Travel

French hospitals, Switzerland parades and Lake Como camping; A road trip around Europe

Have you ever been on a road trip? A few years ago, I was part of a four-man team attempting to drive around Europe during the summer, with three girls in a car and one guy on a motorbike as we camped our way around France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany.

We started our journey in France and headed to Rennes, St Nazare and Pornic. Despite the miserable weather, losing our friend on the motorbike and having to take breaks so he wasn’t blown off his motorbike, we somehow hit 300 miles before getting to Jard Sur Mer, finding a place to camp on the river edge.

Bringing a mini campfire with us, dinners of spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread were a common choice, as to feed four of us every evening we had to make sure it had enough to sustain us.

The weather was to pick up as we packed our dried tents up, had our croissants and porridge for breakfast and relaxed on the beach for the rest of the day (despite an ice cold shower using 5l bottle of water with us). We even managed to help a French couple find their manic dog running around the campsite before grabbing our lantern to sit and watch out over the sea as the low moonlight bounced off it, signifying our time to sleep when it had all but disappeared.

Finding small towns along the way gave us cakes for treats from the local bakery. Until our return to our campsite to find a squirrel had ripped a whole in our tent by throwing pine cones at it…

Me being me, I had sunburnt probably the worst in my life, so was in a fair amount of pain for the rest of the trip. However, at a campsite near La Rochelle, we met a French cyclist called Benoit who apparently knew Nicola Sarkozy and his wife, as his dad was an MP (to which he proved this with some pictures on his phone). He told us about the French life, shared his cheese and pate to which we let him share our wine and got slowly drunk in the tent. There was a slight language barrier ( to which we attempted to translate, yet he struggled to remember our names due to them not being common in France). We were told to “shut please!” by a fellow camper but Benoit was adamant that we could fiesta until late. He also showed us his French music which was Eminem and Michael Jackson so we really felt immersed in the French culture.

Our next stop was Rochefort, where we stumbled upon a boat festival where middle-aged people were dressed in loafers and blazers. After gazing on at all the yachts alongside some more choiquettes from the local patisseries, we attempted the long five-hour drive to a converted barn belonging to one of our friends.

 The rustic barn was originally an old stable and outhouse, and whilst not finished, it had a kitchen and beds with a roof over our heads so it was perfect. The family friends of the house came rushing over, asking if we needed anything and invited us for dinner so spent out evenings with them as we dined and wined with fajitas, cider and a sweet strawberry pudding.

The wake-up call was our favourite of the trip, with a group of dogs bounding into the house to greet us. They would end up spending the days with us as we spent some time cleaning and doing up the place, as it needed to be cleaned, built and mowed due to it being only half finished. Of course, it also meant we could have more of a feast with a table and cooker and found a raspberry bush with probably the juiciest raspberries I’ve ever had. And with a fridge as well, we stocked up to have dinner with meats, breads, cheese and pates. We were even given a homemade lasagne after looking after the local daughter for the day.

However, it was then that the days started to go downhill. I ended up spending days sitting in a gorgeously comfortable armchair with a variety of books whilst the rest went cycling, due to an old knee injury of mine playing up, drinking wine well into the evening. It was that, with the sun streaming in through the old wooden beams and dogs playing around my feet that I could have done forever. The local market was also an amazing experience selling everything from food to mattresses, although horribly also selling live animals in tiny cages. We then spent the day with some pedalos in a gorgeous lake as I carried on reading, until the guy we were travelling with started to feel awful.


As the pain got worse, we began to worry that it was appendicitis and it wasn’t until midnight that we knew we had to take him to the hospital. We didn’t know where it was so had to all pile in the car, using dodgy directions trying to find the place as the pain in his lower stomach got worse. The streets were empty but we jumped out at the local tobacco shop to ask for directions, and the kind security guard sensed our panic and jumped in his car to direct us the rest of the way. Despite the very tiny local hospital not speaking English, we ended up staying five hours into the morning there whilst they ran tests, finding nothing wrong and thinking it was just a stomach issue. We returned over the next few days getting antibiotics and more tests but luckily he was okay in the end. The rest of the days passed in a sleep deprived blur of risotto and apple tarts before moving onto Geneva.

We were staying with a friend of ours who lived out there and stayed at her beautiful open plan apartment for the day. Despite a few niggles including driving the wrong way on on tram lines by accident, we entered Switzerland to gorgeous weather and somehow were there during the annual Lake Parade which shuts down the entire city.

Switzerland really is a whole other life, as we went to join her friends living in a gold gilded flat to pop champagne on his balcony, watching the carnival as it got started, sharing Peruvian food and chatting with all the expats.

The parade was another thing in itself full of floats, naked people, music, glitter cannons and fancy dress. Watching them go by in the sun, with our cheapest wine we could find in plastic cups, we danced and joined in, eating pizza and sharing the cake with a few lads whose birthday it was next to us. We even jumped on some of the floats to join in the party, dancing well into the night as the roads shut down and we partied on the dual carriageways to a huge street DJ set as the traffic lights changed despite the roads being full of people before we crashed back at the apartment and got ready to leave the next day for Milan which meant going through the Mount Blanc tunnel. Due to a big explosion that had happened a few years before, it had a strict speed limit which slowed the journey down, but it gave us time to watch the way bikers interacted with our biker and how they continued to nod and wave at each other as they passed. Whilst the tunnel is an expensive way to travel, it shaves a good four hours off a journey so is worth it.

However, as it got darker, we struggled to find a campsite, finding areas that definitely weren’t safe to stop at, so as we grew tired and frustrated, decided we had to forgo camping and stay at a Holiday Inn for an added expense for the night.

 The rest of the trip was a quick one, with a very brief exploration of Milan, a place I have never warmed to, as well as a day in Venice to experience the place (for me a second time so was glad we didn’t spend too much time there).

A highlight, however, was driving the length of Lake Como. Famed for where George Clooney regularly hangs out, the winding roads made for a beautiful drive and we eventually ended up camping on the very top of the river at a surf camp for only a couple of euros.

Due to previous delays, it did also mean we then had two days left to catch our ferry back to the UK whilst still in Italy. This then created a frantic drive up from Italy, through Germany and doing two 10 hour days of driving, before having to camp in a church garden after asking the nuns due to being stuck for a campsite. The ending was definitely one to remember but as we made our ferry back, meant it was a trip certainly full of stories.

A road trip will always bring problems and struggles, but it also gives you the freedom to stop anywhere you like, being only reliant on yourself. And with just a couple of weeks, some fantastic experiences and new friends, as well as discovering the cleanliness and beauty of Switzerland and open nature of Lake Como, was an experience I will always treasure.

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