European Family Vacation
The Dream Comes True
Published in the Spring 2008 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Natalie Ayotte
Photos: Michael Morcos
The thought of a family vacation to Europe would always excite me. My husband and I talked about such a trip for the past decade. Our kids Mathieu 17 and Jasmine 15 were getting to the age where they would soon start summer jobs or plan trips with friends..
We had to do it. It was now or never. After much reading and researching we decided on a three-week vacation in France, Monaco, Italy and Greece.
Looking for suitable family accommodations was at times a frustrating exercise especially in cities that we knew little about. We needed to find hotels in Paris, Nice, Florence and Athens.
We finally decided we would stay at one hotel chain. The Best Western chain of hotels website made it all easy. We returned to the same site many times to get more detailed location info including maps of each hotel and all their amenities.
Once we chose the hotels we wanted, the actual booking took less than fifteen minutes.
We decided against renting a car for transportation. We thought the conveniences of having our own car was outweighed by the stress of getting in and out of these congested cities, compounded by the fact that parking in these cities is not always easy.
We felt the best way to travel the long distances was by using the efficient railway systems in France and Italy with a convenient Eurail pass for each person.
Four days was surely not enough for this magnificent French capital, but by following my husband’s agenda we would see the city’s most important sites. Our first destination was on everyone’s list: The Tour d’Eiffel.
We opted to walk to the site and with a city so steeped in history it was inevitable we would get sidetracked. Along the way were the Champs-Élysées and the many stores that line this magnificent landmark boulevard.
Our daughter Jasmine, a wallet full of Euros in her pocket, had to stop along the way to spend money. Our son Matt found his own favourite stores while my ever-smiling husband took pictures and videos of the well-dressed Parisians socializing at the outdoor cafes.
As for me, I simply stood there, eyes closed for a moment, overwhelmed by the sudden realization that our dream was no longer a dream, but reality! I opened my eyes, and watched my family scurry about, content.
Arc de Triomphe
Onward we strolled until we reached the Arc de Triomphe. What a sight! There was so much to see at the monument but time was running late and my husband said we had to move on and so, we were unable to give the Arc the proper attention it deserved.
However, just standing under the massive structure that is such a recognizable Parisian landmark was quite a thrill!
The Tour d’Eiffel was now in sight. Winding our way through the small side streets, we would get teasing glimpses of this giant, growing ever bigger as we neared. We were so excited at the thought of finally arriving that we almost missed the superb Palais de Chaillot. Determined not to get diverted again we snapped off dozens of pictures and ran to our final destination.
Getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower was an experience in itself. There was a two and a half hour line up for the elevators and so with a deep breath, we resolved to climb the steps! 328 steps up to the first level and 340 steps up to the second level! Catching our breath we looked up to incredible views of Paris and its many landmark buildings.
The Tower was built for the World’s Fair marking the centennial celebration of the French Revolution but was not always so welcome. The Parisians at the time found it an eyesore against the Paris skyline, so much so that they had made plans to demolish it after the Fair!
Tired from the climb we decided to walk back to the L’Horset Opera hotel, near the Paris Opera house. Of course, Paris being the city it is, one cannot take a walk without coming across ever more landmarks.
We walked along the Parc des Champs des Mars at the end of which is the Ecole Militaire, one of the most prestigious French military academies in France.
We cut through les Invalide where Napoleon’s remains rest. The Pont Alexander is a work of art disguised as a bridge. Unbelievable statues line the two sides.
We went through Place Vendome where Jasmine and Mattieu argued playfully as to what to do next. Jas wanted to shop some more at the upscale shops and Matt wanted to get back to the hotel to get some rest. At a stalemate, they looked to my husband and myself. It was no contest. Matthieu won.
Over the following days we would see a lot more of Paris, including the world-class Louvre Museum, the historical Notre Dame Cathedral, the department store Le Printemps, La Madeleine Church, Le Opera, Le Quartier Latin, the Les Halles District. We also took a day trip out of the city to visit the awe-inspiring Château de Versailles.
France’s TGV or high-speed train whisked us quickly and comfortably from northern France to the warmer climate of the French Riviera.
Nice would be our base city for the next three days as we planned to take day trips from there to see Monaco and the always charming village of Saint-Paul de Vence.
Our hotel, The West End Hotel was in the heart of it all and faced the Mediterranean Sea.
We changed gear from the hectic pace of Paris and instead spent many relaxing moments just sitting on the balcony listening to the waves crashing on the beach or watching the locals walking the Avenue des Anges (Angels).
Nightly walks along the waterfront and dining on the pedestrian streets were a welcome change to the marathon tour of Paris.
The Principality of Monaco, a constitutional monarchy, made an everlasting impression on us all. Even at a glance, Monaco was stunning. Our day here turned out to be one of my favourites of our whole vacation.
We started our day on top of the hill, giving a perfect view of the many twisting city roads and the luxury yachts in the aqua-blue waters of the harbour.
We slowly made our way to the centre of town to the Casino Royal. Matt was very excited by the many expensive cars that filled the streets. It seemed there were more high-end luxury convertible cars than Matt could possibly photograph.
Our walk brought us to another hill. This one, with the Royal palace perched on top, offered a spectacular 360-degree view.
I found myself daydreaming while looking out at the beautiful city of Princess Grace and the fairy tale Royal family.
Saint-Paul de Vence
Jas and Matt opted to spend the day at the beach while my husband and I took a bus to the medieval hill town of Saint-Paul. I could understand that they were exhausted by the overcharged program but I secretly suspected Matt wanted to check if the girls really did sunbathe topless.
I was not sure what to expect from this side trip to Saint-Paul but my husband assured me this was a recommended site in our guidebook. I was not disappointed. It was love at first sight!
Small winding cobblestone streets, beautiful little boutiques, coffee houses and quaint restaurants all made for a romantic day away from the kids.
Our over night train trip to Venice would have been the perfect comedy show. Although our cabin was clean and comfortable it was obviously too small for a family of four.
Loaded down with lots of luggage and newly bought items our sleeper was tight but we made the best of it. It wasn’t much of a laughing matter at the time, but I sit here chuckling at the memory.
Venice was like a post card. We all marveled at its beautiful canals and small alleys. Gondolas and small boats carefully navigated the quiet waterways as we crossed the many bridges that spanned this island city on our way to the lagoon area.
Hot and crowded with tourists we spent the day doing what most tourists do, sightsee. Our first stop was the Piazza San Marco and the nearly thousand-year-old cathedral that contained his remains.
We took a well-needed rest at the three-hundred-year-old landmark, Caffè Florian. Jas could not believe how many pigeons filled the enormous square. She tried to feed them and they jumped all over people in order to get to her, while Matt conversely found it amusing to chase them away and see a cloud of pigeons fill the sky.
The brief visit brought us to the Rialto Market. Merchants sold everything from tourist souvenirs to finely made Venetian glass, carnival masks, vegetables and even the days catch in the fish market section. Below us was the Grand Canal, the biggest waterway in Venice; it looked like rush hour in Manhattan on water!
The city of art was now our home base for three days while we explored the province of Tuscany. We all had wished we had more time in Florence.
My husband wished we had more time visiting the Uffizi Museum and viewing the many renaissance masterpieces that fill the city.
Jas could not get enough shopping for fashionable Italian clothing. Mat wanted more time to eat the famous Tuscan beefsteaks while I wanted a break from it all and just people watch while sipping a cappuccino in this great Italian gem.
Our hotel Lauras was perfectly situated in the heart of the city and we would walk to the main sites. Our visit brought us to the Piazza della Signoria where amongst many incredible gems was Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Also close by was the fantastic Ponte Vecchio bridge.
The famous 11th century Duomo (St. Maria del Fiore) was only a block away and was clearly visible as we sat and had breakfast on the hotel’s balcony on the roof. We were close to many great restaurants and the luxury stores on Via Tornabuoni, the San Lorenzo market and the Santa Maria Novella train station.
Yes, the tower of Pisa was leaning! But we had to see it for ourselves. Our day trip to Pisa brought us to the world famous icon. A beautiful building on its own it sits in the Campo dei Miracoli or field of dreams.
We all took turns doing the clichéd tourist thing: taking individual pictures of ourselves pushing the leaning tower down. Unoriginal yes, but fun nonetheless!
Our Eurail pass made it very easy for us to jump on and off trains on local routes. Sienna was a real delight. Perched on top of a hill, we found ourselves buying bread, cold cuts and even wine and having a great picnic in the heart of this medieval town.
Dominating the city was the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall), which was built in 1326 and found in the public space Piazza del Campo. Here twice a year bareback horse races are held to the delight of the fans filling the whole square.
We had but a day to enjoy the eternal city as we had a plane to catch to Greece.
Rome is a great walking city and our day started by visiting the incredible Coliseum and Roman forum. Surprisingly to me, both Mat and Jas loved the ruins and I was startled when they started taking pictures.
We slowly made our way towards the Vatican. No trip to Rome would be complete without visiting the Holy Capitol of Catholicism.
No matter how much you’ve read, no matter how much you’ve heard, you cannot help but have your breath taken away when entering.
We followed up with a trip the Pantheon. The “Temple of all the gods” is the best-preserved building from Roman times and had the largest dome in the world until 1436 when the Florence Cathedral was constructed.
Close by, we visited the Piazza Navona with its Fountain of the four Rivers and an Egyptian obelisk.
The last site of the day was the Fontana di Trevi. Truly a masterpiece, we had to wrestle our way through the crowds to get to the front. Legend has it if you toss a coin in the fountain you would return again to Rome. And so we all took turns throwing coins over our shoulders into the fountain hoping to one day return to this great city. After all, a snapshot is all one can hope for in a day.
Athens was our last big city before our seven-day retreat to Crete. Our three days in Athens were very hot with the temperate reaching 38 degrees Celsius.
Our days were leisurely spent at the very impressive National Archaeological Museum. It houses some of the most important artifacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece dating from prehistory to late antiquity.
We were all impressed by the many well-preserved pieces of artwork. My favourite pieces were the Antikythera Ephebe and the mask of Agamemnon.
The following day we visited the Acropolis, which was situated on top of a hill in the middle of Athens. A very impressive site it was, filled with tourists and justifiably so. My husband and the kids loved the spectacular view of Athens and we took our time while perusing the most important monuments such as the Parthenon, the Erechtheon, the Propylaea and a small temple for Athena Nike.
Our nights were spent at the Plaka where we enjoyed great food and shopped for gifts and souvenirs. Mat was in heaven as souvlaki was the order of the day, everyday.
The portions were extra large and by the intense look on his face while eating, I would conclude very tasty. Jas could not resist shopping for gifts while I looked to find that very special gift for my Uncle in Crete, our next stop.
In a word… Heaven! The last leg of our trip was spent like kings and queens. Our stay would be on a hilltop house that was surrounded by centuries old olive groves.
From the large wrap around balcony we would enjoy our breakfasts and dinners with breath taking views of the surrounding countryside.
On one side were the central mountains that showed snow in the winters. The middle view was of the valley filled with olive trees and to the left were the crystal clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.
My Uncle Marcel and his friend Emmanuel were the perfect hosts to a perfect ending of our European trip.
A few years back he and Emmanuel decided to leave hectic pace and cold winters of Montreal and built a small castle like house on family land.
We would spend our remaining days on the sandy beaches and our nights eating garden grown meals before venturing into the beautiful harbour cities of Rethymno and Chania.
Many special moments were had while in Crete. On one occasion we visited the oldest tree in all of Greece. The olive branches from this tree were used in making the victory crowns for medal winners during the Athens Summer Olympic Games.
Equally special was a visit to Emmanuel’s father’s home where he grew rabbits for food. Jas was horrified and wanted to open all the cages and set them free. She didn’t. However, she did spend considerable time bemoaning their fate.
Europe in Our Hearts
Until my husband mentioned it, I had not realized that we had never spent 3 weeks together on vacation. Nor had we ever spent that long with the kids on vacation. This trip was more than visiting France, Italy and Greece.
It was, as I mentioned earlier, a lifetime dream come true. A dream shared, a dream fulfilled, with family. Three weeks spent together, experiencing the history, the culture, and the beauty of these places. The memories will last a lifetime.
If you go:
Maison de la France
Greek National Tourism Organization
Best Western Hotels