If you want to go to France, come and see me. I know the country like the back of my hand – Bordeaux and its chic riverside living; the red brick splendour of Toulouse; Paris – ah Paris! – lovely Lyon, the awe-inspiring French Alps… it’s good to know that living in France for a decade hasn’t entirely been wasted and that I have actually put some serious kilometrage on the (Michelin) tyres of my (Renault) car.
And yet, there’s a massive gap in my knowledge of my adopted home country. You know that bit where France nibbles at the borders of Germany? There. The upper right hand quadrant of la France is as alien to me as the frozen plains of Siberia.
So I drove there, family in tow: Eastern France and then Germany’s Black Forest programmed into the satnav.
Our story really begins in the city of Besançon, the former capital of the Franche-Comté region (which was recently annexed with Bourgogne to form Bourgogne-Franche-Comté). It’s a fairly compact place on a wide, looping curve on the Doubs river – a view which adorns a thousand postcards but which requires a helicopter (or first-rate local topographical knowledge, which I don’t have) in order to witness it. Denied this spectacular view and sent on an assortment of wild goose chases by road works, we arrive with more of a fatigued parp than a triumphant fanfare and find ourselves lugging luggage through a succession of rainy alleys before our hotel appears out of the gloom. It’s an inauspicious start, but we’ve come to expect the worst from the weather on European summer holidays, where she can be a capricious beast. Things can only get better.
And indeed they do – as the sun shows itself, it beams down on a city teeming with alluring 18th century buildings and watched over by seven lush hilltops. You’re supposed to eat cheese when in Besançon, but we had sushi.
Before we’ve had time to settle we’re off again, this time heading north to Strasbourg, a mere stone’s throw from the German border. Until recently it was capital of Alsace but the French government’s lumping-together-of-regions programme means that it is now capital of the less-glamourous sounding Grand Est, and gets to lord it over the former Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine regions, too.
Like Besançon, Strasbourg is also centred on a looping river, only this one encircles it entirely and effectively makes old Strasbourg an island. Less than two kilometres to the north east lie the city’s significant (and modern) European Parliament sites which Dubai dwellers would likely find rather quaint, but most tourist eyes are on the historical heart of the city in the centre of the Grande-Île (island), where the towering Notre-Dame Cathedral draws a bent-necked crowd. For more than 200 years it was the tallest building in the world, and its sandstone blocks, hewn from the local Vosges mountains, give it a delightful pinkish tinge.
French traditional dish tarte flambee Flammekueche with goat cheese
The Grande-Île is a World Heritage Site and with good reason: well-preserved monuments that hark back to the 17th and 18th centuries abound, and for once, the abundance of visitors doesn’t irk but actually gives the place a brilliantly lively buzz. You’re supposed to eat pizza-esque savoury flatbreads called Flammekueche in Strasbourg, but we had curry.
The Starsbourg cathedral
With all promises of a daily morning jog forgotten the moment we left home, a 332-step climb up to the Cathedral’s roof seemed like a worthwhile nod to our well-being, and three hours of panting later (I’m joking) we’re afforded a truly splendid view of what could well be the edge of Belgium, a bit of Luxemburg, western Germany, a sliver of Switzerland and a vast chunk of France in one 360-degree turn. Mountains loom invitingly in the distance, suggesting that we won’t have to venture far into Germany to get a bit of altitude under our wheels.
Other Strasbourg highlights include the achingly-lovely Petite France quarter, the timbered houses of which look like they were the inspiration for Disney’s Pinocchio movie, and a bundle of excellent museums, including one which celebrates the moody and evocative work of 19th century local artist Gustave Doré, whose best-known illustrations were for a version of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the 1860s.
As is the case with most European border crossings, driving into Germany from Strasbourg turns out to be a blink-and-you’ll miss it moment. There are no ‘Willkommen in Deutschland’ signs. No bored customs officials demanding passports from a roadside hut. The only clue we’ve left France is a sudden increase in the number of cigarette vending machines and a hike in the number of Mercedes and BMW cars on the road.
We’re heading for an unglamorously-named place called Rust, an hour away, for it is here that you will find Europa-Park: Europe’s most popular theme park after Disney.
Adding Europa-Park to the itinerary of a European road trip is one of a very few proven ways to convince children over the age of about eight to go with you. If I’d tried to convince my two to come without the promise of a few days on rollercoasters, we’d still be parked outside the house trying to get them in the car now.
The luxurious Colosseo hotel
We’re theme park veterans, truth be told, and the kids’ final verdict – for these things are important – is that Europa-Park is not as good as Disney World in Florida, but better than Disney’s offering in Paris. My wife and I love it, not least because we’ve booked into a luxurious hotel on-site called the Colosseo. It’s styled to look like – you guessed it – the Colosseum, and it stands next to equally elaborately-themed hotels that pay homage to New England in the US and medieval Spain. And honestly, the styling is easily as good as anything that Disney do.
Wodan is one of the 10 tallest wooden rollercoasters in the world.
The theme park itself is a gem. As well as featuring some world-class rollercoasters such as Wodan, one of the 10 tallest wooden coasters in the world, and Silver Star, a European record holder for its height until 2012, the whole park is pleasingly laid out into mini “worlds” such as Portugal, Russia, Greece and so on, with rides themed accordingly.
OK, so my son does suffer the misfortune of watching his iPod fly out of his pocket when riding the 73m-tall Silver Star, but he does at least retrieve it later from lost property with a sad smile on his face and a promise to frame this smashed-beyond-all-hope piece of tech when we get home.
The quirky FoodLoop restaurant
An unexpected highlight comes at the end of our three days in Europa-Park when we roll into an extremely quirky restaurant called FoodLoop, which (somewhat vaguely) purports to be “the first looping restaurant worldwide.” What this actually means is an eatery that makes you feel like you’re inside a giant, Jules Vernian machine, where you order on a touch-screen and then, minutes later, freshly-prepared food is shot along a variety of twisting metal tracks to arrive at your table. Great fun.
And so onto what – for my wife and I at least – is the highlight of the trip: three days in The Black Forest. It’s well named (unsurprisingly): mile after mile of undulating pine forest, vast swathes of which appear trapped in perpetual shadow. Our hotel here is a real find: it’s run by Best Western, and they have done a sterling job in retaining its character. These, after all, are lodgings where 18th century German prince of poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stayed not once but twice.
Sunset at Titisee-Neustadt
After a woodland walk which comes to an abrupt end when talk turns to (unfounded) questions about the possibility of bears watching over us, we drive off to Lake Titisee in Titisee-Neustadt, a picturesque and popular spot in the southern Black Forest. The lake is much, much smaller than Lake Geneva (almost 200km away to the south in the heart of the Alps), but that does mean it’s far more likely to freeze over in the winter. We find Titisee on a gloriously hot summer’s day, however, and enjoy a boat trip around it, playing a game in which we get to select one house we’d each like to own. My youngest picks the best – a white, turreted beauty half hidden amongst the trees.
Eventually of course, we have to leave the Black Forest and its cuckoo clocks, lederhosen and abundance of towering trees, and turn the car home – but there’s time for one last meal before we go.
You’re supposed to eat schnitzel in this part of Germany… so we do.
Emirates flies direct to Zurich in Switzerland – arguably the easiest way to get to the Black Forest and eastern France. The author used a combination of Airbnb accommodation and hotels while on the road, including the Best Western Hofgut Sternan in the Black Forest and Hotel Colosseo in Europa-Park. Doubles cost from around Dh600 and Dh930 respectively per night.