This summer, we took a family road trip through France, Belgium and Holland, coming home to Wales via Yorkshire and the Lakes. We were away two and half weeks in our comfortable old camper van. Our family is a bit of a mishmash of French, Dutch, Yorkshire and Welsh and on this trip we managed to see over 20 relatives, parking in gardens, drives and fields with our self-contained home on wheels.
Being on a shoestring budget, all of this is possible because of craftsmanship. Namely the practical skills of my husband Harm, a Dutch builder who has no qualifications to his name but can fix and build anything. We never need to pay for renovations, repairs, mechanics - Harm fixes everything (including me sometimes).
This summer was our third major trip with this van, and we kept up the family tradition of breaking down on holiday, this time at Oma's (Granny’s) campsite in Holland, where the entire gearbox was dismantled and put back together with the expert help of uncle Karel and cousin Jast. Dank jullie wel!
Being self employed, holidays for me often involve sitting in the front of the van, laptop on my knee, working as we drive. This year, I also made time to write up my reflections of this trip…
Vive La France!
As usual we took the night boat from Portsmouth to Caen as although it is pricier than a day crossing, we all sleep well listening to the deep rumbling of the ship’s engines, the children love the cabin bunks, and we relish the gushing hot showers. Waking up in a new country is always exciting!
First stop is the Boulangerie, where we savour the unbeatable deliciousness of French croissant, pain au chocolate & pain au raisin…. mmm.
Then it was on to the Loire where we meet my French sister and brother in law Lynn & Franck and their 3 children, who are close in age to our 3. Some of you may remember her as Lynn worked closely with me on CraftCourses for years and still helps me with odd projects. Despite living in different countries (France and Wales) we’re close and see each other for holidays a couple of times a year, to enjoy endless chats, food and outside adventures with our kids. This time, we also squeeze in some meetings about exciting possibilities for the CraftCourses site.
Alsace region and the sculptor Bartholdi
After nearly a week with the famille de Bersacques, we head Northwest towards Alsace, to an area called Les Vosges which Harm has been keen to explore for some time. It’s a lush, green, hilly area which reminds us of home in Wales and we enjoy the freshness and sense of freedom.
We find a great campsite for €30 a night next to a lake, with free “animations” for the children so they enjoy treasure hunts, karaoke, and theatre workshops. Everything is so well arranged in France; the lake, the beach, the park and pedestrian areas around the lake are all cleaned every single morning by a whole team of busy French municipal workers. It’s truly impressive. Always keen to parley in French, I get chatting to an elderly gentleman who was part of the town leadership that created the lake from marshes 40 years ago. They have recently invested in a lake algae muncher to keep it all fresh and clean for swimmers. The beach is cleaned and combed every morning and the streets are washed spotlessly clean. Living in the looser and more chaotic British Isles, I’m impressed by the seemingly effortless efficiency on the continent.
Of course, like all things there is a downside to this, and it is rules! It’s very noticeable how there is more ‘order’ in behaviour in continental Europe, getting progressively more ordered as you travel through France, then Belgium, Holland and finally the most ordered of all, Germany & Austria. Sometimes a struggle for our 3 wild and free young things, the stricter social norms expected in Europe are rather a good influence on them we feel. ;)
As part of our Alsace tour, I’m intrigued to see the work of Bartholdi, the famous sculptor and genius behind New York’s statue of Liberty (46 metres high), which was modelled on his mother's face.
Seeing the giant red sandstone lion of Belfort, by Bartholdi, was high on my wish list and did not disappoint. Taking nearly ten years to complete, the Lion of Belfort, like much of Bartholdi’s work, was a symbol of French resistance against the German invasion, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870) which brought an end to imperial rule in France but also changed the entire power balance in Europe; Bartholdi’s homelands in Alsace having passed into German rule.
The Lion de Belfort commemorates the Siege of Belfort, an epic 103 day struggle during 1870 and 1871, which saw the city successfully defended against 40,000 Prussians by merely 17,000 local men, a small fraction of which were military trained.
Initially facing East towards Germany in defiance, Bartholdi’s lion was later turned to tone down the aggression and so instead the Lion’s bottom faces towards Germany (hmm) and an arrow under the lion’s paw points in that direction too..
The inscription on the statue reads Aux defenseurs du Belfort 1870-71 (To the defenders of Belfort 1870-71) and the ‘city of the lion’ symbolises holding firm, courage, and resistance over the invaders.
At 22 meters long and 11 meters high the colossal Lion presides over the town and is a poignant reminder of the importance of sticking up for ourselves and our values. As the French say, “Courage!”
Considering the work of Bartholdi reminds me of another French sculptor Landowski, the genius behind the enormous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. I’d so love to see this one day, as well as some of the other works of Landowski, who worked and died in Paris… maybe one for another trip.
War graves at Flirey & the Battle of Woevre
As we drive on through Luxembourg to meet up with our Dutch family, there is an unexpected detour. By the side of the road near Flirey, we spot a military cemetery, commemorating the Battle of Woevre in 1914. A tranquil place full of butterflies, mushrooms and chamomile, the grounds are impeccably kept and spotlessly clean.
The graves are placed in wide, perfectly spaced white arcs. My first visit to a war cemetery and the numbers of white crosses are overwhelming. There are just so many names; young men cut off in their prime. Life can be so full of pain but there is a beauty and peace here that is palpable.
I cannot help noticing graves with the same first names of my young French nephew Joseph and my own sons Abel and Bart and thinking of the parents of all these long lost boys. Both of my late Granddads fought and survived WWII and I feel a lump in my throat to remember them.
It’s a sombre but beautiful moment of quiet reflection that I needed, 5 minutes of peace away from the noise, fun and busyness of traveling with 3 children under 10.
Belgium & the Netherlands
We have an enjoyable overnight stop in Belgium at the Dutch/French Camping de la Cascade, where Harm indulges his traditional Dutch love of chips with mountains of mayonnaise and we all sample the Dutch delicacies of bitterballen (deep fried round meatballs), croquettes (deep fried meat cones) and ollieballen (deep fried dough balls). Fattening but very delicious.
The kids love the games room, where we play a sort of Belgian pool, and everyone sits around toasting marshmallows at the fire pit for the evening.
On to the Netherlands where we have a few wonderful days with Nick & Helen, who are designers and reside in a most beautiful corner of the waterways of Holland. We spend hours trying out paddle-boarding, canoeing and swimming and I even find a bright red freshwater lobster (sadly it jumps back into the weeds before I got a photo).
It’s a joyful few days of catching up with family some of whom we have not seen since Covid and the children and us relish every moment. The Netherlands to them means hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles for breakfast) and a lot of attention from fun-loving family members.
Onto Harm’s Oma’s campsite in the East of Holland, a rural area with miles of walking tracks, and loads of very tidy and picturesque Dutch farms. The ideal place to break down really, so Oma and the kids and I spend some happy days chatting, eating, and giggling with her campsite community whilst Harm spends most of the time under the van wrestling metal. When he does appear, he is so black with grease we cannot recognise him. Harm’s Oma is in her 90s but is still full of life and spirit, a true force of nature and always looking for a laugh. Uncle Karel and the rest of the family come by and it’s good to reconnect with everyone.
Luckily for us, Harm has already taken the gearbox apart once so he’s familiar with it and it gets fixed and reassembled and we make the Hook of Holland ferry with literally 2 minutes to spare.
Back in England we have a night in North Yorkshire with my Mum’s sister, her husband and my two cousins and then onto the Lake District to meet my Dad on beautiful Derwentwater and then visit another cousin James, who makes the kids laugh uncontrollably with his removable thumb trick that I remember from childhood.
By this time, we are missing Wales and it’s good to get back in our ‘home’ beds again. Now we are back into the school and work rhythm, watching the rain and dreaming of the next adventure…