Just pack your rucksack and go
Most parents would recoil in horror at the thoughts of backpacking by train with two toddlers in tow but Rory Fitzgerald found it a cheap and fun way to see Europe.
I BLAME Thomas the Tank Engine. He has turned our kids into train fanatics. If it weren’t for him, we’d probably have taken a nice package holiday, like any sensible family with two toddlers.
Instead, we chose to travel by train through Italy and France - all of us living out of a single backpack for three weeks.
At first glance, it seems impossible: without a car, how can you carry the buggies, cots, clothes, nappies and all the other paraphernalia babies need? Well, the answer is you don’t bring these things, because you don’t really need many of them.
A simple sling worked brilliantly to transport our one-year-old, while our two-year-old travelled in style on my shoulders.
Plus, thanks to the warmth of the continental summer, you only need a few light clothes. Our strict one-teddy policy proved controversial amongst the junior members of the expedition, and meant some emotional decisions had to be made.
However, such austere packing saw the four of us living happily out of a compact 15kg rucksack for three weeks.
In that time, we took in the French Riviera, before travelling by train through Genoa and Milan to Lake Garda where we lazed by the lake for 10 days.
Then we travelled onward by train to the equally stunning Lake Como before flying back to Cork from Nice.
Although we set out with some trepidation, we discovered that backpacking with babies is a recession-friendly and fun way to see Europe with small kids.
However, before leaving rain-soaked Ireland, our backpackingwith-babies concept was as yet unproven and so nerves were jangling.
Our flight from Cork to Nice was delayed long past oneyear-old Rose’s bedtime, resulting in a complete meltdown in the departures lounge. She howled inconsolably, while two-year-old Sean pulled at my leg demanding sweets.
An irrepressible thought arose: “We should have just gone to Trabolgan.”
Any such doubts were banished two hours later as the plane banked over the Mediterranean at dusk, revealing the lights of the Riviera reflected in the calm, warm Mediterranean.
Windswept Ireland was a distant dream as the taxi sped us past tropical palms towards the Hotel Campanile, a cheerful budget hotel in Nice’s Old Town, where we all piled merrily into a single large hotel room.
It took quite a few renditions of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ before everyone slept, but eventually little eyes closed.
As morning broke, we spilled excitedly out in to the sunny streets to explore this jewel of the French Riviera.
Nice lies close to the Italian border, and was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia until it was ceded to France in 1860.
The old town still feels Italian, and its pedestrianised streets are a joy for children, who can run around freely without fear of traffic.
The city’s parks have fabulous playgrounds, some with sea views.
There is a long gravelly beach in the centre of town, and regular commuter trains speed you along the coast to the quintessential Riviera towns of Cannes, St Tropez, Monaco and Antibes.
After two days savouring the delights of the Riviera, it was time for our first major rail expedition: a 600km journey involving four trains that would take us from Nice through Genoa and Milan, before eventually reaching Lake Garda.
Nice Riquer train station was an easy stroll from our hotel — even with a 15kg rucksack plus a 15kg toddler on my shoulders. My wife, meanwhile, carried Rose in a sling, and the ever-present nappy bag.
Soon our train was skimming along the blue Mediterranean.
We breakfasted on croissants and fruit as vistas of mountain and sea drifted pleasantly past. Our multinational neighbours took great joy in playing with our little blonde kids — effectively providing a free babysitting service.
In contrast to a car, if a child becomes restless on a train, you can take them for a walk. We constructed a makeshift tent for them to nap in, and the four-hour journey sped by with remarkable ease.
My wife is half-Italian, and so our kids are Italian citizens.
We must merely file some papers with the Italian Embassy, and Giovanni, as they say, is your uncle. As we cross the border, I tell my uncomprehending son, “One day you might play football for Italy.”
Then a more realistic perspective sets in: “Well, you might make their hurling team, anyhow.”
After one final change in Milan’s monumental fascist-era train station, we pulled in to the ancient Roman town of Peschiera del Garda, which was to be our home for the next ten days.
The trip from France and across much of Northern Italy, had cost a mere €80 for the four of us (under-fours being free).
Through Keycamp in Cork we had already booked a bungalow in Bella Italia, a four-star lakeshore campsite just outside town.
The Keycamp staff were welcoming and efficient, showing us to our surprisingly dapper airconditioned bungalow, which boasted two bedrooms, a spacious kitchen/living area, and its own little patio and garden. On request, they had provided cots, potties and a changing mat.
Bella Italia was a kids’ paradise, largely car-free, with five large swimming pools, water slides and too many playgrounds to count. There is even a “baby disco” every evening, and free kids entertainment in the mornings.
The whole place fronts on to Lake Garda, framed beautifully by distant snowcapped mountains.
A pleasant 1km lakeside path brings you from the holiday village to Peschiera del Garda and its train station and ferry port, which enable you to explore the wonders of the region.
Verona is 30 minutes by bus, and Venice is just 90 minutes by train. For older children, Gardaland — an Italian version of Alton Towers — is just a few miles away.
We rented bikes with baby seats to get around (and to help us burn off all those delicious pizzas). Both kids and bikes travel free on the lake’s ferry system, which enabled us to explore the many sublime and ancient towns dotted along the shores of Italy’s largest lake.
Our first ferry trip took us skimming across the blue lake water to Sirmione, one of the jewels of Lake Garda. James Joyce stayed here in 1920, while working on Ulysses.
This little town has been attracting tourists ever since the first century BC, when it attracted well-to-do Roman families from Verona.
The most remarkable legacy of this era is the Grotto di Catullo, an enormous villa overlooking the lake, built by the Roman poet Gaius Catullus some 2,000 years ago.
The ruins cover many acres and there is a fascinating museum adjacent.
Other day trips included jaunts to Salo and the sublime city of Verona, with its Roman amphitheatre and world-renowned renaissance architecture.
The kids enjoyed these excursions but, for them, simply splashing about in the baby pool was the most fun of all.
Another joy of car-free travel is that you become happy to just be where you are: you aren’t rushing around in traffic, trying to see everything at once.
Perhaps the best way to see Italy is with a bambino or two in tow. In Italy, a baby is your ticket to VIP treatment wherever you go. In shops, restaurants or on the street, you will be greeted with smiles and kind words by random strangers, thanks to the Italians’ famous fondness for children.
We were sad to leave Bella Italia, yet glamorous Lake Como beckoned: this stunning alpine lake is home to George Clooney and many other members of the jet set.
However, we arrived by train at a somewhat less-than-jet-set lakeside campsite. We rented what is best described as a one-roomed plywood shack. Though our accommodation was basic — and Italian rock bands played nearby at night — we had a wonderful time touring the lake by ferry, gazing in awe at the high Alps, and sauntering through the streets of Bellagio and Varenna.
Como borders Switzerland and is a popular spot for adventure sports. In summer, you can rent surfboards, kayaks and sailboats. In the ski season, you can travel easily to the slopes above.
Our last train journey took us for a final night in Antibes before flying home to be met by Cork’s cold rain and June gales. Thankfully, we were by now fortified with enough sunshine to survive another Irish summer.TOP TEN TIPS FOR TRAVEL WITH TODDLERS
Get a sling: Buggies are unwieldy. Slings are light, compact and let you hike up steps or across beaches. Early to bed, early to rise: Rise early with the kids and beat the hordes to the main attractions. Take a siesta later.
Travel ultra-light: Bring half the clothes you think you need, and take some hand-washing powder. Clothes dry in minutes under the continental sun.
Go self-catering: Four-star hotels are disastrous with small kids: Not only will you attract glares for shattering the peace in the foyer, but you will be lost without cooking and cleaning facilities.
Travel first class: A first class train ticket is generally only a few euros more than a standard fare. On Italian trains, you get large seats and free snacks and juice.
Buy local: Instead of travelling weighed down with food from home, enjoy experimenting with the local produce.
Earplugs: Europeans campsites are generally quiet, but be prepared for the renegade Italian cabaret band that plays into the wee hours. Take an iPad: A tablet computer can carry all your books music, movies, children’s stories, email reservations, maps and travel guide apps. You can also download the newspapers from home, or play cartoons.
Black out blind: Get a travel black out blind with suction cups so you can always ensure darkness, and hence sleep.
Acclimatise them: Get your kids used to sharing a room for a few nights before you depart, if they don’t usually.THE BOTTOM LINE
The entire trip cost about €350 each for flights and accommodation for 20 days. Accommodation consisted mainly of bungalows and chalets on campsites.
A week in a two-bedroomed bungalow in Bella Italia costs about €340 in high season. The only additional costs are food and wine, which are plentiful, cheap and excellent on the continent.
As we stayed mostly in self-catering accommodation — the best option with kids — this was no great burden, as we often cooked our own meals.
These low costs were helped by the fact that under-4s travel free on all continental trains and ferries. USEFUL WEBSITES:
Aerlingus.com Keycamp.ie Trenitalia.com Sncf.comHome