Joys of a holiday with teens in wintry Europe
I HAVE prepared for a winter family holiday in Germany, France, Italy and Croatia knowing that a hungry teenager can turn werewolf in an instant.
I am travelling with teens — a 17-year-old son and 14-year-old twin daughters — so I accept the embarrassment when one visits the hotel breakfast buffet eight times and I decide to ignore the gummi bears floating in another’s cereal bowl. When we dine with relatives, thankfully they serve us body-weight equivalent portions. The holiday comes after a busy year in which family life has been compressed into meet, greet, eat and retreat. Travel should reboot our conviviality.
Europe in winter is relaxed. There are mostly domestic tourists in the capitals and fewer touts. It’s easy to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris and to linger at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Sound-and-light displays cheer the early nights; Berlin’s central street, Unter den Linden, is lit like an enchantment. We wander amid Christmas market stalls, eating hot chips or wurst or crepes oozing with camembert and blueberry jam, following the sound trails of buskers.
Each of us has a say in our itinerary, so galleries are offset by Legoland, historic buildings by gelato bars and long travel days with mooching.
The seasonal tradition of visiting churches and cathedrals to admire nativity displays is one I enjoy more than my brood, who urge me to visit alone. I also want to pay respects to Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, buried in Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery. ‘‘Oh, good,’’ remarks Twin Two. ‘‘We’re going to spend the afternoon with dead people.’’
These young ones prefer living culture, using mime and limited foreign-language skills, and they wonder whether and how much to give to beggars.
The trio has packed for themselves but I take extra woollens, suspecting they’ll need to borrow mine. They don’t — Europe’s cold is manageable by dressing in layers and because indoor venues are set up for it.
But the wind bullies us when we view Berlin from the top of the Victory Column, Paris from the steps of Sacre Coeur and Rome from an upper terrace of the Colosseum.
In Zadar on the Dalmatian coast, we listen to the song the winter waves play on the town’s sea organ. We look out of train windows and see snow settled on the architecture of bare trees and the shoulders of mountains.
My teens use technology as time out. Ear buds mean do not disturb. When the girls have their fill of the Louvre, they remove themselves to a bench near the Egyptian antiquities and play on their games console.
However, living so closely for five weeks, there are inevitable clashes. Mr 17 and I face off in Paris one day. I take the map and his sisters and leave him to find his way back to the hotel.
Mindful that early mornings are an outrage in the teenage universe, I schedule accordingly. The only time I get my three up early (and in the lobby by 6.30am), the travel gods rub their hands gleefully. What follows is a day of disasters, with the weather, transport, schedules and toilets against us. Twin One throws up on a coach and then sits stoically for six hours as we inch through a truck blockade and into Milan.
But even a travel day from hell can’t pierce the bubble of goodwill around us — extra food, free tickets, considerate attention and the recovery of everything Twin Two leaves behind on three separate occasions.
We also snare great lowseason deals during our December-January holiday. A first-class Eurail group pass is cheaper than second-class train tickets. Our accommodation is central, pleasant and affordable — in Paris, we can stroll to the Eiffel Tower from Hotel la Bourdonnais; in Berlin, our rented apartment on Wilhelmstrasse is 400m from the Brandenburg Gate; in Rome, Hotel Emmaus is 250m from the Vatican.
Our best deal is 75 per cent off the regular price of a family room in Venice. Hotel Marconi, on the Grand Canal, is 50m from the Rialto Bridge and the perfect place from which to watch gondoliers skipping to stay warm as they wait for customers, and to spot lovers, pink-cheeked and glove-in-glove, oblivious to everything but each other. Like my teenagers, they are finding hunger bites hardest in winter.
Paris is less crowded in winter