DAN SCOTT crafts an itinerary to suit every member of the family on a holiday to the UK and Europe
For a dad travelling through Europe with two soccer-mad daughters, it doesn’t get much better than this. Installed at Old Trafford, one of the world’s most famous sports arenas, for the Manchester United home game versus Arsenal, we’re welcomed by the stadium announcer in front of a crowd of more than 73,000 fans. “Hi to Mila and Freya Scott, who are 12 and 9, and from a tiny hamlet called Charlotte Bay, which is in NSW, Australia, 12,000 miles away,” he says. “They play for a girls’ team, are you ready for this? They are called the Busby Babes, and of course they are managed by their dad, Dan Scott … so we wish them all the very best and warm greetings.”
It’s taken months of meticulous planning and dozens of emails to get here, but it’s all been worth it. Over previous days, we’ve watched United’s recently formed women’s team play, attended a Manchester University reunion with friends I haven’t seen in decades, and taken in the Old Trafford stadium and museum tour. The tour not only allowed the starry-eyed girls to step inside the players’ dressing room, but also helped them understand the history of this famous club and the resonance of the name of the local team they play for. To learn how, one snowy February night in Munich in 1958, much of a promising young Manchester United team was nearly wiped out in a plane crash that killed 23 people. How, within ten years, manager Matt Busby, who nearly died in the disaster, nurtured another squad of ‘Babes’, including the charismatic George Best, the Ronaldo of his time, to win club football’s ultimate prize, the European Cup, in 1968. Call it indoctrination or father-daughter bonding, but this footballing connection is cemented during our three-day visit to Manchester.
Yet, if this trip that is about making childhood dreams come true, then for Mila, my eldest, who has read every single Harry Potter tome and seen every movie, multiple times, our visit to the Warner Brothers Studios, where the films were made, is even more significant. Booked out months in advance, Harry Potter World, near Watford, north of London, is everything that JK Rowling’s devotees could hope for. Strolling through the grand but intimately detailed sets of Hogwarts’ Great Hall, the Forbidden Forest (with its massive spiders), Gringott’s Wizarding Bank and the Diagon Alley shops, is like touching a legend.
Watching my little girl wandering through the studios, captivated and entranced, I’m reminded of the power of childhood imagination, of how important fantasy and storytelling are in our development. What’s equally impressive are the insights into the skill, craft and industry of the hundreds of designers, set builders, make-up artists, prop and costume-makers, technicians, producers, directors and actors that together made the Harry Potter movie series so successful.
After probably the best four hours of Mila’s life, including a ‘butter beer’ at the café and a small fortune spent in the gift shop on posters, Griffindor banners and boxes of ‘Bertie Botts’ jelly beans (‘every flavour’, including ‘earwax’, ‘earthworm’ and ‘vomit’) to share with friends back home, we finally prise her away from this potent fantasy world.
Living in a small coastal Australian village, it’s hard to underestimate the value of a trip to Europe for broadening horizons. Before we leave, both girls work on relevant school projects, Freya creating a forensic presentation on the Eiffel Tower and Mila giving a more general speech on Paris, concentrating on style and fashion.
Once again, there is an element of making fantasy reality as we head first to Brussels to visit a Belgian chocolate Museum, eat fries with mayonnaise and stand beside the tiny and rather rude ‘Mannequin Pis’ statue (“eyes closed, girls”), and then onto Paris.
The grandstand view from our home-swap flat in the French capital is alone worth the journey from Australia. From the 14th-floor balcony we look straight down over the River Seine and across Paris to the Eiffel Tower, which sparkles at night with an hourly light show. A 30-minute walk along the river leads us to the tower, which according to Freya’s research, ‘is 324m tall, composed of 7000 metric tonnes of puddling iron and has attracted 250 million visitors since its opening in 1889’. We join a tour led by spirited Parisian, Eric, walk up the 674 steps to the 2nd level, and then take a lift to the top, from which there are wide-ranging views over the city, including back along the river to the block of flats where we are staying.The grandstand view from our home-swap flat in the French capital is alone worth the journey from Australia. From the 14th-floor balcony we look straight down over the River Seine and across Paris to the Eiffel Tower, which sparkles at night with an hourly light show. A 30-minute walk along the river leads us to the tower, which according to Freya’s research, ‘is 324m tall, composed of 7000 metric tonnes of puddling iron and has attracted 250 million visitors since its opening in 1889’. We join a tour led by spirited Parisian, Eric, walk up the 674 steps to the 2nd level, and then take a lift to the top, from which there are wide-ranging views over the city, including back along the river to the block of flats where we are staying.
On a whirlwind trip that has also included visits to Norwich, Oxford, the Essex countryside and a week exploring London sights, like the Tower of London and the Natural History Museum, from a friend’s 1770 cottage on Wimbledon Common, Paris is a chance to slow down and smell the croissants. Simply exploring our local boulangerie and patisserie, as well as the nearby Auteuil Saturday-morning market, leaves the girls wide-eyed and swooning at the array of baguettes, pastries, cheeses and other delicacies on show.
On Saturday night, we take in the teeming Montmartre wine harvest festival outside Sacre-Coeur Cathedral and then walk through the diverse ‘quartiers’ of Paris to dinner in the Marais district.
One last croissant and pain-au-chocolat breakfast and it’s time to leave Europe after a trip that has followed all of our passions, made fantasy reality with visits to Harry Potter World, Manchester United and Paris, and delivered lifelong memories to two little people and their devoted dad.
The writer travelled with assistance from Eurail.
TRAVELLING EUROPE BY TRAIN WITH KIDS
- With just 20 days to visit London, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Brussels and Paris and rendezvous with family and friends, a Eurail Global Pass, providing seven days travel within a month, proves invaluable. It’s noticeable how we all relax once on board the trains, enjoying time-out from sightseeing and socialising as we speed through Europe’s different landscapes, in environmentally-friendly fashion
- Our Eurostar journeys from London to Brussels (two hours 10 mins) and Paris to London (two hours 20 mins) are fast and easy, and in First Class we are fed en route, and arrive de-stressed (unlikely had dad been driving and trying to follow GPS in unfamiliar cities)
- At $728 for an Adult seven-day pass (includes up to two kids, aged 4-11, travelling free on child pass) and $559 for a Youth pass (12-27), the Eurail First Class pass is exceptional value. Second Class seven-day passes are cheaper still at $548 (Adult) and $421 (Youth). Travel can be on consecutive days or spread out over the month. The only other cost, on some services, is for compulsory reservations, €114 (approx AUD$184 at time of writing) for three First Class seats on Eurostar. Global passes cover 31 countries and are available for periods of three days to three months.