If you're headed to Europe this summer, you probably have a checklist of "must-do" items.
Visiting Paris? A tour of Versailles and a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, maybe. Going to Rome? Definitely the Vatican and the Coliseum.
But if you want more from a European adventure, you'll want to avoid all the tourist traps -- if not the tourists. And a little insider knowledge can take you a long way in that direction.
I'm not suggesting you avoid Versailles or the Louvre. But go during the off season, when the crowds thin, and bring a knowledgeable guide. These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Really. Just go.
What I am saying is that there's more out there, and if you're taking the family and you want something authentic, then you might want to skip the hotel and go local with a native-like experience. C'est possible, as the French would say. On a recent road trip across Europe, we stayed in three different alternate accommodations that offered an immersion into French and German language and culture.
At the Chateau
When we pulled up to the gates at the Chateau des Bondons, about an hour's drive east of Paris, we knew we'd left the city behind. It's located in La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, a town that dates back to the 16th century.
"At one point the town was a major producer of mill stones," explains Linda Jenkins, the chief executive of Vacations-Abroad.com, a company that connects private homeowners with guests for short-term rentals in Europe. If you look closely, you can still see them here and there.
No two rooms at the Chateau are alike. Vaulted ceilings gave our elegant apartment a sense of stature and space, which was a real surprise, since the room easily accommodated all five of us comfortably. An oversized bath with a hot tub was the centerpiece of our well-appointed bathroom.
The Chateau is the cultural center of the town. It's more of a formal setting than we expected so far outside the city, with hand-carved furniture and silk-covered walls. The restaurant and lounges were decorated with ornate chandeliers and even breakfast was served on fine china. It was totally chic.
And best of all was the view of the chateau's gardens from our balcony -- especially once it was set for lunch.
In the valley of the cats
From there we drove six hours to the Alsace region. In hindsight I wish we'd given more time to make stops along the way, but that will have to be another adventure.
We drove to the village of Katzenthal (German for "Cat's valley") in a roundabout way. When you come to France and turn onto your first traffic circle, you'll know what I mean. It is believed that the town takes its name not from the cat, but from the castle upon the hillside. In fact, the Chateau du Winek, dating back to the 13th or 14th century, is the only one in France that is completely surrounded by vines. The king needed his wine.
The area is protected by mountains which shield it from big storms, making it an ideal place to visit any time of year if you intend to be outdoors. We spent every day hiking trails along the hillside and visiting the castle ruins. It also means there are plenty of beautiful days for the sun to bless the vines. In fact, the Vignoble Klur vineyards are designated Grand Cru, the very best in France.
The Klur family has been winemakers in the region as far back as the 1600s, but as Clement Klur, the proprietor, acknowledged, that's as far back as they have written records. They'd likely been making wine since the Chateau was constructed, if not earlier. The wine estate consists of the family homes, which have been converted into cottages where they welcome guests to share in the winemaking experience.
Is there a more authentic experience than living in the home of an established family and learning the grape growing and winemaking process from the owners? If there is, I can't think of one.
Getting lost in the Black Forest
We continued our European road trip, crossing the French-German border at the Rhine River, this time stopping at the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, in Germany. This region is exceptionally beautiful and attracts mainly European visitors, so it was no surprise that our apartment at the Haus Gerda was unlike anything you'd ever find in the States.
It was as if we were staying on location at a filming of a Brothers Grimm movie. We turned off a country road onto a one-lane path that wound its way toward a modest farm belonging to our hosts, the Kiewel family. We followed a maze of of staircases to our cozy upstairs apartment, which included two bedrooms and a roomy kitchen.
Outside, goats and sheep played in their pens, roosters and chickens strutted about while horses grazed in the fields. In the distance a dense growth of dark pine trees which make up the legendary Black Forest loomed. When it came time to visit the nearby German Clock Museum in Schwarzwald, the kids resisted leaving.
The whole region has a special designation for being family-friendly and there was plenty to experience. The kids made friends at the playgrounds, despite the language barrier, and our first-grader was reading every sign in German. Never mind that she didn't understand any of it.
We also enjoyed getting lost along Unterkirnach"s Schonach trail below the limbs of the giant pine trees that make up the edge of the Black Forest. But the kids preferred to stay at the farmhouse, feeding the chickens in the drizzle or playing games and reading books written in another language but left behind by other families who'd visited the house.
Of the three stops, we'd be hard pressed to choose our favorite. Each offered a uniquely authentic experience where we could interact with the culture and people whose lives are bound to the area. And with these visits, our children will return with more than just pictures of famous places, but stories about what it was like to be a local for a few days.