Christina and Chris were celebrating their second wedding anniversary, and contemplating the reality of starting a family at some point in the future, and wanted to go cram in as much of Europe as possible before “settling down”.  Because Chris is a teacher, their summers are flexible, so Christina blocked a few weeks out of work and they sat down with me to plan an epic adventure. In the span of three weeks, they did a pretty good job of exploring Belgium, Italy and Greece. While you might not want to replicate their breakneck pace, you could take their tips and suggestions (below) and make any one of these three countries into a very nice vacation on its own:

 

Our European Escape

Although our trip was just over a three-week span according to the calendar, it feels like my husband and I were away for months!  Now looking back at the photos and reminiscing about the adventures from the beginning of our trip, the moments already feel like a lifetime ago.  I am so grateful for this feeling and for your expert planning for our travels abroad!!

Belgium

Mons, Belgium was the first destination on our whirlwind tour.  My dad has been living there for just over a year now, and we joined my step-mom, brother, and Loofa (my dad and step-mom’s bichon frise) for five fun-filled days.  We sampled beers in every town and city, reveled in the chocolate, and devoured the waffles.  We began our time together in the city center of Mons, and then branched out to Tournai, Waterloo, Brussels, Ostend, Bruges, and Ghent in the following days.  Each place reflected its roots – French speaking Wallonia or the Dutch speaking Flemish countryside.  A Flemish city always seemed to be organized and clean!

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Some highlights include Notre-Dame de Tournai, the cathedral in the center of the city, and Tournai’s large open city square with rows of fountains, the museum and Lion’s Mound overlooking the countryside at Waterloo, the Grand Place in Brussels, the expansive beach at Ostend, the architecture and beauty of Bruges, and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.  This sculpture is remarkable for a number of reasons, one of which is that it was the only sculpture to leave Italy during Michelangelo’s lifetime.  (I can’t believe how fortunate we are to have seen both Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in Bruges and the Pietà in Rome on the same European trip!).  We took a hilarious and wonderful horse-drawn carriage tour of Bruges while in the city, as well!

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I was least familiar with the places to see in this country, relying mostly on my dad for our itinerary.  I did, however, consult your Destination Guide email that introduced us to Belgium via the web.  This was a great resource!  Because of this email, my family specifically decided to take our last full day together to travel to Ghent, Belgium.  The city was described as a “less-touristy” Bruges, and we were excited to explore it as a family.  It did not disappoint!  The city offered a castle, boat tours along the city’s canals, and a beautiful skyline of medieval architecture.  There is a wealth of history in Ghent, and we only just tasted a sample!

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Belgium is beautiful.  I may have underestimated it because of its size, but it has so much to offer!  I am very grateful for the time we were able to spend together exploring this lovely country with my family.

 Italy

After a farewell breakfast with my family, Chris and I were off to our first stop in Italy – Venice!  Ann, your instructions and maps for transportation from the airport to our hotel were clear and incredibly helpful – thank you!  We spent the evening wandering the streets, eating dinner, and people watching in Piazza San Marco.  The next day we traveled by water taxi around the canals and took one to the island of Murano.  In addition to watching some very skilled glass blowing demonstrations, we ate our best gelato here!  We grabbed a late afternoon snack of wine, cheese, and charcuterie at this local well-rated hole-in-the-wall type place that was amazing (Hostaria Vecio Biavarol)!  After this we wondered the streets some more, ate a delicious dinner, and took our long-anticipated gondola ride.  A perfect introduction to Italy and the days to come!

Our second stop was Cinque Terre.  We stayed in La Spezia, which was a great choice – especially with our luggage (thank you Ann!).  We took the train to Manarola for dinner on the first night (the local trains are very easy to navigate here!).  We ate a delicious meal and then explored the town, hiking to see the views at sunset.  We took the ferry the following morning to get from town to town. We didn’t hike as much as we would have liked, but we hit the beaches at Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore instead!  We spent our final evening hours walking the streets of La Spezia, which is a very lively town in the evening!

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We took a train to Florence the next day.  Our hotel was very close to the train station and perfectly located for exploring the city.  Again, you gave us a wonderful recommendation to try the Central Market in Florence.  This was our first stop – and it was huge!  We grabbed a quick, delicious lunch from the upstairs floor that was filled with a number of great Italian restaurants.  We met our Accademia tour guide in the afternoon, Brenda from ArtViva.  Having now seen the David twice, I can attest to the value in touring the Accademia with a guide.  Brenda gave many more insights about the sculpture than I knew on my own, and hearing her talk about the details with the David in front of us was incredible.  After the tour, we ended up buying tickets to an opera for that night, held in a small church.  We were skeptical of our purchase when we first saw the venue (it was so small!), but the talent was impressive!

The next day we actually decided to book a day tour in Tuscany with Walkabout Florence – we couldn’t resist!  Even though we were disappointed to cut our time in Florence, we ended up being very happy with the tour purchase.  The tour took us to Siena (Florence’s “rival” city from years past), an organic farm and vineyard in the Chianti region for a Tuscan lunch and wine tasting, San Gimignano, and a final stop in Pisa!  The whole experience was wonderful, from learning about the horse races in Siena to the delicious meal at the vineyard to the spiraling, sea-legs-like climb of the Leaning Tower.

The following morning we took a high-speed train from Florence to Naples where Fabrizio picked us up for a stress-free transfer to Sorrento.  Along the way, we had scheduled a tour of Pompeii.  Our tour guide Barbara introduced us to the ancient city.    It is terrible to think of the fate of these people, but I am very thankful we were able to see this historical site in person.  Fabrizio was kind enough to wait for us at a coffee shop (and keep our luggage safe!) while we toured with Barbara.  He finished our transfer with the drop off at our hotel in Sorrento.  Chris and I were excited about this hotel because of its rooftop pool!

Since we only had a little over a day to see the Amalfi coast, we split our time between a bus ride to  Positano on our first evening and a boat tour around the island of Capri the next day.  Positano was gorgeous!  We hiked up and down the town, dug our toes into the black sand, and grabbed a Spritz from a cliffside restaurant before taking the bus back to our hotel.  Capri was also stunning – offering grottos of orange, green, and blue that you can tour with a group or by renting your own private boat.  We decided to go with the group tour for the cost savings, and toured the entire island of Capri, including a stop in the famous Blue Grotto.  After our island tour, we took the ferry back to Sorrento with enough time to hit our hotel’s rooftop pool and explore the town famous for its limoncello.

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The next day we took a morning transfer and train to arrive in Rome by noon.  After checking into our beautiful hotel, we explored our surroundings – including a stop at the Spanish steps!  Our first night in Rome was our two-year anniversary, so we ate dinner at a restaurant picked out by my husband.  He did a great job researching!  We had wonderful service and a mouthwatering meal at Matermatuta (we highly recommend this spot!).

We woke up bright and early the following morning for our CityWonders’ Vatican skip-the-line tour.  Having visited the Vatican before (but without a guide!), I was looking forward to the insights we would learn as part of the tour group.  We were not disappointed!  Not only were we able to “skip-the-line” and listen to our knowledgeable tour guide, we were able to enter the museum before it even opened!  The early start time of the tour was totally worth it – and it included a skip-the-line tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, too.  Chris and I even climbed the dome afterward!  After this we actually went back to our hotel to nap – which helped us enjoy the evening of sightseeing around the city.

Our final day in Rome we did a tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum with CityWonders. This tour was very informative and also let’s you skip-the-line! After the tour we tried to hop on a tour bus of the city, but I wouldn’t recommend this bus to others.  The line for the hop-on, hop-off bus tours was long and the ride itself was not as informative or enjoyable as we would have liked.  After we “hopped off,” we wandered the streets of Rome to sightsee and grabbed a later lunch before heading back to our hotel for our transfer to the airport.  We were off to catch our evening flight to Greece!

Greece

Our private driver was waiting for us (even with our delayed flight!) and drove us to our city center Athens accommodations.  Everything went smoothly, allowing us to get a good night’s rest before our 8:30am walking tour of Athens the next morning.

The tour group was the two of us and four Australian friends.  We were happy to have them along since our tour guide was not the chattiest!  It was relaxing to walk to the major sites in Athens, including the Parliament building with its symbolically dressed guards, the first modern day Olympic stadium, the Temple of Zeus, and the Acropolis.  Once at the Acropolis, we were on our own to explore.  We spent time on the mount itself – a massive example of Grecian achievement – and followed the tour with a visit to the New Acropolis Museum.  This museum was incredibly well done!  If you visit Athens, this museum is a must-see!  For the remainder of the day, Chris and I grabbed a late lunch and then toured the city streets that night.

Early the next day we flew to Santorini!  Thank you so much for booking us a gorgeous, newly renovated resort in Fira!  The location was a small hike to the main streets of Fira town, but completely worth it for the peacefulness of the accommodations.  We loved it!  We enjoyed the pool and amenities at the resort first, and then walked into the town of Fira to explore and have dinner.  After a day of on-and-off rain (so rare for the island!) the sky surprised us with a gorgeous sunset while we ate dinner on the cliffside of Fira.  A relaxing, beautiful first day in Santorini!

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On our second day, we woke early to catch a cable car down to the pier.  I would highly recommend taking a cable car in the early morning!  We had no line and barely had to wait before our car zipped us down the cliffside to the pier.  We strolled along until we found what we were looking for – donkeys!  We heard about taking donkeys up the cliffs of Fira, and we couldn’t resist!   The weathered Greek men practically tossed us onto our donkeys (or rather, mules, we realized), and off they trotted!  No instructions or warnings of how to ride them, we barreled up the donkey path – almost running into pedestrians and other donkey/mule riders along the way.  The experience was hilarious and definitely one of our favorites from the trip!

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After we dismounted at the top of the cliff, Chris and I took a public bus to Akrotiri to see the famous Red Beach.  It was beautiful to see the contrasting red rocks with the deep blue water.  That evening, we took a public bus again, but this time to the other side of the island – to Oia.  Not only did the town offer gorgeous views, it hosts the majority of the iconic Greek Isle “postcard” landmarks.  Only eating our dinner paused my picture taking!  It truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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The following morning we packed up for our final transfer before heading home!  We took the SeaJet ferry from Santorini to Mykonos.  Everything went smoothly with our transportation, and we were in awe when we arrived at the Myconian Imperial Hotel!  The service treated us like royalty, toured us around the amazing facilities, and left us to enjoy complimentary refreshments in our beautiful hotel room.

All of our meals at the resort were delicious – from the free buffet-style breakfast, to the lunches at the poolside restaurant, to the main dinner restaurant with the gorgeous views, to the amazing sushi restaurant that took reservations until midnight.  Definitely worth every penny!  We made use of the free shuttle to the main town one evening, caught the sunset with the famous Myconian windmills, and ate a traditional Greek meal at the quaintest restaurant, To Maereio.  We highly recommend this small, hidden eatery!  It was interesting finding the place though because the streets of Mykonos were designed to confuse pirates – and it definitely is easy to get lost!

On our final day, we had reserved a horseback riding excursion through the hotel.  Our guide, Angelika, was wonderful and so patient with us as we learned the ropes (literally!) of horseback riding.  We had a wonderful experience – the only downer was that the pictures made it seem like we would be riding along the beach the whole time (and even in the ocean!).  We actually rode on a trail to and from the beach, with a small amount of time on the beach itself.  Granted, I guess the horses really like to roll around in the sand when it’s hot!! So Chris got some action when he had to quickly jump off his horse to not be a part of the backscratching party, hahaha! Thankfully he was fine – and it now makes for one of our most hilarious stories from the trip!

Before heading home, we basked in as much Grecian sun and Aegean ocean water as we could!  We spent a total of three days at our resort on Mykonos, and it was the perfect way to relax, refresh, and reflect on our trip before returning home.  We’re so happy we booked this trip with you, Ann!  We would’ve never booked such a beautiful place for ourselves at the end of our trip, but it was the perfect way to top off our amazing adventures in Europe.

All in all, this trip was EXACTLY what we were hoping for and looking forward to – it was the trip of a lifetime!  Thank you so much for making it possible!