Travelling to Florence, Italy, with an 11-year-old – bonding over pizza, shopping and art

Girl in front of Duomo in Florence

Paula in front of the bell tower and dome in Florence, Italy

Florence is the perfect destination for a fashion-conscious tween with a healthy appetite, budding interest in history and art and a willingness to spend time with her uncool mum.

I find travelling alone in a country where I don’t understand a word daunting, but I’m determined to overcome my insecurities and prise open the world city break by city break for Paula. Secretly, I also hope to build up enough shared memories to sustain a mother-daughter relationship far beyond the turbulence of the teenage years.

Half-a-litre of house red

We spend our first hour in Florence peering at street names and upside down maps – weighed down by back sacks and dragging cases behind us – like a pair of awkward, nearsighted beetles.
After a good 20 minutes, we accidentally stumble across the slightly dodgy address of our 3-star hotel, settling in a sparse, but clean room for a few minutes before venturing out in search of the legendary Italian pizza and pasta.
Paula tucks into her spagbol with much appreciation while I splash out on a deliciously fresh seafood pasta – washed down with half a litre of house red… I know, I know, but it was only one Euro more expensive than a large glass of wine!

TIP: Don’t count on an 11-year-old to be of any use when it comes to reading maps – you’re on your own.

Stairways to heaven (or hell…)

We wake up to an unexpected early summer’s day, thrilled to be in a foreign city with no other agenda than to enjoy ourselves. We arrive early at the city’s religious heart – the  Duomo Group and decide to climb the 419 steps of Giotto’s famous bell tower to join the tiny moving figures on the viewing platform.
Half-way up the solid stone walls appear to close in on us as we edge our way past fellow climbers speaking in foreign tongues – not unlike the Tower of Babel, I imagine.
My daughter’s sudden onslaught of severe vertigo manifests itself in high-pitched shrieks.
We somehow make it to the top to be rewarded with the most spectacular views of the surrounding Tuscan hillside and a sea of rustic roofs at our feet – but we would still be up there, if it wasn’t for the young Casanova who abandoned his own ascent to take my screeching daughter by the hand and accompany her down at least 210 steps.

TIP: The view is well worth the climb, but wear comfortable shoes and think twice if there’s even a hint of vertigo or claustrophobia.

I scream ice cream 

Ice cream parlour in Florence

Ice cream mountains in a gelateria in Florence, Italy

After our morning ordeal, we feel we deserve the mountainous portions of chocolate, tiramisu and coconut gelato – the Italian take on ice cream.  It’s the food of the Gods and we float out of the gelateria in a sugar-induced trance.

We weave our way through a maze of cobblestone alleys dipping in and out of big name fashion stores, boutiques and quaint shops selling ceramics, handbags, jewellery and colourful scarves.

After a well-deserved riposo (siesta), we’re ready for some serious bargaining for leather handbags, belts and knickknacks at the San Lorenzo outdoor market, resulting in a few unintended purchases.

We end our first day with a little prosecco for the senora and Fanta orange for the senorita, nibbling olives and crisps in a wine bar, before hitting the streets again in search of the ultimate pizza – experience.
Sausage pizza (yuk!) for Paula and pizza vegetarian for me, followed by shared tiramisu trifle – and washed down with a single glass of Chianti – (for the senora) provide a good base for some serious bonding, gossiping and giggling.

Girl eating ice cream

Paula with her ice cream – gelato in Florence.

TIP: Don’t think about what you’re eating – just let go and enjoy yourself – being on a diet would be torture and a sin!

A spot of culture
Thanks to a tip from my mum, we booked our tickets for the famous Uffizi art gallery online at home and walk in straight past the snaking queues. Armed with a list of top 10 paintings, we spend three hours searching for masterpieces such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s Holy Family and Da Vinci’s Annunciation.
TIP: Unless you know your art from your elbow, go in prepared with a list of must-see paintings and a bit of information about them – or you’ll be overwhelmed.

Woman in front of Ponte Vecchio bridge in Italy

Me with the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the background

We stroll across the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge with its shiny offerings of jewellery, but decide over cups of pure melted chocolate and bambino pastries, to skip the Pitti Palace and other historical wonders, choosing to do more shopping in stead.
TIP: Don’t be too ambitious – involve your tween in the itinerary and strike the right balance of fun, history and culture – and ply her with lots of snacks to keep enthusiasm up.

We even squeeze in a quick visit to the leaning tower of Pisa on our last day. Flying into Pisa and taking a bus (one hour trip) to Florence is dead easy and if you have enough time – take a city bus from the airport to the tower and walk down through the old centre before hopping on an airport bus and heading home.

Girl in front of leaning tower of Pisa

Paula in front of leaning tower of Pisa.

Our trip has topped up the shared memory bank nicely, but I’m already scanning the world map for our next destination – just in case.
Have you travelled somewhere intesting with your children? I’d love to be inspired by your travels.

 

National Space Centre: a blast of a day out for families

Boy in Astronaut suit photograph

Astronaut Max on the moon – having a ball of a time…

We’re not an easy lot to please, but our family day out at the National Space Centre in Leicester was a blast!

A four-year-old obsessed with Lego and toilet humour, a 9-year-old who refuses to concentrate on anything other than a computer game for longer than 10 seconds and an 11-year-old nearing the teenage tipping point and with zero tolerance of her two brothers.

Grumpy dad, stroppy mum 

Add to that a grumpy German dad whose idea of fun is watching historical documentaries. Throw in a stroppy mum who needs yoga and Chardonnay to get through most days and it becomes nearly impossible to find a family day out that works for everyone and doesn’t end up with all of us wanting to kill one another.

I had my doubts 

So, when we were invited to a VIP family day out to watch Back To The Moon For Good, the latest show in the planetarium at the National Space Centre in Leicester, I had my doubts. It starts with a one-and-a-half hour drive from our home in Buckinghamshire accompanied by constant squabbling in the back of the car, threats of carsickness from the tween and a husband with an already challenged sense of humour getting grizzlier by the minute.

Rocket tower at National Space Centre

Bubble-wrapped rocket tower at the National Space Centre, Leicester

We arrived at the Space Centre at 10am – the iconic 42m high rocket tower towering above its drab surroundings. I still had my doubts, but from the moment we entered we were mesmerised.

There are seven themed interactive galleries, as well as the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium to explore and it literally offers something for everybody. We didn’t manage to see everything during our 5-hour visit and left with our heads buzzing. We’re planning a follow up visit soon.

Here are some of our highlights:

  1. Back To The Moon for Good – this amazing show scheduled to start in November in the Planetarium tells the story of 20 teams competing for the Google Lunar X prize. The scientists from around the world are trying to design a robotic spacecraft to land on the moon. Images are projected onto the entire 58-foot dome surface and totally surround you, extending beyond your peripheral vision and transporting you to different worlds. It’s the closest I’ll get to being in space during my lifetime.

Tip: Try to schedule the show somewhere for the middle of your outing to give tired feet a bit of a rest, before hitting the exhibitions again.  My husband loved the show and thoroughly enjoyed meeting the German members of one of the teams competing in this challenge as part of our VIP experience. This was right up his alley

2. The 42m-rocket tower – travel up the length of the Blue Streak rocket in a transparent elevator to the top to take your photograph on the moon, relive the 1969 moon landing and see an Apollo moon rock.

Tip: Don’t miss the rocket launching countdown and blast off in the Cafeteria, complete with smoke. This was Max’s favourite. (The space toilet also appealed obviously)

3. Ride the 3D Spaceflight induction module to Europa – a white knuckle ride through radiation clouds, a near miss with an asteroid and a hair-raising ice canyon run.  The simulator ride was Lukas’s favourite.

Tip: Don’t eat just before you go on this ride and keep your bag on your lap!

4. The weather pod – The tween (Paula) loved a chance to be in the limelight in the weather pod where you get to do a live weather forecast on television and can upload your video to Youtube and share it with friends and family – here’s ours! I tried to embed it below, but if it’s not working – check it out on Youtube:  (Any tech tips welcome)

5. Over 150 interactive challenges and experiences :

Boy entering space rocket

Astronaut Max entering a rocket

  • Girl at exhibition model in National Space Centre

    Paula orbiting planets around the sun at the National Space Centre in Leicester

    Do the stress test to see if you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut

  • see if you’re likely to suffer from space sickness
  • climb through a black hole
  • try to lift a tin of baked beans on different planets, touch a meteorite
  • land a lunar module on the moon
  • watch a video of astronauts eating and drinking food in space (this was my personal favourite – being quite keen on food and drink on earth, it would be a concern for me in space).

The combination of entertainment and opportunities to explore things aimed at all ages is brilliantly done and kept us all interested throughout – no mean feat!

Tip: Don’t spend too much time in one area – as there’s lots more to see!

Smiling faces all round 

Our day out at the National Space Centre was absolutely amazing and we all left with smiles on our faces, which doesn’t happen often. We even survived being stuck in traffic back home for two hours.

Boy in front of display at National Space Centre

Lukas lighting up a planet at the National Space Centre

Disclaimer

We were offered the VIP day and tickets to see the show for free, but I would not have written a glowing review had that not truly been our experience.

For prices and practical information visit the National Space Centre website.

How to act cool when dining in a Michelin restaurant

Since I had children my culinary excursions have been dominated by the kind of restaurant that offers finger food or plastic cutlery in garish surroundings with a kindergarten-ambiance.

It’s fair to say that my standards have been significantly lowered since the days when I earned a decent salary and had a semblance of a life.

Out of my depth

Father and daughter

My dad, Deon, and I on his 70th birthday

So, when my dad offered to treat us with a meal at a 3-starred Michelin restaurant to celebrate his 70th birthday, I was over the moon, but out of my depth.

The world class L’Auberge du Vieux Puis, which I think can be loosely translated as the Inn of old powers – is hidden away in the unassuming village of Fontjoncouse with a mere 150 souls at the end of a beautiful, winding mountain road in the Languedoc region of France.

Since retirement, my parents spend most of their time eating and drinking wine in this beautiful part of France where they seem to have discovered their second wind and an almost indecent lust for life.

The Venue:

The restaurant is the pride and joy of chef Gilles Goujon, with whom I managed to sneak a photograph on my mobile phone to my husband’s embarrassment.

Chef and diner

Michelin crowned chef Gilles Goujon and moi

The restaurant is a delightful blend of old and new with a historic well in the front garden contrasted with sleek, contemporary lines, modern glass floor panels showcasing historic foundations and a selection of quirky artwork, including iron sculptures produced by an eccentric local artist.

Tip: Don’t forget your mobile phone for photographs, but try to be subtle so as not to alert the staff and other diners to the fact that you’re blown away

The Challenge

The crisp white linen tablecloth is covered with an array of cutlery (no plastic in sight) hinting at the number of courses to come.

My tummy does a little flip flop as it begins to grasp the enormity of what awaits.

My father selects an un-pronounceable local white wine, the first of many bottles to come, in a totally different class and budget to my daily Chardonnay.

Tip: Try not to think about the pair of shoes you could have bought for the same price as the dish you’re about to consume, as it is bound to sour the taste.

The Aperitif

wooden platter with food

Aperitif – bread balls with explosions of taste

To warm up our taste buds, we are presented with a selection of foreign-looking delicacies on a long wooden platter, accompanied by detailed descriptions from a waiter in perfect English.

The offerings include a bread ball that releases an explosion of wild mushroom juice into your mouth upon first bite, a second bread ball infused with liquid tomato, a mushroom tartelette and a fragile-looking mini squid pancake.  Every bite is sheer heaven!

Tip: Don’t ignore the waiter’s instructions. My husband, who usually tries to go against the stream, approached his plate from right to left instead of left to right, which meant the squid dominated the palate.

The Amuse Bouche

Amuse bouche - tomato in a gazpacho

Amuse bouche – tomato in a gazpacho

The pleasant little interlude consists of a pretty ball of tomato sorbet with buffalo mozzarella cheese interior and encrusted in sugar, floating in gazpacho water.

By now the wine and conversation are flowing and my taste buds are dazed and dizzy with excitement, wondering what had hit them.

The Entrées

My mouth literally hangs open as the waiter describes the entrée: A single king prawn entrapped in a delicate cage made of potato and squid ink on a bed of tomato and vegetable pasta, accompanied by another bread ball (clearly a Chef’s favourite) infused with the juice from the head of the king prawn and aside a clam filled with potato and chorizo paste.  My taste buds are in ecstasy.

prawn dish on a plate

King prawn encaged in squid and potato

The portions, though not small, are surprisingly light so I’m not as stuffed as I would expect to be at this stage and the next dish – I can’t remember what it’s called and I’m past caring – doesn’t disappoint:

Sea bass cooked in a Spanish carbon oven with roasted fennel seeds, baby octopus and cucumber of the sea on the side.

fish dish

Sea bass with cucumber of the sea

The Main Course

And now, for the piéce de resistance – the main course: Roasted pigeon!

pigeon dish

Piéce de resistance: Roasted pigeon!

I must admit when my dad told me earlier what to expect, I did experience a flickering of doubt. I’m not exactly a fussy eater and apart from liver and frog legs draped suggestively over a bowl once in a pretentious French restaurant in Cape Town, I can’t think of anything I won’t eat.

The pigeon – much like a chicken thigh – roasted in almond milk and accompanied by a roasted apricot on roasted fig, topped with mint and with roasted aubergine slices on the side, look and sound beautiful.

But the thought of the fat pigeons on our lawn back home and a taste strongly reminiscent of liver cause mutiny among my taste buds and I send the plate back with the pigeon barely touched.

Tip: Do not try to explain to the head waiter in a Michelin restaurant that the main course is not “quite your taste.” The hawk-nosed Frenchman looked incredulous and stomped off shaking his head in disgust at the sound of such un-culturedness.

The Cheese

cheese trolley in restaurant

Death by cheese

I know the French like their cheese, but I wasn’t expecting this. A three-tiered trolley laden with enough cheese to fill the English channel is wheeled to the table by a young waiter, who gives us a lecture about the origin, vintage, pedigree, etc of the selection on offer.

I suspect the waiter has been tipped off by the head waiter to approach me first for a good laugh, because when he asks Madame what she would like before anyone else – my mind goes blank.

Eventually, I plump for goat’s cheese – spicy and creamy with quince marmalade, feeling like I’d just flunked another important test, but the taste is so good, I couldn’t care less.

The Dessert

dessert dish with strawberries

Strawberry and citron delight

Always my favourite item on a menu – the dessert: strawberry and lemon sorbet swimming in strawberry Chantilly cream and surrounded by meringue sugar strands does not disappoint.

I also lust after my dad’s chocolate cherry maccarron with salted caramel.

Finally, we are presented with a little black box with a selection of handmade chocolates  – which we can’t finish despite our best attempts and so ends my first (and probably last) Michelin experience on a high note.

box of chocolates

Too stuffed for chocolate!

Tip: When you go to the bathroom, don’t worry about finding your way. Every time I got up from the table, I was led straight into the ladies by a sea of attentive waiters, who stopped short of offering to wipe my bum.  

Have you ever eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant – what did you think?

Our very different Greek family holiday

Family on the beach in Porto Rafti

On the beach in Porto Rafti

PIcture the Greek island in the Mama-Mia movie – you know the one – with crystal waters, hills covered in crisp white buildings teeming with straw-hatted tourists.

Now wipe this image from your mind completely and imagine a very different Greece, a protected little bay on the mainland, which doesn’t have quite the postcard wow-factor of Mykonos or Santorini but which makes up for it a thousand times with glimpses of real Greek culture.

Where the Athenians go 

“Porto Rafti is where the Athenians go on holiday,” my friend Caroline (her of lunchboxworld.co.uk) had told me when she mentioned they would not be using their apartment in Greece this summer.

Fancying myself as the footloose, ‘off-the-beaten-track’ kind of traveller – and at the moment very much a budget traveller, I really liked the sound of this. I’d long ago made peace with the fact that unless I did a Shirley Valentine or won the lottery, I was never going to see Greece in August, so this seemed like an opportunity not to be missed.

On our 20-minute drive from Athens airport, half-finished buildings scarred the landscape confirming the country’s financial woes. It also became clear that Greeks do tacky quite well – judging from the glaring neon signs and shouting posters competing for the attention of drivers-by.

 Invitingly clear waters

Family in the water at Porto Rafti

Lukewarm, clear waters… perfect for cooling down

My sagging spirits lifted when the bay of Porto Rafti opened up in front of us in a tranquil late afternoon scene of invitingly clear waters and gently bobbing sailing boats.

An hour later we walked a few 100 metres down to the beach from the apartment to join extended Greek families for a sunset stroll along the promenade and a quick dip in the lukewarm ocean.

 Families are big

Families are big in Greece, in more ways than one. Several generations gather for lingering beachside picnics, chattering loudly and soaking up every last ray of sunshine.  Children are at the heart of every gathering, hunting for crabs in the rock pools with their nets, scootering in and out of the human traffic along the promenade or splashing around in the sea goggle-eyed.  We all loved swimming with goggles observing the sea life underneath, although the soukres or jellyfish that seem to creep up on you and can cause a nasty sting, were quite unnerving.

 Not a foreigner in sight 

Joining the Greeks in their worshipping of the sun and love of the sea in the almost complete absence of other foreigners, felt like a special privilege.

Skin cancer doesn’t seem to bother them much and everyone, including the 70-year-old ladies who bob up and down in the sea careful not to disturb their weekly blow-dries, is a deep coppery brown.

Me on the beach

Less obsessed with the body beautiful

The obsession with the body beautiful also seems less pronounced in these parts with fewer gym-toned physiques and a much more healthy spread of gracefully aging, normal flesh on display. Put it this way, I felt relatively comfortable in my costume, which doesn’t happen often.

A different kind of heat

It was August, so it was always going to be hot, but this was a different kind of heat – an oppressive force that slaps you down every time you try to get up and do something  constructive between noon and 5pm. In the end you stop fighting it. You have no choice, but to slow right down and even succumb to the odd Siesta. We found it to be a good time to play a selection of games in my friend’s family-friendly apartment.

After 5pm the port gets its second wind, restaurants start serving frappuccinos, ice cream parlours tempt with fresh flavours and families crawl out of their midday hiding places onto promenades and beaches for a second instalment of sun and sea.

To round off the day, the skies reward you with a spectacular Greek sunset like a changing artwork of watercolour pastels running into each other with dramatic effect.

 No English… not a word

I can’t remember when last in my life I’ve been to a place where you can’t get by with English. In most foreign cities people at least understand a few words.

But in Porto Rafti it soon became clear that English was really not spoken, not a word.

As adventurous, intrepid travellers, we loved being surprised when ordering food and trying helplessly to interact with friendly locals – a bit like trying to eat food without cutlery.

However, when my daughter fell down the marble stairs in the apartment block breaking a bone in her shoulder two days before the end of our stay and we needed to find a hospital, this became more of a challenge.

Broken arm  

Girl with arm in sling in Porto Rafti Bay

Paula with her broken arm in sling after falling down marble stairs in Porto Rafti

Through a miraculous series of coincidences we were directed via hand gestures, drawings and finally a few words of English from a helpful lady at the tollgate to a big state hospital, where my daughter was seen to within 20 minutes and we paid 6 Euro for an X-ray and a sling. The economy may be crumbling, but the state health service is still going strong.

 

Greek salads, fresh fish and souvlaki 

A plate of Greek salad

Greek salads to die for!

Boy eating fish

Fresh seafood: Lukas with a sardine hanging out his mouth…

Being on a budget, we didn’t eat in expensive restaurants, of which there are a few dotted along the pretty marina on the opposite side of the bay.  However, we did treat ourselves a few times to very reasonable Souvlaki – chicken or pork strips with trimmings in a deliciously doughy pita-bread, as well as fried squid, sardines and arrogant and generous helpings of Greek salad.

For one of our home-cooked meals we bought squid from the weekly food market and fried it in the pan, served with lemon and chunks of fresh bread from the bakery around the corner.  Delicious!

 In the footsteps of civilisation

Family in fornt of Akropolis in Athens

The Koscielnys in the footsteps of civilisation – on the Akropolis hill in Athens

We had great intentions of taking the ferry from the nearby harbour town of Rafina to one of the islands, but in the end we slowed down so much– that all we could muster was a one day-trip to Athens climbing up to the top of the hill of the Akropolis in searing  heat.

We were pushing the limits of the family with this outing, resulting in frayed tempers and tantrums – mainly from my husband – but the realisation that we were walking in the footsteps of civilisation, the impressive columns carved out of marble without the help of modern machinery and breathtaking views of Athens, made it all worthwhile in the end.

I’ve yet to experience the Greek Islands and maybe I’ll be blown away when I do, but Porto Rafti gave us a very different, affordable Greek holiday which felt authentic and most importantly forced us to calm down and relax.

Family in front of Akropolis ruins

Magnificent marble columns of the Akropolis in Athens

Have you been to Greece? Can you relate to our experience?  What did you think?

 

A strong Greek coffee 

Link

a newspaper article

Die Glocke in Ennigerloh – we are front page news

So, we didn’t exactly plan to make the front page in Germany, but a chance meeting with a young reporter and a quick chat about my blog and our holiday have catapulted us into the limelight in the country of my husband’s birth.

As you should know from my previous post – we spent a few days with my in-laws in Ennigerloh – a town in Munsterland, Germany, best known for cement factories, which also happens to be my husband’s hometown.

What is a mummy blog?

While we were enjoying a friendly water polo match in the Freibad – public pool – I got chatting to Elisa Berste, a student and freelance reporter for Die Glocke – a daily paper in the area.

I told her about my blog and that I will be writing about our experience there. She didn’t seem too sure about what a mummy blog was, but her editor obviously did and she emailed to ask if she could interview us.

The article – which was promoted on the front page and then carried inside the paper with a photograph of our family, including my in-laws – has apparently hit the little German town like a bomb – in a positive sense. It was even discussed at a local political meeting and seems to be the best PR the little Cinderella town has ever had.

So, what made us so newsworthy?

We raved about the town’s facilities for families – an amazing public swimming pool, a Venetian ice cream cafe, family cycling routes, amazing playgrounds and very affordable meals out: £4 per large pizza in an upmarket pizzeria.

The open countryside, friendly locals and the fact that local children seem to play outside and roam by themselves also impressed us.
German children start school only at the age of 6 and there seems to be less pressure on them to perform academically and to have a planned activity scheduled for most days of the week, the kind of competitive parenting you can’t help but getting sucked into when you live in certain parts of England such as Buckinghamshire.

The reporter did get a few minor facts wrong – probably lost in translation between her English and my German, but the themes of discussion of freedom, affordability and a society which seem to prioritise the freedom and quality of life of families came across very well.

As a bonus visits to my blog have skyrocketed since the publication of the article in Germany.
Just awaiting a call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who knows maybe she can give David Cameron and Nick Clegg some tips on how to look after families!

Forget Majorca, Ennigerloh is the place to be this summer!

Little boy playing with water and sand

Max enjoys the water and sand play area at the Freibad in Ennigerloh

I´m typing this post on a German keyboard which annozinglz swaps the y and z, so bear with me till I get the hang of it.

This summer holidaz report is brought to you, not from mz deckchair on the beach in the Caribbean, but seated amidst stuffed animals, and plastic pot plants in a black leather armchair in my father-in-law´s study.

We are spending the first few days of our summer break trapped in a forgotten little outpost in Northern Germany called Ennigerloh, where my husband spent the first 18 years of his life (which explains quite a lot.)

The little village in Munsterland best known for its gigantic cement factory, does not feature on Tripadvisor as a sought after holiday destination (in fact it doesn´t feature at all – surprisingly…) so I wasn´t exactly counting the days.

Holiday is a state of mind

But a friend once told me that a holiday is a state of mind and has nothing to do with the destination, so I was determined to see a different side of Ennigerloh this time.  And, believe it or not, the little Cinderella town has seduced us with its charms over the past few days.

Spaß (fun) in the Freibad (open air pool)

The fact that we find ourselves in the midst of a stifling heat wave perforated by the odd spectacular thunderstorm means we´re spending a lot of time at the Freibad.  The open air public swimming pool, of which almost every German town boasts one, puts our drab leisure centre pools to shame.

The Freibad – almost every village has one – which costs 2 pounds (can´t find pound sign on this computer) to enter, is as close to a children´s paradise as you can get.  My older two spend hours jumping from the 5m, 3m and 1m diving boards into the sparkling Olympic-sized pool in Oelde, a neighbouring town. I even managed the 3m jump after holding up the queue of German children for 20 minutes to much ridicule from my husband and hysterics from my children.

Max, 4, meanwhile has two smaller pools with sprinklers and slides to choose from. Luscious lawns and huge trees surround the pools with (towel-free) deck chairs and picnic spots as far as the eye can see. (Obviously the Germans are more chilled about deck chairs at home than when they are on holiday)

Little boy flying through air after jumping off 5m diving board

Lukas, 9, flying through the air from a 5m diving board in Germany

middle-aged woman jumping off 3m diving board

Me leaping off 3m diving board – watch out Tom Daley

Competitive water polo

The children took part in an organised water polo tournament with local children and soon started shouting to team mates in German after realising that was the only way to get their hands on the ball. The game took quite a serious turn after the dads, including my aggressively competitive husband, joined in.

A young reporter from the local newspaper: Die Glocke was on standby to photograph the holiday fun, so my husband (who can´t resist a bit of limelight) and children may have made the news in his hometown.

A stretch of sand dotted with beach baskets – as they´re called in German – wooden two-man seats with canvas awning overhead and footrest, an invitation for stressed-out parent souls to relax while the children get to grips with a variety of water pumps and wheels. A permanent outdoor table tennis table and giant chess board and squeaky clean changing rooms and showers make this one of the best pools I´ve ever been to.

Spaghetti ice cream anyone?

Famished after several hours in the water, we hit the Venetian Eiskafe – an Italian ice-cream parlour distinctly out of place in the industrial heartland of Germany – for generous plates of spaghetti eis: spaghetti-shaped ice-cream drizzled with strawberry sauce and topped with smarties. I enjoy a cream-laced iced coffee with enough calories to last me until Christmas.

Family in front of ice cream shop in Ennigerloh, Germanz

Eiscafe Venezia in Germany – might as well be in Italy

Family eating ice cream at EisKafe in Ennigerloh

Spaghetti ice cream and sinful iced coffees

German children are well-catered for – the playgrounds are creative masterpieces, testament to imagination that the nation is not usually credited for.  Drawbridges, towers and castles with twisted slides and tunnels can be found in every village.

Paradise for cyclists

Unlike at home, where we are too scared to venture out on our bicycles as a family, Germany is a cyclist´s paradise. Cycle routes and lane criss-cross the town and take you across acres of stretched out rural fields under glorious open skies. Everyone aged between 4 and 94 uses this as a mode of transport and I can vouch for its safety, even after a few glasses of Schnapps.

My husband and I cycled 10kms to a restaurant in a nearby village overlooking a lake, for a cocktail evening that could almost compete in terms of food, music and location with a Manhattan hotspot, if you ignore the local farmgirl out on the town dresscode and the perennial stereotype of socks with Birkenstock sandals, favourited by hardcore Germans. Tonight the plan is to cycle to a nearby beer garden for more Weiz-bier, a refreshing beer served with lemon slices.

After three days, I feel more relaxed than if I´d spent a week in Majorca. Whoever said Germans don´t know how to have fun?

How are you spending the first days of the summer holidays? Have you ever considered Germany for a family holiday? What were your impressions?

Sipping bubbly on Centre Court: impressions of a Wimbledon virgin

First published on  on 03 July 2013 in MagazineTravel

wimbledon scoreboard

Me in front of Wimbledon scoreboard

If you’ve ever thought of going to Wimbledon, I’ve got one word for you: Corporate.

Beg, steal or borrow – but get your hands on corporate tickets.

Take it from a Wimbledon virgin who has glammed it with the likes of Pippa Middleton on Centre Court this year: huddling under a plastic bag in the rain on a soggy Murray Mound with the masses just isn’t the same.

As it happens I didn’t have to do anything untoward to find my bum cushioned on a coveted sponsored seat to watch our Andy thrash some unworthy opponent.
I only had to be married to my husband, who won tickets in a lottery at work. I’m hoping this signals a drastic improvement in the perks of being his wife.

The dress code

As I desperately filed through my school run-inspired wardrobe in search of an outfit that would stand up to the potential glare of international television cameras, I panicked.

I had nothing suitable to wear and no time or budget for an elaborate shopping spree.  Enter my fairy godmother in the form of Kate Battrick @TwistedSkirt – a personal stylist I stumbled across in the TK Maxx Lounge at Britmums Live who transformed me from frump to fabulous faster than you can say Game, Set and Match. Read more here.
Tip: Heels are a must for first impressions, but take a pair of sensible shoes for later as you’ll do a lot of walking.

The company

Hospitality marquees filled with executives (or scientists in the case of a life science company) can be daunting if your corporate speak is rusty.

As we walked in, a confident woman in a stripy suit held out her hand, announcing:  “Caroline, Rare Diseases.”

“Uh… Chené, Household Germs,” I felt tempted to reply. My husband shot me a sharp look, so I mumbled: “Home Executive” instead.

After knocking back a few glasses of Pimms, I was chatting to “Genetics” and “Immunology” like old friends. I didn’t understand anything, but nodded encouragingly and counted my blessings I wasn’t sitting next to “Sexually Transmitted Diseases.”
Tip: Ask fellow guests why they love their jobs, zone out and enjoy your Pimms.

The food

While Laura Robson warmed up for her match against Mariana Duque-Marino, we warmed up our palettes with a choice of Parma ham or salmon starters, followed by an impressive cold buffet and a selection of three desserts, washed down with a fruity Sauvignon Blanc. We stumbled across to Centre Court clutching huge plastic cups of champagne with straws to keep us fueled during the match – watching tennis is hard work.

wimbledon food

We returned to the marquee several times throughout the day for top-ups and by the time Murray took on Tommy Robredo, my husband had to restrain me from storming onto court and punching the line judge every time he called a fault in Robredo’s favour.
Tip: Don’t wear anything that is too tight around the waist and take a bottle of water along to pace your drinking.

And… the Tennis

Even if your tennis never got past the rusty racket stage, the thrill of being up close and personal to the world’s top players and the awesome power with which they hit the ball will keep you glued to the edge of your seat.

Your emotions fling wildly up and down with every nail-biting shot, leaving you exhilarated and exhausted.  You’re there with them – at some point I was grunting louder than Sharapova every time Robson served.
Feeling the audience’s rising excitement as Murray scores his way ever closer to victory until he finally smashes his opponent to roaring applause, makes you want to burst with pride.

chene and husband glamming it on Centre Court, Wimbledon

Chené and husband glamming it on Centre Court, Wimbledon

Our day out at Wimbledon was amazing and I’ve already started scheming how to get my hands on corporate tickets to the finals on Centre Court next year!  Any tips or sponsors– let me know.

Have you been to Wimbledon 2013? What were your first impressions?

 

What to wear to Wimbledon if you don’t look like Sharapova

Woman in dress for Wimbledon

Dressed to kill: Me in my Wimbledon outfit

Every now and then my husband does something that blows me away. It doesn’t happen often and it usually is a pure stroke of luck that required no planning or effort on his part, but I take what I can get.

He chose his moment carefully, waiting for me to be particularly annoyed with him for turning a blind eye to the overflowing rubbish bin spewing deadly fumes around the kitchen and feeding our children their own bodyweight in junk food.

Tickets to Wimbledon

“By the way, I’ve got tickets to Wimbledon.” Deadpan delivery. No emotion, no excitement – Germans don’t do excitement in my experience – as if this was as much part of our daily routine as the school run. (He won the tickets in a work lottery, but he only revealed this much later after I’d sufficiently swooned at his feet)

“Wimbledon! WOW!” I was beside myself. Jumping up and down and screaming  “Oh YEAH!” so loudly the grumpy old lady next door slammed her window shut.

And as it turns out, not only are we going to Wimbledon, we are going ‘corporate’ on Centre Court and we will be picked up by a chauffeur from home! This is seriously unlike us – we don’t do style. Our idea of style is shouting abuse at each other while repacking suitcases in full public view in airport halls because my curling tongs had caused the suitcase to tip the scales over the limit.

Panic attack

Once the excitement subsided, I had my first little panic attack – “OMG! What am I going to wear?”I knew straightaway that nothing in my wardrobe would live up to this occasion. What do you wear to Wimbledon if you don’t quite look like Maria Sharapova and your budget can just about stretch to the odd supermarket T-shirt sneaked in during the grocery shop?

I was actually getting myself into quite a state about this, when I happened to stumble across a free personal styling session by the lovely Kate Battrick @TwistedSkirt, a personal stylist employed by TK MAXX for the day at a conference I went to.On the impulse I thought I’d mention to her that I’m going to Wimbledon and had no idea what to wear.

Kate‘s face lit up as if she’d been waiting for exactly this challenge all day: How to turn a mousy, frumpy mum-of-three into a Centre Court sensation. She took one look at me and dismissed my toga-like top, especially chosen by me to hide the after-effects of two large glasses of Chardonnay every night.

Hourglass figure 

“This is exactly the wrong outfit for your ‘hourglass’ figure,” she said.

I almost kissed her.  No one had ever mentioned the word hourglass in relation to my figure and I was expecting the more familiar – heavy bottomed pear shape – so, I was willing to hear her out.

“You need to accentuate your waist,” she said, pointing to a rather garish, tight floral dress with an open back – the kind much more suited to the Sharapovas of this world.

I was beginning to worry about the lighting in the room, because if she thought I had a waist, never mind one that had to be accentuated, her eyesight must be worse than mine and I’d had a retinal detachment in one eye.

Dressing on a budget

Two women talking

Personal stylist Kate Battrick in action

To cut a long story short, she made me try on the dress – it was a size 10 (US-sizes) of course – I’ve been nowhere near a size ten since having my first child.

But believe it or not, the dress fit me and looked amazing (everything is relative of course, as my husband would say). It created a waist and the floral print made me look fashionable and dare I say- younger than my tender 43 years.

I knew I had to have the dress. My mind was working overtime trying to figure out how I would be able to afford the dress and whether I could wear it with flip-flops as I certainly had no matching footwear and would not be able to fork out on a pair of shoes too.

That was when she announced the price:  £20!

My jaw dropped to the floor. Not only would I never have tried this dress had it not been for the stylist, but I would not have dreamed that I could actually afford it without cancelling our summer holiday. Next, Kate advised me to buy a pair of almond court shoes for £49 from M&S and combine the dress with a white linen jacket, which luckily, I already owned.

My husband usually doesn’t get involved in what I wear, apart from telling me I didn’t need it – So, I was chuffed when he LOVED the dress – and that was BEFORE I told him the price.

So, I’m off to Wimbledon with my head held high. My shoes might just cut off all circulation to my little toes by the end of the day, but my flip-flops are in the bag, just in case.  No idea who I’m going to be watching, but if you’re watching telly – I’ll be the woman in the bright floral dress waving madly every time the camera points in my direction. I might even stand up and do a little twirl to show off the back of the dress.

Marrakech without kids – proper travelling!

Marrakech - square in old town

Sunset in Marrakech old town (medina)

I have travelled this half term. No, I don’t mean Disneyland, waterslides or eat-till-you-pop all-inclusive buffets. I mean exposing yourself to a different culture in an almost violent way – the kind of travel you can’t do with children.

My husband and I (guiltily) left our children with their grandparents at our home and skulked off in the middle of the night to Gatwick – heading for one of the most exotic places on the planet.

By the time we arrived in Marrakech – three and a half hours later – we’d (nearly) forgotten that we’d ever had a child, never mind three. From the plane, the ochre-hued city set against the parched backdrop of the sub-Saharan desert hinted at the culture shock ahead.

Maps are futile

The airport bus deposited us in the madness of every day life and we quickly realised the futility of a tourist map. We would probably still be looking for our riad (hotel) if I hadn’t accepted some local ‘guide’s’ ‘generous’ offer of showing us the way, to my husband’s dismay.

We snaked our way past locals in kaftans and headscarves crowding in doorways and around street shops and trolleys, selling anything from toiletries, sweets, spare parts for motorbikes, raw meat, jewellery and spices to the ubiquitous flatbreads, that accompany every Moroccan meal. The smell of burning meat skewered over open fires mixed with the stench of overflowing drains and bins to welcome us to what would be our home over the next few days.

Our little oasis

Hotel courtyard Marrakech

Riad El Noujoum – our oasis from the African sun and sensory overload

Silver tea pot and pastries

Mint tea and pastries at our hotel

 The Riad El Noujoum became our lovely oasis from the scorching African sun and sensory overload, located within the medina or old Arab town, which is still enclosed and separated from the modern European part of the city by high salmon-coloured walls. We had the first of many pots of fresh mint tea and Moroccan pastries at a mosaic-tiled table in the courtyard of our hotel, overlooking a tiny pool. Our room featured typical Moroccan décor and lampshades and a stunning black marble bathroom with walk-in shower.  No Disney channel, no television and Wifi only really worked from the rooftop terrace, but we didn’t care.

 

Jemaa square in Marrakech

The Jemaa – magical setting

Street hawker selling spice cake and tea

Ginger tea and spice cake from street hawker on the square

The pulse of the old town

The throbbing pulse of the old town is the Jemaa el Fna – a huge square, maddening at every hour, but which really comes alive after sunset when locals and tourists flood the area like swarms of locusts on their way in and out of the surrounding souks (markets) and restaurants.

It is the kind of place where you need all your wits about you. Roads become meaningless as speeding mopeds, cars, cyclists, donkey carts and horse carriages swerve through crowds of people, narrowly averting fatal accidents every few seconds. The thought of negotiating your way across this square with three children in tow is enough to make the most easygoing of mums reach for a gin and tonic.

Traditional Arabic storytellers hold their audiences spellbound – even if you don’t understand a word. Monkeys hop from shoulder to shoulder, flute players entice dancing snakes to rise from baskets and acrobats and other performers thrill the crowds. Beware the tourist who tries to take a photograph of this spectacle – as nothing is free in Marrakech!

We learned this the hard way as a street hawker offered each of us a glass of ‘free’ ginger tea and sticky mud-like spice cake before charging us a small fortune. At least we got to take a picture of him!

Arab and Western culture side-by-side

The call to prayer broadcast from mosques and traditional Arabic music contrast with booming pop music to create a background track to the madness, but the most memorable sound of the trip remain the honking of motorbikes slicing their way through the crowds.

From a rooftop terrace we watched Muslim men line their little mats for the afternoon prayer ritual in front of the square’s mosque against the backdrop of flashing tourist cameras and fast-food restaurants. The juxtaposition of traditional Arabic culture and Western ways is evident in every part of the city, but appears to co-exist in some sort of chaotic harmony.

 A never-ending Aladdin’s cave

The markets - or souks in Marrakech

Never-ending Aladdin’s cave – the souks

cosmetic stall in the souks of Marrakech

Sweet-smelling spices and cosmetics in the souks

Entering the labyrinth of souks spilling over with collection upon collection of lampshades, carpets, shoes, handbags, belts, and colourful mountains of spices, silver jewellery – is an overwhelming experience. The never-ending Aladdin’s cave is every woman’s shopping dream come true, but the aggressive hawking and necessary haggling is hard work.

By the end of our trip my husband and I had perfected a good cop, bad cop routine, whereby I would first avoid all eye contact, ignoring any advances – then once I’d identified a potential purchase I’d show some interest and my husband would take over and stomp off in disgust a few times before settling on a much reduced price.

Scrubbed clean in a hammam

Entrance to hammam in Marrakech

Volker reluctantly entering a hammam

My husband is not quite the spa-type and has never had a massage, so I was surprised when he agreed to experience a hammam with me.  A bit of sunstroke probably.

Two women splashed us with numerous buckets of water, covered us in a gooey plant extract and then scrubbed us down with something akin to sandpaper, before giving each of us a full-body four hand massage. As we lay sipping mint tea, covered in white robes and glowing from head to toe afterwards, my husband could not stop grinning.

Eating in Morocco

Couscous, tagine and skewered meat

Feast of tagine, skewered meat and couscous on the square

Despite the heat and slightly unsettled tummies, we enjoyed numerous rooftop meals consisting of spicy vegetarian soup (harira), tagines of chicken and stewed fruit or chicken and lemon, skewered meat, couscous topped with vegetables, a spicy tomato-based salad and homemade yoghurt or slices of orange splashed with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon for desert. All of this was washed down with litres of Fanta, freshly squeezed orange juice or mint tea – you can’t get alcohol in any restaurants or shops, which made for a sobering experience in itself as Chardonnay usually features strongly on our holidays.

Moroccan meal

Moroccan feast – skewered meat, olives, salad and vegetables

Although the children were always on our minds and we love spending time with them, we really enjoyed exposing ourselves to a different culture in a way that was out of our comfort zone. This week I returned to the school run routine revitalised and inspired, vowing to book at least one weekend away a year just for us.

Macarons, llamas and breastfeeding in Paris

Photograph of young girl in front of Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Paula poses in front of the Arc de Triomphe, near where we used to live

This post forms part of a series about my trip to Paris with my daughter Paula. We revisited the city for her 10th birthday as we lived there during the first two years of her life. To read from the beginning, click here.

Breakfast the French way

There’s already a queue at the bustling local boulanger at 7.30am, but we persevere and leave happily clutching our rustling white paper bag with a still warm almond croissant and pain au chocolat a few minutes later.

We leave a trail of flaky crumbs in our wake on our way to the metro, eating and planning our route to Neuilly-sur-Seine, our first stop of the day.

The subdued suburb was the first area we lived in during our two-year sojourn in the City of Light and we shared our elitist address with no less than former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and a sea of grey-haired, silk-scarved aristocrats.

As an insecure, first-time mother, it was a time of having every rug under my feet pulled out with such force that a part of me prefers to blot out memories of feeling constantly out of depth in turbulent emotional waters.

But these are not thoughts I want to share with my 10-year-old daughter. I want to open a memory bank of the beautiful moments we had in-between – some unsuspected and some only fully appreciated once they were long gone.

Parisian women don’t breastfeed 

Neuilly, although rather snobbish and unwelcoming, was close to my husband’s job, as well as a tranquil and beautiful corner of the Bois de Bologne, vast parklands filled with lunchtime joggers and cyclists by day, but with an unsavoury reputation as the city’s cruising headquarters at night.

When eventually I’d recovered from the shock of giving birth and changing countries over a period of 14 days, we braved the five-minute walk to the woods most mornings. Paula giggles as I recall the many times I rushed back at breakneck speed to breastfeed a screaming, red-faced infant in the privacy of our apartment.

Parisian mums don’t breastfeed – and those who do certainly don’t do so in public. Big, veined boobs popping out of maternity tops don’t really feature on the Parisian café scene.

As I grew more adventurous, we moved further afield, crossing the deafening traffic of Charles de Gaulle high street en route to our local Monoprix. This ubiquitous supermarket is France’s answer to Tesco but with a French flair that stretches to deliciously ripe cheeses, freshly baked croissants and baguettes, stylish accessories and children’s clothes you’d be hard pressed to find on a Tesco shelf.

Picnic at our favourite hang-out

Young girl in front of llama pen in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris

Paula used to love the llamas when she was a toddler.

Today, we choose a Moroccan couscous salad, baguette, camembert, strawberries and a selection of pretty pastel macarons from the deli counter for our planned picnic in the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a wonderfully retro amusement park near our old apartment, where Paula and I spent many mornings together.

One of the city’s top family attractions in summer, the park is all but deserted on this early Spring day, apart from a few workers lazily painting the fences and a smattering of Filipino nannies with their excited charges.

We stroll around, rediscovering long forgotten favourite haunts, including la Petite Ferme with turkeys, pigs, sheep, donkeys and the llamas, which fascinated the toddler Paula to the point of near obsession.

A princess:  now and then 

Young girl in carriage on carousel in Jardin d'Acclimatation

Carousel in the Jardin d’ Acclimatation

I take a photo of my beautiful girl in a gilded carriage on the vintage carousel, to add to a collection of earlier photographs of her in the same spot.

The camera hides an unexpected onslaught of tears as the picture brings into sharp focus my memory of a tiny little princess nearly 10 years ago waving excitedly at onlookers as if she had the whole world at her feet.

Young girl with older woman in carriage on carousel in Jardin d'Acclimatation

Paula with her grandma Laurita on the carousel

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