In April 2014, I was planning to travel to Ukraine with Oregon Adventist Men’s Chorus (www.oamc.org), of whom I’m a member. We were scheduled to begin our two week singing tour of the country April 21, and my grandmother, who was planning to accompany us as well, and I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to stop in Holland on our way. We purchased our tickets well in advance, then early this year the political situation in Ukraine deteriorated. Long story short the singing tour was canceled and we decided to reroute our tickets rather than cancel them completely, turning the trip into a 10 day vacation.
We were only scheduled to change planes in Iceland, but ended up delayed two hours with a medical emergency on board. Missing our connection, we were delayed 24 hours and the airline gave us a hotel in Reykjavik. We had all afternoon so booked a Golden Circle bus tour and enjoyed the amazing beauty of Iceland. It was pretty cold and snowing off and on but the sun came out at times as well. We saw Gulfoss waterfall, the Alþingi rift valley dividing Europe from America, and Geysir, after which geysers are named.
The next day (Sunday) we made it to Holland and went straight to Keukenhof Tulip Garden where we enjoyed a stunning variety of tulips and other flowers in the peak of their bloom season. This garden truly is a must see–ranking up with Victoria Gardens and other world class flower gardens. On Monday we took an all day North and South Holland tour, where we visited Zaans Schans, Volendam, Markem, the Hague, Delft, and a little of Amsterdam. We really enjoyed the beautiful Dutch countryside and windmills, and got to tour a wooden shoe factory, cheese factory, the original Royal Delft factory, and the capital buildings of the Netherlands.
Our last day in Holland we took a bus three hours south to Brussels for an all day tour in Belgium. The architecture there was truly amazing, especially in the Market Square. Of course we had to take in some of the local cuisine and handicrafts–Belgian chocolate, waffles, Australian ice cream, and Belgium needlework.
Wednesday we got to relax a little, flying mid-
When we got back to our hotel Thursday evening quite late we realized that we’d made a slight error and didn’t have any time blocked to see some of the sights of Florence. It’s a beautiful city and would be a shame to stay there without seeing anything. So we got up about 6am on Friday and went walking from our hotel all the way to the Ponte Vecchio (about a mile). Along the way we were able to see several of the famous buildings including the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella. After a quick breakfast we caught our “Tuscany in a Day” tour, which I guess is the number one most highly rated day tour in the world. I think I might agree with that–it was absolutely top notch. We visited Siena south of Florence, touring the city square, unbelievable cathedral featuring original works from Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists, and learned about the horse racing and other unique features of this Tuscan city. Passing Monteriggioni, which we sadly didn’t have time to see except from the road, we visited a beautiful organic farm for lunch. The weather was perfect and the farm has an amazing view of San Gimignano, also called the Medieval Manhattan. After lunch we drove to San Gimignano and had some free time to explore this small town which feels almost perfectly preserved from hundreds of years ago. Our final stop was the town of Pisa, and the famous field of miracles with its beautiful cathedral, baptistery, and leaning tower. What a day!
The final day of our trip ended up being the most amazing, which took a lot considering everything we did! We joined a fairly small group (25 or so) for a trek through the Cinque Terre, located about 2.5 hour drive northwest of Florence along the Italian Riviera. The Cinque Terre is a national park and Unesco World Heritage Site consisting of five small villages huddled along a steeply inclined section of coastline. The natives terraced these hillsides hundreds of years ago for farming, using nothing but hand stacked rocks. If you stretched all those terraces out they would actually be longer than the great wall of China. We had the chance to hike 4km between two of the villages along the trail that connects them all, enjoying amazing views and very few other people along the way. Everywhere we looked was picture perfect, truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We rode the train between the other villages, ate lunch in a cafe overlooking the hills and ocean, and at the end of the day took a boat ride back past all five villages. We were tired and sore but it was so well worth it.