Friday, 18 December 2015

Milan for £20 next February half-term!

Milan is a city everyone should visit once in their lifetime and, with flights next February half-term for only £20 return, it's within realistic financial grasp.  Shiny Milano glimmers in the weak winter's sunshine and the marbled Duomo di Milano glows. seemingly smugly, from Piazza del Duomo. 

Whilst the interior of the cathedral offers a trove of treasures, the real highlight is the roof of the building.  Tourists can either take the effortless option of the elevator up to the towering terrace with its gargoyles and flying butresses or, like our family did, clamber up the 165 steps to the top.  The price is reduced if you embark on the challenge of walking up and, with children under six years old going free, this is a memorable adventure.  To see the children charging along the crest of a 14th century cathedral alongside the 135 spires and 3200 statues, and peering over the edge down towards the tiny specks of people below is a hair-raising experience.

Additionally, for the mums (and fashion-conscious dads), the window-shopping in Milan is incomparable.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is an epic centre of sartorial excellence, with its 19th century glass and iron architecture and its magnificent atruim.  Brands represented in this heaven for shoppers include Mario Prada's first ever shop (opened in 1913) and Gucci's flagship store.

Less than an hour from Milan (by train) is beautiful Bergamo with its medieval walls encapsulating thousands of years of history.  High up above città bassa (lower town), città alta (upper town) presides over the region and, if the walk proves too much for tired little legs, the modern funicular provides a fun alternative to an uphill hike.  Bergamo is one of those fabulous Italian towns where you can spend all day getting lost in the labyrinthine streets and waste  countless hours dipping into churches to view the stunning frescoes and beautiful altars.

So, for £20 each, what's to lose?  Winter's sun, Italian fashion and classical architecture are all waiting to be enjoyed.

Friday, 11 December 2015

An Easy(jet) Peasy Way to Save Money

Yesterday, EasyJet released their flights for the period up until 29th October 2016.  This means that the early bird will catch the bargains to the major (and minor) cities across Europe for schools' half-terms.

October half-term is a little earlier than usual next year so be sure to check your dates carefully!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Prices are getting lower and lower!

Since last week's post about February half-term flights, prices have lowered even more!  NOW is the time to get a bargain break for you and the family.

If you're flexible, there are many destinations for under £20 return.  Milan is coming in at £17 return for February 2016 - what a perfect city break and, if you read my blog from November, you'll find plenty of money-saving tips to make a trip affordable.

Or, what about Dusseldorf for £15 return?  Madrid for £24?  The possibilities are endless.

Look on skyscanner to find the best deals.  This website will allow you to search from all UK airports to every destination around the world at the mere click of a button. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

SERIOUS bargains for February half-term!

As usual, I've been searching flight prices.  My husband would call it an obsession, I'd call it being well-informed!  Anyway, whoever you side with, there's no denying that there are some crazy
flight prices this weekend for numerous European destinations.  At February half-term, why not grab a bargain and have a cheeky city break with the family?

Prices I've found today can't be ignored and they'll need booking pronto.  Prices are liable to rise...

So, what have I found to tempt you?

London - Oslo   £28 return
London - Gothenburg  £27 return
Liverpool - Riga  £43 return
London - Cologne  £29 return
Liverpool - Gdansk  £26 return
London - Copenhagen  £25 return
Liverpool - Dublin  £15 return

These are just a taste of the bargains. is the place to look.  You can search from your desired airport to 'everywhere' to find the best deals.  When it's cheaper to explore a corner of Poland than it is to get a cab to your nearest town, you know it's time to pack your suitcase!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Go to Gozo!

If you want guaranteed sunshine, beautiful scenery and exceptional value for money, then look no further than Malta's little sister, Gozo.  A three and a half hour flight from the UK, Gozo is like stepping back in time to an era when life was easy and chilled.

Flights into Malta's Luqa airport are plentiful and next Easter sees flights at only £72 return from London Luton.  With self-catering accommodation for a family of four being in the region of £300 for a week's rental, an Easter break could cost as little as £600.  Even with spending money, the cost of this family break comes in at less than £1000.

The islands of Malta and Gozo are surprisingly easy to navigate by bus and, with public transport being so cheap, there is absolutely no need to hire a car.  A circuitous bus journey takes tourists from the airport to the ferry terminal at Ċirkewwa in an hour, allowing little ones to watch out of the window as the bus weaves around the island. The half-hour ferry ride is part of the fun for the kids and you'll find that plenty of accommodation in Gozo is easily accessible, by foot, from the ferry port.  Għajnsielem, meaning "Peaceful Spring", is a village just above the bustling port with a supermarket, a vibrant village square and stunning views over to Comino, the third island in this archipelago.

Gozo is idyllic.  With only 30,000 residents, there is an air of calm surrounding the island and the rural scenery is stunning.  The Capital city of Victoria is bang slap in the middle of Gozo, a mere 6 kilometres from the ferry dock.  The city formerly known as Rabat, (it was renamed after Queen Victoria in 1897), boasts 15th century walls which incorporate a couple of informative museums and an old prison.  The views from the battlements are amazing and, to see the whole island of Gozo stretched out beneath you, is beautiful.

As mentioned earlier, the bus system is excellent on Gozo and daily bus passes for the family will only set you back 5 euros.  We spent a couple of days exploring the island and stopping off at inviting beaches and coves.  One of the highlights of our many bus trips was to Dwejra on the west coast of the island,  Here, the Blue Hole and Azure Window are breathtaking geological features which make for a great afternoon's entertainment as you leap over the cratered limestone and peer into the rockpools.  Xlendi, just down the road and along the same bus route, makes for a wonderful al fresco meal as the sun sets in the cove.  Ramla Bay with its red sand is also worth a stop, although it can get pretty rammed in the height of summer.

Eating out in Gozo is amazingly cheap and, believe me, you'll eat more than you want (or need) once you see the prices!  Very quickly, we found a favourite restaurant and ate there regularly, realising that to eat out is an easy option on this island.  The centre of Għajnsielem is a great place to sit and watch the world go by!  A round of drinks for mum and dad and two ice-creams for the kids never set us back more than 3 euros in our favourite bar and, as the sun set, the village's children would appear with a football and off our two would run, bridging the language gap with sport.

Beautiful squares, looked down upon by magnificent churches, are dotted around Gozo and it's worth asking locals whether the local villages have any community events planned.  We were lucky enough to coincide with a feast day in Qala and saw another side to this sleepy island; the locals definitely know how to party!

No trip to Malta and Gozo would be complete without a stay in Valetta and, here, you can splurge as there are always good hotel deals.  Just outside the city gates, we stayed at a 5* hotel for a treat and it was worth every euro.  The children swam in the luxurious pool and we made the most of the buffet breakfast the following morning, taking enough goodies to keep us going all day!  Valetta is a wonderfully elegant city with a Unesco World Heritage Site status.  The National War Museum is fascinating for the boys in the family and the water fountains at Misraħ San Ġorġ are fabulous for the kids to cool down in.  For children, a day's worth of exploration will be enough in Valetta and a stopover on the way to the airport would be the perfect way to end the holiday.

Gozo really is the place to go.  It's laidback, it's cheap and it's geographically stunning.  The self-catering accommodation is amazing value for money; old characterful buildings have been renovated and most have pools - what more could a family want on a value-rich holiday?  A lot of holiday-makers head to Malta for their guaranteed sunshine in the spring months but Gozo, in my opinion, is a better alternative. 

Go to Gozo - I promise you won't regret it.

Friday, 20 November 2015

A February half-tern Danish delight for £25

Copenhagen rocks! This city is a beautifully fresh introduction to the wonders of Scandinavia and, with 'The Bridge' back on BBC4, Denmark is a fashionable destination. Next February half-term, there are flights to the capital city for just £25 return from London Luton.

Now, my Midlands friends, don't be put off by a London airport because Luton is accessible for all.  It's immediately off the M1 and just over an hour and a half's drive from Birmingham. Additionally, many low-cost airlines fly from this Bedfordshire hub: Easyjet, Ryanair and Wizz Air are always sure guarantees of cheap flights to European treasures.

So, Copenhagen. Just an hour's flight from the UK, it's a perfect destination for a family. Child-friendly and easily walkable, there's lots to do for free!

The first thing that hits you about Copenhagen is the bikes.  Everyone cycles everywhere and the city is geared up for the two-wheeled commuter.  The cycle lanes are mammoth and cyclists are definitely the kings of the road as you approach the centre of this city.  As you would expect for a city with such a green vision, the public transport networks are excellent and allow a family visitor plenty of scope for exploring the region.

Copenhagen itself is a city perfect for the feet and children will love walking through the districts.  Our favourite part of the city is Nyhavn.  There's plenty of people-watching to be had whilst you sit outside a bar, drinking a pint of Carlsberg or Tuborg, imagining the carousing and cajoling of sailors from yesteryear's Danish history.  Or, perhaps, the more literary types among you would rather sit and remark upon Denmark's favourite son, Hans Christian Andersen who lived here for most of his life and is responsible for Copenhagen's famous bronze daughter, The Little Mermaid.

A ten minute walk from Nyhavn is Slotsholmen, the home of the national government.  Connected to the rest of the city by a series of bridges over the canal, the palace courtyard is open to the general public.  If you were an avid viewer of the BBC4 drama "Borgen", you'll identify some of the locations featured in the political drama.  Also within the parliamentary complex is the Christiansborg Palace Tower, a 106 metre tower with panoramic views of Copenhagen.  It's free to take the elevator to the top and it's worth the trip to get a sense of how the city unfolds below you.

The Nationalmuseet at Frederiksholms Canal is another sight not to be missed.  It is filled with Danish history and, what you don't know about Vikings after you've spent a few hours in this amazing museum isn't worth knowing!  Viking weaponry, Iron Age collections and Bronze Age relics are all there for the viewing and, as the museum is free, it's a cheap afternoon's entertainment and education for the family.

If you're wanting to escape the city and see a bit more of Danish life, then the excellent option  of a 'Round the Sound' trip is for you. This travel pass makes the most of Scandinavia's public transport system and involves travelling by train  up the coast of Denmark towards Helsingør where you can visit the eponymous castle, home of Shakespeare's Hamlet.  The trip then continues across the water on a twenty minute ferry crossing to Helsingborg in Sweden.  The intrepid traveller then travels south to Malmo by train before crossing the famous Øresund Bridge which connects the two countries.  The ticket is valid for two days and you can jump on and off transport as you wish, staying overnight in Malmo if you fancy exploring Sweden's third largest city.  Reasonably-priced at £60 for a family of four, it enables you to have a taste of Scandinavia without having to hire a car. 

Practically, accommodation will be your main expense in Copenhagen but avoiding hotels will reduce the costs dramatically. Self-catering properties are of a particularly high standard in his city and, if you're a fan of minimalist Ikea-type furnishings, then you'll love the trendy rental possibilities found on Trip Advisor and  Even with accommodation thrown into the financial mix, a few days in this city shouldn't cost more than £500 for a family of four, even with all the activities mentioned in this blog.

So, if you're a fan of BBC4 Scandi dramas or if you just want a citybreak with fresh air, Viking history and fairytales, then you're in for a treat with 'wonderful wonderful' Copenhagen.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

An Easter week in Italy for £150 each!

With next Easter's school holiday throwing up an array of dates (depending on your local authority), now is the time to get the bargain breaks.  Holiday companies and airlines can't seem to catch up with the fact that some schools are breaking up late-March whereas others aren't holidaying until mid-April.  When there are discrepancies in dates, there are bargains to be had!

Browsing through possible flights next Easter, I've found return fares from as little as £35 return from London and Manchester to Italy in early April 2016.  Milan, Bologna, Parma, Pisa and Genoa are all priced below £50.

But where exactly to go to have a sumptuous taste of la dolce vita?  Well, as a family, we love the Lombardy region and the many possibilities it throws up in terms of cultural sightseeing, good food and easy transport options.

There are currently flights with Ryanair for Easter for under £50 from regional UK airports to Bergamo and these are offers not to be missed. 

The wonderful thing about the town of Bergamo is that it is a tourist destination in its own right yet it benefits from being on the doorstep of the bustling cities of Milan and Verona, which are both easy train journeys away.

Having Easyjet and Ryanair serve the airport of Orio Al Serio means that flight prices are competitive and frequent and, as is usual with the economy airlines, the sooner the book, the less you pay. 

Once you've arrived at Bergamo, there is no need to hire a car as public transport is all laid on for the family traveller.  A short 4km bus ride into the city takes no time at all and, seamlessly, the holiday begins minutes after touchdown. 

Bergamo is beautiful and its medieval walls encapuslate thousands of years of history.  High up above città bassa (lower town), città alta (upper town) presides over the region and, if the walk proves too much for tired little legs, the modern funicular provides a fun alternative to an uphill hike.  Bergamo is one of those fabulous Italian towns where you can spend all day getting lost in the labyrinthine streets and waste  countless hours dipping into churches to view the stunning frescoes and beautiful altars.
Bergamo has many reasonably-priced self-catering places in which to stay, allowing you to sit on your own balcony and watch the world go by.  This town comes alive in the evenings and a pre-dinner drink on Piazza Vecchia is a perfect aperitif to a slab of pizza.  Sit drinking chilled prosecco as the sun sets and watch the children as they run amok in the square, splashing in the fountain and chasing each another over the cobbles.

Another day, another city and, just 45 minutes away by train, is the cosmopolitan metropolis of Milan.  Shiny Milano glimmers in the searing sunshine and the marbled Duomo di Milano glows smugly from the centre of the square.  Whilst the cathedral offers a trove of treasures, the real highlight is the roof of the building.  Tourists can either take the effortless option of the elevator up to the towering terrace with its gargoyles and flying butresses or, like we did, clamber up the 165 steps to the top.  The price is reduced if you embark on the challenge of walking up and, with children under six years old going free, this is a memorable adventure.  To see the children charging along the crest of a 14th century cathedral alongside the 135 spires and 3200 statues, and peering over the edge down towards the tiny specks of people below is a hair-raising experience.

For the mums (and fashion-conscious dads), the window-shopping in Milan is incomparable.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is an epic centre of sartorial excellence, with its 19th century glass and iron architecture and its magnificent atruim.  Brands represented in this heaven for shoppers include Mario Prada's first ever shop (opened in 1913) and Gucci's flagship store. 

Further afield, but still under two hours by train from Bergamo, is Verona - perfect for children who are studying Shakespeare at school.  Romeo and Juliet fell in love here and you can join the throng of tourists desperate to view the famous balcony at Casa di Giulietta where she fictitiously uttered the immortal words, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"  The souvenir shops are tacky and overpriced but your eight year old will yearn for that pencil-sharpener keepsake of Shakespearean love! At Capulet's house, the thing that appealed to my kids the most was the statue of Juliet and her boobs!  It's considered lucky to touch her much-worn bronze breasts and so we joined the queue of tourists waiting to get their hands on this icon of romance!  Explaining that photo to Grandma and Grandad took some doing, let me tell you!

However, the most spectacular aspect of Verona is the amphitheatre, built in AD 30.  This vast attraction gives a wonderful sense of Roman culture and, located on Piazza Bra, it offers plenty of opportunities for childish giggles at the street signs.  At night, there is nothing that beats a meal al fresco on the piazza whilst listening to the operatic offerings from one of the largest ampitheatres in the world floating through the still evening air.  Definitely an Italian feast for the senses.

So, Milan, Bergamo and Verona.  A three-centre holiday which offers up so much of Italy and her delights.  With self-catering accommodation costing in the region of £50 a night and reliance upon cheap public transport, a week-long holiday next Easter should cost under £600 for a family of four.  A bargain not to be missed, surely?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Tesco-tastic holiday savings

Who'd have thought that Tesco could be your best friend when it comes to booking holidays?

A really easy method of saving cash on holidays abroad is to use Tesco Clubcard vouchers. Not many people realise that these coupons can be put towards a European holiday, either by using them to book cross-channel ferry crossings or purchasing entrance tickets to theme parks and attractions. We spent a fun-filled week in northern France, predominantly paid for by our clubcard points, purely earned on our weekly shop.

So, how did we make the most of our Clubcard points?

Well, my son (and husband) both grew up with Asterix comics and, after countless nights of reading aloud bedtime stories about the Gauls, I felt I knew the characters intimately.  Indeed, I considered Mrs Geriatrix a close friend! So, when I discovered that there was an amusement park devoted to the tales of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, I was sold on the idea of a family trip to France.  Parc Asterix is only 45 kilometres from the centre of Paris. A perfect combination: plastic for the children and a bit of culture pour les parents.

Obviously, we had a choice of transportation.  We could either fly direct to Paris or we could drive, meandering down through the UK and having a few days exploring northern France on 'the other side'.  Not being rushed for time, we decided to take the long route.  However, have you seen the price of ferries?  No wonder Ryanair and Easyjet have a monopoly on European travel.  Having only travelled by cross-channel ferry on the odd 'booze cruise' in the 1990s, I hadn't anticipated just how expensive it is to take a car (and a family) to Calais.  This is where Tesco came to the rescue as I discovered that I could pay for my ferry crossing with points I'd built up through the year.  £10 worth of Clubcard points become £30 when you redeem them with DFDS Seaways.  So, effectively, our ferry cost zilch.

In a bid to make the most of our journey, we spent the night before our crossing in Dover at a Premier Inn right on the seafront, complete with the noisiest seagulls I've ever heard. Arriving at the windswept coast at lunchtime meant that we were able to see Dover's eponymous Castle - the most amazing place I've ever visited. We spent hours exploring the secret tunnels of World War II, comprehending the danger of the Dunkirk evacuation and noisily charging around the battlements. Built atop the white cliffs, this castle's history features many larger-than-life characters and the children were captivated to see history so up close. As if our day at Dover Castle hadn't been fantastic enough, it was even better knowing that our entry had been free, courtesy of Tesco. Using our Clubcard points, we'd purchased English Heritage annual membership at the beginning of the summer and had already made the most of free entry to amazing places such as Kenilworth Castle and Kenwood House. Had we paid the entry fee for Dover Castle, it would have set us back £50 for a family entry. However, we'd managed to secure a whole year's entry into castles, palaces and stately homes for just £30 worth of Tesco Clubcard points. That evening, we continued the Tesco theme that evening by eating in nearby Canterbury, using Prezzo vouchers we'd earned through our Clubcard points. We were definitely reaping the benefits of spending countless pounds on groceries the previous year!

Once we'd crossed the channel the following day, our French sojourn stretched before us and we listened to dodgy Europop all the way to what was to be our home for the next few days.  One hundred and fifty miles from the bustling port of Calais, we'd found a great holiday rental in the town of Chantilly, a place famous for its lace and cream.  Staying in an annex of an elderly French couple's house meant that we had use of their garden, complete with table-tennis table for the kids and much-appreciated sun loungers for mum and dad!  A supermarket in the nearby town, a local boulangerie and a pizza delivery firm down the road meant that we were never far from food!
Perhaps the best aspect of our holiday home, though, was its proximity to the beautiful Domaine de Chantilly, a perfect stately pile in which to while away an afternoon. Originally built for the Montmorency family in 1560, its majestic interior is opulent, yet the formal gardens are a wonderful playground for young and old alike. As the children ran wild through the 383 acres of lawns and forest paths, we sat back and admired the architectural splendour and the bygone days of French aristocracy against the backdrop of stunning natural charm. With a wallaby zoo, a maze and the enticing cream pastries in the cafés, Chantilly is a well-kept secret in this region of France.  Just opposite the grand house are the largest horse stables in Europe, complete with equestrian shows within the grandeur of the 18th century architecture. 

Also not far from our rental home in the Picardy region of France was Chateau de Pierrefonds, the setting for films such as the 1998 version of "The Man in the Iron Mask" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and John Malkovich.  The BBC's "Merlin" was also filmed here, using the castle as a representation of Camelot.  We had great fun burning off some energy at this beautiful castle.  With under-18s going free, it made for a cheap and educational daytrip.

Once we'd fully explored the locale of Chantilly, we ventured into the bright lights of Paris.  As the local train hurtled through the suburban environs of this captivating city, we kept the children entertained with a 'spot the Eiffel Tower' competition. Their faces when they eventually spotted the 324m high monolithic pylon were a joy to witness; their eyes lit up to see such an iconic landmark.

Once we'd arrived at Gare du Nord, we didn't stop. We walked for hours, taking in all the sights.  Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, Le Louvre and Arc de Triomphe were all ticked off our list. Every corner of this city was visited on foot and, by the time, we found ourselves eye to eye with Mona Lisa, we were exhausted and more than ready to return to the calm of Chantilly.

The next day, Parc Asterix, only 15 miles from our accommodation, was everything we'd hoped it would be. From the larger-than-life characters wandering the park to the stomach-churning rollercoasters, all was an excellent day's worth of fun. A cool alternative to the worldwide monopoly of Disney just down the road, Parc Asterix has the feel of a bygone age of amusement park and it seems earthier and more honest than other theme parks we've visited.  Entrance prices to Parc Asterix are as you would expect.  At fifty euros for adult tickets and 40 euros for children, this could be an expensive day out.  However, by converting our Tesco Clubcard points before leaving the UK, we managed to enjoy our day with Asterix and Obelix for free.  For just £15 worth of Clubcard points, we were able to get a day's entry ticket posted to us and ready to be exchanged at the ticket office.

Leaving our holiday rental on the last day of our holiday didn't mean that our French adventure was over.  With a late ferry crossing booked, we had the whole day to stop and explore.  With a history-mad eight year old in tow, we decided to stop at Vimy Ridge, the site of the World War I battle of Easter 1917 when 3,600 Canadians were killed and over 10,000 wounded.  The monument commemorates this key event of the Battle of Arras and it is considered a Natural Historic Site of Canada.   Finished in 1936, this majestic memorial took eleven years to construct and the tranquility surrounding the monument is both thought-provoking and poignant.  Due to this site being on the Western Front, visitors can also experience the trench lines of  a battlefield in a relatively realistic state.  Now concreted and maintained, the trenchlines enable the modern-day historian to stand below the surface and imagine the horror and destruction of a hundred years ago; a visit which will stay with the children.

So, a week of memories and all for a minimal cost.  Thanks to Tesco, we managed to save a fortune on our trip across the channel.  A free ferry crossing, entry to an incredible UK castle, tickets to a theme park and a family meal out were all benefits of having shopped at Tesco for the year.  Once I'd totted up our savings and realised that our Tesco points had saved us in the region of £450, I allowed myself a smug smile as I flicked through the photographic reminders of an amazing week.

Yes, we could cash in our Clubcard points instore, but I'd much rather know that my regular grocery deliveries were building up to a week of fantastic French fun!  In fact, once home, and as we began to unpack our suitcases, the doorbell rang.  Our Tesco delivery had arrived to restock our fridge and to help us on our way to the next Tesco-funded holiday.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Family-friendly Venice on a budget

Venice.  The hopelessly romantic city where the mist caresses the Grand Canal in winter and where the sun reflects ferociously from the Basilica in the searing mid-summer heat of August.  At any time of year, Venice is one of those once-in-a-lifetime destinations.  It is a multi-faceted city of many disguises.  Having been lucky enough to visit Venice a few times,  I know from experience that this city offers up different jewels depending on who you're holidaying with and which time of year you choose to travel.  It is, though,  the perfect destination for a family. Its picture postcard views will stay in the mind of your child forever and the splendour of the architecture will captivate all ages.

Venice may not seem like a particularly family-friendly destination but I'm here to persuade you to take a Venetian visit.  Obviously, the first barrier in place is the cost.  Yes, Venice is an expensive city but there are easy ways around the prohibitive costs of the 5-star palazzo stays.  With a canny mind and a sense of adventure, a family of four can easily holiday in this spectacular city for the price of a UK-based city break.

So, how to do it...

Firstly, its is important to note that there are two airports which serve Venice.  Treviso is furher away from the action but, for the budget-minded family, flights to this provincial airport should not be ignored.  An important fact to know is that Treviso is utterly beautiful; a holiday destination in its own right.  It is filled with the grandest of buildings and countless piazze, serving early morning cappuccino and afternoon gelato.  Indeed, when we travelled to Venice with the children, it was in Treviso we stayed.  We rented an apartment in Palazzo Rossi, a building built in 1480, for only £40 a night.  The fully-equipped two-bedroomed accommodation was a perfect base from which to explore the local area.  A balcony from the kitchen looked down onto one of the many town squares and the bedrooms were deliciously ornate with original features galore.  Our host, Graziella, also lived in the building and, despite the language barrier, we all got on famously.  She spoilt my children with little gifts and always had an affectionate pinch of the cheek ready for their cute little English neighbours. 

Another benefit of staying in Treviso is that day trips to other cities are easier. We spent a wonderful day in splendid Padua. Only 35 miles away from Treviso, we caught the local bus to this amazing city and enjoyed the fun of watching the Italian way of life unfold as we turned each suburban corner.  Once there, we had an exhilirating day of exploration in this Renaissance masterpiece of a town.  It was great to sit as a couple and watch, from a nearby cafe, our children as they ran amok through the open square, unknowingly soaking up the culture of yesteryear.

Treviso really does have everything you'd need for a family break.  Wonderful restaurants (which charge a lot less than the tourist traps of central Venice), a laidback feel and a direct train to Venice S.Lucia station (costing only £5 return for an adult).  Within half an hour, you and the family are transported from the simple beauty of Treviso to the majesty of Venice.  Along the way, the children (and the adults) will be mesmerised as they watch the splendour of the Venetian buildings appear, like an oasis, upon the horizon.  A note of warning though: do get your tickets validated before embarking the train.  On our first train journey into Venice, it took everything I  had to get us off a fine when the train guard found that we hadn't quite followed protocol.  Seemingly, my eyelash fluttering is quite good, and thankfully, we were let off the hefty fine.

Once in Venice, you step out of the station to a vision of utter beauty aand grandeur.  The Grand Canal stretches out before your eyes and the crowds seem to part as you feel yourself drawn to the water.  This is a city of action; the water is alive with everyday living.  Commuters bundling onto the water buses, tourists canoodling on bridges  and stripy t-shirted gondoliers touting their (overpriced) trips.  A city that is very much alive.

Once you've worked out your bearings, you have a choice of how to reach the most-visited part of the city.  The magnet of St Mark's Square is about a two-mile walk from the train station and it is a mind-blowing stroll through twisting and turning cobbled alleyways and marbled paths of historical significance.   Along the route, you also pass local stores with plenty of provisions for an impromptu picnic at one of the squares passed on the way to the tourist hub.  Everyday life is on display here and, away from the tourists, you can taste a real flavour of residential Venice.  Streets lined with traders, smart-suited businessmen and beautiful women with unfeasibly glossy hair, managing to look sleek and chic in the midday sun. 

As an alternative to a walk, there are water taxis directly near the steps of the train station which will take you down canal.  There is also a (cheaper) option of a vaporetto (water bus)  which transports expectant tourists down the canal towards the main part of the city.  We barely spoke as we traversed towards the beauty of the Campanile, as every bend in the canal presented another view worthy of Canaletto. When we turned one corner and had the Rialto Bridge in front of us, my daughter's face was a picture of awe.  The number 1 vaporetto transports tourists up and down the Grand Canal for the price of a bus ticket and is well worth it.  It's a self-guided tour of perfect views.  Armed with a good guidebook, parents can bore young ears sensless with the history of the water-bound enigma that is Venice.

Obviously, you cannot come to Venice and not ride on a gondola.  With a family, however, there is no way you'll be able to justify the cost.  A little-known (cheat's way) of bagging this experience for very little is to take the traghetto instead.  The traghetto is a local's secret.  It is the means of getting across the Grand Canal when there is no nearby bridge. These short hops across the canal cost about one euro each and, more often than not, you have the traghetto to yourself.  These rides come complete with a gondolier-type so there's plenty of authenticity about it.  It's hilarious watching the children (and your husband) trying to find their centre of gravity as the waves from the ferries slap up against the wood of the tiny boat, catapulting bodies from side to side.

Once you've found your bearings in this labyrinth of a city, an absolute must of a visit is to the Campanile.  Rebuilt in 1902, following its sudden collapse, this bell tower rises up
from Piazza San Marco some 99 metres and looks down upon the beauty of the Basilica di San Marco.  A lift taks you to the top of the tower where the entry fee is justified by views across the lagoon.  A top tip is to conicide your visit  to the Campanile on the hour, when the bells are chiming.  The resounding clang of metal is deafening but so cool for a child to feel the vibration down their spine as the midday bells signals that it's lunch-time and time for pizza!

A wonderful aspect of Venice is the fact that there is a sight around every corner.  Yes, you could stand in the snaking queue for Basilica di San Marco but you'd be much better off finding a church off the beaten track.  Yes, you could pay for a family visit into Palazzo Ducale but to stand and view the architectural splendour of The Bridge of Sighs as its limestone frame crosses the Rio di Palazzo is free.   The Ponte dei Sospiri is so-named because, as legend has it, the resigned sighs of the 17th century prisoners could be heard as they crossed the bridge from the interrogation rooms of the palace to the prison. 

Across the Grand Canal from St Mark's Square is the Guggenheim Museum, housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace.  Works by Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky all juxtapose artistically with the centuries-old vistas and panoramas of Venice.  Tickets to the Peggy Guggenheim are reasonably-priced and children are free.  The sculpture garden, in particular, makes for a kid-friendly interactive experience with modern art. 

Return flights next Easter are only £60 to Treviso.  We travelled to Venice over Easter and the weather was glorious.  In actual fact, we had a wardrobe crisis, as we'd packed for Adriatic spring and arrived in weather that the UK couldn't match, even in the height of midsummer.

Venice. There really is so much to do and see. An adventure awaits you and your family around every cobbled corner.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

February half-term bargain flights

If my recent blog inspired you to visit Brussels, it's worth noting that flights (from Manchester) next February half-term are currently £20 return with Ryanair. Also at that price are flights to Copenhagen and Cologne. What's stopping you?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Family-friendly Amsterdam and Brussels

Next year, (yes, I know you think it's too soon to be considering 2016 but the early bird will catch the worm), there are flights for as little as £19 return to Brussels Charleroi from the UK.  Even factoring in city-centre hotels and train fares, an ease-free double-city break to Brussels and Amsterdam is easily do-able for under £500 for a family of four. So, not your conventional 'sun, sea and sand' summer holiday, but a perfect cultural alternative and one which will definitely be remembered, even if only for the outlandish boobs and willies of the Amsterdam souvenir shops!

We flew into Brussels February half-term and were captivated by the city. The monumental architecture, the sheer scale of the square and the Mannekin Pis all served to be free entertainment for our family and a stroll through the cobbled streets was enough to satisfy the kids' interest.  Chocolate, moules-frites and Belgian beer (for mum and dad) were the perfect pick-me-up when tired little legs were flagging.  Even though it was February, the sun shone and the sightseeing kept us warm enough to take coats off and savour the weak winter sun of Belgium.

A little-known attraction of Brussels is the street art and this was a wonderful way to keep the children looking up and apprecaiting their surroundings.  The art is so much more than graffiti, featuring famous cartoon characters,
including home-grown Tintin.  With the quiffed boy-wonder in mind, it's worth mentioning that the new museum devoted to Herge and his creation is also a must-see for families.  At only 5 euros entry fee for children, it's a brilliant afternoon's worth of entertainment with amazing artwork and funky architecture. 

However, the most interesting activity is to take a tour around the European Parliament's Visitor Centre, known as The Parliamentarium.  Tours are free and very kid-friendly; there are specially devised one hour tours aimed at children aged 8-14 and it's a fascinating tour through the workings of the government.  Booked in advance, families can also have guided tours of the chamber and watch as European decisions are debated in the 24 offical languages of the EU.  We were all fascinated by the workings of a parliament in sitting and are now keen to visit our very own Houses of Parliament to compare how things are done!

A night in a city centre hotel was comfortable and, having only travelled with a small cabin-sized suitcase between us, we were easily transportable, having left the suitcase with the concierge as we explored.  A great feed-up in the morning at the breakfast buffet meant that we didn't need much lunch and a pizzeria in the evening was more than enough for the children to fill their tummies.  We left Brussels the next morning raring to go and compare The Netherlands with Belguim.

Only two hours away from Brussels, by train, is the mind-blowing city of Amsterdam.  Having been here several years ago as a single carefree woman, I was hesitant about bringing the kids but I needn't have worried.  As soon as we'd all had a good giggle at the 'interesting' souvenirs and had seen enough phallic symbols to last an eight year-old a lifetime, we were good to go! 

Amsterdam is stunning and it delivered much more than I expected.  We stepped off the train to be greeted by a sea of bikes and trams.  Such a unique city with a vibrant edge unlike no other - the kids were instantly captivated.

We spent hours following canals, waving to people on houseboats and jumping out of the way as tourists on hired bikes careered towards us from every direction.

A gem of a visit is The Van Gogh Museum.  Free to
0-17 year olds, it's exciting for children to see all the 'famous' pieces, such as "Starry Night" and "Sunflowers".  For my art-crazy daughter to see the actual brushtrokes and vibrancy of the colours was a joy.  Her little face lit up when she saw the painting of Van Gogh's bedroom in Arles and, subsequently, we had to spend what seemed like hours in the museum shop, spending holiday money on postcards and pencils.

The most poignant visit of our Amsterdam trip was, of course, Anne Frank's house.  Our eldest had read Anne's diary and was fully prepared for what he'd find and feel.  He found the whole experience incredibly moving and I was proud of his maturity and respect as he walked sombrely around the cramped living conditions endured by the Frank family.  To access Anne Frank's house and the secret annex, it is advisable to pre-book tickets.  Children under ten are free although I'd think carefully about taking very young children into the house.  Our eight year old understood the significance of the building and seemed honoured to visit but she chose not to linger in the exhibitions.  She was slightly bemused by the violence and destruction depicted in the exhibits and I think she was more than happy when I suggested we sit by the canal and wait for her big brother to take his time in reading the personal accounts of war-torn Amsterdam.

So, three days and two countries.  Exhausting?  Yes, definitely.  But this was an amazing opportunity to experience new cultures and to introduce the children to the splendour of our European neighbours.  Only an hour's flight away and the teaching comes alive.  No art poster, no history project and no PSHE book could have taught the children so much in such a few days.  To see real Van Goghs, to stand in Anne Frank's bedroom and to handle salt and pepper pots in the shape of genitalia really does make for a busy couple of days which will never be forgotten.

Build an adventure at Legoland

Legoland.  A children's playground.  A cornucopia of little plastic bricks.  A perfect half-term break.

With flights to Denmark from the UK being at cheap as £14 return, why go to Legoland Windsor when you could visit the very birthplace of the phenomenon?  Legoland Billund is literally just a hop, skip and a jump away from the airport; as the flight lands, you taxi alongside the fence dividing the runway from the primary-coloured fantasia.  Flying into Billund was so easy. An hour in the air from the UK and you are transported to a fresh and simple country with so much to offer a family holiday.  
At the end of this summer, we enjoyed a few days in Denmark and savoured the Danish culture.  And what a culture it is!  Such a laidback country with its eyes set firmly on enjoying the great outdoors and taking life at a slower pace. 
Legoland was everything and more.  A carbon copy of its English cousin, Legoland Billund offers all the thrills of Windsor but it seems more authentic and wholesome.  To be surrounded by other Lego enthusiasts and to know that the factory is just over the road adds another dimension to the trip.  When Ole Kirk Christiansen began making wooden toys in 1932, I very much doubt he expected the global success which followed.  The brand name of lego is derived from the Danish phrase 'leg godt' which translates as 'play well' and indeed we did!
A sure fire hit with the kids, the lure of Legoland Billund is even better when you work out when the Danish families go back to school.  When the Danes are back at school, Legoland becomes deserted.  The day we visited saw us and a smattering of German families with the same idea!  There were no queues for any rides and the shop was empty.  It turns out that the Danish schools return mid-August, leaving the latter days for British families keen to get their fix of plastic.
And as for minimising costs, I have the perfect plan.  Just as we have the 2-for-1 vouchers on cereal boxes in the UK, the Danish and Germans have similar offers and a quick ebay search produces such deals for only a euro.  For our trip, I sourced a fistful of vouchers which meant that our kids went free into Legoland, with lots of vouchers left over to dish out to other families at the payement booths.  It is worth noting, however, that the opening hours of Legoland do alter towards the end of August so a quick check on their website site is recommended.  In addition to an empty theme park, another incentive of this trip is that there are often good deals for the Legoland hotel online for the latter days of the summer.  If your dream is to sleep in a bunkbed made of lego, then this is a holiday foryou!

Just an hour's drive north of Billund is the wonderful city of Aarhus.  Jutland's main city houses Moesgard Museum which is an amazing collection of Danish history.  We made the journey to pay our respects to the 2000 year old Grauballe Man, who was found in the peat bogs of the country in 1952 and whose body had been perfectly preserved by the nutrients of the land.  He is perfectly intact, complete with fingernails and a shock of hair.  The exhibit features a graphic video of his (presumed) death and visitors can even see a reconstruction of his murder/sacrifice, leaving the kids to imagine the brutality of the Iron Age.
Another history lesson unlike no other came just outside the city of Odense, the birthplace of Hans Chritian Andersen and only 100 kilmoetres from Legoland.  A few miles off the main thoroughfare in Odense is Ladbyskibet and the compelling Vikingemuseet.  Here, Viking history truly comes to life and the children can get up close to an original warship, the grave for a cheftain.  Buried with all his worldly possessions, including his sacrificed horses, the skeleton of the boat is still underground.  Beneath the green grass of a Viking burial mound, the visit to the grave is an eerie subterreanean experience and surprisingly moving.  To be so connected to over 1000 years of history is spell-binding.  To the foreground of the mound is an informative museum which fills in the gaps of your Danish history.
So, a jaunt across the North Sea offers a family all sorts of Danish delights.  With change from £500 for a family break, Billund is a holiday plan waiting to be built - brick by brick!