We’d been putting off doing the 1,500km drive from our home in the Poitou-Charentes in France to my parents' house in Tavira in Portugal's Algarve region for years. But with no alternative option for Christmas, we decided the time had come to test the family's resilience with a long car journey.
We decided to split the16-hour drive over three days: we would drive for five hours each day, making a long picnic-and-play lunch-stop then finding a hotel in a town in Spain at around 4pm. That would give us enough daylight to discover the town, as well as the chance to have a relaxed evening meal and a good night's sleep. It seemed to be an educational and fatigue-free solution for our seven- and nine-year-old daughters that would make the journey part of the holiday rather than a chore.
The feeling of adventure and discovery was our overriding sensation during the journey, as we booked nothing in advance. We left at 1pm on the first day, making a single stop halfway, at a French service station where we had a few races along the footpaths, whizzed down the playground slides and played a quick basketball game (bringing a basketball was a great idea – it gave us all exercise during the stops and kept us warm in the freezing temperatures).
On the second day it rained, so rather than getting wet, we drove further than planned (this also meant we were able to spend most of the third day discovering the Andalucian city of Seville). The girls were surprisingly happy sitting in the car – they’d brought their favourite CDs, plus activity books, cards and travel games. They also enjoyed keeping scores of the different nationality cars that we saw and, in the north of Spain, checking the length of each of the many tunnels we drove through. They also invented a game with the Spanish phrasebook whereby they would find a word in Spanish and insert it into an English sentence – we had to guess the meaning of the Spanish word.
Just before dark each day, we started looking out for 'hotel' signs along the Spanish motorway – these are plentiful north of Salamanca but rare to the south. No prices seem to be displayed outside the hotels in Spain, so to check I'd understood correctly I made sure I looked at the room before accepting. We stayed in a hotel, a hostel and a motel, all of which offered three-bed rooms for around €65 a night. For four of us, this meant pushing the beds together and sleeping in a row, which the girls loved.
Once the hotel was dealt with, we set about discovering Spanish restaurants – and quickly realised that the Spanish don't serve until 8.30pm. The snacks and fruit we'd brought with us came in handy in tiding us over, while the meal itself was the best time for trying out our primitive Spanish, with the girls enjoying using the basic words they’d learnt.
Our biggest mistake was the idea of picnicking: we found that it was too cold outside, and that there were very few places set up for picnics. However, this meant that we discovered the delights of having tapas for lunch in bars – ideal for kids, who love picking and choosing from the array of finger-food on display. Combined with a stop at a playground and a walk around the Spanish streets, this made for a great two-hour lunch break.
I’d been dubious about leaving home without booking ahead, but it turned out that being flexible was an advantage. By the time we got home, not only did we feel we'd had two holidays in one, but we didn't have to 'recover' from the journeys.
For more, see Teresa’s feature on her winter family holiday in the Algarve. See also our tips for driving with kids.