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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

European Road Trip

In 11 days I traveled through 7 countries with my parents and their good friends. We rented a mini van and departed Milan on route to Baden Baden in Southern Germany. Along the way we stopped for lunch and stretching breaks in beautiful Switzerland. We spent the first several hours of this ambitious road trip viewing spectacular snow capped mountains and gorgeous green countryside farm fields. Switzerland is a country I avoid traveling around due to its high costs. However, this drive from the South to the North made me eager to return.

We arrived in Baden Baden in the evening of day one. A small village just outside of the city of Baden Baden used to be home to a Canadian military base that my parents and their friends were stationed at before I was born. This small German town somehow immediately felt like a home away from home. Growing up I had heard countless stories of this foreign place.  In fact, as a young child I used to tell my classmates I was German. I was convinced that because my parents had lived there for five years that this made me German. Despite later finding out that I am not in any way German, I have still always felt a connection to this place.

We stayed at a hotel that sits directly on the old base (this is also now home to a small airport that Ryanair flies out of). The street signs still have their traditional Canadian city names that Canadian bases always have. Our hotel was on Halifax Street and just behind the hotel were two old jet hangers. I saw the buildings where my parents used to work, old bomb bunkers, the pubs they used to hang out in and even shopped at my Mom's favourite shoe store from the 1970s. We drank a lot of beer, ate a lot of schnitzel and I listened to a lot of reminiscing! The absolute best part of this visit and of the whole road trip was visiting the house where my parents used to live.

There on a quaint little street in a tiny, beautiful German village was the home that my parents had a whole different life in. My Mom had a good feeling that their old landlords still lived there - despite not being in touch with them for over thirty years. A knock on the door, a few seconds to process who was knocking on the door and old memories came flooding back for my parents and their very shocked landlords! A total blast from the past had just shown up on their doorstep totally unexpected. Tears and hugs followed.

We were invited into this wonderful and welcoming home by a couple who spoke very little English. They eagerly called their grown children to come over. My parents had spent a lot of time with this family as their apartment was in the lower level of the house. We drank wine, shared stories, ate Easter desserts and I got to tour my parents' old apartment. At one point a book that my mom had given to this family over thirty years ago was brought out. It was a book all about Canada with a beautiful goodbye message my mom had written inside before moving back to Canada. With this book they also found photos of my parents when they were younger than I am now! It was an incredible experience and a day I will never forget.

After some family fun in Baden, a rainy tour of the city, and a drive through the Black Forest, we were off again. Our next stop was Montpellier, France. We used this as a 'layover' - a place to spend the night to break up all of the driving. It is a beautiful city located on the south coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea. The next morning we were off again. This time to discover the majestic little country of Andorra. Andorra is located in the Eastern Pyrenees mountains and sandwiched in between France and Spain. The country sits in a valley at the base of the mountains which means to arrive here you must drive up and over some pretty steep, snowy mountains - the views are unreal! When you cross the border and begin the descent into Andorra, you are greeted with fresh rivers, lush greenery and mountains that are all encompassing. It is like being in a scene from Lord of the Rings or in a fairytale land.

We spent our time here walking around the sleepy little capital of Andorra La Vella - home to Europe's largest spa and a famous tax free shopping street. We found a cozy little pub with beer from around the globe. Of course we sampled many different types - including a chocolate, coconut, pineapple and a Christmas mix! Due to the close proximity to Spain, there is a great deal of Spanish influence in this country. The official language is Catalan and many of the dishes are made up with a Spanish flare. Despite being a landlocked country, there is no shortage of fresh seafood and it is home to the best Paella I've ever had!

This is a country that isn't entirely easy to get to, so I have my doubts that I will return...but, if I ever have the opportunity to go back I will definitely spend more time checking out some of the many outdoor activities offered - like, whitewater rafting, canyoning and biking. The natural landscape offers a spectacular 360ยบ view no matter where you are in the city.

Up next, Spain! We spent three nights in Barcelona - one of my all time favourite cities. We rented an apartment a few blocks from the famous Sagrada Familia and spent our time walking the city, eating delicious Spanish foods and drinking sangria. This was my second time to Barcelona so I skipped out on a few of the major tourist spots. I made a trip to Gaudi's Park Guell and enjoyed walking through the lush pathways that overlook the city and sea. I stumbled across a fun Spanish band and decided that I need to return to Barcelona for a full month sometime in the future to really soak in the culture (and sun!). Barcelona is a vibrant city with something to offer everyone. It's a place I know I will return to time and time again over the years.

After leaving behind the Spanish sun we drove along the coast and came to our final destination: The French Riviera. We rented a stylish apartment just outside of Nice and spent the next few days enjoying the seaside, walking the city, having fresh baked goods for breakfast and taking a bus into Monaco for the day! While in Monte Carlo, Dad and I were eager to get into the famous Casino that is in a few James Bond movies. A little too rich for our blood, but we enjoyed walking around and spotting all the high rollers.
Prior to visiting Monaco I had only heard negative reviews from others who had been. Many compare it to a movie set or call it fake and over done. To be honest, I enjoyed it immensely! It was fun to see fancy sports cars, multimillion dollar yachts and to sip cocktails on the beach along side some of the wealthiest people in the world. I wouldn't call the people warm and friendly and it's not somewhere I would care to spend a great deal of time, but a visit and tour was pretty exciting!
This Easter break road trip brought us to some beautiful parts of Europe. It was wonderful to share this experience with my family. This trip marked the completion of a goal I have had for several years. As we entered the tiny country of Andorra, I reached my 30 countries by 30 goal. It was a great feeling to accomplish this goal and to be with my parents who have been so supportive of my travels over the past six years!

Coming up: Fun in the sun throughout Italy and a summer of European Travels!

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