this time about £6 return for both of us.


The journey was uneventful, although we did see some deer, a stork and an owl on the way.  This section of Polish countryside seems very flat.


We caught sight of the castle from the train.  Its the biggest castle in the world.  And made of bricks.  Not the kind of bricks that form the Pyramids, or the sort of of stone bricks that make up the castles of Northumberland.  But red bricks, like a terraced street is made of.


We had never seen anything like it.  We got an audio tour that tracked our movements via GPS and tailored the tour to the rooms that you walked into.  Very clever.


The place was built by the Teutonic knights.  Think of a cross between Monty Pythons Holy Grail and Indiana Jones Last Crusade.  Moats, drawbridges, secret chambers, murder holes, armouries, cannon balls – everything you want in a castle.

Just 1 of 3 sections to the castle

 

The tour was a solid 3 hours.  Very interesting and covered only part of the castle.  It was enormous.  It is another example of a building destroyed through wars and rebuilt over time.  The interiors have been restored to a very high standard – the ceilings were fantastic.


We headed back to the train looking forward to a sit down and travelled back to Gdansk Glowny train station.


We stopped off at some shops to get gifts and then visited the Amber museum.  They have a small piece of amber that contains a perfectly preserved lizard.  Did you know that most Amber is found just washed up on the beach?

The lizard
Amber art


Since our meal last night was so good, we though we would be extravagant and go for another one tonight.  Given that we could never afford to eat this good in England, why not?


We looked on Tripadvisor and picked the top rated fine dining place called – Prologue.  It was on the river front.  We got there not long after it had opened.  Fortunately that had two tables left.  We sat right in the middle of the room – prime location.  


Wendy is better at describing these things than me.  Suffice to say it was the best meal that I have ever had.  Ask her about it – the face says it all…

 

Posted in Gdansk, Poland

4 Days in Gdansk – Day 2

Having a bit of a panic yesterday worrying if we had made a mistake in coming to Gdansk as there didn’t seem to be much going on, we were a lot happier come evening time.  Even still, I wanted to make sure we were getting the most out of our trip so booked us onto a free walking tour starting at 10:30.


We met the guide, a local Polish lady with very good English.  There were about 15 others on the tour with us, from all parts of the globe.  The guide took us to all of the places we had visited the day before, but breathed life into them.  Then she took us to the Crane, which was operated purely by muscle – with men actually climbing into what looked like giant hamster wheels to work a pulley system which lifted goods off docked ships.  Slavery?


The tour ended at the Gdansk Post Office.  A site I had read about – one of, if not the first real skirmish of WW2.  At this location, about 48 Polish post men stood up to the Nazi invasion, only for a few hours, but far longer than anyone expected.  It has become a local legend.  The wall where they were all lined up before being executed was very sobering.

The sobering Post Office Wall

We picked ourselves up over a beer in a micro brewery on….you guessed it, Beer street.  Very nice.  But we were still feeling a bit down.  We decided to jump on the train and head to the beach.  That’s our go to place when we are sad.  We caught the local train to Sopot.  A typical beach resort but with pristine sands and pier.  It was cold…Wendy cracked many jokes about it being Baltic.  We laughed.  

The micro brewery (or as Wendy would say, Brwewewy)
The Pier



At the end of the pier was a lovely, warm cafe.  We had apple pie and cocktails and watched the world go by.  It was excellent.  The sun went down and we slowly wandered back along the pier and to the train station.  Things are so cheap here.  A coffee, two cocktails and two apple pies in an upmarket cafe was less than £15.  The train journey for the two of us return was about £2.  Incredible.

Apple Pie and Cocktails

We had decided that we were going to have our anniversary meal that night.  We had tried to get into a restaurant called Piwna47 for breakfast before our morning tour but it was closed.  We returned early evening and sat in the conservatory.

I had the most amazing cocktail and very, very nice meal.  Although in hindsight I still don’t like steak and should have ordered something else.  We laughed, missed the kids and reminisced.



Our Anniversary Meal


The weather was crisp and clear and allowed me to do one of my most favourite things on the walk back to the apartment – photograph lit up buildings.  Gdansk really pops at night.  It was stunning and a fitting end to a very grown up day.

Reflections 
The main street
The full shabang
Posted in Gdansk, Poland

4 Days in Gdansk – Day 1

So Day 1 for me is always full of excitement and anticipation.  I’m always up early, full of energy and ready to get at it.  Wendy on the other hand…..


I got my wish and today we were out early.  On the streets before 9am (and they are 1 hour ahead).  Don’t worry, early starts get progressively later as the holiday wears on.


What did we do today?  In a nutshell, we did the main sightseeing sections of the Old Town, snacked at one of the top rated Tripadvisor restaurants and then travelled out of town to a shopping centre.  To be honest, it was my main tick list items all done in the space of 10 hours.  But we learned a lot more about Gdansk.


The morning was surreal.  We were the only people around.  I mean, the only people.  We have photos of us on the main street – Dluga.  Its like a ghost town.  There are restaraunts open, cafes, even a Costa and Subway, just no people.  Beautiful though.  The buildings reminded me of a cross between Bruges and Brussels.

The Main street, with no one to be found

We covered the main street, walked back down through Piwna (Beer street), skipped up the 409 steps of the Church for an amazing view, a few museums and then onto ‘Amber Fifth Avenue’ – Mariacka.  All beautiful however Mariacka had something different, unique about it – which we learned later on was probably due to its main features being untouched by war.

Features of Amber Fifth Avenue
Shopping for Amber

We stopped off at GoldWasser on the river front for nibbles.  Inside it was pure luxury, lined with wooden panels and plush decorations.  We ordered Cocktails, a cheese board and a dessert.

Feeling Regal in GoldWasser

Sadly the snow turned to rain, so we headed back to the apartment – still nobody else around.  For some reason, part of Anniversary holidays for me always seem to involve getting new clothes.  This was no different.  I needed shoes and an outdoor coat.  There were no shops where we had just been, so where did the locals go?  Google told us that there was a shopping centre about 5 miles away with over 300 shops.  A quick taxi journey and we were there.  It was excellent, but mainly due to the fact that it was packed with people.

This is where they all were.  As the trip went on, we learned that due to the extensive bombing during WW2, the old town was completely destroyed but life continued on in the suburbs.  Even though the centre was beautifully restored over the last 50 years or so, the main local life was still on the outskirts.

The shocking destruction of the town centre during WW2

We spent a healthy 4-5 hours shopping – do it once, do it right! Then returned to the apartment, happy in the knowledge that Gdansk was pretty, fun and full of life (you just had to know where to look)



Posted in Gdansk, Poland

4 days in Gdansk – Planning and Arrival

Its that very special time in the year when Wendy and I are able to have a few nights away without the kids – to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary.  Its not that we don’t love going away with the kids, far from it.  During last years trip to Belgium we spent most of the time talking about what we would be doing with Marcus and which food Charlotte would be drooling over.


But every parent knows, no matter how many allowances you make, there are some things that can only be done properly without kids – for us on this trip, it was not having to get up through the night to change nappies, carry prams up and down stairs, and look over your shoulder every few steps to make sure that they are OK.


This years trip took us to Gdansk, Northern Poland.  We have visited Poland twice before – to Krakow and Zakopane – both outstanding destinations.  This time it was about getting to grips with a new city, new history and taking some time to rest.


I had seen some cheap flights earlier in the year – flying direct from Newcastle on a Monday evening and coming back on Friday evening.  We are very fortunate to have parents who are happy to look after the kids for 4 nights and even more fortunate to have kids who love every minute of their time with them.  A quick phone call to my Mum sorted it all and cleared the path for booking the trip.  A good old trawl of Airbnb, Hotels.com and Booking.com saw to our accommodation.  We settled on an apartment with Wendy’s only stipulation – a comfy looking sofa!


When we travel as a couple, for some reason the holiday is much less planned out.  I guess there is less to worry about.  That said, I had still read lots and lots and had a clear idea of the key things I wanted to get out of the trip.


Before we knew it, day 0 was upon us.  Kids all settled and happy, off we went to the airport.  RyanAir to Gdansk, pre-booked taxi to the accommodation.  All good, no worries.  In fact, everything went much smoother than I was expecting.


Very happy with the accommodation.  A quick trip to the local corner shop for vodka and bread and an early night 🙂

Our home for the next few nights