Is Santorini really worth the hype?

Santorini is regularly voted one of the most beautiful islands in the world. It has all the qualities you dream of when you picture the perfect Greek island: whitewashed houses, towering cliffs and spectacular sunsets.

But Santorini is made that bit more special by its extraordinary location. Thousands of years ago, a massive volcanic eruption caused the centre of the island to collapse, leaving a caldera or crater, with towering cliffs along one side of the island.

Santorini’s sunsets are indeed spectacular, particularly from Oia, the village perched at the top of the island. But how spectacular an experience can it be if you’re struggling to watch it behind a large crowd of people all holding up their phones to take a picture?

Is Santorini really worth all that hype? The trouble with places on the ‘Most Beautiful’ lists is that they tend to be very popular and Santorini is no different. Two million tourists visit the island every year and there can be as many as 57 flights a day in the summer. When you consider that Santorini is a relatively small island with an area of approximately 28 square miles you can get an idea of how busy the island can get – and that doesn’t even count the people coming off the cruise ships that dock from March to December, adding as many as 25,000 people a day to the island’s congestion.

Nobody could argue that the views over the caldera aren’t stunning. It’s definitely a wow moment when you see it for the first time. There’s an ethereal quality to the light here. Shades of blue appear to merge into each other, from deepest indigo to the palest turquoise. The mists in the sky melt into a sea that looks like velvety ink.

I first visited Santorini with a girlfriend before I had children. We walked to the top of the volcano, we visited the archaeological site of Akrotiri where you can see the remains of the Minoan city destroyed by the volcanic eruption and we sunbathed on a black sandy beach.

This summer I went back with my family. We flew into Santorini on our way to the smaller island of Folegandros, also part of the Cyclades. Due to the difference between our flight and ferry times I’d worked out that we had three hours spare on each leg for a mini tour of the island.

On the way out, we’d get a taxi to Imerovigli, the village at the highest point of the caldera’s edge and on the way back, we’d visit Oia, the village at the top of the island famous for its blue domed churches and incredible sunsets.

But things don’t always work out as you’ve planned when you’re travelling, do they? Our flying trip to Imerovigli was a good idea – it was relatively quiet and we had enough time to admire the views before heading to the port to catch our ferry. But on the way back, our ferry was an hour late. I assumed this would still give us enough time to visit Oia but we abandoned our plans when our taxi driver told us that the relatively short 11.8 mile journey from the port would take an hour and a half because the roads were so clogged up with all the tourist traffic.

So we went instead to Fira, the main town, which was much closer to the airport. It was a huge disappointment. The narrow lanes were packed with tourists and lined with tacky souvenir shops. The view over the caldera was spoiled by the masses of restaurants and hotels huddled together on the hillside.

Our couple of hours in Santorini came at the end of a two-week-long holiday on the tiny island of Folegandros and all we could think about was how lucky we were to have chosen to stay there rather than here, no matter how good the views. The food was more expensive, the streets were a lot busier and there were so many more tourists. It was a long way from being the Greek island of my dreams.

I wouldn’t say it’s not worth going to Santorini – it is certainly beautiful and perhaps it is one of those places you should see in a lifetime, but if you’re looking for a more traditional, easygoing Greece then you’re not going to find it.

If you’ve got the chance, see Santorini at its best outside of the main tourist season. As a family with school-age children we’re restricted to travelling during the school holidays. It’s always going to be busier over the summer so consider going in the spring or the autumn. If, like us, you have to visit in the summer think about a short stop at Santorini before heading to a quieter island.

I’ll be writing shortly in more detail about the perfect Greek island we found but in the meantime take a A Photo Tour of Beautiful Folegandros.

Pin ItIs Santorini really worth the hype?

Linking up with: Wanderful Wednesday

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City Breaks With Kids: Seville

This is the first in a new series on the blog, ‘City Breaks With Kids’, which aims to provide guides to the best cities to visit with your children, with suggestions of things to see and do in each.

Seville is the perfect size for a city break: it’s small enough to walk around yet big enough for there to be plenty to do. Seville is everything you ever imagined about Spain: flamenco dancing, bullfighting and roads lined with orange trees and jacarandas. It’s beautiful and elegant, with stunning architecture and a fascinating history.

What’s more, it’s a great place to visit now. It’s not as crowded and the temperature is very pleasant in winter and spring – Seville can get very hot in July and August.

Climb up the Giralda Tower and visit the Cathedral

The Giralda, the bell tower of Seville’s cathedral, was built as a minaret in medieval times when the city was occupied by the Moors. It was used as an observatory and to call Muslims to prayer. Climb up the tower for some of the best views of Seville. It’s much easier to climb than most towers because there are 35 gently inclining ramps wide enough for two horsemen to ride up to the top.

The 15th-century cathedral is well worth a visit as well. It’s the largest Gothic church in the world and inside, you’ll find Christopher Columbus’s coffin.

Seville Cathedral and Giralda Tower is open from 11am until 3.30pm on Mondays; until 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday; 2.30pm until 6pm on Sundays. Tickets, adults, €9; children under 14, free; students under 25 and over 65s, €4.

Walk around the Plaza de Espana

The Plaza de Espana is one of the most impressive public spaces in the whole of Spain. Star Wars fans will recognise it as the city of Theed on the planet Naboo from ‘The Attack of the Clones’.  Designed in 1929 as the centrepiece for the Fair of the Americas (which never happened due to the Wall Street crash), it is absolutely stunning, full of exquisite tiles, fountains, bridges and grand stairways. Send your children on a hunt around the crescent to find scenes and maps from all the provinces in Spain. You can even hire out little boats on the tiny canal.

Watch a Flamenco show

City Breaks with Kids: SevilleThe gypsy art of Flamenco has been danced in Andalusia for nearly 500 years and Seville is a great place to watch a show. El Museo del Baile Flamenco, the flamenco dance museum, has hour-long flamenco shows every evening with incredible dancing, singing and guitar playing. It’s a particularly good place to take children as it’s small and intimate and the dancers and singers explain what they are doing in English (and other languages).

El Museo del Baile Flamenco has daily performances from 7pm. Tickets, adults, €20; children, €12.

Visit the Alcázar Palace

The Alcázar Palace is stunning. It’s a real mix of architectural styles from Moorish and Renaissance to Gothic. Seville’s rulers have occupied this site since Roman times and your children will love some of the more gruesome stories. It was originally built as a Moorish fort and it had to be enlarged under the Moorish ruler al-Mu’tadid to house his harem of 800 women. He decorated the terraces of the palace with flowers planted in the skulls of his decapitated enemies.

The Alcázar was the favourite residence of the Spanish kings for four centuries and the upper floors are still used by the current king and queen when they visit Seville. Visitors can explore the many courtyards and reception rooms and wander around the beautiful gardens. Don’t miss the amazing red, green and gold dome in the Salon de Embajadores.

The Alcazar is open every day from 9.30am until 5pm (until 7pm from April to September). Tickets, €9.50 for adults; children free.

Take a horse and carriage ride

City Breaks with Kids: SevilleYou’ll find the traditional horses and carriages all over the city and it’s a great way of seeing all the sights on your first day – and so much fun for children. Your driver should be able to explain what you’re seeing as you go past. The carriage rides take in all the main sights as well as the lovely Maria Luisa Park with its gorgeous palm trees, pines, flowers and orange trees.

 

 

Buy a picnic from the Mercado de Triana

If you cross the Triana bridge you’ll get to the Triana district which is much less touristy than the centre and the area where all the flamenco artists, bullfighters and sailors used to live. Here you’ll find the wonderful Triana market, an indoor food market where you can buy the most delicious hams, olives, cheeses, fruit, fish and bread. It’s a great place to try out a little Spanish. You could give your children a few euros and see if they can choose and buy some food for a picnic. Then take your goodies to the banks of the Guadalquivir River or one of Seville’s lovely parks for a foodie feast.

The Mercado de Triana is open from Mondays to Saturdays, from 8am until 2pm.

Visit the Bullring and Museum

The matador with his cape and sword is an iconic Spanish image and bullfighting is an important part of Spanish culture, particularly in the south. Seville is the second most important centre for bullfighting in Spain (after Madrid).

The Plaza de Toros Real Maestranza was built in the 18th century and is one of the oldest bullrings in Spain. You can learn all about bullfighting and its history by taking a 20-minute tour of the bullring (in English). It’s a fascinating tour. You’ll visit the chapel where the matadors pray before a fight and the museum where you can see the elaborate costumes and swords.

The Real Maestranza is open daily from 9.30am until 7pm (until 9pm from April until October). Tickets, adults, €7; under 7s, free; children aged from 7 until 11, €3.

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The Best Christmas Markets for Children

There’s nothing that can get you into the Christmas spirit quite like a visit to one of the traditional Christmas Markets in Northern Europe. Most of these markets have changed little over the centuries and are worlds away from the commercialism of Black Friday.

Here you’ll find wooden stalls selling home-made crafts and delicious smells in the air from hot chestnuts, cinnamon biscuits and gingerbread. You’re even more than a little likely to have a sprinkling of snow at your feet. It’s the Christmas you’ve read about in children’s books.

Here is my selection of the best markets, not just for their traditional feel, but for what they’ve got to offer for children. At these markets you’ll find the usual stalls plus lots of extra fun for families from puppet shows and craft workshops to sleigh rides and ice rinks.

Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck’s Christmas Market at the foot of snow-covered mountains in the medieval market square has to be one of the prettiest in Europe. Trumpeters play on the Golden Roof balcony every afternoon while shoppers browse stalls laden with Tyrolean goodies: hand-blown glass, coloured felt hats and carved nativity figures.

Along the lanes leading off the square you’ll find Fairy Tale Alley, with life-size characters from fairy tales and legends. Listen to the fairy tales every afternoon in the Theatre Wagon or wander over to the market at Marktplatz for magic shows and a puppet theatre.

At Marktplatz you’ll also find the 14-metre high Swarovski crystal tree covered with thousands of crystals as well as a merry-go-round, pony rides and a children’s petting zoo.

Don’t let your kids miss: the chance to try glassblowing and make their own Christmas ornament.

Innsbruck’s Christmas Market is on until 6th January.

Gothenburg, Sweden

You can try marinated herring and roasted reindeer at Scandinavia’s biggest Christmas market. The Liseberg Amusement Park is decorated with five million Christmas lights and is divided into lots of different Christmas areas, including Lapland where you can sit around camp fires and eat traditional Sami food.

Children can take a sleigh ride pulled by real reindeer and meet Father Christmas in his toy factory. There’s also an excellent ice skating show based on the story of Hansel and Gretel.

In the Medieval Village you can watch jesters and knights training for a tournament and wander round the stalls beside the Fairy Tale Castle.

Don’t let your kids miss: a tour of Rabbit Land, where you can watch a children’s show every day and find out how these wacky rabbits celebrate Christmas.

Gothenburg’s Christmas Market is on until 30th December.

Hamburg, Germany

Father Christmas is very busy in Hamburg in December. He flies high above the crowds on his sleigh several times an afternoon and parades through the streets with his elves and reindeer every Saturday.

The narrow streets leading off the Christmas Market in the historic town square all have a different theme. Toy Street is an obvious favourite but you’ll also find sweets, woodcarvers and gingerbread bakers. Even the punch is served by clowns and circus performers.

There’s also an ice-skating rink, merry-go-rounds, illuminated Advent Calendar and nativity scene with carved life-size figures.

Don’t let your kids miss: The Fairy Tale Ships on the lakes. There’s a theatre ship where children can help a witch regain her magical powers; a Dream Ship with face painting and games; and two Bakery Ships where kids can bake Christmas biscuits.

Hamburg’s Christmas Market is on until 23rd December.

Vienna, Austria

A Christmas Market has been held in Vienna for over 700 years and there are now markets on most of the city’s prettiest squares and castle courtyards. One of the biggest highlights for children is Christkindl’s Workshop where they can make all sorts of crafts for Christmas presents from decorated wooden boxes and tea candles to notebooks and biscuits.

In front of the beautiful Schönbrunn Palace there’s a hand-carved wooden manger with almost 250 figures. In other areas you’ll find pony rides, a Post Office in the Clouds where you can get special Christmas stamps, puppet shows and a children’s railway.

Don’t let your kids miss: The marzipan factory where they can learn how to make models of reindeer, angels and snowmen out of marzipan.

Vienna’s Christmas Market is on until 26th December.

Copenhagen, Denmark

You can celebrate Christmas as a viking in Copenhagen by jumping into icy water and then having a sauna before eating meat roasted over the fire while your children make viking shields and listen to traditional stories.

Tivoli Gardens is covered in fairy lights for its annual Christmas Market and there are spectacular light shows every evening. Elsewhere in the city you’ll find a Hans Christian Andersen market with stalls named after his fairy tales, a Christmas caravan, a mini circus train and an ice rink.

Don’t let your kids miss: The weekend street theatre on Gammeltorv Square with angels on roller skates and acrobatic elves.

Copenhagen’s Christmas Market is on until 3rd January.

Cologne, Germany

You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time at the Christmas Market at Alter Markt, with its half-timbered stalls and narrow gabled houses. And so you should. According to a local legend, gnomes are responsible for watching over this market to ensure that no modern or mass made goods are sold here.

There are seven Christmas markets in Cologne, the most impressive of which is in front of the beautiful cathedral where you can watch craftsmen at work and drink mulled wine out of special festive mugs.

There are special workshops for children and a giant advent calendar, a merry-go-round and puppet theatre. You can even go on board a ship at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne Harbour where the market has a nautical theme with pirates and special performances.

Don’t let your kids miss: The Home of the Elves in the Old Town. There’s a real fairytale atmosphere in the narrow lanes and large fairytale figures from the Grimm Brothers’ stories.

Cologne’s Christmas Market is on until 23rd December.

For information on Christmas Markets all over Europe, take a look at http://www.christmasmarkets.com

COMING UP NEXT: The Best Christmas Books for Reading Aloud

 

The Best European Castle Stays for Families

Fancy a sleepover in a castle? For wannabe knights and princesses what could be more thrilling than staying in a real castle with turrets, towers and suits of armour in the corridors? The trouble is, so many castle hotels are rather stuffy and grand, with spa treatments and seven-course feasts. All very well if  you’re a couple looking for a romantic weekend away but not the sort of place that will look kindly on children charging around looking for someone to joust.

So this is a list of castle hotels that will positively welcome your little ones whether by offering cooking classes and falconry lessons or lending bikes so that you can all go off exploring.

Bovey Castle, Devon, UK

There’s so much for children to do here from feeding the chickens and meeting the ferrets to watching the daily falconry display and doing the letter boxing trail.

The castle is on a 275-acre estate on Dartmoor so the options for family entertainment are endless. Children can join the Bovey Rangers during holidays and learn survival skills like campfire building, fishing and archery. There’s also a supervised play room with marble runs, art activities and cooking.

While you’re there: If the weather’s good, ask if they’ll make you up a picnic to take out into the grounds while you’re exploring.

Don’t miss: On a cold, wintry afternoon there’s nothing nicer than curling up in front of one of the log fires for the scrumptious Afternoon Tea.

A night in a family room at Bovey Castle costs from £400 for bed and breakfast.

Dornröschenschloss Sababurg, Germany

Dornroschenschloss SababurgYou’ll fall under the spell of the castle that inspired ‘Sleeping Beauty’. The Brothers Grimm were frequent guests at this castle, set deep in a forest in the heart of Germany. They used it as the setting for the story, partly, no doubt, because in the 16th century a high thorn hedge grew up around its ruins.

The castle is over 675 years old. Children will be delighted to discover that there is indeed a spiral staircase leading up to the tower and a medieval castle garden where the ‘Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming’ play is performed every Sunday afternoon from April to October.

The 17 rooms are in one of the towers and there is a good restaurant.

While you’re there: The castle is on the Fairy Tale Route, the 370-mile route through forests which takes you past the locations for many of the Grimm Brother’s tales. Trendelburg, Rapunzel’s tower, is only a short distance from Sababurg.

Don’t miss: A visit to the oldest animal park in the world, the Tierpark Sababurg, adjacent to the castle.

A double room at Dornröschenschloss Sababurg costs from about €105 per night for room only.

Ashford Castle, Ireland

This 13th-century castle is set in stunning grounds on the shores of Loch Carrib in County Mayo. Now a luxury hotel, there are lots of activities for families from treasure hunts and movie nights to a children’s cookery school and family mountain bike lessons.

Children are positively pampered here. They’re given special robes and slippers and personalised cookies on arrival and the cooks will make their favourite food in the restaurant. There’s a special children’s afternoon tea too.

While you’re there: Make use of the gorgeous grounds and take part in lots of outdoor activities like kayaking, pony and carriage rides and boat trips on the loch.

Don’t miss: The chance to fly your own Harris’s hawk. The private guided Hawk Walks are great for families of all ages.

A deluxe queen room at Ashford Castle which can sleep up to four people costs from €325 per night including full Irish breakfast.

Pousada Obidos, Portugal

This 12th-century castle is considered to be one of the seven wonders of Portugal. It’s in one of Europe’s most romantic medieval villages,  a walled fortress with whitewashed houses and cobbled streets.

There are nine rooms in the actual castle, some with large living rooms and four posters. The suites are in the watchtowers and there’s a good restaurant.

While you’re there: Walk along the medieval ramparts for great views of the surrounding countryside.

Don’t miss: The medieval market. For two weeks every July you can see knights jousting, jugglers, jesters and listen to medieval music in the streets of Obidos.

A superior room at Pousada Obidos costs from €216 per night for bed and breakfast.

Castello delle Quattro Torra, Italy

This 13th-century castle with four towers and battlements is in a stunning location just outside Siena in Tuscany. There are only two rooms and a gorgeous apartment on the first floor overlooking the medieval courtyard – its kitchen is in one of the towers and there’s a fireplace in the living room.

Breakfast is served in the dining room and guests can also use the reading room and pretty gardens.

While you’re there: The castle makes a great base for exploring Tuscany.

Don’t miss: Going truffle hunting with a truffle hunter and his dogs or learn how to make pasta at a traditional cooking class in a nearby village.

A night at the Castello delle Quattro Torra costs from €140 for bed and breakfast.

Augill Castle, Cumbria, UK

Queen Victoria is said to have stayed at this Victorian folly between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales on her way to Balmoral. It has all the elements of the best kind of castle hotel: turrets for wardrobes, claw-footed baths, stained glass leaded windows and quirky, colourful bedrooms.

The family-run hotel prides itself on being unstuffy and has been awarded the family hotel of the year by the Good Hotel Guide. It’s no surprise – children have a ball here with every possible kind of entertainment from teddy bears left on the bed and games rooms full of dressing-up clothes to ride-on toys and forts in the trees.

While you’re there: Explore the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, both on the hotel’s doorstep. For indoor activities, try one of the cookery classes for families which involves planning a three-course meal as well as collecting eggs from the hens and feeding the goats.

Don’t miss: The chance to hire the 12-seat art deco cinema for a family film supper with popcorn.

A family room for four at Augill Castle costs from £210 including breakfast.

Château de Courcelles, France

Christian Dior organised lavish parties and Napoleon met his wife for the first time at this 17th-century château near the Champagne region. Despite its glamour and glitz (there are nearly 100 varieties of Champagne in the wine cellars), children are warmly welcomed. There are free bicycles to borrow to ride around the park and horses and ponies to visit in the Donkeys’ Pasture.

The 18 rooms are all stunning. There are also tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool.

While you’re there: Play hide and seek in the maze, walk beside the canal and go cycling in the forest.

Don’t miss: The opportunity to go hot-air ballooning.

A superior room at Château de Courcelles costs from €380 per night.

Dalhousie Castle, Scotland

Children will love the ghoulish stories of this castle, not far from Edinburgh. It is said to be haunted by at least two ghosts and the restaurant is in the dungeons.

Set in wooded parkland on the banks of the River Esk, the castle dates from the 13th century. The castle atmosphere is perfect: log fires, historic themed rooms with four posters and waiters who appear from behind a hidden door in the library bar.

While you’re there: Visit Edinburgh. The castle and the Royal Yacht Britannia both make great trips for children.

Don’t miss: Apprentice knights and princesses can enjoy traditional castle pursuits like archery and falconry. You can take hawk walks here and learn how to fly owls.

A superior double room at Dalhousie Castle costs from £215 per night for bed and breakfast.

Kasteel Wittem, Netherlands

Kasteel WittemKings and emperors have stayed at this medieval castle in the South Limburg region of the Netherlands. The 11th-century castle has two moats and is set in lovely gardens. Families can live like kings in the Tower Suite which has a separate living room. It’s in the only remaining round tower of the original seven.

While you’re there: Visit the historic cities of Maastricht and Liège.

Don’t miss: The area makes a great base for hiking and cycling activities.

The Tower Suite at Kasteel Wittem costs from €150 per night, room only.