I’m Ben. I like cycling, ironing, all sorts of music, puzzles, big landscapes, and beer.
I will be driver, trivia specialist, and city navigator. When I’m at work, I’m a manager in a large telecommunications company.
I’m looking forward to seeing new places especially on the Silk Roads, spending a lot of time with my family, and getting really good at UNO. I hope that the trip gives the whole family an ability to react well to adversity (though not too much adversity) and teaches us about similarities and differences.
I’m not looking forward to family fights on station platforms (or anywhere else), not being able to find somewhere to eat or sleep, and rodents and insects.
The lack of control that we have over being in lockdown, and what we do while we are confined, is something which I expect is affecting many of (the wider) us.
Here in France, I think we are probably a week or so ahead of the UK and about 10 days behind Italy, in terms of lockdown. I have noticed changes in my psyche and mentality over the two weeks since M. Macron instigated his restrictions.
I like being in control of what is going on. So does Harriet. As previously stated, we have been planning this trip for more than 7 years, and in earnest for several months. We had a Cozi family calendar which showed that we knew exactly where we were going to be for almost every night until leaving Tashkent, in early May. (Ironically, we were actually meant to be where I am right now, right now. We would be leaving for Paris on Wednesday, in some parallel universe.) We were very much in control of this trip.
Until COVID-19, and Corona Virus, and Lockdown, and Social Distancing, and Border Closures, and all that. Now, we are not in control of any of this. Not just the difficulty in sourcing a replacement pair of socks, or pair of glasses, but also what the restrictions will be tomorrow, or next week, or next month. And what the restrictions will be here in France, or in Russia, or whether the train will run from Paris to Moscow (currently suspended due to Poland border closure).
The FCO is advising against all foreign travel. Entry to UK citizens is currently not permitted in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, or China, although we did have a nice message from our AirBnB host in Kyoto Japan asking whether we were going to need parking in late July.
Continuing our trip, which remains our goal, is dependent on any number of current regulations and restrictions being lifted. And we are not in control of any of that. All the discussions we start turn into a great game of “ifs”, so we have stopped having them. Mostly.
I read an excellent piece, which was shared on Facebook by a wise former colleague, by a psychologist who summarised her advice, given to 31 patients over the course of a week. I recommend it to you. There are several parts in there which we have also found to ring true, by trial and error. One which struck a particular chord was the one which stated “Find something you can control, then control the heck out of it.”
I have found myself drawn to puzzles and games which have a solution, however tricky. I started and finished an epic jigsaw of the South Rose Window of Angers Cathedral, and have reinstalled Flow Free on my phone. These things are tricky, but not impossible, and they have a solution. I have enjoyed much of the maths home schooling with the children, for much the same reason (though I’m not sure the feeling is mutual).
I have enjoyed setting up and using our home “gym”, and even going on a run or two. (Those that know me can vouch that this is not a usual situation.) I have been the laundry person (monitor?, manager?, prefect?) in our family for a good few years, and the laundry here is running like clockwork.
Because until we can start really planning what on earth we are going to do with the rest of our adventure – we are only in week 7 or 8 of a 26 week trip after all – that’s one part of what I can do to stay sane. And thank you to the Kyoto AirBnB chap, who unknowingly gave us both a lift with his question about car parking. If he thinks there is every reason that we will be in Japan in late July, why shouldn’t we?
Earlier this week, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary (*refrains from political comment*) advised all British citizens “currently on holiday or business trips abroad” to come home “while they still could”.
We are not taking Mr Raab’s advice and will be staying here for the duration. There are two simple reasons for this (neither of which is related to our opinion of Mr Raab himself):
We don’t have anywhere to go. Our house is let out and the people living it wouldn’t thank us for camping in the garden. We can’t go and stay with anyone else because a) social isolation and b) there are six of us so no-one has space for us all, certainly not for an indefinite period of time.
We are not at all convinced that the French government, who won’t currently let us go for a walk more than 1km from our house, would be entirely chuffed if we decided to drive six potential Covid vectors 900 kilometres across the entire country. It has to be less risky for us and everyone else, whether in the UK or France, if we just stay here.
So what did we do?
Like parents worldwide, we have a new found admiration and respect for our children’s teachers’ patience and ability to suppress strings of four letter words…
Our rigid routine has become rather more relaxed over the last two weeks but we have discovered that some structure is definitely better than none. We are therefore trying to incorporate two periods of “academic” time into the day, one screen based and one not. With the shutting of UK schools, and despite Lucy’s school’s refusal to provide us with materials (beecause she’s officially not currently enrolled), we have now, courtesy of other parents, got a got a load of additional learning material that we are, with varying degress of enthusiasm, gradually working through.
Despite this we’re definitely being more relaxed about what constitutes learning. Magnus enjoyed “times tables tennis” over video with his best friend Joe, and scrabble, puzzles and knock out whist have all featured in our “lesson time” this week.
We also have our living biology lesson in the form of the tadpoles: one colony of which is in the outside sink (colder, shadier, not hatched yet) and one colony in the very large bird bath (shallower, sunnier and therefore warmer – all hatched and very active). Other than Ben, who actually was a biology teacher, we’re all getting very fond of them. It’s only a matter of time before they get named…
We have continued to exercise like the Canadian airforce, with their rather outdated but mercifully brief 5BX and XBX routines. This happens after “quiet time” (thank goodness for the blessed combination of JK Rowling and Stephen Fry) and invariably provokes whinging but reluctant compliance.
More successful yet was our home circuits set up, inspired by Sophie and Lucy’s judo coach and created by Ben. We’ve varied between 30 second circuits (too much faffing) and 1 minute ones (“Is that really a minute?!“), and although we have yet to set on the perfect time, we have all done it, every day this week. I call that a win.
On Wednesday a new “Attestation dérogatoire” was published. This is the formal document we have to carry with us each time we leave the house. Pleasingly (for two of the six of us) the new version makes it clear that we are allowed to go for walks, although these can be only within a kilometre of the house and for a maximum of an hour, once a day. We are now ready with our facts should the gendarmes get called again…
Our walks restarted on Friday morning and will remain part of our daily routine until we learn that we really aren’t allowed to do them.
We also tried body percussion, which further reconfirmed the adults’ suspicion that we ain’t, unlike Ella Fitzgerald or Gene Kelly, got rhythm. Not a beat.
How has it been?
Harriet: Not only have I been exercising three times a day, I have been enjoying it. Anyone who has met me at any time in the last 43 years is permitted to fall over backwards at that information. The world really clearly has been turned upside down by this virus….
I also drew a picture that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be. Another first!
Ben: Setting up and using the gym has been fun. I enjoyed the ease with which having a physical challenge improves my mood, for now at least. I’m also pleased that the French ministry of the interior has clarified that we are allowed to go on limited walks as a family. I finished a good book, ate some lovely food, and even enjoyed a run for the first time in forever.
Magnus: Sleeping. Playing with cars. Talking with Joe was by far one of the best things I have done this week. I liked getting some new socks. I think I’ve got on better with my sisters this week, towards the end at least. I’ve liked reading Dogman with Daddy.
Aurora: Actually knowing where we are, and being in this house, which I know and love. I liked getting out of the house too, to go shopping with Daddy [now unfortunately no longer allowed], because I got to step outside the routine for a bit.
Sophie: I liked winning Mexican Train. Before we would listen to everyone’s ideas but not considering actually doing them, but now we do, like not always going on walks. I think we’re getting on better as a family. Listening to Harry Potter during our quiet time has been fun.
Lucy: I enjoyed today’s walk, because it was the nicest walk we’ve been on so far. I’m enjoying Murder Offstage, by LB Hathaway, which was here in the house, and is written by a friend of Mummy’s. I like it when I get the giggles and can’t stop laughing at the dinner table.
Harriet: I have struggled with “having stuff to do” this week, especially since we have slightly relaxed the schedule. Unlike the children I don’t have the ability to disappear into my phone for hour on end: there’s only so many times you can look at the same stuff on facebook or instagram, I don’t get twitter, I’ve never been one for computer games (I was the only child I knew who never wanted a game boy) and the news is too depressing to spend more than a couple of minutes on (and that was true even before Covid). Lovely friends have sent me wool and crochet hooks (although the postman, like a watched pot, still persists in not bringing the second parcel) and I have a project on the go, but I’m conscious that I can’t do too much at once for fear of running out later. (I can’t have my wool and crochet it, perhaps). I can and have been reading, but reading has always felt like a luxury and my overdeveloped protestant work ethic won’t let me do something that doesn’t produce anything for too long before I get up and start looking for something to tidy…
I have also intermittently been devastatingly convinced that this really is it for our dream. Talking to the insurance company (more below) and methodically going through the file of booked travel and activities and cancelling everything that was so carefully planned, and with such excitement, has been soul withering and emotionally exhausting.
I’m finding it difficult not being able to help too. I want to be volunteering in the NHS or delivering food or (there’s a theme here) doing something. Here we can’t. Or if we can I don’t know what it is.
So if you are reading this and you do know of anything we can do, whether here or at a distance, please let us know.
Ben: Friday was a horrible day for me. A small argument between children about who was “entitled” to use which mat for exercising descended into a pit of family doom, with threats and sanctions and tears. I went to sleep not liking my children. I had thought we were doing better, but it’s clearly a fragile better. I expect lockdown will create these kind of pressures for many people, and I hope, but don’t expect, that this is all behind us now. If we can come out of the whole COVID-19 lockdown pain closer as a family, that will be a superb (and realistic) achievement. Saturday was better though, showing the benefit of a good night’s sleep.
The “not knowing” about the future is grim. It comes in waves for all of us I think, but the idea we might go not much further than back home, after the years of planning and dreaming, is horrible. The cancellation/postponement of the summer Olympics was another, faintly inevitable, nail in the dream coffin.
For me, Europe was the appetiser for the main adventures lying ahead in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, before China and Japan. We’ve cut short our appetiser (no Slovenia, Italy or Scandinavia) and the borders of each of the main course countries above are currently closed to UK nationals. Not knowing when or if they will reopen, at least within either our trip time frame, or for Russia at least, our visa validity time frame, is not pleasant.
Aurora: Going on walks. I didn’t like pulling the skin off my toe today. Everyone getting really stressful was annoying. Maths.
Magnus: Fighting with my sisters at the start of the week. We weren’t very nice. The Olympics being cancelled is a bit of a downer. I would have liked to see Portugal play France at Football.
Sophie: Us fighting. When I forget to put deodorant on and we go on a walk. I find “creative time” quite boring.
Lucy: Yesterday. (I don’t want to write more about it).
What about the rest of our trip?
Now that the Olympics has been postponed the ostensible purpose of our whole trip has gone. But in reality that was only ever an excuse for an adventure and we would still like to get to Tokyo overland this Summer if at all possible.
Whether that is possible will entirely depend on what happens with borders being reopened, transport links being started up again, and visas still being valid. We will know more at some point. At the moment though we keep starting conversations with “if” and then tailing off because there are so many “ifs” that trying to get your head around all of them is a pointless impossibility.
We have been trying to get some answers from our insurance company about what costs we can recover and what we can and should cancel now: we have bookings into August and who knows whether those will be possible – we don’t want to find that if we cancel them now our insurance company says we shouldn’t have. This has been a slightly frustrating experience (the email starting “Dear Helen” was a particular high point).
We finally got some answers on Friday, but in some ways they just give rise to more questions. We can “curtail” our trip at any point and the insurance company will then “consider a claim” for any expenses we have already incurred. If we do that though they will then consider our trip over and we will no longer be insured. That’s probably liveable-with while we remain in France, but should, by some miracle, we be able to carry on towards Japan in the months to come we do not want to do so uninsured. We would, in normal circumstances, simply then get another insurance policy, but we’re not sure how keen travel insurers are to take on new clients at the moment.
Equally we can leave our policy running and continue with our trip, but if we do so we cannot claim for any travel that is cancelled other than our “outward” and “homeward” journeys. There is a part of me that wants to try claiming that it is all outward journey until we get to Japan, but I’m keeping that one up our sleeve for the ombudsman.
For the moment we have cancelled all our planned travel (where possible – there is a gulf between the levels of helpfulness of the various different train companies: SNCF and ÖBB – excellent, Deutsche Bahn and DFDS – awful, others in between) and accommodation between here and Moscow. In an ideal world we would pick up our travel there, although later than planned, but as with everything else we will have to wait and see what can be done and when.
What did we eat?
It appears that one of the aims of our trip is already on its way to being achieved (it may be the only one so we will take this small mercy). Our children, who previously were very much fish finger and spag bol eaters, have become much, much more open to new foods. So this week we’ve had fondu, Tuscan bean soup, spinach and squash curry, fennel pilaf and raclette and they’ve eaten it all (although Aurora wasn’t a massive fan of the raclette). None of those is half as scary as yak butter tea or sushi, but we’re still hoping to work up to those.
How plastic free were we?
As ever, we try, with varying degrees of success.
More of the same, at least until 15 April, which is when the current lockdown ends.
I was so proud of all of our packing for this adventure. Each of us packed a minimum – clothes, toiletries, luxuries (cuddly friends, jewelry, etc.) – with the expectation that each place we were going would sell clothes appropriate to location and climate, if we needed a change, and we could replenish soap and toothpaste when required too.
Harriet wrote about her dissatisfaction with her traveling wardrobe while we were back in Brussels (that feels a long time ago…), and bought a very useful bright pink jacket there and has subsequently bought a t-shirt in a Berlin market.
There have been a few more purchases along the way – some pants for me and Lucy (different styles and sizes…), some socks for Sophie, some trainers and a cap for Magnus – and we had always planned to do a wardrobe review about now, probably involving a family trip to Decathlon in Grenoble, to get shorts, t shirts, etc. and convert our winter wear to spring/summer, and eventually to send back our heavy duty cold stuff with our car.
Being stuck in one location, with a minimum number of shops allowed to remain open by law, just as Spring is springing, has meant that this has been a little more challenging recently. Clothes shops are not “essential services”, and are closed. Supermarkets and hypermarkets remain open, but the two closest to us are pretty small and don’t run to clothes beyond slippers, bras for enormous people and awful nighties.
Constant wear, and an annoying tendency of our children to grow, has meant that some of our clothes are either worn out, or too small. And it’s not just clothes – Harriet has scratched the lenses of her glasses, making them virtually unusable (she has contacts, so it’s not catastrophic), the dishwasher here has packed in, Magnus’s headphones broke, and loads of other utterly normal and banal stuff has gone a bit awry.
And here’s the thing. Because of the lockdown, we can’t get them fixed or replaced, or at least the lockdown has made it much more difficult. While we were sitting down to our Fondue Savoyarde, Lucy made the valid point that the French Government clearly consider a cheese shop an essential service, but not an optician. Harriet has ventured into online glasses shopping.
As the UK and other areas enter lockdown too, I expect many of us will be experiencing the same thing.
I fear for the long term prospects of smaller shops, selling clothes, stationary, electronics, sports equipment, etc. if the only available source of these is either an online giant, or a hypermarket.
Until then, I shall continue to wear my grey winter kit, do the washing up by hand – this and all the handwashing is playing havoc with my skin, darlings – as will we all, and look forward to having a little splurge on something new when I am allowed.
In which our trip comes to an abrupt (and hopefully temporary) stop.
Although, as everyone knows, the world is a very strange place right now, some things go on. We have decided that our weekly post should be one of those things. The first six months of 2020 was always intended to be a life changing experience for all of us, and though it is not going to be as we planned, we do want to remember it as it was.
Our daily facebook and Instagram posts continue too, so if you want more of us (who wouldn’t ?!) have a look at those.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were nearing Ben’s parents’ house in the Chartreuse, in the foothills of the Alps.
The journey here was long (1,150 km and 11 hours and 59 minutes) but relatively (we thought) uneventful. The driving conditions were perfect: blue skies and very little traffic, with the snowy Alps looking glorious away to our left. We passed several major cities and towns on the way – Linz 🇦🇹, Munich 🇩🇪, St Gallen 🇨🇭, Zurich 🇨🇭, Bern 🇨🇭, Lausane 🇨🇭, Geneva 🇨🇭, Annecy 🇨🇵 and Chambery 🇨🇵 – without a footstep in any.
We were nervous about the four borders we had to cross (and in fact the German border was closed the same day) but again these were easy. Three were unattended. Austria to Switzerland (we had had to briefly go from Germany back into Austria to get to Switzerland round the Bodensee at Bregenz) was manned, but unconcerned with six people in a British car. We did need to get a Swiss motorway vignette there. We believe that all these borders are now closed, all the others closing the day after our drive on the Sunday.
The most eventful of our three stops was the last, at Restroute Rose de la Broye, just as the signs turned from German to French at Avenches on the Swiss A1, though we did not realise this at the time. Duplo A, Aurora’s beloved teddy, fell from the open car door and was left behind. When we realised this, upon arrival at Ben’s parents’ holiday house in France, 3 hours later, what should have been our triumphal arrival felt very hollow. Aurora has written a post about Duplo – you can find it here.
One ray of sunshine was that our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen (where we had planned to break the journey) refunded our money, even though our cancellation was too late to qualify for any refund. It is gestures like this, and the goodwill it spreads, that have led us to do the same for any of our guests who have booked to stay in our holiday cottage in Kelso.
And now we are here. In France, where we speak the language, know the village, and are familiar with the equipment in the kichen (which includes a colander, a potato peeler and a large number of sharp (and not so sharp) knives).
We arrived on Sunday night and on Monday headed to the nearest town, where there is a larger supermarket, to do a weekly shop. It is a good thing we did. On Monday night, President Macron announced sweeping restrictions on movement. We’ve written a longer post about these and our life “under lockdown”, but suffice to say that we have not left the village, other than for our hitherto permitted exercise walks, since then.
The rules here do keep shifting – our long walks earlier in the week will not be repeated, as we are now (and in fact then, but we didn’t know) not allowed to go more than 2km from our house for our daily exercise. In fact since I wrote that second sentence yesterday, we have been informed (very politely) by the gendarmes (called we believe, by a woman whose house we walked past), that in fact it is 500m from the house. We remain unconvinced that that is the case (or that walking is not a permitted form of exercise which they also told us), but we did not feel that arguing was sensible. Our walks will be futher curtailed…
We are also shifting our own understanding and expectations: non-screen academic time now includes writing letters, playing scrabble or even, we hope, listening to some classic literature. Our daily exercise routine has been moved outside (weather permitting, which it fortunately has so far) and we are settling for just being outside a bit more if we cannot walk. The not-quite-yet-tadpoles need a lot of looking at….
We can leave the house for short periods to exercise (although that apparently means “sports” and not “walks”) or go shopping and so each morning one of us (without the children) heads to the boulangerie for bread and the small supermarket for any other essentials. There seems to be no panic buying here and the shelves are all stocked.
We have not yet tried to go further afield since the restrictions on movement came in on Monday night. We may experiment with that next week.
Generally how have you found it?
Magnus: It’s been ok, being here. It’s good because we know where everything is. I don’t like the routine because I think we should have screen time in the mornings as well.
Sophie: It’s good because we know where to go and we don’t not speak the language. It’s very quiet in the village.
Aurora: I like being in France because Mummy and Daddy speak the language. I know this house and we know lots of people here. We don’t get lost on our walks.
Lucy: I enjoy it but I think over the coming weeks it will feel very strange – I have always thought of St. Pierre as a holiday home rather than a long term home but I love being here.
Harriet: Mixed (see more below). Its always lovely to be here but the village is oddly quiet and the chat is all about one thing. It’s very strange not being able to send the children for bread in the morning (we’re not sure if this is allowed or not so aren’t risking it). It’s discombobulating not knowing what is going to happen. But we aren’t the only people in the world feeling like that at the moment. My mood changes from day to day and some days are very much easier than others.
Ben: A strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar. Restrictive. It’s generally fine if I think in the present tense. I’m not enjoying considering the short and long term future, although I’m hopeful about the mid term. A lot of it is adjusting to changes and what we can and can’t do: both now and in the future.
What were the good bits?
Harriet: It is just so beautiful here. We are so fortunate to be in the mountains and to have the space to be outside. I have enjoyed every one of our walks outside. The primroses, crocuses and cowslips are all out. I’m looking forward to seeing our tadpoles grow. Also French bread.
Ben: The weather has been very nice. I’ve had good chats with many of the children. I’m glad we made it here. I have loved the beauty of the Chartreuse, particularly on our walks.
Sophie: I like French bread. We haven’t gone on massive long walks. I like playing Pictionary and other games that we haven’t had before on our trip because they’re too big to carry with us. I liked getting the tadpoles. The long journey was fine because we got to watch movies.
Lucy: Food, French and generally, walking, “listening” to Harry Potter (for the 1,200th time) with the twins, tadpoles, learning French and just being here!!!
Aurora: Getting croissants from the bakery because French bread is always the best. We’re about to have fondue! Getting my new teddy, Sandie. Listening to Harry Potter.
Magnus: I have enjoyed eating chocolate Special K and nutella. I like the Beanos and lego.
And the bad?
We are conscious how lucky we are. This could have been so much worse for us (had we got ill in a strange country or were now in lockdown on the wrong side of a strange border with nowhere to live). It’s also so, so much worse for many others, including many of our friends and loved ones. Our hearts go out to them and we are trying to remember to count our blessings.
That said, this last week hasn’t all been easy so please forgive us if we whinge, in the knowledge of how fortunate we are in the bigger context.
Ben: The constant close proximity has its challenges, as does the loss of hoped-for opportunities, whether short-, mid- or long-term. I’m worried that our trip will be much shorter or impossible. We already know we’re not going to some countries we had planned to. I’m worried about what happens when we come back, given the likely state of the economy and the fact that I don’t have a job. I am peeved that the dishwasher has broken down. I don’t like being stuck.
Sophie: I don’t want to miss out on Mongolia, because I want to do a Sophie and yak selfie. We go on tons of walks and I don’t like going uphill because it hurts my legs. I miss Duplo. It’s annoying that we can’t watch any BBC iPlayer things (Editors’ note: there is no TV here anyway).
Harriet: I had been proud of my unexpected (to me at least) resilience in the face of the loss of everything we have planned for. That all came crashing down on Friday. I’m hoping that was rock bottom.
Since this morning’s gendarme incident I have been feeling increasingly anxious again. I don’t like doing the “wrong” thing and it feels as though the parameters for what is “right” are shifting (or being interpreted differently) without warning.
I have scratched my glasses such that they are unwearable. It turns out that opticians are not an “essential” service. I do have contact lenses and I have just experimented with online glasses ordering, so this is only a minor irritation but one I could have done without.
More mundanely cancelling all our booked accommodation and travel for the next month was not fun. Some companies made it very easy. Others (including our insurance company – Hiscox – who insist, in the face of compelling evidence, that we bought through a broker and are therefore not their responsibility) not so much….
Magnus: I don’t really like the schedule. I am missing Joe and my cousin Freddie.
Aurora: I don’t like the schedule. It’s annoying because it doesn’t give me any time to talk to my friends except a bit, and I don’t have any time to do anything. Except for when I do. It’s annoying. It has limited my phone time, which is so annoying. I’ve been really missing Duplo. I had a big fight with Mummy.
Lucy: The fight a few days ago (which I will not go into detail about), the feeling of the fact that Tweed might never get to Tokyo, I’m getting slightly bored of the endless Tintin and Asterix. I was slightly disapointed not to have a St Petersburg birthday but there would be worse places to become a teenager.
What did we eat?
The contents of Ele’s cupboards (at her request and including a *lot* of spaghetti, and a jar of Sainsbury’s Thai Green Curry best before this month – not together, for the avoidance of doubt). We had duck in a tin too, and I used some of the Hungarian caraway to make a cake.
Disappointingly, the kitchen scales here have vanished so although I do have all the ingredients to make a Bled Cake, I haven’t yet been brave enough actually to do so.
Ben is currently grating the cheese for our first adventures in fondue.
How plastic free were we?
The supermarket in the village pleasingly sells refill pouches of handwash, so that was a victory, but otherwise shopping for food remains the sticking point. It is probably better here than in other countries we have passed through as we have used the boulangerie and the fromagerie for bread and cheese, so both of those come wrapped in paper rather than plastic. We continue to buy loose fruit where possible although I do wonder if I should be peeling it.
When M.Macron addressed the nation on Monday he said this would last for an initial 15 days. After four days that was increased to four to six weeks.
We fully expect to be here on Lucy’s birthday, 21 April. We hope not to be on Magnus’ which is 31 May, although where we then will be is anyone’s guess.
A very odd day today. We are now in the foothills of the French Alps, in a lovely house belonging to my parents, where life is both very familiar, and at the same time, very strange.
It is familiar because we have been lucky enough to have holidayed here almost every year we have been a family. I lived here for 2 years, while working and studying in nearby Grenoble. Harriet and I got engaged here.
It was always the plan to be here in March, to make the switch from car to train, and to give us all a little downtime from constant travel and maybe update our minimal wardrobes with more spring-like clothes.
It is strange to be here now, a week earlier than expected, and in such unprecedented circumstances. The village itself is very quiet, only the boulangerie and tabac open (the mini-Market is normally closed on a Monday). People don’t greet each other with a handshake or a kiss. There is an air of quiet, disquiet perhaps, which is difficult to define.
We are all tired and a bit subdued too after 12 hours in the car yesterday, and the sad loss of a beloved Teddy in a Swiss motorway service station.
For all the “this is just the start of a new adventure” geeing up we can (and do) do, this is very far from the meticulously planned trip of a lifetime, and that feels a bit rubbish.
To be sure, I am very aware that we are hugely privileged in many ways (going on the trip in the first place, work situations which allowed it, a family bolt-hole to run to, not being an at-risk person for Corona, nor being medically affected by Corona, or anything bigger than the enormous splinter Sophie had in her foot).
We have had a saying on our trip to date, “it may be weird to you, but it’s normal for someone else”. This has been useful for food, dress code, manners, languages, etc., but the thing with the current COVID-19 situation is that it is nobody’s normal. Austria, where we were just yesterday, has just banned meetings if more than 5 people. We are a family of 6…
Even as I type this Ursula van der Leyen has informed me that Europe is closed to all but essential travel for at least 30 days. What does that mean for us now?
Do we have right to remain in the EU during the Brexit transition period? Is it a greater risk (to ourselves, to others) to travel, or to stay put? Is travelling home “essential”? For whom? We don’t particularly want to come home, especially when there is a chance we will be able to continue with some of the trip. At the moment the Olympics are still planning to go ahead, but last week we were planning to be in Slovenia now.
Harriet has been contacting our insurers and our Russian travel fixers, and they are scrambling as much as we are. Kazakhstan has closed its borders, the Moscow to Tashkent train has been suspended, and even one part of the insurers can’t get through to the other.
As a nice aside, our AirBnB hosts in St Gallen Switzerland, refunded our money, despite our cancelling too late to be entitled to it. There are good people doing good things, and that’s a thing to aspire to too.
Even so, it is all a bit discombobulating. Macron is speaking to France at 8pm tonight, and the rumour is that this will be to introduce more restrictions for travel, potentially for 3 months.
So what are we going to do about it?
There are some things we should do while we are here anyway:
Continue with daily exercise, and some maths.
Continue to monitor the changing situation globally.
Our friend Rose, in California, shared a “Lockdown Schedule”, which we are going to adapt and use. Lucy is writing a poster of it right now.
We are likely to be in France for at least a month, so the children could do with learding more French, even if anyone they try to speak to runs away covering their nose. Harriet and I have started talking to the children in French as much as possible (please not before breakfast, and please not at weekends, say the children. Peut-être, say the grownups.)
The children have started using Duolingo to learn French try to understand what we are saying to them. (There has also been bribery, in the form of ear piercing, which has helped this. As for when an ear-piercing studio might reopen, who knows…)
Go for walks in the beautiful mountains.
Harriet is still planning to cook Bled Cake, our missed Slovenian meal, and then there’s tartiflette, fondue montagnarde, raclette, etc.
Make this as good as it can be, and try to look on the bright side.
Because the alternative is worrying that world travel is over forever, millions are going to die, and the global economy will collapse. Sorry about that picture.
Week five has been a slightly odd one: the coronavirus, of which more later, has increased its presence across Europe and the news is changing daily. We have had to change accordingly.
Where were we? What did we do?
When last we wrote we were about to head into the Tatra Mountains. The children had been asking to visit a water park and we had found one fed by mineral-rich hot springs. This was everything you’d expect: loud, noisy, great fun and a chance to teach them all about the periodic table…. They enjoyed some of it more than the rest.
From there to a chalet in Zakopane. This looked very cool and stylish on AirBnB, but sadly the listing didn’t mention that a) it was up a drive that was not designed for a large and heavy Toyota van and b) once you got there the turning space was six inches deep in mud. We discovered the latter too late…
After some ingenuity, a bit of digging, use of the jack and a load of old pizza boxes, a not inconsiderable amount of sotto voce swearing and some invaluable help from a good Samaritan in the form of the astonishingly kind and English-speaking neighbour (how many random people in the UK would know the Polish for “manual transmission“?), we got out. It wasn’t a great first impression though.
The next morning though, as the sun rose over the snowy Tatra, so close we could almost touch them, and the children gambolled in what remained of the snow, it all seemed worth it.
You couldn’t, sitting in our car, quite have blinked and missed Slovakia, but if you had been better at sleeping in the car than our children are, you could probably have slept through it.
That is to do Slovakia a disservice. It was, through the car windows, beautiful, with rolling hills and snowy mountains. We stopped in Banska Bystrica (because it was on the way) for lunch, and enjoyed strolling through the centre of town.
Slovakia, we apologise for not spending longer with you. We will hopefully be back.
Ben had been to Budapest before, in 1993, and had raved about it pretty much ever since. It did not disappoint.
We stayed very centrally, in a once very grand town house, just behind the national museum, so on our first evening we strolled along the banks of the Danube, watching as Buda slowly became illuminated.
We headed for the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial, which remembers the Jews of the Ghetto who were brought to the banks of the river in late 1944 and 1945, told to remove their shoes, and shot. In the twilight, it was both beautiful and very moving. In a way I think it made the horror of the Holocaust more real to the children than anything else we have done on this trip.
The next day we went out, on public transport this time, Budapest being rather bigger than we realised, first to the Donhanyi Synagogue, with its many memorials (including to Raoul Wallenburg, of whom, to our shame, we had never heard) and stunning architecture. Then on to Buda Castle. We walked up and enjoyed the instagrammable-ness (yes that is a word) of the views, the Fishermans Bastion, the Presidential Palace (the sentries gave some of us a shock when they moved) and the giant eagle up which Ben once saw someone climb.
Harriet was slightly kicking herself (sort of still is, to be honest) for agreeing to the water park, having forgotten about the baths of Budapest. We rather thought that two swimming experiences so close together would be too much. But this, on a gloriously sunny day, in the smartest public swimming pool you will ever see in your life (no slides, sorry kids), was an experience unlike any other.
The children had been asking to go to an Escape Room since Berlin, where they are also a big thing. Budapest, which has many cellars and grand ruined buildings, is also a hive of various small rooms with people paying to get out.
We found one ten minutes or so away on foot, with an Indiana Jones-style temple-themed room (in English) , and booked ourselves in, smugly thinking we would be quite good at this.
Clearly we can’t spoil it for others, but suffice to say that sadly, although we found the skull, and thus destroyed the Beast, we remain locked in the temple. We were, with hindsight, thinking too much like ourselves and not enough like Indy. We will know for next time.
It was brilliant fun though and there was some top teamwork. We’d do another one.
Thence to Austria; on the way we popped into Vienna Airport to pick up the temporary seventh member of our travelling circus – Granny. Sometimes we like our massive car (when it’s not stuck in the mud or negotiating a Belgian underground car park).
Keen, as ever, to give the children a full experience of the culture of every city we visit, once we got to our flat we dumped our bags, and headed out to the Prater.
Fourteen and a half years ago, when we got married, among our unwritten vows was that Harriet did not have to go on any roller coasters, ever (or to IKEA, if you’re interested) . Fun fairs are most definitely not her happy place, so this was an act of real love towards the children. But it’s Vienna, so you do, at least, have to go on the wheel.
And it was surprisingly fun. The Prater was clearly gearing up for its spring opening, so quite a few of the rides were having their light bulbs changed, or their mechanisms checked, and it is possible that the coronavirus kept some people away, but it was pleasantly busy without being crowded and there were no queues for any of the rides.
The wheel itself, in the glorious spring sunshine (22 degrees!) was a delight. We had a cabin to ourselves, and although Lucy was disappointed not to be able to throw tulips to small boys below (apparently she had read it in a book), we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
Then on to the main attractions. Magnus managed to find (and drag Granny on to) all of the dodgem rides in the place, and Ben fulfilled what has clearly been a fourteen and a half year lack by whooping and giggling his way round a roller coaster. Lucy got the fright of her life when air was puffed at her in a fun house, much to everyone else’s amusement.
And Granny and Harriet? They held the coats. And were delighed to be able to do so. Harriet was even more delighted to win the family ball-rolling competition. The prize is going back with Granny for her other grandchildren. Their parents will be delighted.
The Hofburg and other Palaces
Bill Bryson wrote that if you were an alien who landed in Vienna for the first time you’d think it was the capital of the world. He’s not wrong. It’s stately and grand and very, very sure of itself. It is also, at the moment, shut.
All those wonderful museums and galleries, all the palaces of wondrous riches, every one, shut to visitors for fear of Corona. Even the morning exercise at the Spanish Riding School was closed – do horses get COVID-19?
Oddly though (presumably it has something to do with numbers) the guided tour of the Spanish Riding School was open. (Apparently the Emperor who founded it came from Spain, bringing his funny Spanish customs, foods and way of riding with him. In German, we were told, “It’s all Greek to me“, or “double Dutch” translate as “Spanish“.) The boys had decided not to come with us, but Granny, Harriet and the girls rather liked the idea of dancing horses, so in we went.
Ben who is deeply allergic to horses, and struggling slightly with the arrival of Spring too (streaming nose and slight cough are not a good look right now, I can tell you), would have hated it, but we throroughly enjoyed meeting the horses, seeing them exercise, (nothing spectacular but still an enjoyable watch) and getting a full explanation of what goes on. Clearly it’s simultaneously brilliant and utterly weird and ridiculously over- mannered, but that’s sort of Vienna too.
Having met up with Ben and Magnus, we ate our sandwiches in a rather windy but magnifient square and then went from the frugal to the utterly extravagant with coffee (mit schlag) and kuchen (that doesn’t do them justice at all) at Cafe Central, one of Vienna’s venerable coffee houses.
Composers and hamsters
Not far from where we were staying is Vienna’s Central Cemetery, resting place of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others and home to several colonies of wild European hamsters.
The children had seen Seven Worlds One Planet and had been rather taken with the hamsters, so a wander around on a sunny day seemed in order. We found the composers (I’m going to resist the pun) with ease, but we possibly weren’t quite as quiet and patient as the BBC film crew as the hamsters remained resolutely out of sight.
Old (and new) Friends
Way back in 1996, Harriet spent a month in Moscow, trying to improve her (even then) woeful Russian. Staying in the same hall of residence were lots of Norwegians, one of whom has remained a friend, although of course the last time we saw him we were living in London and none of us had children.
The same Norwegian, with his wife and children, now lives in Vienna. So on Saturday morning, mindful of the new instruction not to gather inside, and having greeted each other with full on media-luvvie-style kisses from the requisite metre away, we met up for a lovely stroll round a wonderfully, if rather eerily empty, Vienna. As ever, Magnus made a new friend and we had a bonus ice ream too.
But they had shopping to do before Austria shuts up shop almost completely on Monday morning, so we left them and spent our last afternoon in Vienna variously shopping, cooking, and taking Granny back to the airport.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Girls’ responses as texted from the back of the car…
Aurora: Vienna was really not busy. It had literally no one there cause of corona but it had millions of castles and palaces.
Lucy: Budapest was very grand- I thought it couldn’t get any grander, then we went to Vienna!
Sophie: 1.Fancy, posh 2. I thought it would be much less nice and fancy.
Harriet: You, or perhaps just I, associate Vienna with the Danube. But when you’re here you never actually see it, even from the top of the Prater Ferris Wheel. It would have been a full on trip for Strauss to get anywhere near it, however beautiful and blue it may have been. In a similar vein it seemed a shame there were no waltzers at the Prater, but maybe that joke only works in English.
I was surprised by how much I loved Budapest. It just felt so beautiful and so alive. I wanted to get to know it better.
Magnus: The Prater was massive. The chimney cakes were really nice. Vienna was really grand and also crazy because it had a million rides in the Prater.
Ben: The daily changes to the news and situation regarding the Coronavirus situation, and the consequent lack of crowds, whether strolling through the majesty of Vienna, or not waiting 45 minutes to get into the Central Café (which is a lot grander than it sounds). The Mud of Zakopane (a strong contender for my future heavy metal band name), which made me appreciate the horror of World War One even more.
What were the highlights?
Magnus: I really really really really really liked the water park in Zakopane because it had slides and stuff. The Prater. I enjoyed the bumper cars. Meeting Oskar. The “No kangaroos in Austria” signs.
Ben The weather – spring has finally sprung. Budapest being as alive and glorious as when I left it (with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra 1993 Tour). Vienna is gorgeous too, but it is much more stately (and less fun as a result) than Budapest.
Aurora: The Prater was really fun when me Sophie and Lucy went on the rollercoaster and when I went on the one upside down with Daddy.
Lucy: I really enjoyed the escape room because it was my kind of thing and going on the scary rollercoaster with Daddy and Aurora because I loved the exhilaration, excitement and experience.
Sophie: Water park,escape room and fun fair. I liked the freedom of the water park and the fun fair. I liked the escape room cos it was using my brain in a fun team working way.
Harriet I could live at the Szechenyi Baths. It thought they were just brilliant. I loved our escape room too, even if I’m still kicking myself because we didn’t get out. Once again it was very lovely to see friends, albeit in rather odd circumstances – no hugs allowed. I was conscious of pure unconfined happiness watching the children in the Fun House at the Prater.
What was the weather like?
Utterly glorious. One of the great ironies of travelling while the world goes into panic mode is how wonderfully normal and glorious the arrival of Spring has been this week. The very territorial blackbird who woke us up every morning in Vienna doesn’t care about viruses of any kind…
What about the Coronavirus?
You don’t need us to tell you what’s happening on a global, or indeed European, scale, and, let’s face it, the situation is changing by the minute.
For us this has meant trying to be as safe and sensible as possible, while still trying to salvage as much of our long-held dream as possible.
The initial amended plan had us missing out Italy, and at the beginning of the week we booked accommodation in Innsbruck and St Gallen, with a view to spending four days travelling between Slovenia (where we were supposed to be going next) and France, where Ben’s parents have a house and where we are still hoping to meet them and hand over the car.
Oddly, too, although the media was very clear on the seriousness of the situation, on the streets of the major cities we have visited we were not really aware of anything out of the ordinary going on, at least until we arrived in Vienna earlier this week. We have seen perhaps half a dozen people in face masks across our entire trip. The first day in Vienna was completely normal and it wasn’t until the second day, when museums were shut and it was oddly easy to get a table in a café; and the third, when people were told that shops cannot open after Monday, that things started to change. Certainly it was eerily easy to park in central Vienna yesterday morning.
However as the advice to self-isolate becomes more pressing, and in the knowledge that some of us look with our fingers at every passing surface, and with the risk that borders may shut for an indefinite period, we decided on Friday to amend the amended plan.
Early this morning (Sunday) we therefore got in the car and this post is being written as we drive straight to France where we can stay in Ben’s parents’ house. We have cancelled our Slovenia accommodation and the apartment we booked in Innsbruck, only five days ago. It is a 12 hour journey from Vienna to France, so the then plan was to break the journey in St. Gallen, but with countries’ responses becoming ever more stringent we have decided to push through to get to France tonight. We will stay in France as long as we have to.
Since we left Austria this morning, passing through Germany, back into Austria, across Switzerland and finally to France, Germany has announced the closure of its borders with Swizerland and France, and Austria has banned gatherings of more than 5 people (how does that work for us?!). We are, therefore, as we drive along familiar French roads, very very glad we left when we did.
Even today though, as borders shut around us and there is a queue to wash your hands in the service station loos, life visibly goes on in the towns and villages we pass. Although the traffic has been relatively easy on our journey, this is perhaps no more so than you would expect on a Sunday. Planes are still arriving at Geneva airport…
Our intention was, and officially still is, to leave France at the beginning of April, and in theory Ben is also intending to spend a day at the Mongolian Embassy in Paris before then, but of course that may well all change and we will just have to review all our plans as they get nearer.
In the meanwhile it is excellent resilience training.
How plastic free were we?
Not very. There was a great plastic-free poster at the U-bahn station, but actual provision for plastic-free shopping, and indeed recycling, in Austria was woefully lacking. Budapest wasn’t much better.
We remain good about refusing straws and plastic bags and taking our reusable cups and bottles of water – thus far we are proud to have not bought a single bottle of water (although the man in the motorway services in Switzerland clearly thought refilling one was an outrageous request) – but it continues to be well-nigh impossible to shop for food without receiving it in plastic, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language.
What did we eat?
Chimney cakes. Lots of chimney cakes. Both the plain and cheap (from a kiosk in the metro) and the glam and pimped up and very expensive (from a swanky gelateria). They were all delicious but we concluded that the fresher and warmer the better. Ice cream improves a cold chimney cake, but not enough.
At the other extreme from chimney cakes in the Budapest Metro was Café Central in Vienna.
We also had great burgers in Vienna, and two lots of pizza (in Zakopane and Slovakia – although not Ben, who had a Slovakian speciality that was rather akin to macaroni cheese), as well as a lovely meal out, with requisite schnitzel, in the Palmenhaus of the Hofberg Palace.
Lucy: The apprehension before the rollercoaster because I have never done an “upside down rollercoaster” before
Aurora: Magnus being hyper and annoying 😵🙄
Sophie: The bad bits were us fighting and Mummy and Daddy interrupting us while we were watching our movies
Harriet: The mud wasn’t funny, but pales into insignificancebeside the coronavirus. Our best case scenario at present has us going straight from France to Russia (Scandinavia is a no go area) which would mean missing out five of the twenty countries we planned to visit. Technically of course at present even that’s not possible (the Russians won’t let us in if we’re coming from France, and in any event the trains between the two are all cancelled). I veer from being very sanguine about this (there are people in much much worse situations than us) to being very catastrophic and depressed: the what if scenarios can spiral very quickly out of control if I let them.
Ben: Getting stuck in the mud. Not knowing how much of the trip we’re going to have to miss. I was looking forward to a run around Lake Bled.
Magnus: Getting into all those fights with Aurora.
With a sense of stepping into the unknown, we are on our way to the very familiar: Ben’s parents’ house in France. The plan was always to be there for a week at the very end of March and head on from there. As it is, we will wait there and assess the situation, moving on when we can.
In the meantime we will be communicating only in French…
This was a first for us for a number of reasons – our first rural excursion, our first time to somewhere no-one had been (Ben had been to Kraków and Warsaw, but not to Kopice (population 135)), and our first catered stay.
The river Oder forms a lot of the border between Germany and Poland, and towards its mouth, after Szczecin, splits into a large expanse of wetland area, home to a variety of wildlife including wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boar, bison, red squirrels, as well as several resident and migratory bird species.
Our hosts at Oder Delta Safaris were Iwona Krępic and Reginald Ścieżka, who could not have been more welcoming or enthusiastic. They made sure we had a brilliant time, and although we were only there for one night, it felt longer, as we had three separate excursions, as well as downtime, and three enormous and delicious meals.
We were en route, a bit later than planned, when Iwona texted to say they wanted us to go eagle watching straight away to get the best of the weather. This was a great decision. We dumped our bags and rushed down to the harbour in Stepnica, where it promptly started to rain. But it eased off quickly and we spent an amazing three hours in the water with our smiley, non-English speaking boatman, who threw massive fish for the eagles and chirped at them (not always with much success) to lure them down. Seeing a bird with 2 metre wing span dive just in front of us was amazing, and the pictures don’t do it justice.
In the morning we were up bright and early for our fashion show. Suitably kitted up we headed out on foot to spot wildlife. Sadly only the cranes and the deer obliged, but Iwona pointed out traces of wild boar (Ben had clearly frightened them off meeting them on an early morning run) and beaver. We got very excited by dog-like tracks too, but they were, apparently, exactly what they looked like…
We then spent a night in Szczecin before heading South the next day.
And now for something completely different. Our lovely friends from Kelso moved back to Poland last year and kindly invited us to stay, so we did.
So this wasn’t us being tourists, this was us seeing friends. Who also have four children, and moved countries less than a year ago. It was as noisy and crazy as you’d imagine and we had a brilliant time with wonderful hosts: they even laid on wine tasting!
Ostrzeszów itself is a small market town, with some beautiful churches and the remains of a medieval castle. It’s not on any tourist route but it was nonetheless lovely and a completely different pace of travel. The kids in particular really seemed to need that. We highly recommend this as a place to stay!
We had only two full days in Kraków, one of which we wanted to spend at the Wielizcka salt mine, so we had really only one day to spend in Kraków itself.
We are staying in a modern flat in the Jewish ghetto, just across the river Vistula from the old town. So we walked. This turns out to be a good thing as Kraków is installing tram lines, with Edinburgh-like levels of disruption (They’re twinned so maybe it was deliberate).
The centre though was just as magisterial and beautiful as I had expected. We wandered through and enjoyed Wawel castle, the dragon sculpture and the magnificence of the square. We didn’t go inside any of these: the children weren’t enthusiastic and we decided not to push it.
They were, however, keen to visit the wax works. Harriet and Lucy, with a meal to plan and cook, decided against, leaving Ben to accompany the three youngest to “the best worst museum in Kraków”. Ben’s impression is that there was once a very small quite good wax work museum, (Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn were quite good) which was bought by a person who was not that good at making new wax works but gave it a go (their Shrek and Donkey were a particular low point).
The Wieliczka salt mines were the main reason Harriet wanted to visit Kraków, having seen a picture about 3 years ago. They were astonishing. The whole area is now given over to tourists and to a certain extent could feel quite artificial (11,000 people a day visit in high season) but it was incredibly slick and well organised and really quite awe-inspiring. Our guide described it as a “labyrinth” and he wasn’t wrong.
We were underground for three hours and we didn’t even scratch the surface (pun intended). We saw only three of eight levels of the mine and off every corridor we went down more and more branched off. I think we all felt the vertiginous lure of these mystery passageways, although sensibly no one acted on it (although Magnus did briefly try to join a different tour group).
One astonishing fact: the stalactites in the mine grow on average 10 centimetres a month.
What didn’t we do?
After much discussion and deliberation, we have not visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. The official advice is that it is not suitable for anyone under 14. Despite this there are many people in the internet who say things like “I took my six year old and it was fine and now they have a full understanding of the Holocaust”.
We did therefore wonder about going anyway. However we, having spoken to the children, decided against. There are some things you cannot un-see. More pragmatically, I understand that there is a lot of walking and it can be cold. If there is one place you do not want your safe, privileged, part-Jewish child having a temper tantrum because they are mildly uncomfortable Auschwitz is it.
The children, Sophie in particular, do though, by their own request, want to come back. They know it’s important. So we will. Just not now.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Ben Kraków was the first place which felt quite touristy. Although there are loads of tourist shops in Amsterdam and Brussels (fewer in Germany), this was the place we heard the most British voices. Perhaps that is because spring is springing and there are just more tourists about, or maybe just because it was a Friday and Saturday.
The quality and variety of the food surprised and impressed me. We ate really well in Poland. (Karol’s duck was fabulous).
Aurora Fewer people speak English than anywhere else so far. I thought it would be warmer. I don’t know why. When I think of Poland I think of a warm place with flowers everywhere.
Lucy Poland is so flat. Especially the Oder Delta but everything is so flat. I loved the roofs on Kraków churches. It’s like they couldn’t decide which roof to put on, so they put them all on.
Sophie The food is really good. It’s so flat here. I don’t know what I was expecting so I don’t really know what surprised me.
Harriet I was astounded by the salt mine, just the scale of it. Only one cavern was excavated using explosives: all the rest was dug out by hand, in an age before mechanical anything or electric light.
Magnus Poland is a bit like the middle of Lidl. You never know what you might find: there’s loads of wildlife and loads of other stuff. The salt mine was massive and really deep as well. I was surprised that Leon had a Nintendo Switch.
What were the highlights?
Aurora I liked just hanging with the Ciacheras and the night we stayed there. We were all mucking about and it was really fun. I liked the dumplings we ate yesterday.
Lucy The Oder Delta and dressing up like bushes. It was so amazing to see the eagles so up close. I enjoyed having the highest pompom in Greater Poland. I liked looking at all the markets, although not just in Poland. Watching them make sweets.
Harriet It was absolutely lovely to see friends and they could not possibly have been better hosts. The experience of seeing the eagles was awe-inspiring. Kraków was as beautiful as I expected. I’d like to spend more time here. The noise the cranes made was wonderful and indescribable. We saw a red squirrel in the car park of our flat in Kraków. I realise that’s probably normal for Poland but for me it was wondrous.
Sophie I liked seeing the Ciacheras, because it was actually someone we knew and they also had really good food. I liked all the safari. I liked our house at the safari but it was really hot. I liked the sweetie demonstration.
Magnus I liked being with the Ciacheras. It was fun because Leon and I got to play Mariokart 8 deluxe multiplayer. I liked it when the seagulls pooped on Lucy. It was funny. I liked the squirrel. I liked the dragon that breathed fire.
Ben I found the days spent in the Oder Delta really energising, in spite of being tiring, if that makes sense. I loved the closeness of nature, and the air, after all those (albeit splendid) cities.
What was the weather like?
Beautiful on the days we had lots of driving to do and a bit iffy the rest of the time.
How plastic free were we?
Better this week, a little. Food in the supermarkets seems to be less pre-packaged, so less plastic there. Of course being catered for helped too. We ran out of shampoo for the children so that meant more plastic.
What about the Coronavirus?
We wrote about this before we left. The plan then was to keep on keeping on until we were told we couldn’t.
Since then, although the situation in China seems to be easing, clearly there are more and more cases in other countries.
We are not stupid and we are not knowingly risk-takers. But we’ve also been planning this trip for a long time and don’t want to abandon it because of a global media panic. Practically speaking, too, if we were to come home we wouldn’t have anywhere to live…
We are, therefore, proceeding as planned and generally following the Foreign Office advice. Our route is changing a little (and of course may change further). We originally planned to come through Northern Italy on our way from Slovenia to France (where we will meet Ben’s parents and abandon the car). Italy is now out and we are trying to establish the cheapest possible route through a very expensive part of Austria and Switzerland.
Uzbekistan has recently announced sweeping travel restrictions. Currently these don’t apply to us (it will be more than 14 days since we were in an affected country when we arrive in Uzbekistan in late May) but we will be keeping an eye on them and if we have to change our plans we will. We don’t want to spend all our time in a country we’ve wanted to visit for years sitting in a hotel room unable to leave.
We will shortly be heading to the first destination we’ve been to which has confirmed cases. As we write there are 16 cases in Vienna, a city of 1.9 million inhabitants. We are heading there in a week or so’s time. Unless the situation gets notably worse we will still be going. While there we plan to wash our hands, use our sanitisers, kindly provided to us by Kelso’s own Pyramid Travel Products, try not to touch our faces and eat our body weight in sachertorte and apple strudel.
We will keep reviewing the situation but at the moment we are keeping calm and carrying on…
What did we eat?
All the food! We have eaten extraordinarily well in Poland, from a traditional spread with soup and kotlety and home made pickles in the Oder Delta, to Chinese-spiced duck (plus dumplings) with our friends, to traditional pierogi in very unglamorous surroundings in Kraków. We’ve eaten amazing breads with caraway bought off the street, and watched sweets being made in the world’s smallest sweet factory.
We drank Polish wines for the first time ever, and developed a taste for kompot.
The one thing we haven’t worked out yet is breakfast. None of us yet has a taste for ham and cheese first thing, and as we travel east breakfast cereal is becoming rarer and rarer. There been a lot of bread and jam, and this morning I made porridge…
Thank goodness for all that walking.
Any bad bits?
Lucy There isn’t anyone my age at the Ciacheras. When everyone got a bit tired and cold on the boat.
Sophie At the beginning Magnus was very jiggy but he has got better. The house at the safari was really hot and it made me feel kind of ill especially upstairs.
Harriet Like Sophie I struggled with the heat in the Kopice house, which is not something I expected to say in March in Poland. Phones remain a flashpoint. Coronavirus is a worry. Admittedly there’s nothing I can do about it but I really, really don’t want to abandon this trip.
Ben Magnus and I almost had a “bad bit” in the hairdressers in Kraków, when I was convinced we were both going to come out with peaky blinders hairstyles, shaved underneath and long on top, but thankfully not… I didn’t enjoy family bickers and not having a washing machine.
Aurora I am still finding it difficult being away from my friends because I’m not used to it. Sometimes when I talk to them I get very upset and start to cry. Sometimes I find Magnus really annoying.
Magnus When Aurora and I argued about who was Leon’s best friend and I got all sad.
Any hints and tips?
When eagle-watching, watch don’t try to take pictures, or not all the time at least. It was so much better with our eyes than through the lens.
We leave Kraków today and head south to Zakopane to fulfil the children’s desire for a waterpark and Ben’s desire for some hills. Then through Slovakia to Hungary.
We tipped the balance this week. Two weeks is a holiday. Three, or more, is something else… For Ben, at least, this is the first time since 2002 than he has had more than two weeks off in a row. (Harriet’s had more than her fair share of maternity leave, sick leave (pneumonia, 2006, since you ask) and flexi-working)
It all feels surprisingly normal.
Where were we? What did we do?
Anyway, we started this week off in Rommerskirchen. You know, Rommerskirchen, in Nordrhein-Westfalen. OK, maybe it’s not the most famous place we’ll hang our hats but it did us very nicely.
Rommerskirchen is a small town in a not very big administrative area surrounded by flat agricultural fields and dominated by two absolutely massive power stations. It also, conveniently, has a direct train into central Cologne, and a station with free parking, which was (with apologies to anyone who calls it home) its main attraction for us.
So while we may have stayed in Rommerskirchen, and frequented several of its (five, and counting) supermarkets (though not its two separate alcohol hypermarkets), we didn’t actually spend much time there at all.
We were mostly in Cologne. In fact pretty much all of the timing of the trip up to this point has been planned around the fact that we had been told Cologne Carnival was epic and we didn’t want to miss it.
We’ve written a separate post all about Carnival and our experiences, so click through to read that, but suffice to say it didn’t disappoint. Weather notwithstanding we loved it. It was exciting, welcoming, generous and just plain and simple fun. It will take a long while before any of us forgets the sight of an entire city in fancy dress. And probably only slightly less long to finish all the sweets…
Zoo and other attractions
On our final day in Cologne we did sample some of its other delights. Having forced the children to have fun and eat sweets for the previous two days we thought it only fair that they should have a say in what we did next. They picked the zoo. We were less keen, but fortunately this is the zoo we had been told was a “zoo for people who hate zoos” (and that’s not because it doesn’t have any animals in it).
We did, first, force them to work off some of the sugar with a quick march up the 533 steps of the Dom, and a stroll across and along the Rhein to get to the zoo.
It was excellent. High point definitely the interaction between the four year old male gorilla and the silverback. The small person showing off to get attention may have reminded us of someone we know. And the big chap wasn’t keen on Lucy’s hat either…
Getting to Berlin
We left Cologne on Wednesday and had our first long car journey (unless you count driving to Granny’s) of the trip to arrive in Berlin that afternoon. The journey was quite snowy in places, and was marked by our very first foray into mixing children and cars and screens.
This was something we had never tried before, for two reasons. The main one is that two of our beloved children can get car sick on a three mile journey if they try, and the other is that we are old-school luddites. The autobahn not being quite as twisty as any road in the Scottish Borders we dipped a toe in the water opened the floodgates of downloading films and TV shows.
It worked. We even subjected them to the entire album of Kraftwerk’s electronic classic Autobahn as well as Beethoven’s 7th, 8th and 9th Symphonies without a whisper of discontent. (Harriet did well to put up with the Kraftwerk too.)
We have been staying in an amazing pre-war apartment with great high ceilings and big rooms. Its downside (and the reason we can afford it) is that it’s on a main road and the decor is a bit more shabby than chic. The wifi is also not living up to the children’s expectations…
On Thursday we were up and out to a pre-booked tour of the Dome of the Reichstag, or so we thought. When we arrived, we were shepherded into a different queue and sent inside the building itself. There was a moment of silent shared adult panic as we concluded we were about to sit in on 90 minutes of German Bundestag plenary session – think of the children! And us! – but this turned out not to be the case, and to be one of Ben’s favourite experiences in Germany.
Our fantastic guide, Ruth, led a very open, honest and interesting tour of the building (which you don’t get to do when the Bundestag is sitting), covering the history and present of modern Germany: warts, Russian war graffiti and all. Once it was over a lift whisked us to the roof, and to the dome for views over Berlin.
Museums and galleries
In the spirit of Berlin we tried to be a bit more out there with the museums and galleries we visited. So we didn’t go anywhere hear the Pergamon, the Charlottenburg Palace or the Dom. Instead (and while these aren’t exactly cutting edge or unknown, they were in the main, at the children’s request) we went to the Spy Museum (great fun), the DDR museum (excellent, though too crowded), the Jewish Holocaust memorial (incredible in too many ways), the East Side Gallery (well worth a wander), the Wall Museum (moving and mindblowing) and the Berlin Unterwelten Museum (expensive, but interesting).
One of Harriet’s birthday presents last year was 6 tickets to Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Komische Oper Berlin. We were honoured that she decided to go with the rest of us, so we put on our smartest clothes the same clothes we have been wearing since we left home (except for Harriet, who had brought a highly packable dress with her for the occasion) and headed out to a bizarre evening of avant-garde opera, complete with papier-maché heads, dancing clowns, monkeys, and nudity.
I’m not sure we were all convinced, but it added to the new experiences. The only other opera the children have seen was Don Giovanni last summer in Orange, so Lucy did ask if opera is all about horrid men and victim women. Maybe we should choose something a bit less #metoo next time.
On Sunday we set off early to Mauerpark, and a pre-arranged meeting with our graffiti expert. We had high hopes about our graffiti lesson, and they were well met in a couple of sun kissed and chilly hours (re-)painting a section of old Berlin Wall. Everyone contributed and enjoyed this and we are all delighted with the result. Whether it is still there as we write this on Sunday evening doesn’t really matter. We think the photos speak for themselves.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Aurora Berlin was not as crowded as I had expected. Everyone thinks Berlin is really cool, but I don’t really get that. It’s just a city. I was surprised listening to the people in their houses in the DDR museum.
Lucy It’s a bit contradictory but I was both surprised by how nice Berlin was (because I knew it had lots of dark history) and how dark the history was (because I was expecting Berlin to be a lovely city).
I was expecting the parade at Carnival to be more fancy dress but they were more like soldiers and regiments.
Harriet I knew Carnival was going to be loopy but it was way more loopy than I expected. I was really impressed (maybe I should have expected this) by the German efficiency: I’ve never seen such calm and clean motorway services; the public transport is all so easy and efficient; the Berlin tourist ticket works and is actually good value and not a total rip off as they tend to be in other places. I was surprised and delighted by how welcome we felt in Cologne.
I was hugely affected by and in awe of how open Germans are about their relatively recent history and how determined not to shy away away from it but to ensure that it is never repeated.
I was surprised (and very chuffed) by how good our graffiti was.
Sophie Carnival wasn’t as busy as I expected. I thought it was going to be like a concert when you can’t move and have barely any room. I found getting up early easier than I was expecting.
Magnus I thought it was quite a funky, creative place. The dressing up and the graffiti were out of the ordinary. I was surprised that we had to put caps on the cans before doing the spray painting.
Ben I really enjoyed Germany, and I felt that everyone we met was friendly, quite serious and thoughtful, and in general, excellent at English, in total contrast to my German. I did not enjoy being rubbish at German, but my German is brilliant compared to my Polish, Hungarian and Uzbek, so I’m just going to have to deal with that in the coming weeks and months.
There is a transparency to how Germany has reacted to the horrors of its last century of history which feels refreshing, and also honest and a bit humbling, possibly when compared to some ways we deal with elements of British history back home.
I felt I could happily live in Berlin.
What were the highlights?
Aurora The graffiti and the carnival. The Cologne carnival was great because of all the sweets, and it was fun. I enjoyed making the graffiti.
Lucy I thought the museums were better than any other museums. The spy museum was very good because it was modern – it was mainly history but it had lots of interactive things – and had good English.
The gorilla was amazing.
The graffiti. It was completely new and completely awesome. I’m not the best artist, but this wasn’t art as we do it at school.
I really enjoyed the Carnival even though it was my worst bit too.
Harriet So many highlights this week. In Cologne, other than carnival, I will remember the gorilla for a very long time. I loved the buzz of the city with everyone dressed up. I am still so touched by the man who recognised us from the train and gave us extra flowers and sweets. I’m delighted that the graffiti was such a success as it was a bit of a leap into the unknown. It was lovely to meet up (via Twitter) with friends from our choir in London who we hadn’t realised are now living in Berlin.
More seriously I thought the Berlin Wall Museum/memorial and the whole area around it were brilliantly done. The plaques in the pavement where people escaped or were killed trying to were particularly moving.
Sophie Carnival, because we got a ton of sweets and I met Colin the leopard for the first time. I liked all the different costumes and all the people who made a complete fool of themselves. Everybody was really cheery and nice. They also tried to make the police officers really nice instead of scary.
The graffiti was really good fun. I didn’t expect it to be that good. I was expecting us to get more annoyed with each other.
Magnus Graffiti and carnival. Carnival because of the sweets and graffiti was just fun.
Ben I could have watched Kim the gorilla for ages, and the short time we spent doing just that was a real highlight.
I enjoyed almost everything we did in Berlin but standouts were the visit to the Reichstag and Bundestag; learning about the wall, particularly watching footage of its demise in the Wall Museum; watching our graffiti take shape, then spotting it from the flea-market a couple of hours later.
I enjoyed the fact that we were more relaxed as a family this week.
What was the weather like?
A bit rubbish, with occasional sun. Much as you would expect for a European February.
How plastic free were we?
Variable. We forgot to write about this last week, but Brussels was pretty good particularly as we found the packaging-free supermarket. Food has remained our most difficult plastic free area. We reuse as much as we can (wrapping sandwiches in bread bags etc), but most food seems to come pre-packed and much of it can’t be reused.
Cologne Carnival was probably pretty poor for waste. And smashing one of our big plastic tubs, which take our dry staple food, games etc, was a bit of a shame.
Generally we’ve been surprised by how comparatively well the UK seems to recycle compared with the countries we’ve been in. Coffee shops are consistently surprised by our reusable cups, and two of the places we’ve stayed have had no separate recycling bins. We’ve done our best but remain suspicious that quite a bit of our carefully sorted recycling has ended up in landfill.
What did we eat?
Aside from lots of sweets and the usual home made sandwiches, pastas and risottos, we had some good food too. Amazing chocolate treats at Rausch chocolate house, and surprisingly nice Currrywust.
We had our first ice creams of the trip. We had Berliners too. But not in Berlin. We drank Kölsch beer from Cologne in both Cologne and Berlin. Sadly we’re off tomorrow and haven’t had a doner kebab, though we still have enough sweet treats left from Carnival to frighten any passing (or reading) dentists.
Any bad bits? How was the fighting?
After the ructions of Brussels, this week was much more peaceful, and despite minor quibbles, we got along with each other much better.
Aurora The car journey was much better with phones. I didn’t want to climb the thing [the Dom] in Cologne, but mummy and daddy made me.
Lucy Carnival when I was soaking wet and frozen to the bone to the point of nearly crying. I think I’ve been more tired than usual, and have felt the overwhelmingness of the trip.
Sophie We fought a bit. I didn’t like the Carnival when people were getting really wet and whinging about it.
The gorilla was good but I was really scared because I thought the glass was going to break.
I didn’t like getting bothered with dramas at home. Obviously I do want to know what’s happened but I don’t want it to stop me from having fun, which it did.
Magnus I don’t like it when we fight and end up in really bad moods with each other. I didn’t like that you couldn’t touch the walls in the underground museum but it was quite cool when he shone the light and I made a mark on the wall with my shadow.
Harriet I am slightly ashamed by how much the dreadful wifi in this flat has affected all of us. I didn’t like being in single beds in Rommerskirchen. Not for any exciting reasons but I think that the ten minutes before we fall asleep is hugely important to Ben and me as a debrief and just as time together. I think we both really struggled without that.
Ben I had been really looking forward to the Opera, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to. My inability to take the right coat for the day (from a choice of two) has gone from occasional annoyance to face-palming habit this week. I agree about single beds – rubbish… The washing machine here has been useless too.
Any hints and tips?
Films in the car work – and no one was sick, although it helped that it was all motorway. And Friends was a hit with the girls. Apparently that’s the main topic of conversation at bedtime.
The Berlin pass was great value.
The first step into the (bit more) unknown. We are off to Poland tomorrow, starting in the far North West, the Oder Delta, for a “Safari”. Up until now we have been mostly in major European cities which have felt, in the the main, familiar and manageable. Poland, and rural Poland at that, is a step farther away. Although we have many lovely Polish friends (including some we’re very excited to be visiting later this week), only Ben has been here before and we speak absolutely none of the language.
We had read that Cologne Carnival was a Big Deal, and that people took its lack of seriousness very seriously. Certainly, when looking for accommodation in Cologne, as far back as September last year, it was in very short supply, and everything we could find was was very expensive. Harriet at one point thought she had found the perfect place, and as soon as she filled in the bit which asks you to say a little bit about the trip, saying we were on our way to Tokyo, and didn’t want to miss the Carnival, the family responded saying, “Sorry, it’s not available after all, we didn’t realise that was carnival weekend“.
(I do wonder about this bit of the AirBnB booking process. Does anyone actually say “It’s going to be me and nine mates on a stag weekend“, or “I’m pretending this is a business trip, but I’m actually meeting my lover from Budapest.” It is a bit like that part of the US Immigration forms where they ask you whether you participated in war crimes, or were a member of the Nazi party.)
In the end, we are staying in Rommerskirchen, a small town about 25 minutes on a direct train from Cologne.
This felt like the first step into properly unknown territory. This wasn’t just a museum or a pretty town, it was a big cultural event about which we knew precious little, though I do wonder whether we will feel the same after our first Boshkazi match, or yak herding), There is not a great deal of advice online about what it is like going, particularly with children.
Most of the advice we found, in English at least, seems to be written by twenty-something bloggers who have had an amazing time meeting locals and drinking copious amounts of Kolsch (the local beer) but who clearly have neither children nor hangovers. For us those days are past (and in the past they must remain) so the information they give wasn’t necessarily hugely helpful to us.
So we thought we’d write the post we wished we’d been able to read.
Should I take my children to Cologne Carnival?
Absolutely yes! It was completely brilliant and we all loved it. In fact the children are already planning a trip back next year.
It’s got massive parades, adults in loony fancy dress, marching bands, huge papier mâché (I think) effigies of world leaders we all recognised (and German ones we didn’t), an enormous sense of fun and friendliness and, most importantly for the children, free sweets and toys being thrown at them from almost every direction. (If nothing else, they’ll learn to catch pretty quickly).
How could a child not love it?!
When to go
Carnival in Cologne technically starts at 11.11 a.m. on 11 November (which feels a bit weird for a Brit) but the climax of Carnival happens in the week before Shrove Tuesday (Pancake day to my heathenous children). The first big event is Weiberfastnacht, the Women’s Carnival which takes place on the Thursday before. There are then events every day until the main parade day on Rosenmontag (Carnival Monday). The final day is the Tuesday, which is known as Veilchendienstag.
We were in Cologne only for the Sunday and Monday. On the Sunday schools and children’s groups normally parade through the city in the Schull-und-Veedelszöch. Sadly for us, Storm Yulia forced the cancellation of the parade at the very last minute. One or two hardy groups did come past us though and it was a useful dry run for the next day. Even that brief moment convinced our kids that this really was something they wanted to be part of.
The parade start time varies slightly between the days. The children’s parade on the Sunday starts at 11.11 although on the day we were there the (subsequently abandoned) start was brought forwards due to the weather. The Rosenmontag parade starts at 10.30 or so and takes (we think, as we didn’t see the whole thing) over two hours to pass each point. With each part takes over three hours to wend its way through the city, the whole thing goes on for something in the region of six hours.
So whenever you get there, there’s plenty of time to see it! We arrived in central Cologne at around 10ish each day. This did mean that there was some hanging around before the parade got to us, but it did mean we were able to stake out a prime spot.
Later on, and particularly near the centre, it was clear that some people had had more than the one Kolsch we allowed ourselves at lunch. While this was never scary, and police and medics were swiftly on hand where required, it was ,maybe less our thing than the more child-friendly atmosphere near the beginning of the route. We left the city at about 2pm having had enough – though the parade head was only just then nearing the end of the route – and we suspect that things probably got a bit more lively and exciting later on; maybe that’s one for the children at a slightly later stage in their lives. And probably not with their parents….
It also meant that long before things got a bit more lairy and drunken later on we had decided to call it a day and were heading away to count our haul.
Where to stay?
Cologne Carnival is, justly, hugely popular. Accommodation books up very quickly and you should expect to pay a premium. Alternatively, as we did, take advantage of the excellent public transport system and stay a little way out and come in each day. Either way don’t think about bringing a car into central Cologne.
Where to go?
The parade route forms a sort of T shape with the parade going back and forth along the top of the T a number of times. The main station and Cathedral are on the cross route and this is where the majority of revellers gather. We were advised to head away from this area and instead go South from the station along the upstand of the T. As you walk down you can’t miss the parade route as people start to stake out prime spots from early each morning.
This was excellent advice. On both days we attended we were right on the route, but without a massive press of people behind us. People were very relaxed and friendly and there were quite a few other families. Adults without kids were keen to let the children be at the front. They even handed over toys or sweets they thought the children would particularly like.
Later on we found ourselves up near the Cathedral and here it was a bit more of a crush. The crowd was six or seven deep, and were less keen to let the children through. The competition for sweets was greater too!
Who needs food when you’ve got sweets? Your children will get more sweets and chocolate than they have ever seen in their lives. So much so that they may a) not eat them and just settle for stuffing them in bags and b) turn round after a while and say “I’m hungry. Please can I have some actual food?” (I would be lying if I said that didnt make me quite happy).
What about food?
Unsurprisingly there is plenty of excellent, carb-heavy, street food to be had. Cologne also has many cafes and restaurants, however these may be very busy and you may have to queue for a while. We got very lucky when we ducked down a side street and happened upon a virtually empty and very good pizzeria. We needed somewhere to dry off, warm up, and get some proper calories and this was perfect.
Of course if the weather is dry, which sadly it wasn’t for us, sandwiches or similar would also be an excellent option.
What about loos?
Cologne Carnival is a massive event and there is clearly a huge behind the scenes effort with a team working, we suspect, all year round. We went back into Cologne the next day and there was barely a sign of any revelry: in less than 24 hours (much less given that the revelry probably went on into the wee smalls) the stands and barriers were down, the streets were clean of rubbish and virtually the only remaining sign was a slightly mournful “Welcome to Carnival”.
Whoever it is that organises all this, they sensibly put portaloos on pretty much every street corner. With over a million people on the streets, you may have to queue, but at least you can be sure your fellow queuers will be entertaining to look at.
What to bring?
Energy, good humour and lots, and lots of bags for your haul of sweeties.
What should we wear?
Fancy dress! You will honestly feel more out of place in jeans and a jumper than you will in a pig onesie, or dressed as Jack Sparrow, complete with dreads. One of the highlights of carnival for us was the sheer, brilliant incongruity of an entire city dressed up in ridiculous costumes.
That said, this is February in Northern Europe so bad weather is not unlikely. We were particularly unlucky with the weather and it was very cold and wet. Fortunately our Where’s Wally costumes fitted over many layers underneath. Gloves and hat may also be required.
What about babies and nappies?
We are long out of the nappies and pushchairs stage, but Cologne Carnival would be do-able with both. We certainly spotted a couple of in-pram nappy changes going on, and a highlight of the Sunday was a baby elephant being pushed around. There was a pair of twins in a double pushchair next to us on the Monday who seemed happier with the blueberries they had been given by their dad than with the sweets raining down on them from above.
Is it safe?
About a million people take part in Cologne Carnival. Some of them will get drunk, and some of them will try and pick your pocket.
We also live in a world where tragically any large gathering may be a target for those who wish to spread hate. This week in Germany, while we were having a wonderful, happy time in Cologne, a gunman murdered 10 in Hanau, and a carnival parade in Hesse was driven into injuring many. The parade in Cologne started with a memorial to those killed in Hanau and the German press has been full of the horrific act in Hesse. These things have shocked the nation.
But they could happen anywhere and I can honestly say that we never felt anything other than completely safe in Cologne. There was a very obvious and numerous police presence, but they were all smiling and wearing flowers on their uniforms and were happy to be approached for advice. (They all spoke excellent English). The other carnivallers were welcoming and very friendly. The absolute highlight for Harriet was when a man who had helped us with a train ticket machine on the Sunday recognised us in the crowd as he was marching in the parade on the Monday and came over and pressed flowers and chocolates into our hands. It was hugely touching and kind.
All those sweetie wrappers must have a horrible plastic footprint, although we did notice, what with all the rain, that quite a lot were wrapped in paper.
It is loud and it is busy, so if that’s not your thing, then this may not be for you.
What else can I do with my kids in Cologne?
Sadly we only had three days in the Cologne area, and two of those were taken up with Carnival. However we made the most of our final day with a visit to the Cathedral and a climb up its 533 steps.
We then walked across the Hohenzollern Bridge, adorned with tens of thousands of padlocks (after nearly 15 years of marriage we’re far too cynical for that nonsense), before spending a very happy afternoon at the excellent Cologne Zoo (The Guardian described it as a zoo for people who hate Zoos).
Sounds good! Where can I find more information?
We found the following websites in English useful:
It’s the end of week 2 and this still feels like a normal holiday. The vertigo only sets in when we realise we have 24 more to go… We’ve been in and around Brussels all week and tomorrow pack up again (actually we have done most of the packing already having learnt a lesson last week when trying to leave Amsterdam), and head off to Rommerskirchen, which is as near as we could get to Cologne during Carnival week.
Here’s how this week was….
Where were we? What did we do?
On our first day in Brussels we got in our car, ducked our heads (driving a 191cm car in and out of, not to mention round, a 190cm car park is a true adrenaline experience), and left. This is no reflection on Brussels. We had tickets booked for the Van Eyck 2020 exhibition in Ghent, which we had read about back in November (and had paid for there and then on the basis that it was “So unlikely to be repeated that the museum might as well use ‘now or never’” Wall Street Journal). Of course the children are great afficionadoes of early 15th century masterpieces so they were terribly excited about this too.
It was well done and very informative (possibly to an over-venerating fault: thanks audio guide), but the things we noticed were the details – the angels’ wings, the hairs on Adam’s legs – panels from the Ghent altarpiece (more to come on this) are in the exhibition, allowing a really privileged close-up view – and the portrait that looks very much like one of the children’s teachers…
We then wandered along the river to Ghent’s medieval heart. Storm Denis was still puffing and blowing but that wasn’t enough to put us (inspired by Aurora) off climbing the 91m of the Belfry for a very blustery but exhilarating view from the top.
We were keen, too, to see the Van Eyck, the world- famous and recently restoredCreepy Sheep (aka Mystic Lamb). This is in St Bavo’s Cathedral, which is rightly proud of it. Long queues inside the Cathedral leave you in no doubt which way to go, so we paid up, waited and – technical art critical terms coming up – it was rubbish.
Not the altarpiece itself, because we can’t tell you about that, because we effectively didn’t see it. Too many people not going anywhere meant even those of us who are more than 5’4″ gave up after about ten minutes of standing around. We got an impression of a very large altarpiece and a very small sheep, but that was about it. Time for a waffle.
About the third thing the children wrote on the Tweed to Tokyo whiteboard, which has been up in our kitchen since 2018, was “Chocolate”, so we knew some form of cocoa-based activity was non-negotiable. And where else to do that than Brussels?
A quick bit of internet research throws up many, many different chocolate tour options. So far, so easy. A little more research, however reveals prices generally at about €50 per person. Or €300 for all of us. Now I, (Harriet), like chocolate as much as (more than) the next person – separate theory, the world divides into those who would rather give up chocolate than alcohol and those who’d hang on to their last dairy milk while all the Dom Perignon gets flushed down the drain. I’m definitely in the latter camp (though am also partial to champagne, if anyone’s wondering) but even I draw the line at spending €300 on chocolate.
And the thing is, when you look at these tours, they’re mostly only walking and eating. These are two of our core skills. How hard could it be to do without help?
Not very, it turns out. Very loosely guided by this blog, we plotted out a circular route from our apartment to Grand Place and back and simply stopped in any chocolate shops that took our fancy along the way. One chocolate each, in each of six shops: Total cost €49 (including a couple of cuberdons we had failed to buy in Ghent).
It must be admitted though that the blood sugar high, and resulting low, were not something we had factored in. The children were possibly slightly less impressed by our final stop in Grand Place than we might have hoped….
Museum fatigue is, in our medical lexicon anyway, a real thing. We didn’t get the balance right in Brussels, and we will need to work on this, but we did visit the Musical Instrument Museum, the Magritte Museum, the Belgian Cartoon Museum, the Design Museum (it was free and we were there) and the Atomium (not actually a museum).
Aside: We need a new word. Museum provokes only groans among our travelling companions, yet it covers a multitude of experiences. What should we call it instead?
This felt (no, this is) important. The children wear poppies and participate in Remembrance events every year, and while in Belgium it seemed that we would be letting them down if we didn’t expose them to a little bit of “real” history.
Having met quite a bit of resistance (no pun intended) to museums in general in the preceding days we were, however, a bit nervous about this. A child who has a strop in a museum is just an unpleasant child; a child who has a strop in a World War One cemetery is being downright disrespectful. We didn’t want that child to be our child.
So we did some serious preparatory work: we sat them down and made them watch the last ever episode of Blackadder. This wasn’t our idea, but was shamelessly cribbed from an ex-history teacher of our acquaintance.
It was a good move. They laughed, a lot, (“wibble“), engaged with the characters and poetry (“Boom, boom, boom”) and afterwards, as I sat in a heap of snot and tears (the pathos is somehow worse if you know what’s coming), they were uncharacteristically silent.
And it gave us a real reference point. A trench stops being a long, thin, not-very-deep hole in the ground if you’ve seen a film of someone living in it. It’s much easier to imagine the mud (to be fair in February in Flanders not much imagination is required) if you’ve laughed at someone making coffee from it. You understand the utterly horrendous waste of life if you’ve heard Baldrick explain it, as only he can.
We planned quite carefully too. We were not going to overload them. One museum, one trench, two cemeteries. All in, or around Ieper (Ypres), about an hour and a half away.
The In Flanders Fields museum was excellent (less dull, said Sophie). Fully interactive, with lots of videos and lived testimony displayed in an engaging way. And a Belfry, for the exercise, the views of the Menin Gate, and to make Aurora and Sophie (and Ben) jump out of their skins when the bells suddenly rang above their heads.
The museum gave us more context before we visited the Menin Gate, where the names of 56,607 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known burial place are engraved. Then to the Yorkshire Trench. This is, literally, just a trench in an industrial park on the outskirts of Ypres. There’s no visitor centre or attempt at reconstruction. It just is what it is. It’s almost inconceivable to look around at the everyday 21st century mundanity of the surroundings and imagine what it must have been like a short century ago.
Then off through the flat, fertile fields, where none of the trees is over 100 years old, to Tyne Cot cemetery. We stopped in another small cemetery on the way, by request of the children. (Is it wrong to say we were delighted by that?) We looked at the ages of those who died: 19, 23, 27, 20, 22… , we wondered if any of them was from Kelso and we spotted, between two Brits, an unknown German. Perhaps he was called Falk.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Sophie: On the first day when we arrived I thought it was really busy, but it wasn’t actually. It is quite language-judgement-free which is nice. I knew the first world war was really serious but I didn’t realise how serious until we went there. I thought the houses in Brussels would be more modern, but they weren’t.
Ben: I was far more impressed with Brussels than I expected. I’d been here a couple of times on business some years ago, but it was much larger, more magisterial, than I remembered. It felt slightly shameful to be driving through in a British-registered vehicle, when our country has so pointlessly ejected itself from this place in particular.
Then it it felt quite scary driving a 1.91m car into the 1.90m car park. Harriet had done a phenomenal job booking our accommodation right in the centre of Brussels (about 200m from Grande Place) within budget and with parking. The parking was underground in the Place Monnaie parking, and I have only just learned to drive without ducking, while in the car park. It was rammed on a Saturday afternoon too. Definitely needed a beer after that…
The beers were, funnily enough, ubiquitous and very Belgian (yeasty and strong, in the main). I think I shall write a beery post a little later, after Cologne carnival has done its worst.
Lucy: I was surprised that we were staying so close to the centre. I thought it was a really nice city. I liked noticing the completely random people – like the man on the unicycle today. I think it was very multi-cultural.
Aurora: There are more people around during the night than the day. The manneken pis was everywhere even though it was just a weird fountain.
Harriet: Arguments aside I have loved being in Brussels. We have been right in the centre and I enjoyed the hustle of a big city. It feels very prosperous here, and I have enjoyed the multi-cultural, and multi-liguistic feel. I am both surprised and simultaneously not at how relieved I have felt to be on a country where I properly speak (one of) the language(s).
Magnus: There are lots of chocolate and waffle shops. Lots of Tintin, which is not bad because I like Tintin. There are lots of souvenirs with the statue of the boy weeing.
What were the highlights?
Lucy: I really enjoyed our first night meal. I enjoyed doing the touristy things like eating too much chocolate and waffles. The food generally. I enjoyed the Atomium today because it’s an amazing thing. I have enjoyed the funny museums we’ve been to. They’ve all been slightly weird: Magritte was obviously Magritte. The Design museum was a bit random but in a good way; I liked it. The cartoon museum – some of the cartoons they had there were, just, why? I really enjoyed trying new food, mainly the mussels.
Sophie: I liked the chocolate tour. I liked climbing the Belfries. I preferred the one in Ghent, because you could take really cool photos from there. I liked our meal out.
Harriet: I have loved waking up to the sound of bells from Brussels’ many churches – they sound so un-English (no peals here) but also very familiar and welcoming. Our day visiting the Battlefields will stay with me for a long time. The musical instrument museum, where they gave you a little audio machine that allowed you to hear the sound of all the individual instruments, made me very happy. There was an amazing wind instrument, from central Europe somewhere, that made quite the most beautiful noise I have heard in a long time. To my shame I have no idea what it was called.
Aurora: Waffles and our meal out. It was really nice. I liked taking photos with the graffiti.
Ben: Being right in the middle was great. Lots of food-related highlights, the fantastic musical instrument museum (an ondes-martenot up close, several lovely bassoons and dulcians, and a whole floor dedicated to traditional – non-western orchestral – musical instruments, yet again challenging me to look beyond western music – of any sort – as the “best”). The Van Eyck exhibition was brilliant. The In Flanders Fields Museum was pitched perfectly.
Magnus: Chocolate, tintin, waffles. The atomium, it’s massive and I like it.
What was the weather like?
As you’d expect for Februrary. Cold, wet, windy and sunny intermittently. Often all four.
Any bad bits? Did we fight?
This week being away from home definitely kicked in for Aurora and Sophie, both of whom had moments of really missing their friends, despite (it seems to their parents) being constantly (and often simultaneously) on the phone/facetime/WhatsApp/instagram/messenger to them. The sadness, for all that it was and is doubtless compounded by tiredness, hormones and any one of the other myriad reasons that can make an eleven-year-old teary, nonetheless real, and made us, as parents aware, once again, that this is an adventure they had no choice about….
Lucy: I didn’t enjoy it when Sophie and Aurora missed out. I know it was their choice to stay at home. I didn’t like it when one of us wouldn’t eat the food.
Aurora: Fighting. The weird sheep was weird and boring.
Sophie: Fighting. When we all got scratchy when we were bored. Exercise when we’ve just got up. I didn’t like missing out on the comic museum.
Ben: The Lamb of God in Ghent was a bunfight, this time not Campbell-related, however awesome it should have been.
Any hints and tips?
Magnus: Atomium. Maybe mini-Europe. We didn’t go because it was shut. Comic museum.
Lucy: if you see something in the street, a shop or a museum, just try it out. It might be rubbish, but it never really has been. Definitely do a self-guided chocolate tour.
Aurora: Have more waffles than we did: we were here for a week and we only had three.
Harriet: Don’t bother with the Mystic Lamb, but do visit Ghent. Children are surprisingly enthusiastic about anything with lots of steps and a view.
Sophie: Try the Gaufrerie waffle shop. Eat at Chez Leon. Self guided chocolate tour.
Ben: Get a listening thing in the Musical Instrument Museum. Budget a lot for waffles, and choose your waffle shop wisely.
We leave tomorrow for four days outside Cologne where they will be celebrating Carnival. We are told it will be quite an experience. We have our fancy dress ready.
We are the Campbells. On 9 February 2020 we left our house in Scotland (in a small town on the banks of the River Tweed) on our way overland to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently on lockdown in France, still hoping to reach Tokyo, though not for the Olympics. You can find out more about us by clicking here or on one of the links above.
Where we are
Where we’ve been
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