We’ve been to all the big cities in Europe numerous times but have never had the time to explore the villages and countryside much. When I retire in a couple of years, we are planning to go for 3 months to do that. Our original thought was to rent a place in the south of France as a base, and use the excellent train system from there. Now we’re thinking it may be easier to stay a month each in France, England and Italy to reduce the time spent getting from place to place, including Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. Has anyone done this type of trip? Our annual 2 week Europe trip next month was sadly canceled, and I’d like to start planning to give me something to look forward to.
Renting a place in the south of France for 3 months is ideal if you want to thoroughly explore the south of France. And a leased car would be much more practical than just relying on trains if you want to really explore the countryside and small towns.
But for a trip as far flung as what you envisage, then no. I'd recommend making a list of exactly what you want to see in each of these countries to estimate how much time you would spend in each area and whether or not a central base + day trips makes logistical sense in each area. You've mentioned 7 countries; that's less than 2 weeks in each country ( although I'm not sure Belgium would warrant that amount of time). Use Rome2Rio, Google maps, or viaMichelin to determine distances between each place to see if a central base makes any kind of logistical sense. Depending on your priorities, a combination of longer stays in some places plus shorter stays in others will likely be more economical and time saving than trying to see all these places from only 3 Hubs and having the extra accommodation expenses needed for overnight stays. .
And don't forget that you are limited to a maximum of 90 days ( including arrival and departure days) in any 180 day periid within the Schengen area. England is the only country mentioned that is not within Schengen borders.
I think if you search this site you will find several similar discussions over the past couple of years. Frequently done. You do have to be careful of the Schengen zone rule of no more than 90 days of travel out of any 180 day period. Fortunately England is not part of the Schengen zone so any stay in GB doesn't count as part of the 90. GB will allow you to stay 180 days. And it is 90 days, not three months. Longer stays will require special visas.
I think Europe (or even England, France, Spain, Italy, or Germany individually) are too big to tackle with just three bases.
I think you can reasonably go one of three ways. Either pick a base for every one to two weeks and see a reasonable amount of all the countries on you list; or choose just three areas of three countries to see in depth for a month each; or combine the approaches by mixing and matching week stays with month long stays.
Trains may not be the best mode for villages. We prefer to avoid car rentals is possible, but in Wales and Spanish villages we found a car by far the best way to go. Look at the train and bus coverage for each base and decide whether to rent.
While 3 months may seem like a good chunk of time (for 3 countries it is), for 7 big site rich countries it is cutting it tight, especially if you want to go off the beaten path and explore the countryside of the places. I think you may be over estimating the speed, efficiency, and accessibility of intra-European trains too, I'd op for a car (rented once in country) as the best method of exploring villages/countryside.
I must ask what months (season) do you plan on doing this trip? That info can go a long way in helping nail down specific countries you wish to focus on.
It seems you are a veteran of western Europe, but have you consider exploring more of central Europe, the countrysides of Poland, Czechia, Slovenia, and Austria lend themselves well to hopping from village to village.
The earlier responses have provided good, and realistic, advice. If you want to see very many Spanish villages, you will need to spend some nights in Spain rather than commuting in from France. Similarly, basing in France is not the best way to visit rural Germany or Switzerland.
I urge you to get a comprehensive guidebook for each of your three top-priority countries and build a list of the places you want to see in each one. Then make a rough calculation of how many nights you'll need in each of those three countries. Only after you've done that would I recommend considering extending the trip to other countries. Having recently spent about 4-1/2 months in Spain and 4-1/2 months in France (not including any time in Paris), I venture to suggest that three months is not much time to spread across seven countries if you want to see smaller towns and countryside. Transportation (whether by regional train, bus or rental car) between smaller towns is slow compared to the speed with which express trains whisk travelers between major cities.
Luftmensch I gathered from OP's post that they want to travel from their base in France/England/Italy to explore these other countries. However, as others have pointed out, it seems that OP might want to consider how much they time want to spend traveling. My questions to OP (apologies if they overlap with some of the other questions):
- What time of year do you plan to travel? Are you used to very hot summers? You may have to pack a great deal of different clothing since there is quite a difference between summer in the South of France and England/Germany depending on where you will be.
- What kind of budget are you working with? Southern France is a perennial favourite with local and foreign tourists and this means very high prices for not always great accommodations.
- How much time do you intend to spend travelling vs enjoying your chosen base? Remember that driving is more expensive than in the US and that trains/public transport will only get you so far if you really want to explore nature.
- What kind of balance between nature and culture would be ideal for you?
I have lived in the Middle East for 5 years, then Germany for 4 years (this was over 25 years ago). Also, since I retired 10 years ago, we have done 2-4 overseas trips (most to Europe, but also to Australia, South America, China, Japan, India and the Middle East.
I have traveled on cruises, river cruises, bus tours, self driving tours in my own car or in a rental car. Also, taken trips using trains.
I don't recommend staying in one place for three months. Instead, break up your time to cover 3-5 specific areas of Europe.
If you have done all the major cites, then yes, do the countryside. Driving a rental car is the best way to enjoy the countryside. There are exceptions, when you could take a train from point A to B, especially if renting a car for another country, since crossing borders may include an expensive drop charge.
When you say major cites in Europe (that you have done), does that include medium sized cities, like in Spain, Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga? For France, does that consider Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Nice or Arles?
For example, if you have done London and Edinburgh, but not the British countryside, you can easily spend a month doing that and still not see everything worth visiting.
We did a wonderful four week drive tour of S. Wales and England, focusing a bit on places when ancestors came from, like the village in SW Wales where my paternal ancestors left in 1716. Most of our tour was not an ancestry tour, but just great places.
None of our nights were in major cities. The largest cities were we stayed were Cardiff and York.
Here is a detailed history of our tour with lodging, tours and sites we visited. It may help if you are interested in Britain.
Some places are excellent for taking a river cruise. I recommend the Douro River in N. Portugal and the Rhone/Saone in SW France.
Here are my history of those trips.
Portugal, the Douro River and a bit of Spain
AMA Rhone River
A great place to use as a base in Switzerland would be Interlaken.
For Italy, you could do Tuscany and Umbria. Use Siena in Tuscany for a base and for Umbria, use Perugia.
For Germany, Bavaria could be done with Munich as a Base, while the Rhineland would be best done driving from one end to the other. Include places like Strausborg, France, Heidelberg, Cologne, Trier and more.
You haven't mentioned Greece or Croatia/Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc. That is very hard to do from a single base.
Thank you to everyone. Excellent information and food for thought. You’ve pointed out some glaring errors in my thought process and I will regroup with your kind insight. I have plenty of time to figure it out and oh, what fun I will have!!!!
Ha, Ha -- glaring errors ??? At least you admit it. We have had many posters with similar questions get mad at us for point out problems, and go away in a huff. Our plan is to stay two or three weeks in area and plan on day trips of no more than two hours (prefer one hour) in a radius around that location. And plan on every fourth or fifth to be blank and restock groceries or do laundry or do nothing since that is part of the plan. Which errors are you willing to publicly admit to???
Frank- Glaring error one: not limiting my question to Western Europe, thereby taking off the table everything between Vienna and Athens. Glaring error two: forgetting that the most charming villages are not on the train routes and a car is much slower and will take a lot more time. Glaring error three: not narrowing down my areas of interest (for instance, Provence, Normandy, and Alsace in France) to give you kind folks a better idea of how to help instead of wasting your time. I could go on but you get the idea. 😉
I don’t think people’s time has been wasted, it is a good question and all working together we can help you. A lot better question then some of the others here recently.
If that is the worse, then you don't any serious problems. I disagree a little bit with the idea that charming villages are not connected via rail. If rail is not available then there is the bus. It would be an unusually small village not to be connect via public transit. If it is that small, the interest may be equally small.
Most people especially earlier first time travels overlook how time is consumer when changing locations. Of course, the huge gorilla error that didn't get touched on is the packing issue. Can you do three months with a carry-on only. Now we will get some discussion.
Here are some pointers, many gleaned from a lengthy post-retirement trip we took. Leasing a car is probably going to work out to be cheaper than renting, but don’t plan on driving a European car in the U.K.
We rented a cottage near Lake Trasimeno, in Italy; and we found that location to be super for visiting many places in Tuscany and Umbria. We were 5 - 10 minutes from an entrance to the A1, and used it a lot. We had no need to change lodgings for that part of our trip. In two weeks, we got to Montepulciano, Montalcino, Arezzo, Perugia, Gubbio, Urbino, Spello, Bevagna, Montefalco, Orvieto, Assisi, and Spoleto. One caveat when searching out accommodations is to try to determine how much time it takes to reach major roads. Distances can be very deceptive if they include narrow, hilly roads, or unpaved stretches. (We discovered that on another trip.). We found that eating our main meal at mid-day worked really well. That way we were able to avoid going out at night after our strenuous sightseeing excursions. The long break let us recharge before continuing the day’s schedule.
Driving into France from Italy is, of course, quite easy. If you plan to end in Paris, you can take the high speed train to London.
I don’t recommend driving in the U.K., though many posters have said it wasn’t a problem. We had actually lived there at one time, for a year; and I did get used to it. The best piece of advice I got was to constantly remind yourself to keep yourself (the driver) near the center line. If you do opt for renting a car, get one with automatic transmission.
We had a wonderful time, and I wish the same for you.
I strongly disagree about not driving in the UK. We have rented cars twice and driven on the left successfully. Yes, it helps to have someone reminding you to stay on the left, especially when turning at an intersection.
However, we found British drivers to be very polite and predictable, as opposed to driving in Italy or Spain.
We lived in Germany for four years and found Germans to follow the rules, but to be more aggressive. Also, driving on the autobahns requires way more focus due to the high speeds.
I don't recommend driving in Europe in any major large city, like Paris, London, Madrid or Rome. It is easy to wind up in a bus lane and get a huge traffic ticket. Also, navigating the heavy traffic is a royal pain. I won't drive in Boston and NYC for that reason (also, the drivers in the US Northeast are rude and aggressive).