Saturday, July 30, 2011

Some notes about our trip.

Credit cards with chips...Sometimes in Europe a magnetic strip is not enough.  European cards have chips and if you don't have one, you are simply out of luck!  While they may take Visa everywhere in Europe, they may not take your Visa.

Cigarette machines are everywhere.  It almost made me wish I was a smoker!

Coffee in a thimble?  Seriously?  Even "Americano" (which apparently means extra large) does not cut the mustard for an American coffee drinker.

Bathrooms  Watch out for the south of France!  A small rest stop there affirmed for Jim, the horror stories I had told of my visit there 25 years ago. (a hole in the floor/ground hopefully with a hose nearby)  He had to experience it for himself to discover the full impact of the grossness.  There was an awkward moment or two of looking for the toilet before the AHA moment (That IS the toilet!).  He decided he could wait for the next rest stop.

With six of us traveling together there were many trips to the bathroom.  Sometimes it was hard to find one...

It was annoying to have to frequently pay for bathrooms.  More annoying still. was finding, after you had gone to the bathroom, that the toilet paper was not in the stall with you, but outside on the bathroom wall.  After a few mishaps we started carefully assessing the TP situation before entering a stall.  We also threw a roll in Jim's backpack for back up.

Food - We ate breakfast at the camper every day.  For the most part, though, lunch and dinner were eaten off site.  Restaurants were exceedingly expensive in the big cities, so much of our food was from street vendors...  A panini at the Vatican, a ham and cheese sandwich at the Eiffel Tower, a pasty from the train station in London... If we did go into a restaurant we tried to stick to pizza.  This was not always what everyone wanted, but... c'est la vie!  Essentially, we were not eating healthy, well rounded meals for a month, and somehow we all survived.

Strange moment....I actually saw something at our campground in Salzburg (Nord Sam) that was part of a recurring dream I have had for years.  How weird is that?  It made me prickly to say  the least.

Togetherness  We had a wonderful time together for a month with no TV.  It was so nice to gather 'round the plastic tables at the end of each day and unwind together. There were, however, a few tense moments. I think one member of the family(it could be anyone),  would occasionally repress the desire to strap another family member to... the other thing in Salzburg that made me prickle.

A chair from the torture chamber at the fortress
I promise we followed the rules and did not use our flash!

Service areas on the highways in Europe are friendly to campers (many have a "gray-water" drain)- Without kids you could probably do this several times and save a little money.  We did it three times out of necessity.

American's - After awhile it was nice to sometimes talk to another American.  We are usually not hard to spot (of course I don't know how many I missed. One couple admitted they were telling people they were from Canada to stay safe).  While we could easily pick out the Americans, one man in Rome thought we were Australian...  Right Mate!  He probably assumed, because of our appearance and temperament that we were descendants of criminals... but of course that doesn't make us Australian. There are criminals I don't know what it was.

Tragedy -After getting home I heard that "jumpers" on the rails in England are not as uncommon as you would hope.  This happened at the station in Abbeywood while we were there.  The station was closed when we went to the nearby bakery to buy something for the kids to eat (a helicopter was just leaving), but was open again by the time they were ready to head into London.

Nice campgrounds - Really.... I'm not making this up.  Most of the places we stayed were very accommodating, and the bathrooms weren't the least bit alarming (It was a little iffy in Nimes, but besides that, pretty good) Several campgrounds had nice pools.  A few had trampolines for the kids and ping-pong tables became a pre-requisite for Jimmy!  There was usually a restaurant associated with the campground, and if not there was something very close by.  Many Europeans travel this way, and campgrounds are everywhere often very close to the big cities.

Finding a campground in a German book was sometimes difficult...

our luck was pretty good.  Got to get there early, though... and it was best to be near a rail system or bus route to get into town.  I never quite figured out how to get that info from the book, but we did pretty well.

The old part of Barcelona (and why we didn't go there).  I had been looking forward to Barcelona.  My niece was there, and my brother had once told me it was one of the prettier cities he had ever seen, so I was excited to go.  Apparently shortly before we arrived there had been some civil unrest (of the violent type) in the old part of town.  Chances were, we would be fine if we went, but why risk it with the kids?

Heading north from Barcelona (Actually St. Pol) we did see an unusual sight, though.  A strip of highway lined with ...prostitutes (?)... a new sight about every minute for ten minutes or more.

Unexpected - One expense that caught us by surprise was the tolls in France.  They were so damaging to our dwindling cash reserves...since, as I referenced earlier, we could not use our Visa everywhere (including the tool booths in France).  We latched onto an ATM at a service area and were dismayed that  machine  apparently wanted my card as badly as we wanted our money.  Jim looked up at me saying, "Great! It just took your card....What are we going to do now?"  I blurted out the only thing that I could think of..."I don't know, but don't put your card in there!" Shortly after that we realized the good luck of having AMEX with us.  Jim had been kicking himself earlier for forgetting to leave it with his assistant at work, but suddenly we were praising the brilliance of bringing it along.

Ausfahrt! (We just like that word...and we saw it everywhere in Germany and Austria...AND even the McElwains were able to figure out what it meant pretty quickly!)

Criminal activity - In something like an episode of Hogan's Hero's, we witnessed a policeman (who could have been Sgt. Schultz) attempt to catch an apparently unlicensed hat vendor at the Vatican.  The vendor was much slimmer and younger.  He had time to turn and retrieve a fallen hat before taking off again... smiling ear to ear.  Sgt. Schultz gave up the chase, stopping right after barreling past us (huffing and puffing all the way).

Skipped Florence...Geneva....The amount of hours on the road, and the number of days remaining helped us make this decision rather early on in the trip.  While we may have missed a thing or two that we had planned to see, I think that overall this as a good decision, and I'm glad we had the time to see the things we saw.

Laundry - Six people lots of laundry.  Campers in Munich, Salzburg, Rome, Nimes, Paris, London, and Augsberg all saw us carting dirty laundry around.

Tons of driving - I declared during the planning stage, when it looked like our trip was taking a turn toward camping, that I would not drive.  I got my international drivers license "just in case", but stayed true to my word as far as the RV was concerned.  I only drove the small and nimble rental car that we got on our last day in Germany before flying back to the states.

Right side driving - Driving in Europe was something new. While there is some extraordinarily fast driving going on on the highways, for the most part, everyone drives in the right lane unless they are passing (although Italy is an every man for himself type of experience).  Ohio driving would make these folks crazy!  

Left side driving....Like driving in a mirror.  Jim did well in England, but it was sometimes hard to keep things straight.

The RV We quickly discovered that it would have been nice to have a smaller set of wheels on the trip.
We actually passed up a thing or two because we knew that our stress level would be too high if we tried it in the RV.  There were several tense moments that led to this, but getting out of Paris was ridiculous, and probably the last straw... and the most likely reason we immediately abandoned our attempt to go into Luxembourg for a few hours.    

Crunch time - A few unfortunate backing up incidents made returning the RV a worrisome experience... We definitely were on somebodies hit list when we screeched out of there...  We turned it in a few hours late, with a ding on the back, and to top it off it was not spotless....  They are sure to get us for that.  I'm sure our Visa bill will be high this month!

Exercise?  Who needs to workout when you are walking seventy two miles a day...and on driving days, you are so tense that every muscle in your body is flexed for hours at a time.

Frustrating moment...Almost not being allowed in the Vatican after waiting in line forever, because Caroline was wearing spaghetti straps (Mary's shorts were long enough, though).  Luckily Jim had a shirt in his backpack that Caroline could throw over her shoulders.  Also, because we went to the Basilica first, it was too late to see the Vatican Museum (wherein you will find the Sistine Chapel and other awesome works of art).  We should have done the Museum and then the Basilica. That's the way the cookie crumbles though. We still got to hear the Pope's benediction, which was good.

Trouble with WIFI - a common theme of our trip.  This was extremely frustrating.  We kept buying WIFI at the campgrounds and half the time we were unable to get in.  When we were in town, we tried Starbucks a few times, but who wants to sit in Starbucks for hours when there are sights to see?  One of our visits to Starbuck for WIFI was a bust anyway since after spending a bunch of money on drinks for the kids we were told that the WIFI wasn't working...  I was afraid that Jim was going to spontaneously combust at that moment, leaving us with nothing but a column of smoke and some fond memories, but he pulled through.

When we did have WIFI, we made good use of it, but with the limited time we were often found wanting more access!

Trouble with phones.  We rented global phones for the trip.  When my credit card was swiped by the ATM machine, it was necessary to make a international call.  I got that done and then my phone ceased to work.  Jim's phone worked on occasion, but the whole point of two phones was having the ability to call each other if we had to separate... and by the end of the trip neither phone worked.  Not a good return on the phone rental since I am sure we will be charged out the yin yang for the international call.

...And finally

Call it luck if you will, but we took this trip without any real planning.  We had a general outline of places we would like to go.  We were winging it.. traveling by the seat of our pants with four kids. Of course we had bought the plane tickets and rented the RV in advance, but we did not have a reservation for our first night abroad and we had not camped in an RV before.  We woke up each day and decided what we would do.  If it was a travel day, the important thing was trying to determine where we would camp that night.  If we were sight seeing, we would pick our spots that morning or the night before and try to make it work.  I know we missed some things doing it this way, but it was a tremendous learning experience.  It was fun and exciting at times, frustrating and tiring at times, and we would not trade it for the world!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our Last Fling

We turned in the Camper the day before our flight...

It was raining, and even though we vacuumed it the day before, and got it washed somehow it was dirty again when we turned it in.  I guess six people in the rain can cause a mess ...without even trying.  We decided that if we did it again, we wouldn't waste our time cleaning like we did, since they charged us to clean it again when we left it with them.

We decided to get a car at the last minute so that we could do something fun that last day.

The kids were enjoying traveling in the back with open windows... I'm not sure I have seen dogs this

After assessing the situation, we decided NOT to visit the Disney Castle, because it was a few hours away.  We did, however,find a nice town (Landsberg on the Lech) on the Romantic Road and spent the afternoon there.  After all the big city tourist attractions we were glad to relax in not so crowded place.

Where we found (of course) a very nice church (Our Lady of the Assumption)...It was, I think, the prettiest church we saw on the trip.

We felt right at home here when we found Schmuckland...

The schmucks, apparently, are pretty short!

...And then of course dinner with schmucks

We returned to our hotel room where Jim scored the biggest beer yet...

                                           He hasn't looked at me that way for years!

Alas!  His quest for beer was coming to an end!

Tired and ready to come home, we would be flying out in the morning.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The End of Camping

Due to a glitch having something to do with Murphy's Law (and propane tanks in our camper) we were denied entrance to the channel tunnel on our way back to Calais... It was another incident of the McElwains throwing money away.  Even though we never even viewed the entrance we had already paid the toll... around a $160.00.

We took the Ferry across again

We drove East to Belgium planning to get a site near Brussels, but by the time we made it to the campground they were full...and the office of the next campground was closed.  We stayed at a service area.

Near Luxembourg the next morning

we decided to pull off and have breakfast.

We pulled up to a nice looking restaurant and Jim went in to make sure they were serving breakfast before we all got out.  He walked in to see several men sitting around the bar drinking beer... Did I mention that this was breakfast?

We decided to eat at a small place a little up the way.

Our next campsite, in Augsburg, was full of fun things for the kids (and ,yes, Caroline was still enjoying the fact that she was of "drinking age" in all of Europe)

and Jim

And we decided to document the beard experiment before it ended in the bathroom sink.

Seriously???  Was that a good idea?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Crowns Lost and Found

Our last day in London was all fun.  After a little confusion about the difference between London Bridge and Tower Bridge

and a quick detour into the boroughs, we worked our way over to the tower of London.  This was worth every penny of the admission price.

Here you can learn all sorts of interesting tidbits

Because we hadn't spent our last cent, the first thing we did was buy some candy... Jim immediately lost a crown on one of his teeth...which was fine with me since it wasn't my mouth...and in the end it meant that there were fewer people eating that delicious stuff...which, of course, left ...more for me.  While Jim's crown was a sight to see, it couldn't hold a candle to the other crowns we would see that day.

The history of the medieval palace is amazing, but there was another plus.  All of the kids have read, at one time or another, the Peter and the Starcatchers series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.  In fact Mary and I had recently finished the last book... Peter and the Sword of Mercy.

The Tower of London and Curtana (the sword of mercy), which is displayed with the crown jewels there, are a large part of the book.  So even Mary, who is too young to appreciate all of the history  of the place had had a previous exposure to the tower and the jewels (Even though she hasn't studied the history of the monarchy, She did perk up a bit when she heard that "Bloody Mary " had been imprisoned there.... She tried enacting her own version of bloody Mary... but it wasn't that convincing!)

All of the kids agreed that the Crown Jewels were worth the wait in line.  And the wait in line is done well...while you are approaching the jewels, you are touring through rooms watching films of and informational slideshows about the jewels... Even then I was still surprised to see the sword of mercy among the crown jewels.

Sorry no pics of the jewels... this nice guard told us to stow the camera

After some fish and chips outside the tower, we worked our way to Camden town.

where we found the  the world's end.  (Jim and I have seen the other end of the world in I guess we can say we have been from one end of the world to the other)

I think if the older girls had known about Camden Town sooner, they would have spent the entire three days in London here.  They LOVED it... The rest of us kind of liked it too, but were not about to spend the rest of the day shopping.

That's why we went next to  -  Harrod's department store.  (only Caroline was taking pics can tell where her interests were lying from this first one!)

Harrods! - Where you can get a macaroon for five bucks... or a coffee mug for could easily spend a week (and a fortune) here and not see everything, but I believe most folks get tired of their eyes popping out every time they look at a price tag, and leave after a few hours....

Our plan to meet back at door number six in half an hour left us all wanting more so we set another time and scurried off again to various corners of the store...all of the food sections are a must see.  We couldn't resist buying some Turkish Delight... A box of lemon and rose flavored candies (Jim puckered after a bite of a rose flavored piece and declared that it was "like eating soap").

We also enjoyed the toy department, the pet shop, the furniture department and the Egyptian escalators.

A quick bite in Hyde Park

Then we tried to ditch the kids at the dungeons

Before Jim finally got his pint at a pub near London Bridge station.

This is how it looked from his vantage point

no wonder he needed a pint!

Our bartender was a Russian boy named Vlad.  He took quite a shine to Caroline, who later asked if she could stay there by herself for a few hours since he would be getting off work soon...

Instead we all went back to the campsite together.

And prepared for the beginning of our return trip.

Mind The Gap

The next day in London found us on and off of the subway all around town.

And our first ride on a London Double Decker (Maggie said we HAD to do that in London

 We walked up Regents St to Oxford where Maggie found a few shops she had been hoping to see.  Jimmy and Mary sat along the wall and read (Harry Potter) while the girls shopped at Top Shop.

In Primark, they weren't allowed to sit.  I got in line, Jim got in trouble for letting the kids sit down and the girls shopped.  Unbelievable prices... Unbelievable lines... And in the end it worked out well with Caroline and Maggie tossing me several items over the crowd as I was called to the register.

Then it was time to do a few things that we sightseeing old fogies wanted to do.  Parliament...

Big Ben...

Westminster Abbey...

and London Eye.

It is important to note at this point that we had been on this adventure for three weeks, and while we were having fun,  we were also wiped out, thin skinned and walking on bloody stumps.

WEstminster Abbey was closed when we got there so a few of us who had wanted to see it (and one who didn't... an was ready to strangle me for taking her) went back for Evensong mass... This was nice...but they sure didn't allow much peeking around. We went ahead and viewed the coronation chair on our way out  (no poet's corner, though, or anything else for that matter)

While we sat shoulder to shoulder in the Abbey, Jim did the London Eye (gargantuan ferris wheel, each "pod" held 20 people, it was 10 stories high) with Mary and Jimmy

 (a misunderstanding here is what led to those aforementioned thoughts of strangulation).  We met again outside the Abbey.

In my mind it was still early...time for another sight seeing opportunity.

In Jim's mind it was still early...time for another pint.

Unfortunately, all the kids could think about was bloody stumps... They were tired and wanted to end the day so we hopped on the train to Abbeywood and went back to the campground.

(A quick note here about the Campground.  It was very nice, but with the early evenings we were cognizant of the fact that we had not gotten a spot with the "kidmenities" that we had enjoyed in previous cities... no pool, no ping-pong table. We were able to do laundry, but somehow the kids didn't really think that was entertainment.)

Friday, July 15, 2011


Five minutes to the train from our site in Abbeywood...not particularly nice area of town but not too bad. England in July... Tons of rain.

Got off at London Bridge took three steps into the rain and changed our plan of action. The three umbrellas we bought in Salzburg weren't cutting the mustard.

Our Harry Potter fans wanted to go to Kings Cross station which was probably a pretty dry trip so we went back to the to trains.

We all went through the wall at platform 9 3/4! Mary was the only one who remembered her luggage.

By the time we found our hotel and ate lunch the rain had stopped. We headed up the street to Buckingham Palace...

then hit the road for Trafalgar Square. This was our true destination.

We had been planning since March to have the kids in Trafalgar Square on July 7th since we read that the Harry Potter Premier of the 8th and final movie would be in Leicester Square (movie capital of England) and the entire cast would be walking the red carpet from Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square. What we DIDN'T know was that you had to get your wristbands the day prior at 10 am and the ENTIRE event was blocked by 8 foot barricades. I swear this story DOES have a happy ending.........

As we approached Trafalgar the crowd started roaring and silver Mercedes Benz after silver Mercedes Benz swooped into the square clearly carrying the people we hoped to glimpse (the silver Mercedes' are important as you will soon read)

We sniffed out every nook and cranny around the area and found the back door of the theater which held some promise as the door occasionally opened and we could see the screen and some high falutin' VIPs. We staked out a cool pub next to the back door....

and nursed a few pints for two hours. We sort of gave up, the kids were very sad, although Jimmy did sit on my shoulders and snap a blurry photo of Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) over the 8 foot barricade before an especially alert London Bobby put an end to that nonsense. I expect she will earn some type of award for her courage and diligence.

We gave up our spot at the pub and headed to Piccadilly Square and shopped. At around 9:25 pm Jimmy begged for ONE LAST TRY as the movie premier was ending soon and we might catch them coming out. Well, guess what......we walked back to Trafalgar and started heading to Leicester Square when we spotted some barricades up a small street and decided to investigate. We asked a Bobby what they were for and he gave us some line about dismantling them soon but we didn't believe him and continued up the street....and spotted....a long line of silver Mercedes Benz's! We positioned ourselves right next to them (we were almost the only ones there at first but the crowd started growing). A roar erupted and down the street came, one by one, Neville Longbottom, followed by Snape, Professor Slughorn, Fred and George Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Luna Lovegood, and Professor Sprout. We waited a little longer and here comes Emma Watson (Hermione) who curtsied to the crowd, then Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), and finally, JK Rowling herself. They were 15 feet away waving to the crowd, shaking the occasional hand and signing a few autographs. Apparently they snuck Daniel Radcliffe out the aforementioned back door but we ended up in a great spot to see everyone else. We have video and might be posted later after we edit it down.

Let me just say the kids hit the motherload. They were SO excited to see the characters from Harry Potter on the night of the World Premier.

Spent the night at hotel called The Belgrade House and fell asleep exhausted after 13 hours of trudging through London but satisfied at the results!

A few more pictures of London:

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Location:London, England