Sicily was a true highlight of our travels. We dreamed of a traditional villa overlooking the sea where we could relax with friends (and found it).
We wanted to hike rugged landscapes and swim in crystal clear coves.
We were keen to explore the relics of diverse cultures, from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, to the Moors, Crusaders and others too numerous to name.
And we were super excited about the prospect of gorging on delicious Sicilian food…
To do everything that we wanted hiring a car was absolutely essential. While you can move between cities and towns by bus or sometimes train, your own transport is needed to get out into the countryside, to more remote beaches and to many tourist sites.
We were nervous about hiring a rental car in Sicily, where there are many stories of rip-offs, and we were also concerned about how we would cope driving on the wrong side of the road in a place where road rules are routinely disregarded. While there were a few tense moments, particularly in and around the capital, Palermo, on the whole it was easier than expected. We were careful to purchase insurance in advance from a third provider and took comprehensive ‘before’ photos on picking up the car. As it happened, the service we received from the car company was exemplary and we had no problems at all.
Our successful Sicilian holiday was all the sweeter for the time spent and memories created with our great group of friends.
The Roman empire was huge. It was so huge that now, everywhere you turn in what was the empire, there are Roman ruins. Which is quite surprising seeing that the empire was founded 2,000 years ago.
Legend says that Rome (the capital city) started with two brothers, with the names of Romulus and Remus. Apparently, their uncle didn’t like them, so when they were still babies, he chucked them into the river Tiber. Luckily, they were washed to shore and looked after by a female wolf. They grew up big and strong and went and killed their uncle. Then they built a city where the wolf found them, Romulus killed Remus and named the city after himself. The Romans did have a very high opinion of themselves so this story is most likely untrue.
The Romans were the first to make water systems. The Romans built aqueducts to carry water from a water source to a city or town.
The Romans needed aqueducts because they had so many baths and fountains everywhere, so they used a lot of water. Aqueducts are still commonly found and probably the most famous one is the Pont du Gard, in the South of France.
It is definitely worth a visit, not only for the amazing photos and magnificent views. You can also swim in the freezing-cold river that runs under the aqueduct and jump off some rocks too, like we did.
Villa Amerini is another cool site to see. It is in the countryside in a typically French village. The special thing about Villa Amerini is the mosaic tiles. On the baths you could still see the squid and fish patterned on the bottom (the squid looked really cute).
The amazing thing was you could still see all the colours on them. The many patterns were comprised of blue, yellow, red and white. It is very well preserved. The Romans loved their mosaics and they built enormous villas for rich and important families. Sometimes villas were built in the countryside and used as holiday houses, like Villa Amerini might have been.
If you’re wondering how people got their food in ancient Rome, the Imperial Fora is the answer. The Military Dictator Caesar built a forum (a forum is a bit like a market) in 51BC and over the years emperors Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva and Trajan added more on.
We did not go inside the Imperial Forum because it was very hot and we had had a long day, but we did get to see the outside. It must have been a very grand site in Roman times.
The Colosseum is a wonderful site to see, inside and out, but it wasn’t so nice in Roman times, at least not on the inside anyway.
In Roman times, it was a battle-ground, where gladiator vs gladiator, animal vs animal or animal vs gladiator fought in deadly fights. All this blood and gore was the emperor’s way of entertaining the people. If there was an animal fighting it was let up though a trapdoor in the floor, unless it was a big animal like a elephant then it was let up though a bigger entrance. The Colosseum was grand and coated in marble, but very gory for blood spattered everywhere quite frequently.
You probably know that ancient Rome was a very strong empire and won almost all of its battles, but what about the people? Well there were six different classes of people in ancient Rome:
Patricians – were the richest and poshest
Equites – were businessmen and bankers
Plebeians – were the poorest but still citizens
Provincials – were people who live in the empire, paid tax and were not citizens
Foreigners – were not citizens and included everyone who lived outside of the empire
Slaves – who were owned by others and bought and sold like property.
As you probably can see, the Roman empire was really something special. The Romans really made their mark and left us with many clues of how they lived their lives.
In Venice there are canals instead of roads and boats instead of cars. Canals are like little rivers running through Venice. Canals are in all different sizes.
The biggest canal is called The Grand Canal. The Grand Canal is very busy with boats of all sizes, because it is like the main road.
On the canals there are boats that are called gondolas; there are lot of gondolas. Gondolas are very fancy and are expensive (that’s why we didn’t go on one).
Once we saw a dog that was swimming in a canal and it nearly got run over by a gondola! It is very romantic in Venice, except when gondolas nearly run over dogs.
In Venice there are lots of churches, they are like on every second street. I mean canal!
We went to the main square, Piazza San Marco, and there is a big church that is really beautiful because it has lots of gold and blue carvings and turrets and decoration. Tip: get there early in the morning because there aren’t many people.
There are lots of glass shops in Venice and I got a glass owl and dog. The dog is for me and the owl is for my friend Matilda.
There are also lots of shops selling masks. I got a mask and my sister got a mask too.
The thing I liked most in Venice was sunset walks. That’s when it’s the best time to take pictures.
A month in France was far too short for our family. From Paris to Provence we loved virtually every minute. Well, excepting the holiday traffic on the autoroute and the unsympathetic ticket inspector in Paris – every other minute! With so much to like, here are some of our favourite picks.
Picture perfect villages
Arriving in France we were almost immediately struck by the care and attention to detail its people give to all visible aspects of French life. The French have a reputation for being well-groomed, but we found their food to be exquisite and their homes tasteful and immaculately kept. The landscapes look manicured, with a pleasing pattern of fields, village, woods, fields, village, woods. Even French farms are well-presented, with perfectly rolled haystacks and no rusting mechanical debris in sight.
We have seen a lot of picturesque villages in our travels, but in France each village looks primed, ready for the film crew to start rolling.
Berry delicious desserts
Our timing in France (late May into June) was perfect to experience peak berry season. And what great fruit France has. Unlike Australia, where berries appear to be bred primarily for their ability to travel long distances without disintegrating, in France the focus is taste. We bought the sweetest strawberries, most flavoursome raspberries and the juiciest cherries at local markets, greengrocers and even supermarkets.
In terms of desserts, we started with raspberry tartlets from our favourite Paris boulangerie, before moving into rural France and on to a heady selection of berrylicious concoctions, including panacottas, meringues, mousses and other puddings. Simple strawberries with Normandy cream was just as divine!
Whether we were picking wildflowers along the borders of giant wheat fields in the Loire, escaping from the heat into the leafy woods of the Dordogne or climbing the steep hills of the Alpes-Maritimes we were happy to stretch our legs and enjoy the vistas of country France.
Fun in the sun on the French Riviera
We were lucky to spend a week in Menton, the last, but not least beautiful town, before you reach Italy. Our timing was great – in mid-June the weather was lovely but the summer rush had not yet commenced. Menton is perfect for strolling along the esplanade, relaxing at the beach, exploring the windy streets of the pastel-coloured old town, sampling lemon-flavoured drinks at alfresco cafes or even visiting the local cemetery. In the cooler months we hear that there’s an amazing lemon festival, which is well worth a visit. It’s very easy to jump on a train for visits to Monaco, Italy or another riviera village, but apart from one hike up to beautiful Eze we preferred to stay right where we were.
Un Siecle de Roulottes is an open-air caravan museum in the French countryside near Uzes, not far from Avignon. Most of the caravans are Gypsy caravans, but some were owned by famous bull fighters or other people, or made specially for movies.
Checking out the Gypsy caravans was a really fun experience because we learned so much more about them from the stories Pierre told. The first caravan Pierre showed us was owned by a clown. We saw some photos of him dressed up and they were all very creepy. I think I liked the clown’s caravan the most because it had a window for looking out above the bed and it seemed the most welcoming.
The caravans are absolutely tiny compared to the ones people use these days. You may find it hard to believe, but big families had the same sized caravans, even though they sometimes had 10 to 16 children. In the summer the boys slept outside and the girls slept inside. Then in the winter they all had to cram in together because it would be too cold to sleep outside. Underneath the parent’s bed was another bed, for the children. The caravans were only for sleeping in. They had a little stove for heating in winter, but they never used it for cooking, which was always done outside.
Pierre told us a story about how before the parents died, they would tell their children to burn their caravan. If the children burned the caravan the fire would melt a fortune hidden inside, that they would find. But if they didn’t do what their parents asked, they would never be able to find it.
The smallest caravan was definitely the shepherds caravan. We did not get to see the inside, but from the outside it looked like only a tiny bed would be able to fit in. If a baby lamb’s mother died the shepherd would sleep with it inside the caravan to keep it warm, so there would be barely any room for luggage.
There was also another caravan that was used for a movie called “Chocolate”. They couldn’t use a Gypsy Caravan because they couldn’t fit the camera crew inside. So, Pierre had to make a bigger one with flaps at the sides to stick the cameras through.
The very last caravan we saw was a modern one that Pierre had decorated especially for girls. I liked the Gypsy caravans better but Maille really liked the girls caravan, which was very pink and full of toys.
Chateau Gizeux is one of the chateaux in France. Chateau is the French word for castle. In France there are lots of chateaux and we visited a lot. Here are some pictures of just SOME of the chateaux we saw.
Chateux Gizeux was the closest one to our house in Gizeux, in the Loire Valley, and it was my favourite.
What I liked the most about Chateau Gizeux was a big walkway to the Chateau from the village.
There was also a scavenger hunt about a witch turning the Queen into a frog. You had to find the right ingredients so the Queen could be the Queen again. There was a throne, swords and other ingredients and a witch’s hut. Eliane and I had SO much fun. There were lots of ingredients in the garden and the garden was pretty big, so we had to run around a lot. My favourite part was where we went into the witch’s hut.
We were the only tourists when we visited Castle Gizeux and we met one of the owners, who was raking in the courtyard. The family live at the Chateau and are restoring it so that visitors can see what it used to be like to live there. I would like to live in a Chateau and be a princess one day!
I read the other day that extended family travel is a hot new travel trend, with increasing numbers of people travelling in multi-generational family groups. Unaware at the time that we were part of the zeitgeist, we recently spent two weeks travelling through Morocco with my mother, brother, sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. We were 10 people of diverse ages and stages – children, a teenager, some middle-aged adults and – last but not least – our 71-year-old matriarch. How did that go? (I hear you ask)
It was awesome! As it turns out, travelling with extended family has a lot to offer – and I’m not just talking about built-in babysitters.
Speaking for ourselves, after four months of nuclear family travel we couldn’t wait to see other family members again and to spend time with a more diverse group of people. OK, let’s face it – any other people! Four months of constant companionship is inclined to get ever so slightly dull.
Travelling with my extended family enabled us to spend more time together and reconnect with individual family members, something that can be hard to achieve in a large family, in the course of usual life. Sharing memorable travel experiences and building on our shared history are other great bonding factors that we believe will strengthen our family ties. On a more pragmatic note, we could also afford some more expensive accommodation options, due to economy of scale.
Coordinating a diverse group of people travelling through a foreign country does have its challenges. Catering to different interests and tastes, securing suitable accommodation, finding a table for 10 in your restaurant of choice – all this can prove difficult. Here are some pointers that worked for us and might help you ensure a smooth extended family holiday.
Do your research to identify destinations, sights and activities that are likely to hold cross-generational appeal. For our family, Morocco held the allure of a very different culture and offered adventures in charismatic landscapes, such as the Sahara, that we could all enjoy.
Moroccan food turned out to be universally appealing to our group, somewhat to our surprise!
Consider options that minimise the need for constant decision-making, such as guided tours. Groups can waste a lot of time milling about trying to make decisions on what to do, where to eat etc. While we are generally pretty independent travellers, we do find that there are times and places where a tour can really make your experience. We chose to do a private 5-day, 4-night tour from Fes to Marrakech, via the Atlas Mountains, and the edge of the Sahara Desert. This simplified things considerably, as for this part of the trip we didn’t need to worry about transport, accommodation, meals, what sights to see and what activities to do. Our chosen tour company, Soul Adventure, catered very well to our group and were particularly skilled in making things fun for the kids, who overall had a fantastic time.
Plan and book well ahead. This is very important to secure quality accommodation when you are in a larger group. Morocco is particularly well suited to extended family travel as many riads easily cater for 12 or more people and are very affordable. If you don’t know already, according to Wikipedia, a riad is a ‘type of traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.’ Our riads in Fes and Marrakech were definitely palatial – we felt like princes and princesses in these beautiful places!
Be flexible in deciding who does what and when. Remember that not everyone will be keen on every option. Be creative, negotiate and don’t worry about breaking up the group. Letting the children stay home and swim in the pool, rather than dragging them through a lengthy shopping expedition in the bazaars, is usually a no-brainer win-win. At the same time, don’t let the kids cop out of every excursion – our kids often needed to be pushed to leave the sanctuary of the riad – but once they did, they generally enjoyed themselves. It can also help to mix up combinations of people; the kids are far more likely to listen to, and behave well for, an aunt or uncle! (Or is that just my kids??)
Share responsibility for the success of the trip. An advantage of extended family travel is the presence of more adults to share the load. If you are the lead organiser, don’t forget that you can step back and let others make decisions and lead the way, including in times of crisis. Travel can be stressful and sometimes it’s hard not to get tense when things take an unexpected turn – but you don’t have to solve every issue. Constant decision-making on behalf of the group can also end up being burdensome – remember you are on holiday too! If you are someone who is more or less along for the ride, look out for the opportunities to add value or lend a helping hand and try not to fall into the habit of always relying on others to make decisions or take the lead.
Create happy memories and take lots of photos to remind you later!
My favourite part of Morocco is the Sahara Desert. We started our tour with an enjoyable eight-hour drive, sometimes stopping to take photos of the magnificent view. As the cars could not drive over the sand, we had to stop and take a ride on some one-humped camels (scientific name “dromedary”). Our tour guides wrapped our heads in turbans before we mounted our camels.
We were pleased to discover that the camels were much more comfortable than horses. The ride was brilliant! I loved the scenery, the big orange sand dunes as far as you could see, everything was so smooth, so serene.
Our hosts at the desert camp greeted us Moroccan style by laying down carpets on the warm sand and providing a silver platter with sweets, nuts, dried fruit and mint tea, complete with teapot and cups.
After we had eaten our fill we went into our tents. The adults had tents to themselves and us kids all shared a tent. The beds were huge and comfortable. The only problem was tents were very hot, but that couldn’t be helped. After dinner we went to the campfire. We played the drums (well, mostly watched) with the staff and then went to bed.
Next day was big. First our guides drove us out to the local school to check it out. The building was tiny, made out of mud bricks and coated with straw to keep it cool. The inside contained a couple of desks and a chalk-board. The students were lucky because they could choose whether they wanted to come to school or not.
Then we visited a nomad camp and after this we went fossil hunting.
Our guides took us to a place where there were heaps of fossils. I found one as soon as we got there and I think it was the best. The drive home was freaky, our driver went right up on the sand dunes and we almost tipped over. It was thrilling!
Our siesta was interrupted by a fun surprise that afternoon. We were playing in the camp when the adults told us there was going to be a sandstorm. Sure enough, when we looked out over the sand dunes, we could see sand flying towards us. We stayed out for a little longer, but had to tighten our turbans for the sand was blowing into our faces. Finally, when the wind started getting to us, we went inside. Unfortunately, we had to put screens all over the windows, so we couldn’t see out, but we did manage to catch a glimpse when my dad came stomping in to bring us some food. You might think that the howl and the rush of wind around the tent is scary, but it is really just another fun experience.
I could come back to the Sahara any day. It’s amazing.
Antonio Gaudi was a famous architect in Barcelona. He died almost a 100 years ago! He designed lots historical monuments, e.g. La Sagrada Familia.
We went to Barcelona with our cousins, Ayla, Shea and Ivy. Some of my family visited Casa Batllo, which is a famous house that Gaudi transformed. But it was a construction site on the outside and they were really disappointed that they couldn’t see the front.
We all met up afterwards at La Pedrera. La Pedrera is a huge house that looks like a horizontal or upside-down wave. We saw the outside of it, because we did not want to pay to go in.
The next day we went to La Sagrada Familia. La Sagrada Familia is a humungous cathedral that has very, very tall towers and has lots of big columns inside. It is still in construction but they said it will probably be done in 7 years. There were coloured, stained glass windows that were pretty. The windows were green, blue, red and yellow and long shafts of coloured light come into the cathedral. The Sagrada Familia is my favourite cathedral and my favourite Gaudi building.
Parc Guell was up on a hill. There were columns where we walked and one of the columns looked like a woman. I also remember a colourful lizard statue on a set of stairs with beautiful mosaics. Gaudi’s house was there but we did not see it. There were two other houses that looked like ginger bread houses.
What I like about Gaudi’s style is that it’s colourful and bright with lots of details. It’s interesting that the builders could carve that much on La Sagrada Familia! I think that Gaudi is the best architect I know. I like Gaudi’s art work and hope that I get to see more of Gaudi’s work in my life.
Cuba is an
amazing travel destination – we highly recommend it. But let’s face it, it’s
not your average country. Many things work differently there, while some others
don’t work at all. Talking of which, internet access IS gradually getting
better – but it’s definitely still best to be prepared.
We did our homework on Cuba. Before we went, we spent many hours trawling the internet researching subjects like the two currencies, how to access funds while we were there, how to access the internet, what and where to eat, best transport options between cities etc. We made notes of important information and took it with us. We booked all our accommodation before we arrived and we thought we were pretty set.
Here are some things that we missed and others that we were really glad we knew.
1. Be prepared and bring everything – I mean everything – you might need with you. This includes sunscreen, insect repellent, snacks such as nuts, chocolate or muesli bars, even basics like a new toothbrush. You might get lucky and find something in a shop, but unless you are looking for a bottle of rum or a cigar, you probably won’t find it.
2. Bring a guide book on Cuba, preferably hard copy. In this day and age many people (e.g. us) have ditched the well-thumbed Lonely Planet and rely on a host of useful websites, apps and google searches instead. In Cuba, we generally accessed the internet every 2-3 days in a short and frustratingly slow session that focussed on checking emails and dealing with ‘must do’ online tasks. There was very little time for researching the top things to do in Trinidad or the best places to eat in Vinales, and our questions about Cuban history, society and its natural environment mostly went unanswered.
3. Work out a method for accessing cash. Unless you are holed up in a swanky resort you can forget using credit. Before we left home, we ordered a new credit card – VISA, not Mastercard – through a non-US affiliated bank. We preloaded it with funds and used it like a debit card to withdraw the maximum amount of cash possible in one go. Although we were still stung to the tune of US$10 per withdrawal, applicable on any amount, we managed to find ATMs when we needed them, didn’t have any rejections, and we didn’t need to use our back-up plan, which consisted of a wad of euros.
4. Don’t assume that you can make online purchases from Cuba. When the flights we had booked before we arrived in Cuba fell through, we had a very stressful time trying to book new flights online. We finally gave up and emailed family back in Australia begging them to book and pay for us! This was despite informing our (multiple) banks that we were visiting Cuba before we left. Not one of them would approve our purchase.
5. Get maps.me and download the Cuba map before you arrive. Maps.me works well offline and many restaurants and accommodation options have reviews. We found this to be very helpful in finding decent places to eat, not to mention finding our way around. It also felt good to be able to consult our phones about something!
6. Talk to the locals and ask lots of questions! Cuba is a pretty safe country and we found Cubans to be friendly, helpful, genuine and not out to scam us. It’s ok to drop your guard, smile at people and start conversations. Note: there are some exceptions – e.g. people scamming for commissions from restaurants in Cienfuegos.
7. If you need to ditch something along the way, Cuba is the perfect place. Clothes and other items are so hard to find that someone will appreciate your faded old t-shirt, even if you don’t. We gave some unwanted clothes to our casa host, who seemed genuinely appreciative.
8. Travel within Cuba can be very unreliable. In 26 days, we had two buses break down, causing delays of between 2 and 5 hours and a taxi that had to stop a couple of times for minor on-road maintenance. Poor roads also slow travel times and it’s probably best not to book any close connections.
9. Be prepared to eat out – or have your casa particular host cook for you – for every meal. We actually had a basic kitchen at one place but – unusually for us – didn’t try to cook as we’d realised by then that finding ingredients would be too hard. We suspect that finding food items in Cuba involves a complex bartering system with your neighbours, supplemented with occasional state-issued rations and inside knowledge of who sells what where. Unless you feel like taking on a challenge – e.g. is it possible for a tourist to cook spaghetti bolognaise in Cuba? – really don’t bother.
10. Finally, Cuba is quite a big island with a lot to see. Travel between destinations is slow and often uncomfortable, particularly in taxi collectivos and when the air con breaks down on the tourist bus. If you move too fast you risk feeling like you are constantly on the road. Travelling with the kids, we stuck to a Western Cuban itinerary and hit many of the big-name spots. If we could do it over again, we’d probably spend 4+ nights in Havana, 3 nights in Vinales, 1 night in Cienfuegos, 5 nights in Trinidad, 3-4 in Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) and 3-4 for some beach relaxation in Varadero.