Anyone who considers taking the entire family on a trip to Europe is either a) clinically insane, or b) the owner of a large investment company that’s about to go bankrupt. Taking the family overseas, even if it’s just to do the Gold Coast theme parks or lie on a beach in Fiji, is a costly exercise.
But if you want to go to Europe, you need extremely deep pockets, a handbook on family-conflict resolution and the calm demeanour of a convent full of nuns. It’s not just the cost of flights and accommodation (always tricky and stressful with two or more kids) but the fact that in Europe’s major cities – and most of the minor ones – euros flow out of your pocket faster than you can say, “Five sandwiches, two Cokes, a Fanta, three icecreams and a coffee, s’il vous plaît.”
About four years ago, my wife and I were contemplating a trip to the UK to see relatives, with some stop-offs along the way, when we worked out the cost was roughly equivalent to 1.3 new kitchens or 2.8 new bathrooms.
Then my unselfish wife had the fantastic idea that I take the elder of my two sons. The rationale was this: he was a few months shy of his 12th birthday, so he was still able to travel on a child’s fare; he was old enough to appreciate the sights and be “manageable” in a busy city, and it was a great chance to share some one-on-one time with him before he entered puberty and started hating me and rolling his eyes at my bad jokes.
So father and son embarked on a thoroughly enjoyable trip to London, Paris, Rome and Hong Kong. I have some treasured memories of that trip and it was great to be together while he was still a kid who loved toy stores, lolly shops and even my dad-ish commentary on each city’s history.
Four years on, my second son is fast approaching 12, so the new kitchen is again deferred (hey, 80s wood panelling is coming back in, right?) and we plan a similar trip to Blighty with some interesting stopovers. The exchange rate is a lot kinder than it was in 2008, so I start browsing apartment websites, as the high price of tiny hotel rooms on the previous trip grated on me.
I am amazed to find there is a lot of parity, and in some cases cheaper deals to be had if you rent an apartment in London, Paris or Tokyo than a hotel; the advantage being the ability to swing an animal somewhat larger than a cat, and a proper kitchen where you can make your own meals. Yes, I’m one of those dads who makes packed lunches in a foreign city, but trust me, in cities where a sandwich and a drink can cost over €10, the savings are huge. More for icecream and crepes, I assure my doubtful son, who still thinks my wallet is some kind of magical money tap.
On TripAdvisor, Expedia and other travel sites, you can read user reviews on every type of accommodation, including apartments. Most are valid and helpful, but some funny ones, usually written by picky Americans, include such comments as, “the toilet makes a strange flushing sound” and the “stairwell had an ugly scuff mark, I’ll never stay again”.
So, after some pointing and clicking, I book apartment accommodation in London, Paris and Tokyo for the three or four nights we will spend in each. The most impressive is the Paris apartment, which is on the sixth floor of a building virtually next to Notre Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité (the bigger island in the middle of the Seine river). It’s a slope-walled attic apartment with a mezzanine bedroom, and although you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from the window, Notre Dame is so close I could throw stones at the gargoyles and take candid shots of the Hunchback.
The apartment costs €145 a night, but similar ones can be found for less money a little further away from the city centre. The only drawback is the lack of an elevator and the six flights of narrow stairs. But it’s good for the legs and making the trip with luggage was rewarded with a bottle of wine (courtesy of the owner) waiting on the table when we walked in.
SIGHTSEEING IN PARIS
We awake to the sound of Notre Dame’s bells and jump up to plan our day. Well, not so much jump, as the roof on the mezzanine bedroom is only a metre away. After coffee and a pastry from the boulangerie around the corner, we hop onto the metro and head for our first stop, the Eiffel Tower. You can’t go to Paris and not go up what is arguably the world’s most famous large man-made object. The tower is always impressive and it’s fantastic to watch my son’s slack-jawed reaction.
There’s a massive queue for the elevator, because three of the four elevators are being repaired. However, you can take the stairs. This costs a reasonable €5 for adults and is free for kids while the lifts are broken. My son isn’t keen to scale the 700-odd steps to the second level, but I inspire in him the spirit of Ed Hillary and we begin the journey to “knock the bastard off”. Along the way, we pass the chain-smoking Italian who is having an asthma attack on the 20th stair, soon followed by a terrified American who’s trying to conquer her fear of heights.
We reach the second level in about 20 minutes and the view is stunning. You can take an elevator from there to the top, but the view from Level 2 is just as good. My decision to bring food and water is justified when we see the price of basic food at the cafe.
We jog down the steps and start walking to our next destination, the Musée d’Orsay, an art gallery full of French Impressionist paintings. This is more for dad than son, but my aim is instil some culture in the lad. It’s a fairly long walk, but it’s through one of the most beautiful parts of central Paris, along the Seine.
A woman stops us and holds up a cheap-looking ring, asking us in Franglais whether we dropped it. I shake my head and look at it, initially interested, then suspicion takes over and I put my hand on my wallet and bag, fearing this is a distraction for some sort of theft. But we are completely alone and the woman insists we keep the ring for luck.
Confused, we walk away, but then the woman turns and calls us back. “Pardon, Monsieur? Acheteriez-vous-moi un café? Buy me a coffee? For the ring?” She wants money, of course, and stupidly, I give her a few euros. It’s clearly some sort of scam, but a lot more entertaining than if she’d simply begged me for money. Sure enough, over the next kilometre we are stopped by no fewer than five people, all offering us a dropped ring. It’s apparently a famous con and you haven’t really been to Paris unless you’ve had it done to you.
We arrive at the Musée d’Orsay to find it closed. I normally do my research, but I didn’t think to check whether a major national art gallery would be closed on a Monday. We decide to walk over to the Centre Georges Pompidou, the famous modern art gallery covered with glass tubes. We avoid the Louvre; the art is less appealing to an 11-year-old and it’s always filled with huge queues of Americans looking for where Tom Hanks solved the Da Vinci Code. The Pompidou costs €13 (€11 for kids) and it’s well worth a visit. Even my son is impressed, although I soon learn his art-tention span is just over an hour.
After a crepe and an icecream, the next stop on our busy agenda is the Cité des Sciences, a huge museum aimed at kids of all ages. The interactive displays would keep most kids amused for days. Cité Museum is further out from central Paris in the 19th arrondissement, so you need to hop on metro line 7 and get off at Porte De La Villette. A quick note on Metro travel in Paris. I found a packet of 10 tickets, or a “carnet”, for €12 (€6 for kids) was just right for the few days we were there. For €1.20, each ticket will take you anywhere in Paris.
The Cité Museum is like Te Papa x 10 and there is much more for kids and adults to see and do, including a planetarium and a huge Imax theatre in a globe called La Géode. Tickets were €11 and €8.
After an afternoon of museums, it’s dinner time, so we take the metro to Grands Boulevards in Montmartre and head to Chez Chartier restaurant. This classic French eatery is now a bit of a tourist stop. But to an unfussy 11-year-old, it looks like the coolest restaurant right out of the film Ratatouille. The attraction is that the room looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1890s, the waiters are very Gallic and at times grumpy, and the food is basic French cuisine at an affordable price. The mains range from €8-€12.
I order snails as an entrée; my son tries a couple and quite likes them. For the main, I order something for my son (in bad School C French), then take a chance on something called “andouillette grillée” for myself. The waiter asks helpfully if I know what it is. “Ah, oui, oui,” I reply confidently, and the waiter sweeps off with half a smirk. I have no idea, but I’m feeling adventurous.
Our meals soon arrive and mine is some sort of breadcrumbed sausage that looks nice – until I smell it. I have never smelt a hobo’s armpit, but I imagine it smells something like what was on my plate. When I cut into it, the meat consists of what appear to be veins. It tastes a lot better than it smells, so being hungry, I block my nose and eat the lot. I finally ask a different waiter what andouillette consists of and am slightly revolted to learn those veins are actually … pig sphincters.
From here we take the metro to Pont de l’Alma and catch one of the Bateaux Mouches or riverboats for a trip down the Seine as the sun sets. For €11.50 and €5.50, you get a one hour ride and watch this beautiful city light up like some wonderful metaphor that’s more descriptive than just “a Christmas tree”. Finishing up at the sparkling Eiffel Tower where we started our day, we head back to our apartment, and after climbing the six flights of stairs, we fall into bed exhausted. But father and son have shared a day we will remember forever; one that’s more valuable than a flash kitchen with cupboard doors that close.
For readers concerned that my wife was missing out, she has since embarked on a shorter trip with my elder son to the warm climes of Southeast Asia. Our bathroom remains half-finished.