Pulling off an American -Style Road Trip in Europe

So, in my last blog entry, I extolled the virtues of summer in Germany. I am happy to confirm that we have enjoyed our long summer days (now–sniff, sniff–showing visible signs of shortening again) riding our bicycles while popping in at the occasional Biergarten. We cheered the German national soccer team on to the semi-finals of the European Cup, where it lost in a hard-fought match to Cup host France, who subsequently lost in the final to Portugal.

Stadium Bordeaux
We arrived in Bordeaux, France on the heels of the European Cup soccer championship. It was in this stadium that the German national team defeated Italy in a nerve-wracking 11-meter shootout, Serenity had returned by the time we arrived.

The strong finishes of the French and Portuguese teams were good news for us, as shortly after the tournament’s finish we set out on our annual summer road trip, this time routed through France, Spain and Portugal. We figured there would be plenty of carry-over jubilation, good vibrations, and just an overall fun-in-the-sun atmosphere. We weren’t disappointed.

We are no strangers to road trips. Last summer’s adventure took us through the American south, from Virginia to Florida and back. Both journeys were memorable–if gas guzzling–affairs. Not surprisingly, road trips through Europe have some key differences from those in the USA. Here, listed in no particular order, are four that pop into mind:

  1. Tolls, tolls and tolls: In German, “toll” means “great!”. But I am using the English sense of the word, and it’s not such a great thing. Like interstate turnpikes in the U.S., many European countries collect cash or credit card payments at toll booths. France, Spain and Portugal seem to have their own version of an EZ Pass payment system as well. But, for the vacationer who does not wish to invest in a country-specific pass, cash or credit cards it is. What always strikes me about traveling through France and Spain is how frequently toll booths pop up. More than the expense itself (we paid roughly 200 euros worth of tolls in 3 weeks), it is the seemingly constant interruption of the driving “groove” itself that grates on the nerves. To make things extra interesting, France seems to like funneling five lanes into two, resulting in aggravating bottlenecks and sudden, unpredictable maneuvers by drivers looking to wiggle their way into the most favorable position.

2.  Hotel room size: Here I simply must give U.S. hotels the advantage for being consistently more spacious, as well as offering real beds (as opposed to fold-out sofas) to the kiddos. This is a general truth of hotel room sizes in Europe; you can count on them being up to a third smaller than the average size of their American counterpart. Otherwise, cleanliness and amenities are comparable.

3. Bring your translators: An obvious perk to road tripping in the U.S. is that we face no language barriers. I’m not gonna lie…being enveloped by your mother tongue does wonders for your sense of intelligence. And, it just feels good. By the same token, making your way through the day in a foreign language (especially one you essentially don’t speak) adds a sense of adventure to the proceedings. We also got by primarily using English, though in these situations, I feel a bit sheepish doing so, especially when I hear the reception personnel switching between three or four languages effortlessly. In the rare cases where no one in the transaction is multilingual, simple caveman-like grunting punctuated by gesticulation and exaggerated facial expressions will usually do the trick. Or at least it will be entertaining.

4. Be prepared to behold the juxtaposition of modern and ancient: Let’s face it…the USA is a comparatively young country. Medieval echos? Nothing to see here!
In contrast, Europe is an ecclectic mashup of various ancient empires and cultural influences. And yet, time marches along, and the trappings of modern life pulsate alongside the historic. I love the contrast, and it is something truly unique and fascinating.


Like our U.S. road trips, the one this summer took us through a variety of regions, climates, cuisines and iconic sites. So, without further ado, I hand over the blog controls to the photography department:

Volvic, Puy-de-Dôme. Ever enjoy a bottle of Volvic water? This scene should look familiar.
Ah, yes…how can I forget this key difference. Our French friends exercise their right to answer nature’s call in these thoughtfully provided, um, alleyway “troughs”…otherwise known as “Urinoirs”


From the often cloud-covered temperate climate and lush green vegetation, Spain’s northern coast has a look and feel more similar to Ireland than the more central and southern regions of Spain. Plus, the Basque language spoken here bears no resemblance to any other world language.




Church Santiago de Compotela
Trekkers from around the world make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
…but even spiritual pilgrims need their refreshments
…as well as their foot massages. Aaahhhh!
Vigo, Spain is a lovely seaside town that serves as the gateway to…
The gorgeous Cies Islands, a nature reserve with lush forest and heavenly beaches. No cars allowed!
Unspoiled nature.



There is more to Portugal than the Algarve. The northern Atlantic coast offers gems like Viana do Castelo…
…and the wonderful Porto. A must-visit for wine and port lovers.
A multi-layer bridge connects the two banks of Porto. Designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel. The influence is unmistakable.
The ubiquitous Sandeman
Colorful, tiled facades define Portuguese buildings.
Want a bird’s eye view? Check!
Coimbra, near Lisbon, boasts Portugal’s most prestigious university. Colorful and welcoming, but so very hot in August!
The colors of Coimbra
Lisbon’s famous historic trolley. Tooooo crowded to venture into during high tourist season.
More typical tiled facades
Looking downhill to the water
A low-grade but long incline (or decline, depending on the direction). Lisbon is situated on seven hills. We felt every single one of them! Comfortable footwear a must.
Belem Tower
Salamanca 1
The trek back eastward to Germany cuts through Spain’s interior. Salamanca is a beautiful stopover. Ancient and atmospheric, a university town with an old-but-young vibe. A must-see.

Salamanca 2

Eastward bound through Madrid…
A nature oasis in the city, Retiro Park, Madrid.
Row, row, row your boat on a sweltering day in Madrid.
Sights and scenes, Madrid
My eye tends to wander to the eccentric and colorful rather than the grand.
Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Mercado San Miguel, Madrid.
Spectacular sunny skies, sweltering August heat.
I can’t resist those storefronts.