(Editor’s note: Spring is almost here, the perfect time to plan a European road trip before it gets too hot and the roads get too crowded. Plus, Lake Como is off-peak and you can get into restaurants quite easily. We’ll have a separate post about where to go in Lake Como.)
I hadn’t uttered those words since I was in high school circa 1973 and my friends from the neighborhood and I were taking our annual trip across the American Southwest. We’d load up a car or pickup with snacks, Byrds, Eagles and Linda Ronstadt cassette tapes and sleeping bags, then drive from where we lived in Kentucky to Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. All in one marathon 24-hour drive down I-40 through Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and finally New Mexico.
On our first trip, the eldest of our foursome was maybe 18. We’d never seen a mountain bigger than the Smokies or a desert, and one of our main reasons for going was to stock up on Coors beer, which we couldn’t get in Kentucky.
One of the highlights for me was standing on the corner of Winslow, Arizona one morning about 11 a.m. where I was indeed such a fine sight to see. Then, I took the last 65 cents I had and bought a cold Coors. (It was cool … my buddy Jimmy had a credit card, so I just put everything on it.)
Ah, good times …
On the road again
Okay, we’re a little older, and it was past time we piled into a car and headed out for a long drive somewhere. So, it was kismet when our American expat friends LeAnne and Wes called us and said, “Hey, we’re loading up the kids and driving to Lake Como. Come with us.”
That was back in April 2022 and they’ve since moved on to an assignment in Washington, D.C. But the memories of that trip linger on because it was perfect. And I didn’t think it would be. I thought the 900-kilometer drive from their house outside Brussels would seem too long. I thought we’d bicker. The weather would suck. I thought … I don’t know what I thought. I guess I was worried that I’d always be comparing it to those care-free road trips out west, and nothing is as good now as it was when you were a kid.
Everything just came together and really, all we had to do was get in the car, which was a giant Buick SUV Wes brought over to Belgium from the States. That meant plenty of room for LeAnne, their kids Joïe and Logan, and Cheryl, my wife and co-CEO.
The first thing that went right was Wes, a former U.S. Special Forces officer, is the best driver I’ve ever met. Wes is the kind of guy I would follow anywhere, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Flawless judgement. A cool head and a really funny, fun guy, even after nine hours in a car crammed with kids, adults, bags and loads of snacks.
The second thing that went right was the route. We left from LeAnne’s and Wes’s house in Mons and headed southeast through Luxembourg, France, Switzerland and finally Italy rather than alternate routes that would have taken us due south into France via Reims.
What was really cool was starting in the flat lands of southern Belgium and Luxembourg and transitioning dramatically into the huge valley that is Alsace, running between the Black Forest on the east in Germany and the Vosges in France on the west.
The Alsatian villages in the valley, the castles atop the mountains. It had been years since we’d been to Alsace, and Cheryl and I remembered why we loved that area. In fact, the entire route was lined with the places we’d loved back when we lived in Germany from 2002 through 2007 … Colmar, Strasbourg and Basel. All we could talk about were the glacier picnics we’d had with the kids in Switzerland and Christmas markets in Colmar, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.
Then, there was the magical moment when we arrived in the Swiss Alps after having not seen them for 15 years.
It was like one big flashback of the best times of our lives.
The third thing that went right was the kids loved it and got to choose a lot of the music.
That brings me to the final element – music. It’s got to be just right to set the mood. A good mix of oldies and 70s disco with current pop. Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock N’ Roll” was Logan’s fav. Upbeat, up-tempo and fun. And it was. The only fail was, I was so busy talking, I forgot to take photos for this post of us in SUV. Next time.
Choose an incredible destination
I get it … road trips are about the journey, not the destination. Still, you can go without food and rest stops. Endure long, long tunnels including the Gotthard Road Tunnel at the Switzerland/Italy border if you know you’re going to end up somewhere otherworldly beautiful. Wes and LeAnne say Lake Como is their favorite place in the world. When I woke up early the morning we arrived and walked out on our huge veranda, I took a pano photo of the lake, then texted it to a friend: “This does NOT suck.”
Or as LeAnne puts it, Lake Como is “lavender draped over the shoreline like a perfect fragrant shawl. Pro-tip: Add Aperol regularly; it makes the lavender even more vibrant. “
For the record, I want to be George Clooney when I grow up.
From LeAnne: “Decide on frequencies, lengths and locations of a key stop or two (Strasbourg).”
We basically only stopped for gas on the way down, but on the way back, we stopped in Strasbourg for lunch and exploring. It was like adding a bonus trip.
Go with people like you
LeAnne and I go way back. She was an Army public affairs officer and I was a military reporter in Germany. We were always testing each other professionally, but we trusted each other to do the right thing when it counted … and we did. She’s also a fine writer. See her post here on getting a professional doctorate.
Because LeAnne and Wes were military, we have a lot in common. But it doesn’t stop there. They are smart, successful people who know something about everything without being didactic or arrogant. Best of all, Wes had lots of great stories about his time leading Special Forces teams in Iraq and Afghanistan; not about the combat, but about the personalities, politics and intricacies of trying to do his job.
Even though we’d never traveled together, we had visited each other and knew we were compatible.
They’d visited us in the Netherlands. We stayed at their house in Mons. We spent a lot of time together and knew they were just as flexible and informal as we are. And we loved kids, namely their smart and silly six-year-old and their smart and silly eight-year-old.
Take a break from each other
This was true when I was a kid travelling with the other kids in the neighborhood to the Great American West. After a while, you start to get on each other’s last nerve. An afternoon of going off on your own can keep everything cool. But the truth is, on this trip, we spent most of the time together, though we did split up during a trip to Bellagio, basically because I was walking on a broken ankle and couldn’t keep up.
I’m not not the easiest person in the world to get along with … a bit impatient and high-strung. Cheryl and I are too focused on business. Wes and LeAnne are a good counterbalance to our hyper-weirdness.
Work out the finances in advance
We chipped in on gas for the Buick and groceries, and we split the cost of the apartment in Argengno on the west side of Lake Como. Each family picked up its tab at dinner.
Agree on where you’re going to stay
This was easy because we’d never been to Lake Como and LeAnne and Wes got married there. We trusted their judgement and they came through. LeAnne booked our place in Argengno, large enough that everyone had separate rooms. Then in the morning, we could work (no rest for the wicked) quietly in the main living room without waking everyone.
Pro tip: Get as large a place as you can afford to give everyone a bit of privacy. Kudos to LeAnne for finding a spacious apartment in a quaint mansion with a lake view and a huge veranda.
I can’t speak for Wes and LeAnne, but we had one of the best trips of our lives. So much fun that we pitched our daughter Lale a road trip back to Lake Como. Now, if we can just get Wes and LeAnne to come along.
Read more about Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.