IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Europe for less

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Sept 1, 2013

London and Paris just do not cut it anymore: An increasing number of Singaporeans are eschewing traditional European tourist hotspots for the continent's less-visited countries.

Travel agencies are reporting an increase of 30 to 35 per cent in bookings to more exotic European locations so far this year, compared to last year, but the agencies decline to reveal absolute numbers.

Such up-and-coming destinations include Portugal, the Vatican City, countries in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, as well as the less-traversed towns of Italy.

Ms Alicia Seah, vice-president of CTC Travel, says: "The strong Singapore dollar against the euro now means Singaporeans have more spending power in Europe." The Singapore dollar is $1.69 to the euro.

Many Singapore travellers have already been to Central Europe and are now looking for destinations beyond the major cities in countries such as Switzerland and France, she adds.

Administrator Mary Lim, 54, returned last month from a 12-day tour of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland with ASA Holidays. The weaker euro influenced her decision to explore Scandinavia, says Ms Lim, who has previously toured Italy, Paris and Switzerland.

"I've been eyeing the region for a while now," she adds. "Since the exchange rate is favourable, I thought it would be a good time to travel and explore a new place."

Similarly motivated by the attractive exchange rate, finance manager Veronica Low, 69, booked a 13-day trip to Eastern Europe with CTC Travel at the recent travel fair organised by the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore or Natas.

"I had been watching the currency exchange rate for a while and exchanged some of my money for euros even before I had booked my holiday. When I saw the rate fall so much, I decided I had to act immediately," she says.

Ms Low, who has visited France, Italy and Switzerland on previous trips, says she was attracted to the tour of Eastern Europe - with stops in Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland - because she had read that it was very different from Central Europe.

"The cities I saw in Central Europe were more familiar and looked like places I had seen before. The pace of life, culture and architecture of Eastern Europe are completely different and that really attracted me," she says.

The currency depreciation has also meant that travellers are keen to get to know a particular country well, says MsEileen Oh of ASA Holidays.

"Many Singaporeans have been to the usual suspects of Central Europe and are taking advantage of the favourable euro to visit other parts of Europe, or to tour Europe in depth," she says.

As an example, she cites how at least 15per cent more of ASA Holidays' customers this year are choosing to spend time in a single European destination - as opposed to visiting multiple countries in a "touch and go" fashion - compared to last year.

Italy, one of the most popular destinations for Singaporean tourists, is still yielding new-on-the-radar cities and towns. These include the "tranquil and quaint" Orvieto, a city in south-western Umbria, which sits on a rock of solid volcanic ash; and Greve in Chianti, in Tuscany, with its many mediaeval buildings, says Chan Brothers' spokesman Michelle Yin.

The Italian hill town of Montepulciano has become popular lately as well, says CTC Travel's Ms Seah, probably because scenes in one of the blockbuster Twilight movies were filmed there.

Mr David Chang, 61, decided to spend two weeks last year exploring southern Italy with his wife and three other couples - all seasoned travellers.

"I didn't want to do one of those trips where you cover the whole of Europe in 14 days. We decided to focus on one country," says the retired owner of a manufacturing company, who has visited more than 10 European countries on multi-city tours. These included Britain, Germany, Holland and France. He had also been to big Italian cities such as Milan and Rome.

"Even then, two weeks was not enough to get to know the whole country, so we further narrowed it down to the south of Italy," he adds.

Their trip last year with Chan's World Holiday, a bespoke travel agency owned by Chan Brothers, included the ancient town of Pompeii and the island of Capri.

"I much preferred the slower pace of exploring just one region," he concludes.

jennanid@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Sept 1, 2013

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AUSTRIA

This small, landlocked country can often be overlooked as it borders eight other European nations. Its capital Vienna, however, is a cultural and economic hub, and is known for being the home of the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud.

Highlights:

  • Visit Schonbrunn Palace and its gardens (Schonbrunner Schlosstraße 47 1130 Vienna, tel: +43-1-8111-3239, www.schoenbrunn.at/en.html), the former summer residence of the Habsburg imperial family. The rooms are mainly decorated in the 18th-century Rococo style, with white lacquered walls and ceilings, crystal chandeliers and gold leaf ornamentation. In 1772, child prodigy Mozart, then six, gave a concert in the palace's Hall of Mirrors.
  • Visit Sigmund Freud Museum and see the famous shrink's former apartment and office, as well as an exhibition showcasing his life and work. Finish your visit with coffee at Cafe Landtmann (Universitatsring 4, 1010 Vienna, tel: +43-1- 2410-0120, www.landtann.at), Freud's preferred coffee house, where a cuppa costs around S$6.
  • Visit the Hofburg Palace (Michaelerkuppel, Hofburg, 1010 Vienna, tel: +43-1-5337-570, www.hofburg-wien.at/en.html), the official residence of the Austrian President, which has housed the Habsburg royal family and served as their principal winter residence. Built in 1279, it has been expanded over the centuries, since the 1200s to include museums, the treasury, the national theatre and a riding school.
  • See St Charles' Church (Kreuzherrengasse 1, 1040 Vienna, tel: +43-1-5046-187, www.karlskirche.at), an impressive building in the Baroque style erected in the early 1700s. It is one of the city's iconic buildings, with its distinctive dome and bas-relief columns.

Best time to visit: May to October when Vienna's gardens and parks get busy as the cold thaws. Street cafes come to life once it is warm enough for outdoor seating.

Go with: CTC Travel's 13-day Eastern Europe Spectacular, which covers Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. Prices start from $2,388. To book, call CTC Travel on 6536-3995 or go to www.ctc.com.sg.


SOUTHERN ITALY

The South of Italy has been gaining popularity with tourists, with its quaint small towns such as Montepulciano and Greve, vibrant landscapes, and rich history.

Highlights:

  • Take a cable car ride up to the mediaeval hilltop town of Orvieto. See the Duomo, an elaborate church in the middle of town with a Gothic facade, before exploring the town's underground caverns and cellars.
  • Visit the small town of Greve, known for its wine and olive oil, and try samples of both at La Cantine di Greve.
  • Travel to Cinque Terre, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where five villages run across the coastline above the Gulf of Poets. Explore the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso via old footpaths that run through the vineyards and olive groves between the villages.

Best time to visit: Mid-March to early May, when the weather is mild enough for visitors to walk and cycle around leisurely.

Go with: Chan Brothers' 11-day Italia Infinito tour, which covers Siena, Greve, LaSpezia, Bologna and Parma. Prices start from $3,438. To book, call 6438-8880 or go to www.ChanBrothers.com.


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SLOVAKIA

Slovakia's capital city, Bratislava, has its fair share of ancient and religious history to be explored.

Highlights:

  • Stroll through Old Town, where the traffic-free streets and centuries-old buildings, squares and churches seem out of a fairy tale.
  • Visit St Martin's Cathedral (Rudnayovo namestie 4549/1, 811 01 Bratislava - Stare Mesto-Old Town, tel: +421-2-544-313-59), built in a stark Gothic style, where 19 Hungarian kings and queens were coronated.
  • Lose yourself in one of the city's many quirky museums. There is the Museum of Clocks (Zidovska Street 1, tel.:+421-2- 5441-19-40), which showcases the history of clock-making and has many unique sun-dials, wall clocks and alarm clocks. The Pharmacy Museum (Michalska Street 26, tel: +421-2-541-31-214) shows the history of pharmacy in the city, as well as the oldest tools for preparing medicine and laboratory ware.
  • See Bratislava castle, which stands on a hill directly above the Danube river (Zamocka, 811 01 Bratislava Old Town, tel: +421-2-544-114-44), from which you can see not just Bratislava, but Austria and Hungary as well.

Best time to visit: Late August, when the tourist crowds have thinned and hotels are cheaper. Those who can brave the cold may want to go from late November to December, when a Christmas market opens in Hviezdoslavovo Square, Main Square and Frantiskanske Square.

Go with: CTC Travel's 13-day Eastern Europe Spectacular, which covers Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. Prices start from $2,388. To book, call CTC Travel on 6536-3995 or go to www.ctc.com.sg.


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VATICAN CITY

Think Singapore is small? Take a trip to the smallest country in the world, with an area of 44ha - compared to more than 70,000ha here - and a population of 840. More than just a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, the Vatican City also boasts impressive Renaissance architecture and delicious food.

Highlights:

Housed inside St Peter's Basilica (Piazza San Pietro 00120 Citta del Vaticano, tel: +39-06-6988-3731) is Michelangelo's famous Renaissance sculpture Pieta. The sculpture depicts Jesus lying on the lap of his mother Mary after his crucifixion.

  • Visit the Sistine Chapel (Viale Vaticano 00120 Citta del Vaticano, tel: +39-06-6988- 4676), famous worldwide for its iconic ceiling showing nine scenes from the Book of Genesis from the Bible, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.
  • Chow down at the Pizzarium (Via della Meloria 43, tel: +39-06-3974-5416), a 15-minute walk from St Peter's Basilica. Opened by famed pizza chef Gabriele Bonci, the joint is thought by foodies to serve up the best pizza in the city, with a chewy dough different from the classic thin-crust Italian pizzas.
  • One cannot leave Vatican City without visiting St Peter's Basilica, the burial site of the first Pope, St Peter and many others since. The current Pope, Pope Francis, speaks twice a week at the Basilica, drawing crowds of up to 80,000 people in St Peter's Square. The Pope speaks on Wednesdays and Sundays. To see him on a Sunday , you will have to arrive early in the morning to find a good spot for his noon address.

Best time to visit: September, when it is not too cold to stand outdoors in St Peter's Square and the queues are not as bad as in the summer.

Go with: Most travel agencies offer trips to Vatican City as part of an Italy tour, including CTC Travel's 13-day Best of Italy, Switzerland and France tour. Prices start from $3,988. To book, call 6536-3995 or go to www.ctc.com.sg.


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BRUGES, BELGIUM

Check out the picturesque Bruges (say "broo-sh") in Belgium. Referred to as the "Venice of the North" because of its many canals, the city almost stole the show in the 2008 crime drama In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as Irish hitmen on an enforced holiday. The city centre is also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Highlights:

  • Visit the Market Square, where you will see eateries, gift shops, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. In the centre of the square is the 83m-tall Belfry, with a steep, narrow staircase of more than 300 steps.
  • See the Church of Our Lady (Mariastraat, 8000 Brugge, tel: +32-50-34-5314), the tallest structure in the city, which has one of Europe's highest spires at 119m. It houses Michelangelo's 1504 marble sculpture Madonna With Child.
  • Sample two of Belgium's proudest exports, chocolate and beer. Visit Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc, a family-owned chocolate- maker (Katelijnestraat 5, 8000 Brugge, tel: +32-50-33-0887), known for its 90 types of artisanal chocolate; and Belgian brewer De Halve Maan (Walplein 26 8000 Brugge, tel: +32-50-44-4222), for its local brews.

Best time to visit: April, around Easter, when the city comes to life with blooming flora. Go in November for the Brugge Chocolate Festival.

Go with: Chan Brothers' 10-day Best of Holland, Belgium and Paris tour. Prices start from $2,638. To book, call 6438-8880 or go to www.ChanBrothers.com.


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PORTUGAL

Spain's western neighbour is home to one of the biggest Catholic shrines in the world. The country also holds a number of fascinating historical sites.

Highlights:

  • Visit the Shrine of Fatima in the town of Fatima, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared on six occasions in front of three children in 1917. The square that houses the shrine also has a wax museum (Rua Jacinta Marto, tel: +351-249-539-300) recounting the story of the apparitions.
  • See the Jeronimos Monastery (Largo Jeronimos 3, 1400-210 Lisbon, tel: +351-21- 362-0004) and the Belem Tower (Avenida Brasilia, 1400-038 Lisbon, tel: +351-21- 362-0034), both designated as Unesco World Heritage Sites. Both sites, which are close to each other, are built in a distinctive Manueline style of architecture, also known as the Portuguese late-Gothic style.

Best time to visit: Between March and May or September and October, as the weather is still warm, but the city is not as crowded as it is in the summer.

Go with: CTC Travel's 14-day Splendours of Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar tour. Prices start from $2,538. To book, call CTC Travel on 6536-3995 or go to www.ctc.com.sg.


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GREECE

From its ancient capital city of Athens, the birthplace of the Olympic Games to the volcanoes of Santorini, Greece is diverse in its offerings. Take time to explore the entire Hellenic Republic at a leisurely pace.

Highlights:

  • Take a city tour of Athens, stopping at the Pan-Athenaic Olympic Stadium, where the first Olympic Games of modern times were held in 1896. Also visit the Acropolis, an ancient citadel comprising the remains of several old buildings including the iconic Parthenon.
  • Take a boat to the Greek islands of Mykonos and Santorini, which are a beach lovers' paradise with their deep blue waters and golden stretches of sand.
  • Visit the city of Olympia, the site of the Olympic Games in classical times. See the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, where Greek athletes first met two millennia ago to honour the Greek God Zeus.

The Games were held here every four years before being moved to Athens in their modern incarnation, and the Olympic flame is still lit in this sanctuary to this day.

Best time to visit: Peak holiday seasons are July and August, when the weather is warmest, but travellers can enjoy the beaches without the crowds in June or September.

Go with: Chan Brothers' nine-day Mythical Greece tour. Prices start from $2,588. To book, call 6438-8880 or go to www.ChanBrothers.com.


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FINLAND

Finland is said to be the home of Santa Claus, making it an especially popular winter destination for Singaporeans at the recent Natas fair. The Nordic country next to Sweden and Norway has an eclectic mix of wintry attractions - a definite change from tropical Singapore.

Highlights:

  • Visit a reindeer farm in the Arctic Circle. The owners of Arctic Circle Reindeer Farm, 7km from the centre of the circle, herd the reindeer on their own farm and introduce guests to reindeer herding culture.
  • Visit one of the many Santa Claus- themed attraction. Santa Claus Village, Santapark and Santa Claus Main Post Office are among the sights dedicated to transporting visitors to the magical world of Father Christmas.
  • See the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, a natural light display in the sky. Scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) of the United States have predicted that this December will be the best time in the next decade to see the Northern Lights, as solar activity is expected to peak.

Some hotels in the Lapland area of Finland offer guests the chance to stay overnight in a traditional snow igloo or a glass igloo, where they can see the Northern Lights through the glass ceiling.

Best time to visit: December this year, for the Nothern Lights

Go with: ASA Holidays' 12-day Spectacular Scandinavia package, which covers Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Prices start from $4,088. To book, call ASA Holidays on 6303-5388 or go to www.asaholiday.com.