It’s trip time again! I’ve mentioned that we are planning on heading off on another overseas jaunt soon, so with all the bookings locked in, here are all the details……..
Where are we off to? Singapore, Finland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Italy and France, with lots of cycling involved!
How long is the trip? 5.5 weeks, during March and April, 2017.
Why Europe again? Well, it’s been a whole 14 months since we returned from a Winter adventure in Europe, and 6 months since our family holiday to Hong Kong and Malaysia, so it’s clearly time to head overseas again! We have the usual travelers problem of the more you travel the more you want to see. So, with some frequent flyer points up our sleeve, several months ago we manage to book some business class flights for the whole family between Europe and Singapore for March and April. The last 2 Europe trips have been in cold weather (late Autumn and early Winter in 2012, and the depths of Winter over 2015/16. On our last trip we lamented how as much fun as the snow was, it would be really awesome to see some gardens and parks in bloom next time (and have more than 5 hours of daylight a day)…….
Why those countries? Well, I can tell you this has been one of the most challenging itineraries to put together. Countries have been in, countries have been out, and the cities were even harder to sort out. With limited time and some tricky connections – places were in, out, or moved around in order quite a few times before we had everything sorted. For awhile we were going to Russia and we had Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Denmark in contention at one point. The cities and activities were also particularly problematic, particularly Italy! I’ll write a bit more about why we decided on each place as I run through the itinerary. The idea was to spend some time in some places we haven’t yet been to in (hopefully) lovely Spring weather, and to revisit others in a totally different season to what we had seen them in before. We’ve been holding off on visiting Italy until we had a trip in nicer weather, so a big part of the trip was always going to be Italy.
…… and what’s this about cycling? The last 2 Europe trips have involved quite a few ‘day’ cycling trips, where we explored a city or town on a bike in either a group tour or private small group tour. We all love them, and the kids love being on the bike… but we were always left wanting a bit more riding. Anto is a cycling fanatic (or MAMIL) and has dreams about cycling the Tour de France route while camper-vanning around Europe. Somehow he has convinced me to do some multi-day self-guided bike tours so we can explore some areas on the bike at our leisure. This is all good for the person who cycles everywhere, but my cycling was a bit lack-lustre in 2016. I don’t think I even got on my bike after getting back from Europe. Nonetheless, I thought it sounded like a good (if slightly crazy with 2 kids) idea. So we are cycling through the Netherlands, the Italian island of Sardinia and doing a cycle tour through the Loire Valley in France. My legs may not thank me, but I can at least justify all those pastries, gelato and glasses of wine!
So, this brings me to the plans for our next adventure……..
We have visited Singapore a few times now, and regularly fly through there. Our last visit with the kids was back in 2014, before Astrid was 3 and Soren was only 4 months old. We’ve been thinking about going back, especially after we were flying out of Singapore’s Changi airport late at night on our way home from Malaysia last year and we got the most magnificent views over the city. Coincidentally we managed to get business seats on points flying into and out of Singapore, so we thought for once we’d break up the long trip to Europe with some time in Singapore either side.
On the way over we have 2.5 days in Singapore. Having done most of the big tourist attractions before, and with limited time, we are planning to revisit Marina Bay and the Gardens by the Bay, as we didn’t get enough time there on our last visit and the kids love the water park. We are also hoping to get to nightly light show this time and eat at the new Satay by the Bay. We are staying in the Little India area so will hopefully explore (and eat) our way through an area we are yet to explore.
So about the trip being a warm one? Well that was until we booked flights into Helsinki in March. It’s absolutely not going to be warm, in fact it’s likely to be sub-zero and possibly snowing. Anto has been to Helsinki way back in 2000, but the kids and I have never been. We figured that since we could get flights on points into there, and we hadn’t yet been as a family, why not?
We have 2.5 days in Helsinki. We were considering staying longer and heading up North to Lapland but it’s late in the Winter season and we may end with a lot of slush rather than snow, so we are leaving that adventure for another time. Plans for Helsinki are mostly to wander around the city and old town and check out the best known sights.
We are also hoping to get over to Suomenlinna an inhabited sea fortress built on six islands and which now forms part of the city of Helsinki.
If jet lag isn’t too awful we will take a day trip up to the medieval town of Porvoo, which is supposed to have an amazing old town, fantastic food and be very photogenic.
Just for something different we are booked to stay in Hotel Katajanokka, a former prison established in 1837, but now operating as a hotel.
So when I have talked about our itinerary for this trip, the most common question I get is ‘why Estonia?’ We are spending 2 days in Tallin, Estonia’s capital city, which is situated on the Baltic sea and a couple of hour ferry ride through the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Several friends and family have visited Tallin (and it’s on the wish-list for quite a few more) and it gets rave reviews.
Our plan is to explore the Tallin Old Town, and take thousands of photographs of the picturesque city. Estonia is also known for being cheap for food and alcohol compared to its Scandinavian neighbours, so that might give our credit cards a reprieve!
If we get time we have other areas of Estonia we would like to explore and we might do an excursion out of Tallin to nearby beaches and castles. Given it’s again likely to be below zero degrees we might just enjoy some cafes and some warm food!
The Netherlands was not even on our radar when we initially started planning this trip. Anto, Astrid and I had stayed in Amsterdam for a few nights back in 2012 and had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
We have been keen to return but it was only when I realised that we were travelling during the approximately 6 week period that all of the Netherlands bursts into colour with tens of millions of bulbs in flower, did we decide that we should really go back on this trip. Our last visit was in Autumn and the canals of Amsterdam and windmills and seaports of the smaller villages were beautiful, but I love my flowers so have been longing to visit in Spring.
If you are going to visit the Netherlands in Spring, then a trip to Keukenhof gardens is a must. It is Canberra’s Floriade on some serious steroids! We were quite keen to explore some of the flower fields outside of Amsterdam and travel the Bollenstreek or Bloemen Route (Flower Route). Holland being one of the most cycling friendly cities on earth we thought that we should hire bikes and ride the flower route.
On our last trip to the Netherlands, we didn’t do any riding. It was early in our trip and we weren’t sure if a 16 month old Miss Astrid would enjoy being on a bike. Later that trip we discovered she loved bike rides and we wished we had of hired bikes in Amsterdam to get around. This time we found a 5 day bike tour that takes us from Amsterdam through the many flower fields of Holland and to Keukenhof gardens.
The tour starts in Amsterdam, so we have a day to explore Amsterdam on foot (or bike) and then we are off to the city of Haarlem, via some small towns. Haarlem is another city full of canals, cobblestone streets and a defensive sea wall, and it looks beautiful.
We then are heading off on the Bloemen Route, through hopefully many fields of flowers. We have a couple of nights in the university town of Leiden in South Holland to explore the nearby villages, fields and Keukenhof gardens.
Then a very scenic cycle back to Amsterdam for another day of exploring the beautiful city and parks. We are in the Netherlands towards to start of the flower season but fingers crossed for some nice (hopefully sunny and not freezing) weather, and lots of flowers!
Italy is where this trip got complicated. Having not been to Italy before (aside from Anto when he was very young) we wanted to allocate a chunk of time to Italy. We wanted to do the ‘big 3’: Rome, Venice and Florence, but beyond that there were too many regions and not enough time to do everything we wanted. Our preferred plan was to do a bike tour through Tuscany but we had no luck getting a tour appropriate for the kids in our price range. We’d fallen in love with the idea of riding through Tuscany (hills and all) so decided to leave it for later when the kids are older or we do Anto’s big dream camper van holiday. In the meantime we had been recommended a bike tour of Sardinia as a more family friendly option. In researching the tour and Sardinia, we were intrigued, so Sardinia was in and Tuscany was out (mostly).
So that brings us to the finish our Dutch bike tour in Amsterdam. We were hoping to fly from there to Florence, in Italy, but we were able to get flights into Pisa for around a quarter of the price so we are now flying to Pisa and spending the afternoon in the famous city before a short (and cheap) 1 hour train to Florence. Pisa gets us a little taste of Tuscany outside of Florence and means we can get those cheesy shots with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a gelato, and wander around the square of miracles. We then have some time to explore the old town before heading to Florence for dinner.
We have just under 2 days in Florence. That might not be enough time for dedicated art lovers but with 2 kids who are going to be mostly keen on gelato and playing at parks, we think we’ll do all right! I’ve had at least 3 different (and very reliable) friends tell me that Florence has the best gelato in all of Italy, so we are going to have to check that out for ourselves.
There will no doubt be time for a few of the big sights that aren’t gelato related, the Duomo, statue of David, Ponte Vecchio, Boboli gardens and the San Lorenzo markets.
From Florence we are taking the train to Rome where we have 3 days to explore. Having not been to Rome before, it will be all the big tourist hotspots: Trevi fountain; the Pantheon; Victor Emmanuel Monument; Borghese Garden; Spanish Steps, Castel St Angelo and as many crowded Piazza’s as we can take. The Colosseum and Roman Forum are a must, and given the kids were keen on the Roman ruins in Lyon last year, we are hoping they will enjoy Rome too!
Where on earth is Sardinia? Sardinia is a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily, and lies just South of the French island of Corsica. It has nearly 2,000km of coastline, sandy beaches and a mountainous interior crossed with hiking trails. Its rugged landscape is dotted with thousands of nuraghi – mysterious Bronze Age stone ruins shaped like beehives.
We have a 6 night/7 day bike tour of Sardinia booked. We start the tour in Alghero on the North-West coast of Sardinia, an hours flight from Rome. Encircled by ancient walls, it’s known for its cobblestone old town, Catalan walls and seafood. If the weather is cooperative we are hoping to visit nearby Neptune’s Grotto, a stalactite cave.
I’m pretty excited about this tour – lots of totally different and amazing scenery, and staying in cute little boutique hotels. Wine, seafood, gelato…….. don’t think we will suffer. Sardinia is known for its beautiful beaches, but also due to its remote nature and land: the waters rival the Caribbean! We will spend a week biking all around rugged landscape of the island.
On the second day of the tour we will cycle along the west coast, from Alghero to Bosa, admiring the unique coastline.
The following days will take us through medieval villages and roman towns, such as Santu Lussurgiu, then down to Oristano, Tharros, a Punic-Roman ruins complex, past vineyards and volcanic mountains.
Towards the end of the tour we ride past the Sinis Peninsula where we will hopefully see lagoons of pink flamingos, and crystal clear mediterranean waters.
After our last night in Oristano we are heading to Cagliari, the capital city, in the South of Sardinia, by train and then flying to Venice via Rome.
We have 2 nights and 2 and a bit days in Venice. I’m looking forward to Venice. People rave about it, others hate that it’s so touristy – but we are keen to check it out for ourselves. With my love of photographing bodies of water I should be in heaven! We have booked an apartment which has it’s own water door, so that should be a pretty interesting experience for the kids.
We will of course do the usual touristy stuff in Venice: gondola rides, Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge. We are also hoping to get time to get out to some of the islands, particularly Burano with its coloured houses.
Anto had the brilliant (or insane) idea that we should do the overnight train from Venice to Paris. So, after our final day in Venice we are in a sleeper car on a 15 hour train trip through to France. The kids are rather excited about this, I’m mostly thinking about how much wine and pastry I need to take with us to make it bearable!
After our almost 3 days off the bike, our walking legs might be weary so it’s time for another bike tour. We are arriving into Paris mid-morning from Venice, and then will be spending a couple of hours stretching our legs, exploring some parks, and most likely hoovering as much French patisserie down our throats as possible before heading onwards via train to the Loire Valley.
During our 2012 trip we caught the train from Paris to the city of Tours and hired a car and explored a few château in the Loire Valley for the day. With a 17 month old Astrid in tow, it was a whirl-wind trip but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and wished we had of had more time to explore the region, particularly some of the beautiful villages.
This time we are going to explore on bike. We’ve booked a 4 night/5 day castles and château tour of the Loire Valley. The tour has 2 nights each in the villages of Amboise and Blois. We visited Amboise briefly in 2012 and we really wanted to stay longer. This time we happen to be booked into a 17th Century château for 2 nights, that’ll be tough!
We will have to drag ourselves away from it to cycle through the many villages, while visiting a bucket-load of château and castles and their landscaped grounds. It should be amazing. I can’t wait to see more of the grounds than we could cover on foot, and stop through villages for refills of wine, cheese and patisserie before cycling on.
After the conclusion of our bike tour we have some time before heading back to Paris so are doing a side trip from the town of Blois to Orléans. Orléans is a city on the banks of the Loire River in north-central France, and it’s the capital of the Centre-Val de Loire region. Joan of Arc famously saved the city from English siege in 1429. There is plenty of history in the city and it has a reportedly amazing park which the kids should thoroughly enjoy.
We are finishing the European portion of our trip in Paris, with 4 full days. Having spent a lot of time in Paris, we have seen most of the big-ticket sights, but our favourite thing to do is wander the streets, eating the delicious food and taking the kids from one park to another. This time the parks may even be green!
Aside from having our favourite fromageries and patisseries we also know where we love to shop, so it might be time to fill up the suitcases.
Depending on how tired we are there might be a trip up the Eiffel Tower for Soren as he hasn’t been up and some visits to some restaurants we’ve been hoping to try.
We are setting aside one day to visit the village of Giverny and Monet’s Garden. We went here in 2012, during Autumn, and it was spectacular. We don’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit again in Spring. We are contemplating doing it as a bike tour, if we aren’t totally over bikes by then!
From Paris we have business seats on points back to Singapore (via London). That should make the return journey for our tired legs a little more pleasant!
We have around 28 hours on our return trip to Singapore, and a night booked at the Westin. I think swimming, eating, relaxing and sleeping will be on the agenda. As well as soaking up the last bit of sunshine. By the time we return to Canberra, May and cold weather will well and truly be upon us!
That’s the wrap-up of the plans for our European adventure, the 2017 version. I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips on our plans. If you’ve been to any of these places and have a favourite restaurant, cafe, park or coffee spot, let me know!
I am sure there will be many pictures and stories to come about our adventures, so stay tuned……