Today, we're super excited to kick off a new series here at No Reception Club called "#NoReceptionParents Q&A" where we feature real parents in our community of adventurers. Through their stories, we hope families can learn, gain confidence and be inspired as you plan your next family vacation! If you have a favorite memory/trip you'd like to share, please reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For our first guest feature, we're excited to have Val & Mark from @thegravellers share a detailed look inside their epic 6-week cycling trip this past summer across France and Spain as their family of 4 (including their toddler Wolfie and baby Luiza) conquered La Vélodyssée. You'll love learning more about their incredibly inspiring, definitely-not-easy, and wildly memorable family adventure:
Gemma: Can you share a bit more about your itinerary?
Val: The itinerary for our Europe trip started off with a friend's wedding in Portugal. And we thought, if we are bringing the kids along for the long trip, we might as well try to make the most of it. That planted the seed for doing the 'Vélodyssée' - France's longest dedicated cycleway. We had heard of this potentially family-friendly bike ride years earlier when just the two of us were bike-packing through France and Italy. France is so well equipped for cyclists and cycling-friendly that we knew we would be well supported -- which was very important when also bringing along two potential time bombs (/adorable kids). You're also never far from a small town, which means you're never far from a bakery -- in other words, the most delicious pastries/bike fuel.
We flew from Portugal directly into Nantes - the largest city in the southeast of France. Nantes was a fairytale city and we knew we were off to a great start if this is what we would be able to expect from the lesser known Atlantic coast of France. From there, we arranged our bike hire, assembled our bike-packing set-up, and started off on our 1,000 kilometer journey to Spain. The plan was to follow the Vélodyssée along the seaside, as it meanders mostly south through many different regions and landscapes. We did notice that the path was only 80km/50 miles from Bordeaux, so we deviated onto another dedicated cycle way (Canal de Deux Mers) and spent a few days exploring the wine capital of France before heading back to the west coast. The best part about travelling with young children is that people generally love babies and make special exceptions for you, so we really only ever encountered warm welcomes -- even at the fancy, borderline stuffy, wineries.
Both Vélodyssée and Canal de Deux Mers have excellent websites and resources that made planning the routes and finding bicycle friendly accommodation an absolute breeze.
Gemma: That sounds amazing. Can you give us a snapshot of what a typical day looked like?
Val: We usually woke up around 7-ish and sometimes even had to wake the kids up (I know! What an alternate universe!) to get organized and hit the road in good time. It usually took us about an hour to get everyone changed, ready for the day, and pack up our bags and bikes. We then usually hit up a boulangerie for coffees and pastries before starting on the bike path in earnest.
From around 9am through 2 or 3pm we were usually out on our bikes. How the day (and naps) were planned out really varied from day to day, depending on the length and challenge of the day. Some days were longer and we would have a generous lunch stop, and then both kids would take a nap in the afternoon in the bike trailer. Some days were shorter and we could even stop for a mid-bike swim or wander around a market, before we got to our destination in the early afternoon. Typically, we would make a pit stop to get the kids out of the trailer to stretch about every hour or so -- usually whenever Wolfie spotted a playground we made a point of stopping to enjoy it. After all, it has to be fun for the kids as well.
Running on a European schedule, we took some downtime in the afternoons so everyone could shower, nap or relax before heading out around 5pm to do some exploring in the new town we were staying in. On the pre-kids bike tour, this meant enjoying a cocktail. During this tour, it meant either going for another swim, finding another playground, or just general "running around" before picking a spot for dinner. Restaurants usually didn't open until 7pm at the earliest, which in our normal world is bedtime, but kids are surprisingly adaptable and the perk was we always got a table being the early birds arriving right when they opened at 7 or 7:30pm. Dinner always tastes extra delicious when you have had a day of biking. Then we would head back to our hotel or AirBnB just in time to rinse and repeat.
Gemma: I love the spontaneous playground/swim/free play moments. How did you manage to pack for this 6-week trip?!
Val: Packing for a family of four for a 6-week trip is a challenge in and of itself. Add in the fact that you will be limited by travelling by bicycle for most of the trip is another level. We knew we had to be minimalist and efficient. Since Mark and I had travelled by bicycle before, we had an idea of how to do this for ourselves, and we needed to apply those concepts to bringing along two little ones as well. Each kid had their own packing cube to keep their clothes organized. We took a minimal amount of clothes, but definitely enough to cover all weather scenarios and last at least 4-5 days before needing to do laundry. Toys and baby accessories were also kept at a minimum, which to be completely honest, was challenging at times. It was more difficult to entertain Luiza on a rest day without have a playmat or bouncer to keep her busy, but it certainly wasn't a dealbreaker at all. You also realize they actually don't need THAT much when you are forced to pare down your packing list.
We travelled with four pannier (bike bags), our bike trailer, and our No Reception Club Getaway backpack which fit perfectly in the rear of the bike trailer.
Panniers can actually fit a lot of gear and, of course, our lives were made so much easier with our No Reception Club Getaway backpack. It was a perfect, one-stop solution for our day trips of exploring when we had a day off the bikes. Having the adjustable shelves were integral to keeping things organized (hello, dedicated snack shelf!) and the side entry made everything accessible (very important when people were getting hangry). We loved having a waterproof compartment to put all our wet gear from a swim at a beach. And the Sidekick saved us so many times for regular diaper changes or the ones that inevitably came at the most inconvenient times.
Gemma: We can definitely relate to the challenges of not having as many entertainment options, but also the beauty of being forced to live with less while traveling. And last but not least, what were your favorite memories?
Val: There were so many amazing experiences along the way, but favorite memories almost always center around the in-between moments and the unexpected moments. Carousels are very popular here and it was part of our routine to find one and have a ride. It was magic to see Wolfie get excited about picking out where or what to sit on, and enjoy every minute of spinning around. Another memorable part of our routine was picking out what special pastries caught our eye every morning and indulging in the many different types and variations along the journey.
Wolfie would probably say his favorite memories are riding on the different types of trains when we relied on public transportation to get around on our days off. Trams, trolleys and big commuter trains were all part of the adventure.
Outside of all the awesome memories like beach swims and fun playgrounds, are memories that are attached to some form of adversity. With travel comes things going wrong, or not your way, or something completely out of sorts and out of your control happening. But then what you do with these situations can become very fond memories. We had a very windy day, with the winds gusting over 100 kph off the ocean and directly into our faces. We made several stops because it was pretty brutal. One was taking shelter against a random brick wall where we all shared a bag of candies and enjoyed the reprieve of hiding from the wind. And then we also made a pit stop at this very local-fisherman-only bar to again, take shelter, but also had a locals-only drink the bartender whipped up for and had some excellent half-translated, half-understood banter with the other fisherman taking a break as well. These are two experience we won't forget anytime soon!
And overall, just being able to spend that much time together as a family was just super special.
Gemma: What an incredible trip, you and your family are truly an inspiration! I know Daniel is taking detailed notes and will be nudging us to add this to our bucket list. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us, we can't wait to see where you go next!