A drive from Scotland to Croatia (via France and Italy) then back again!
Children’s Ages: 8 and 5
Why another long family road trip?
Our friends were staying in Barbezieres in south western France and the grandparents rented a place in Istria, north western Croatia, which, as it happens, is nearly 1000 miles exactly due east. So in order to take advantage of the free accommodation on offer we needed to plan a road trip right across France, through the Alps and across the top of Italy (skimming the corner of Slovenia) before heading for the stunning region around the hill top town of Groznjan.
Then of course, we had to come back…
We divided the outbound road trip into three more or less equal legs of around 300 miles, then tried to find two attractive places to stay, close to the main route that wouldn’t add too many miles to the trip. We then planned to split each day into three separate drives broken up by lunch and play stops to prevent any firy eruptions of child lava.
Leg 1: 270 miles.
Charente to Burgundy (270 miles, approx 5 hours)
As always, any lengthy drive through France reminds you how great the French road network is. There’s less traffic and roadworks always seem so well organised compared to the UK. Anyway, this drive is pleasant, if unspectacular.
Cluny is a pretty town of winding, narrow cobbled lanes, most famous for its Abbey and its thoroughbred horses. There are crepe restaurants and chocolate makers galore which our family took full advantage of. We enjoyed a meander around the Abbey, although I was slightly disappointed to discover the original medieval abbey had been destroyed during the French Revolution and Cluny Abbey now dates from this later period.
Recommended family accommodation in Cluny
We stayed in a newly renovated Chambres D’hote which was ideally located: Clos Abbaye, Chambre D’hote. The family room had a curious arrangement with the kid-sized beds built into their own alcove reached by ladder (so it was basically a cupboard!) which the kids enjoyed. All in all, great value and delightfully renovated and maintained.
Cluny to Bergamo (340 miles, approx 5 hours)
The drive itself from Cluny to Bergamo (near Milan) in Italy took us into the Alps, where , of course we had to have a picnic facing Mont Blanc. Service station views don’t get better than that surely? then on through the Mont Blanc tunnel. The bridge on the approach is spectacular but the tunnel itself a little hypnotic.
After that, it is motorway all the way. Italian Motorway driving can be quite different to that of the UK… [See Tips for Driving in Italy”]
When we reached Bergamo things didn’t exactly go to plan.
Overnight in Bergamo, (NE of Milan)
Bergamo has an old town (Alta, high) and a new town (Bassa, low) which because of its proximity to Milan is brimming with designer shops.
Our accommodation was in the new town and parking wasn’t at all easy, especially in early evening when we arrived tired and hungry at what seemed to be rush hour. I dumped the car (with wife and children) thinking I could get closer on foot and jogged over to the correct street address where I found huge medieval-style arched oak doors. With absolutely no signage. No mention of B&B. Nothing. Just the, correct, street number. I buzzed and knocked. No answer.
Starting to get nervous, I pondered heading back to the car with the bad news that we’d need to find new accommodation. (At 7.30PM on a busy summers evening). A moment later, an elderly lady approached the huge door and dug out her keys so I asked her if there might be a B&B inside. She didn’t speak any English at all but when I pointed to the address on my itinerary she nodded, smiled and indicated that this was her daughter’s place, so she called her. A few minutes later her daughter arrived, puzzled. I had that sinking feeling as I showed her my reservation and her eyes lit up in sudden recognition.
“I remember! But you did not confirm?” I whipped out my paperwork and my heart stopped as I realised she was right. Her final email to me, six months ago, was, “Yes we have a vacancy, please email back to confirm your reservation.” I’d ticked it off my To Do List without confirming. We had no reservation. I raised a hopeful eyebrow. She shook her head regretfully. They no longer had a vacancy. She looked at me with sad, apologetic eyes. Mother and daughter then had a quick intense chat. Daughter nodded and asked, “You have bambinos?”
“Yes, they’re waiting in the car”. It was as if I’d waved a magic wand.
I was guided through the massive oak doors which revealed a private mini-piazza surrounded by balconies of attractive flats and I was asked to wait while the proprietor set about solving my problem. Apparently she owned all of these flats. Her mother smiled at me and grinned. “My daughter love bambinos”. “She try so hard for bambinos.” I giggled and glanced over at the office, wondering if the owner knew if her mother always overshared like this. “She try very, very hard.”
A few minutes later the owner solved our problem. She owned yet another flat about a 10 minute walk away. Would that be ok? God, yes. So we all rocked up at the modern city flat together, our bambinos making a great impression, which was a relief.
Anyway, the spacious flat proved perfect and around 9ish we finally headed up to the beautiful Alta, only accessible via a funicular cable car, to find Pizzas.
Bergamo to Istria, Croatia. (280 miles, approx 5 hours)
This leg, heading towards then past Venice, is mostly excellent motorway with endless views of mountains on your left hand side. On the right hand side… not much. There is what seems to be one continuos industrial estate all the way from Milan to Venice. As drives go, though its a good one. (Also read: my tips on motorway driving in Italy)
If crossing into Slovenia, don’t forget Slovenia has motorway road tolls. You need to buy a Motorway Vignette before you cross the border. (add photo).
Istria, Croatia is one of our family’s favourite destinations and we have now visited three times. The scenery (very like Tuscany), the people, the history, the wonderful cycling routes and abundant family activities all add up to a fantastic holiday. For more details see main article: Istria (Croatia) for Families. In 2013, we stayed in Istria for about 10 days.
Istria to Lake Como (330 miles, approx 9 hours!)
We planned this return leg to France with the help of the AA Route Planner, estimating that we were faced with a 6 hour drive. However things went wrong from the very start. We’d crossed the Croatian border with Slovenia maybe four times in the previous week for various excursions and family days out. But Saturday is. of course, changeover day and the queues of tourists snaked all the way up the hillside. It took us 2 hours to cross the border, which, on previous crossings, we’d estimated would take us no more than 10 minutes…
After that, it is mostly motorway all the way to the Lake Como turn off, so we were very relieved to finally exit the motorway and begin our climb up into the mountains toward Lake Como.
Although the Satnav told us it was only another 49 miles it would be yet another 2 hours before we arrived at the B&B. The final 9 miles of single track lanes took over one hour.
But what an hour and what a drive! It’s no wonder George Clooney lives on Lake Como. This has to be one of the world’s greatest panoramic vistas.
What a gem of B&B we found too!
Agriturismo Al Marnich, Schignano.
Agriturismo Al Marnich is a working farm and restaurant serving home grown, seasonal and traditional Lombard dishes. The guest families all have their own little out house spread on the hillside surrounded by tended crops and farm animals; horses, cats, donkeys, dogs. As with everywhere in Italy, the staff love children. What a destination for a family holiday! This is cycling heaven too. (This is one of our Top 5 Favourite Family B&Bs)
Lake Como to Lake Annecy (245 miles, 5 hours)
This is one of the great all time drives! Lake Como is stunning. The Alps are stunning. Lake Annecy is stunning. This has to be one of Europe’s most picturesque drives.
We took the D1212 and intended to come up to Annecy, from the south all along the Lac but we turned right at Flumet on the D909. This winding route up the mountains through wooden off-season ski towns is magical. This is cheese and skiing country and perect ofr mountain biking in the summer.
We spent the afternoon around Lac D’Annecy, in the park enjoying the lake views, the bustling atmosphere on the beach and an ice cream or two. We took a boat ride which was beautiful and fascinating too because the shoreline is a playground of the very wealthy and almost entirely close off. The public areas of the shore (outside the main beach in Annecy) had hundreds of people crammed into small beach front areas, then on the property next door, twice the size, there would be four people having a bbq!
There is a famous and fabulous 5* hotel on the lake, the Imperial Palace but we were booked into a more humble auberge just out of town!
This place is an off-season suburban ski chalet in a village, Argonay, that seemed pretty much deserted in the summer. Nobody was there to open up for us and the restaurant was closed too. Nice views but we could have done a lot better, as everywhere in this region has a view!
Lake Annecy to Puy de Dome (188 miles, 4 hours)
We had always wanted to see this area, the Auvergne, because although we’ve travelled a lot in France, we’d never been. We picked Pont de Chateau (just outside Clermont Ferrand) as our destination, as a base really, so we could have a little explore of this region, most famous for its extinct volcanoes.
There is a little funicular train that will take you to the top of Puy de Dome and there is visitor centre and a volcano theme park called Vulcania.
Oddly, we did neither of these tourist attractions. I think we’d fallen into end of holiday mode, had overspent in previous week and just wanted to get home in damage-limitation mode. We stayed at Ho
tel Estredelle but I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a family hotel, it’s clean and tidy but basic, really a transit hotel for people on business in the nearby city of Clermont. The town of Pont de Chateau is quite attractive with old streets, beside a delightful slow-moving river ideal for paddling in, with a kids play park opposite but it was all just so quiet and almost nothing was open.
Puy de Dome to Barbezieres (220 miles, approx 4 hrs).
An eagle carrying a snake in its talons flew over our car. Our children missed it as they were playing their PS Vitas.
We stayed briefly in Barbezieres before heading back to Scotland via Portsmouth.
Of course, on the trip north we passed by Stonehenge, a historic monument which we simply couldn’t pass by. One day the kids will thanks us for it…
[See Our Family Road Trip 2016]