For those who don’t know us, we set off with four kids from Scotland in February with high hopes and meticulous plans. We were going overland to Tokyo to arrive in time for the Olympics.
Five weeks in, borders started to close and we made a dash for France, where we have been ever since.
Lockdown in France began to ease in mid-May and from 2 June we were allowed to test the travelling waters again. A week later we packed up and spent ten days staying in hotels and AirBnBs in the South of France. Next week we will pack up for good and slowly make our way across France to head back to the UK (where the Scottish school term will re-start, early, four days after we get back).
As borders start to open up and people start to wonder about travelling again, we thought it might help to share what we learned on that brief trip and what we will be remembering as we travel onwards:
1. Check the rules for your destination and stay up to date with them
Each country has its own Covid rules. These rules change quickly and sometimes without warning. Make sure you know what they are and get the information from official government sites rather than the media.
We thought long and hard about going to Spain next week. Harriet was keen to sneak in an extra country but Ben was worried. He had read in Le Monde (highly respected newspaper in France) that there were quarantine rules between France and Spain. We checked the French Foreign Ministry website. It wasn’t true.
For us, too, things are further complicated by the fact that we are British, living in France, and wanting to go to Spain. We therefore need to be sure what the rules are for Brits as well as the rules between France and Spain. They aren’t always the same. Different countries are treating different nationalities differently (Greece has just restricted entry for travellers from Britain – does that mean us? We don’t know…). It may also be relevant where else (if anywhere!) you have been in the last few weeks.
Check, check and check again!
In the event we aren’t going to Spain – partly because it will be too hot and partly because the rules for UK travellers coming in by land still aren’t, to our mind at least, clear – but it’s a good example of the need to check your sources and to make sure the information you’re relying on is true.
Once you are in a new country check the local rules again – Do you need masks? How many people are allowed in one place at once? What are the rules on social distancing? You will feel much happier on your travels if you know you’re not going to get pulled up for doing the wrong thing!
2. Check out the Covid policy before booking accommodation
In our normal life we manage a holiday cottage. It reopens next week and we have been bombarded with sometimes contradictory advice about how to make it safe for guests.
This has, though, given an insight into what to look for when booking accommodation. The key thing, to our mind, is to book somewhere that acknowledges Covid on its website. You can be sure then that they have at least thought about the issues. If you can, call up and ask. Facilities may be different: swimming pools may be closed, breakfast may no longer be served or there may be particular rules on the use of public spaces. Again it pays to research all this before booking.
As far as AirBnB is concerned it seems to us (and we have no proof that this is Covid- related but it may be) that more and more hosts are not providing sheets and towels. Check this! They are “essentials” in the list of amenities and it is not always made clear in the listing if they are not provided. We didn’t realise…
3. Check what’s open and book if you can
Many tourist sites, at least here in France, are now open, but do check before visiting. You may need to book in advance as numbers may be limited. You may well also need to bring a mask or make other preparations. At the extraordinary and highly recommended Grotte Chauvet 2 in the Ardèche we had to download their app to enable a non-guided, guided tour.
Equally some places may have different restrictions in place. During July and August for example only residents of Barcelona can get tickets for Gaudì’s Sagrada Familia.
The upside of this is that many normally very busy places are much more empty – all the Barcelonans will doubtless be delighted to have their cathedral to themselves. And for us tourists, this means that you really can get that photograph where it looks as though you are the only person there…
4. Carry a mask, use hand sanitiser and keep your distance
If you have a mask with you at all times you can use it if required. We have found that some places (restaurants, shops etc) require masks and others don’t. Many say they do, and then actually don’t when you are inside. You won’t necessarily know until you are there. Many restaurants in France require a mask if you are inside the building moving around. So you’re fine sitting on the outside terrace but if you don’t have a mask and you need to go inside for a wee you’re in trouble.
If you enter a building and they provide hand sanitiser at the entrance, use it. You don’t know what you’ve touched since you last washed your hands and it’s only polite to the other people there.
Find out what the social distancing rules are (of course you’ve done that already because you read tip 1) and stick to them. In fact be generous with them. Just because you feel safe around other people doesn’t mean those people feel safe around you. We met several people working in shops or restaurants who didn’t seem to be comfortable being there, but who had little or no choice. It is only respectful to try to put them at as much at ease as you can.
5. Remember opinions differ
There seem to be as many different opinions on Covid as there are people we’ve met. Some people will tell you it’s all been blown out of all proportion and some will say you are not being careful enough. One person we met in the South of France said she had given up swimming in the sea because it wasn’t safe with Covid. We never did work that one out.
If you want, and feel safe, to travel, and the advice in your country and the country you want to go to is that it is safe to do so, don’t let anyone else’s opinion stop you. Listen to them, take account of their concerns, make sure your behaviour doesn’t make them unsafe (or even feel unsafe) and then go and enjoy yourselves.
Back in the safety and familiarity of St Pierre de Chartreuse.
Where should we have been
This should have been the end of our third week in China. By now we would have visited Xian, Chengdu (where we would have seen pandas) and Lijiang. We would probably now have been in Guilin. We would also hopefully have been very familiar with the vagaries of Chinese trains. And very good at eating everything.
What did we actually do?
After our early morning start to see the sunrise a month or so ago, we thought we would go bigger and better for Midsummer. The Solstice was actually on Saturday but in Harriet’s head Midsummer’s Day is 21st June and in practice there was less than 4 seconds difference in day length between Saturday and Monday. Sunday was, however, forecast to be cloudy, so we nominated Monday for an early start. The intention was to see the sunrise from the top of Charmant Som (1,867m) at 5.29 am.
Alarms went off at 3.30 am and everyone headed into the car (wrapped up warm and armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and a box of biscuits) for the half-hour drive. The skies were perfect: cloudless and studded with stars.
As with many of our well-laid plans though, it didn’t go quite as intended. As we travelled up the road, the clouds came down to meet us. By the time we were getting out of the car we were in thick fog. We know the path well, so following it wasn’t hard, one step in front of the other. Up into the cloud, we went, the pools of light from our headtorches bouncing in front of us. We could hear the jangling of the cow bells but not locate them.
There was an unspoken hope that either the cloud would clear or we would come out above it, but it was not to be. The summit was wet and cold and the view non-existent. The hot chocolate was all the more welcome for it. Sunrise was also, we discovered, not until 5.49.
Having reached the top at about 5.10, we decided not to hang around for a sunrise we were unlikely to see, and as we descended, the skies lightening around us, the sun suddenly broke through.
It wasn’t the sunrise, as such, but it was pretty close and it was very beautiful.
On Thursday we had a better attempt at Charmant Som, climbing it in blinding sunshine before having the traditional slap-up meal at the Auberge du Charmant Som. In previous years we have felt that the walk earned us the meal. It must be a sign of how much fitter we are that we weren’t entirely convinced we deserved it this time.
Later that day, Louise, a local 13-year-old came round to do some language chat with Lucy. It turns out that she is the daughter of the owner of the Auberge where we had been that afternoon. They seemed to get on OK. Mostly in English though.
Harriet did her annual cartwheel. It was fun: she might have to do more.
This week’s runners up for beasties of the week were rather bigger than usual (and further away in one case)…
The actual beasties of the week were also pretty tame. Sheep are still pastured on the high alps here and they are still moved on foot from place to place along the paths and roads. Some had been moved into Debbie and Philippe’s field (not a high alpine meadow, but still) earlier in the week. On Sunday evening we got a call – they’re on the move.
They are accompanied by big dogs, that look beautiful but which, we are told, would attack anyone who came close (we didn’t try) and, rather less obviously logically, a donkey (with a bell) and a number of long-horned goats. The ewes are still lambing, on the hill and unattended, so there were a dozen or so day-old lambs among the flock. These had to be tracked down and lifted into a van as they aren’t strong enough yet for the walk. They, and their mothers, weren’t delighted to be separated. Harriet and Lucy, on the other hand, were very happy to take the opportunity for a cuddle.
We had another accidental walk on Sunday courtesy of the useless new walks book. What was supposed to be a beautiful hour’s stroll to a pass turned out to be a rather dull thirty minutes. So we kept going and were treated to spectacular meadows, flowers, woods and views.
The children weren’t hugely impressed by the additional three hours but were nonetheless very good about the abortive ice cream (the café was useless) on the way home.
Bored with waiting for our tadpoles to do anything interesting, we embarked on a rather speedier biology experiment and are growing cress.
This week’s wildflowers to excite Harriet were Great Yellow Gentians, the last of the Troll (Globe) flowers, Fragrant Orchids (disappointingly un-fragrant), and fabulous Martagon Lilies like something out of the 1001 nights.
We had a fruit of the week too: the wild alpine strawberries that are glowing like sweets in the hedgerows. They’re better than sweets though.
Harriet finally discovered why her feet have been getting so wet on our walks when Sophie pointed out the multiple holes in her six-year-old walking shoes. A trip to Brun Sports in the village sourced her a pair of lovely new ones in an entirely impractical shade of turquoise. Mme Brun also provided an explanation as to why Harriet has been slipling over a lot. The soles had worn entirely smooth…
We had a lovely meal, with ping pong, table football and the Minions movie, with Debbie and Philippe.
Top garden highlight this week were these ridiculously over-pimped (yet self-seeded) poppies.
Ben had a (sort of early birthday) treat on Tuesday, while Harriet and the children had a constructive day at home. Not just a real done-in-a-hairdressers haircut (though that did happen before breakfast), but a big-day-out-on-a-bike. Hiring a gravel bike from the local sports shop (no true road bikes available) he set out to explore some familiar and unfamiliar roads, including some of the areas we had walked on Sunday. 63km, 4 Cols, 1700 vertical metres and the bizarre Voie Sarde(a 17th century path, which enlarged a narrow gorge and greatly reduced the pain of crossing the hills between Dauphiné and Savoie) provided the scenery and adventure for a lovely (if extremely hot) first cycle of 2020. Empty roads, a lovely lunch and a cool off in the pool on a proud return made it all the better.
A warning light came on in the car as we were coming home on Thursday. Just oil needed, but irritating. We pulled in to the only garage in the area (they don’t sell fuel) intending just to see if they would sell us a bottle of oil. They get top marks for service – they came and checked it, did the statutory humming and hawing, decided it couldn’t hurt to put some in, did so, and charged us….nothing.
Inspired by the cave paintings we saw in the Ardèche (ish) we went hunter-gathering for our lunch on Wednesday. We took Magnus’ friend Sam with us too. About half an hour away you can catch (and despatch) your own trout before having it served to you, cleaned and grilled and with excellent chips. When you stop and think about it, it’s a rather odd thing to do – the trout are clearly farmed and then put in the ponds – but it was an idyllic setting, in the shade by the river, and five of us had never caught a fish before. Two of us still haven’t but the lunch was excellent.
On Friday – with the forecast for very hot weather – we went to one of our old stamping grounds: the Cirque de St Même. This is a natural wide and circular valley surrounded by towering cliffs. The Guiers Vif (the twin of “our” river, the Guiers Mort) flows out of a cave in the cliff, down a series of waterfalls and through the valley bottom. It was not, in the end, quite the endless sunshine we were promised: we left early afternoon with thunder echoing off the cliffs and came straight back into very heavy rain, but we still managed a good bit of guddling.
More guddling today when we decided to revisit the “fishes” walk along the old route de St Bruno towards the monastery. We had done this for the first time three weeks ago in very heavy rain with the river pounding its way through the gorge. Today was totally different. In glorious sunshine we paddled in water so clear it seemed impossible. It was bitingly cold but that didn’t stop all six of us getting our toes (and ankles, and knees…) wet.
And Ben and Harriet finally made it into the pool, to great joy and much shrieking from the rest of the family.
How was it?
Lucy: I loved the sheep, especially holding the baby lambs. I liked getting up in the morning and seeing the sunrise. It was really beautiful, I think even prettier than when we saw the sunrise the first time. Just as we were getting in the car to see the sunrise the stars were amazing too. There were so many of them and they were so pretty. I really liked the wild strawberries on our walk. There’s something so energising about that little morsel of sweetness when you put it in your mouth. I enjoyed Cirque de St Même. I always do. I thought the walk today and the guddling today was absolutely amazing. I loved it. I liked swimming as a family together.
Magnus: I liked the sheep, climbing Charmant Som in the sunrise and table football at Debbie and Philippe’s.
Sophie: I loved the sheep because when all the baby sheep were in the car the Mummy sheep would go “maaaaa” and all the baby sheep would go “maaaaa” together like a choir. I liked climbing Charmant Som both times and the sunrise was really pretty. I loved getting Kevin (the teddy Debbie and Philippe gave us). He is a marmot. I also liked playing ping pong and the meal at Debbie and Philippe’s. They are so nice. The fishing was good fun.
Ben: It has been a good week for walks, and I’ve enjoyed each of them in different ways. I am a big fan of walking in beech woods, and the Chartreuse is full of them, even though it often looks to be all fir.
I was relieved that the sun came out on our dawn walk. It had the makings of a TweedtoTokyo classic – looks like a brilliant plan, executed in detail, ruined by factors outside our control.
Getting a haircut has been a bit overdue, and a neater head of hair has been more of a pleasure than it should be.
My bike ride was glorious, and I had been eyeing that route for years, though some saddle adjustment is needed next time – I thought there was something under the carpet when I did morning 5BX sit ups the next day, but it was just a bruised bottom…
Aurora: Fishing, guddling, seeing the sheep, Debbie and Philippe are really nice – I love being with them, getting Kevin, omelettes, making a cake, cleaning the pool, ping pong.
Harriet: My favourite moment of this week was either cuddling the lamb – we had sheep when I was a child and it was amazing how familiar it felt – or sitting on a rock in the middle of the Guiers Mort this afternoon. The water was so extraordinarily clear and fresh and seemed both eternally unchanging, almost solid, and yet endlessly different and alive. Pictures don’t do it justice.
I loved our meals out too. We had a fabulous time with Debbie and Philippe, who seem to have featured large in this weeks post. They have become fabulous friends and we are very lucky to have met them and to have been made so welcome, not just by them, but by so many others in the village. I enjoyed the fishing too – although I wasn’t allowed actually to hold a rod. I am quite proud of how unsqueamish I was about the necessary nasty bits of fishing. (Apologies to any vegetarians). And Charmant Som is always a winner.
Our sunrise expedition was a great example of snatching a victory from an experience that got very, very, close to being an utter disaster.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A and moving rooms.
Sophie: I think I might have lost my Tiktok no bickering streak this morning. And my slight tan has turned into a bit of sunburn.
Ben: I was determined to be positive this morning, and smile, and sail through any complaints about needing to clean the house, but breakfast was a particular needle-fest and it took our walk and paddle up the gorge to settle things down.
I’m not looking forward to leaving here on a permanent basis. Having spent weeks and months (and some particularly bleak days) wanting to be in other places, there feels like so much more to do here before we go. I feel very at home here. I will miss it hugely.
Magnus: All the flies at Charmant Som
Lucy: It was a bit annoying having my period at Cirque de St Même.
Harriet: I’m not sure Magnus is having a great time at the moment. He seems very angry and frustrated and is very resistant to much of what we suggest, be that new foods or walks or even games. I suspect he, and we, will come out of it, but I am finding that hard and not always reacting very well.
As ever, the bickering has been getting to me too, for all that only one of the children has mentioned it this week.
I am disappointed not to be going to Spain. Ben was reluctant and I do understand why, but I just wanted to be in another country. That’s not a reason to take an unnecessary risk, and, as with the Gorge de l’Ardèche (where I was the reluctant one) we are taking the sensible path.
Separately, I feel (dull introspective thought here) that I spend too much time as an observer. I take most of the photos (although I realise I’m in three of the pictures we’ve posted this week) but that means that much of the time, I am not the one doing or living the experiences. It is interesting that my favourite experiences of the last few weeks have all been ones where, for various reasons, I have not been able to hide on the sidelines. Being me, I am beating myself up about this.
How are the tadpoles?
Unbelievably still here, and still tadpoles. We fear that the hot weather and resulting evaporation has made the water in some of the sections of the birdbath much less hospitable. This is a nice way of saying we think that quite a lot of them are dead. But they may, again, just be hiding. The ones in the increasingly murky, but cooler and shadier, sink, seem to be doing better.
What did we eat?
We enjoyed two lovely meals out (with apologies if that feels like gloating to anyone in the UK).
First, our self-caught fish and chips.
And then the always reliable deliciousness that is the Assiette Montagnard and Tarte aux Myrtilles at the Auberge du Charmant Som.
Back at home we were quite chuffed with our home made burger buns.
Lucy and Aurora went baking-tastic and made a fabulous Victoria sponge (which we failed to photograph) and some very large (and very tasty) biscuits.
Tomorrow sees the start of our last full week here, and there will be lots to do to make this happen. We have started booking our stays after Chartreuse, and we will be leaving this wonderful place on 10th July. Our route (North and West in France) is planned, with our departure slightly later than we had originally thought, as we decided not to include a trip to North Spain within our plans. The risks (having problems with getting back into France, Covid uncertainty, not speaking the language – and hence not being able to fix the car or be sure what the ever changing rules are) seemed to outweigh the positives (actually going to another country, being able to find accommodation in Barcelona, churros). We need to book more next week.
Ben has already started washing duvets and bedspreads, with other cleaning (windows, cupboards) planned. It is not all sunshine and mountain views…
There will also be two celebrations. It is Ben’s birthday on Thursday (how bizarre to have had all our TweedtoTokyo birthdays here instead of St Petersburg in April, Mongolia in May and China in July as we expected; when we arrived here we had hoped to be gone by Lucy’s birthday) and we are going to have evening leaving drinks next Saturday with many of the lovely people here who have helped us with so much, and made us feel so welcome.
There and back again: we started the week in Avignon and ended it back in the safety and familiarity of the Chartreuse. It wasn’t an epic trip across China, but we did see things that were even older than the terracotta warriors.
Where should we have been?
China. The original plan was that we would spend a month there, arriving in Beijing in early June and leaving by boat from Shanghai in early July. When we left the UK in February, we hadn’t finalised many more detailed plans than that – at six months distance we didn’t think it was necessary and with news of a strange flu-type disease in Wuhan province, we thought booking anything at that stage was silly. So all we can say is that we should have been in China, somewhere. It’s a big place.
Where were we really? What did we do?
After our tourist-heavy day in Avignon last Saturday (which culminated in Aurora finally being allowed to buy the shoes she’d wanted since before Christmas and hadn’t been allowed to have as they’d be no use on the trip), we headed away from this beautiful town on Sunday morning.
Unfortunately the handy park and ride bus doesn’t run on a Sunday so Ben and Sophie walked back across the Rhone to get the car, while Lucy and Harriet took a stroll up and behind the Palais des Papes to admire the bridge from above. It was much better (and cheaper) that way. And there was an entirely incongruous duck pond. Magnus and Aurora decided to stay in the flat and enjoy the wifi, which had been much missed in the Camargue.
From Avignon we headed North for a little less than an hour to Suze-la-Rousse. You won’t have heard of it (though it does have a very nice chateau) as its major attraction (for us at least) is that Harriet’s Uncle and Aunt live there. They had very kindly invited us for lunch – their first guests since deconfinement.
This was therefore a first glimpse for us of what it must be like for many of you reading this – we saw family but only from a safe two metre distance. It was lovely to see them and they treated us royally (including digging out books for Harriet and a huge amount of lego for Magnus, which we have borne off in triumph). They also gave us some great hints and tips for the Ardèche, where we headed next.
Vallon Pont d’Arc
We were staying just outside Vallon Pont d’Arc, in another lovely lucky AirBnB find, with our own pool and the best equipped kitchen we have seen so far. This was actually the second AirBnB we had booked in Vallon having discovered (after paying and too late to get a full refund) that the first place provided neither sheets nor towels. You live and learn.
Grotte Chauvet 2
We arrived on Sunday night and the plan was to canoe down the Ardèche Gorge on Monday morning, however when we rang to confirm our canoe booking we were told that it wouldn’t be possible as the storm we had experienced in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer had had a rather dramatic effect on the water level. The river was well above safe limits and there would be no canoeing on Monday, although it might be possible on Tuesday.
Left with a day to spent in the Ardèche, we had time for the obligatory supermarket shop (Lidl let us down by having no fresh milk at all – if we can’t cope with UHT, we should perhaps be counting our lucky stars we haven’t had to try yak) and a splash around in the pool in the morning.
We then headed with our sandwiches for a picnic lunch in the shade of the famous Pont d’Arc, a natural rock bridge over the Ardèche. Again, it was a treat to find it, if not abandoned, certainly much quieter than it would normally have been on a hot day in June.
After lunch, though, we headed off, at Harriet’s Aunt’s recommendation, to the Grotte Chauvet 2. This proved to be, for Harriet at least, the unexpected highlight of the entirety of the trip so far.
The Grotte Chauvet was discovered in 1995 and is one of the oldest known painted caves in the world. The paintings have been dated back 36,000 years and the cave was blocked off by a landslide some 21,000 years ago. It is extraordinary to think that humans knew about it and used it (though they didn’t live there) for 15,000 years – and that was still 12,000 years before the Great Pyramids was built.
The cave itself is, for obvious reasons, very off-limits to the public (Magnus was hugely impressed by pictures of the bullet proof door), but, some 5 km away, a complete 3D replica has been created, down to the bear footprints on the floor and the stalactites hanging from the roof.
It was, and is, utterly extraordinary. We were, once again, lucky to be here now: the site only reopened last week and so we were among very few visitors. Rather than being led around by a guide, they have created an app, so we used our own phones. There was only us and one other family in the cave system and we felt almost entirely alone. The paintings are indescribable, not because of what they portray: rhinos, bears, mammoths, deer, aurochs, horses and even an owl, but because of the power and vitality of these incredible images, which have endured across an almost incomprehensible span of time, yet were made by people who were, really, just like us.
The rest of the site is lovely too, with a small museum (interactive, and unusually, with everything working – though masks and gel were everywhere) and a paleolithic encampment, with a hugely knowledgeable (and English) curator, who explained to us (some more enthralled than others) who these people were, what they would have been like and eaten (Clue: not potatoes) and how they would have made lived.
It was a brilliant afternoon, topped off by another swim.
Canoeing the Ardèche Gorge (well, a bit of it, at least)
We had rung the canoe company (of which there are an almost untold number) in Vallon Pont d’Arc on Monday night and been told that the river was still not yet low enough to confirm whether it would be safe to attempt the descent on Tuesday morning. As instructed therefore we rang at 8 a.m. on Tuesday and were told that it was all systems go, if we could be there by 9. This was a bit of a panic as, having booked only two nights’ accommodation, we had to pack up and move out of our lovely modern house and across the road into the owner’s mum’s more 14th century gite (no food processor here).
We made it, ish, only to discover that in fact everything was very laid back, in a classically surfer-ish (canoeists seem to be rather the same) way. We hung around, while other groups came and went, for what felt like ages. Having become used to people being desperate for our business, it was rather odd to be somewhere where there were clearly plenty of clients. When we were finally at the front of the queue, we were rather crestfallen to be told that it really wasn’t advised for us, five of whom had never done the descent before, to attempt the full, 24 km version. The water level was within legal limits, but only by 5 cm. Ben was quite keen to go ahead regardless, but Harriet, with vivid memories of her father and a friend capsizing on the Tarn thirty years ago, was less keen.
Eventually we compromised on doing the shorter 8 km top section that day, with a view to doing the longer one the next if it went well.
It might perhaps suffice to say that we didn’t go back the next day.
The longer version is that the river was, as promised, very high and fast: there was no need to paddle at all on any of the non-rapid sections. This didn’t stop us trying to paddle and getting a little cross and shouty with each other as a result. There were also more people on the river than we have perhaps seen in one place since the beginning of March, so it wasn’t the relaxing, calm, merrily down the stream experience some of us had imagined. It would probably nonetheless have been more positive had the inevitable not happened to Harriet, Lucy and Aurora going over Charlemagne, the last and biggest rapid before the Pont d’Arc.
Clearly we were all fine, and we all did what we were told, and floated feet first out of the rapids. We also did exactly what we were told not to do and managed to rescue all the paddles (Aurora), five out of six flip flops (Lucy) and the boat (Harriet), before swimming hard under the famous arch (failing entirely to appreciate it in the process) and making for a beach, where we landed rather out of breath and (in Harriet’s case) very concerned to find out if her phone (and all the photographs) had survived the experience.
They had, but a small sense of humour failure nonetheless ensued. This was assuagued by some lunch and a swim back under the arch. We set off again, restored to ourselves, and thoroughly enjoyed being washed, effortlessly, down the last kilometre or so to our rendezvous. Nonetheless, five out of six of us decided that we weren’t keen to go back. Not for a couple of years anyway.
Instead we headed back to our little house and into Vallon Pont d’Arc for a little shopping (to replace the missing flip flop) and a well-earned pizza.
St Pierre de Chartreuse
We returned to St Pierre on Wednesday and have had a relatively quiet time since then.
The journey back was uneventful, although we enjoyed spotting the pink feathers of the tamarisk trees, endless lavender (Harriet did her press-ups), wheeling vultures, the thick scrubland of the Garrigues and even a flash of blue from a jay. As we headed back into Rhone Alpes proper, the lavender was replaced by orchards and wheat fields before we climbed the hills back into the Chartreuse, which was ominously grey and cloudy.
Nothing hugely exciting seems to have happened without us. The garden has survived our absence, but the peonies have been destroyed by the heavy rain that apparently persisted all week. The flowers of the week are therefore these roses. Everything else is mostly deadhead.
The beasties of the week were a very large llama which had got out of its field on our walk yesterday and decided that it was king of the path. We walked round its back end rather nervously (would it be better to be kicked or spat at?). We also enjoyed a very small flying thing that does, if you squint, sort of look as though it has “love hearts” on its wings.
Ben was delighted that his new cycling bib shorts have arrived (courtesy of a voucher that was a leaving present from work) and has booked a hire bike for Tuesday. He’s having a hair cut first just to make sure he’s super aerodynamic and to shave (no pun intended) off a crucial 75 grams or so.
We resumed our daily walks, at first just along the familiar routes we trod during lockdown, but today further afield, relying on a new book of walks we had treated ourselves to yesterday. It was not an unmitigated success. We suspect that the writer hadn’t actually been on the walk he was describing because rather a large number of the paths didn’t exist and the words didn’t match up with the map. Nonetheless we had a lovely stroll through head-high meadows and along another beautiful stream. We rewarded ourselves with an entirely unnecessary and very large ice cream afterwards.
We have put a large warning sticker on the book.
Also new this week were Sophie and Aurora’s Primary School Leavers Hoodies and P7 Kelso Cougars Rugby tops. The rugby tops in particular are a big deal – they won’t be able to play for Kelso again until they are adults as there is no girls team and mixed rugby has to come to an end once they leave primary school. They were hugely touched to have these posted to them.
Chartroussin wild flowers of the week were new to us (i.e. Harriet): the pinkest of pink musk mallow and the pincushion-like of the masterworts. Top of the wild plants of the week though were the alpine strawberries which are beginning to ripen along all the paths. They’re much better than Haribo for keeping a walk going…
What were the highlights?
Aurora: Getting my leavers’ hoodie, getting my Kelso Cougars new top, my Vans, kayaking, having pizza, the pool being clear, salmon wrapped in Parma ham (best thing ever), coming home to the rest of the teddies again and pizza all together.
Ben: The massive silver lining in the small cloud that was not being able to go kayaking down the Gorge on Monday was the Grotte Chauvet museum/reconstruction. Having the cave to ourselves (normally there are 28 in a group) was an unrepeatable treat.
I was struck by the realism in the artwork, but also their longevity despite their fragility. The oldest pictures were 36,000 years old, the most recent 21,000, just before the rock slide which blocked the entrance to the cave. That meant the oldest pictures had 15,000 years of human contact all of which they survived – it would have taken a day or two out of any of those 15,000 years to destroy or deface them, yet they are still there, still exquisite.
I loved our day canoeing, and would be delighted to go back and do more, even if it’s not this year. I think that days when I exercise are generally better days. The press up challenge Harriet and I have been doing to raise awareness of the RSABI has been fun, and I’m looking forward to cycling next week.
Magnus: I liked the canoes because it the water moved us really fast and it was nice. I like my new lego. My favourite bit is the Star Wars lego.
The pool in Vallon was awesome. It was so clear and nice and it wasn’t too cold or hot.
It’s good to be back here because there is actually a duvet in the cover.
Sophie: I really enjoyed the cave paintings and thought they were inspiring.I really enjoyed the pool being clear too and the pool in Vallon. Some of my favourite bits were listening to Percy Jackson with Lucy and Aurora, and Lucy telling us about Greek myths.
I also enjoyed getting my Edenside leavers jumper and rugby tour t-shirt.
Harriet: I was, however much of an unbelievable cliché it may seem, moved to tears by the paleolithic art. I don’t know whether it was the sheer minimalist beauty of the paintings, or their age, or the atmosphere of being almost alone, but I could have stayed looking at them for ever, and having to leave them made me weep.
I loved clambering around on the rocks bordering the Ardèche. The extraordinary colours of the water, the stone and the trees were a joy.
I enjoyed our walk today, through the alpine meadows, for all that the uselessness of the book was rather irritating.
Lucy: The cave paintings were amazing and really thought-provoking. I enjoyed being on the Ardèche beach especially the non-Newtonian fluid sand. Coming home was nice but I do want to go away too. I have also enjoyed listening to Percy Jackson with Sophie and Aurora.
I also really liked how clear the pool was in Vallon.
Any bad bits?
Magnus: I didn’t like the rapids because we got absolutely soaked through and it was so scary. I didn’t like the pizza in Vallon because I was grumpy and bored.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A to talk to and share the experience, Everyone being annoying.
Sophie: Bad bits were us fighting in general.
Lucy: Falling in the Ardèche and cleaning.
Harriet: I was really disappointed in myself that I did not enjoy the canoeing. It wasn’t the capsizing (although that didn’t help); I wasn’t enjoying it before that. It was too stressful and shouty with the children yelling at each other and the many other canoes. I really wanted it to be brilliant – this is something Ben has wanted to do with the children for years – and it wasn’t and that was, at least in part, my fault. People had all told me how fabulous it was and then it wasn’t. My sense of humour failure on the beach was at least in part because I felt I was letting everyone down by not enjoying it.
More generally we have definitely got out of the way of travelling: we lost more things (a watch, a pair of goggles, some shorts) in eight days than we did in five weeks at the beginning of the trip. Emotions run higher too while we are travelling and I had forgotten that. We have been bickery (particularly about who slept where and with whom – Ben and I don’t get involved in those ones) and scratchy at times in a way that I felt we had learned not to be over the course of lockdown. Change will do that, I know, but however explicable it wasn’t fun.
There are a lot more mosquitoes in the Ardèche than in the Camargue. Just saying.
Ben: There are days when small things – usually children bickering, getting something wrong, or a minor setback – can really take a toll in my happiness in a disproportionate way. Friday was one of those days when many a mickle made a muckle, though thankfully today (Saturday) is another day, on a more even keel.
Being back here has led to mixed emotions. I love the Chartreuse and lots that it offers, but waking up, groundhog day-style, back in the same bed again, not on an exotic Chinese adventure, provoked a somewhat world-weary sigh.
On a more prosaic note, I didn’t like the mosquitos in the Ardèche.
What did we eat?
Being back in AirBnB accommodation meant we could cook for ourselves again. This was mostly pasta but Ben made an excellent parma ham wrapped salmon that (much to Harriet’s surprise) everyone declared delicious.
Weve been baking again since coming “home”. One of our lovely readers (Angela) sent us a recipe for millionaires chocolate flapjacks which we happily sacrificed the last of the home made golden syrup for. It was well worth it.
What about the tadpoles? Did they miss us?
Not noticeably. They are still there but they still don’t have any legs. We are beginning to wonder if they’re doing it on purpose.
Much of the talk has been thinking about what we will do with our remaining time for TweedtoTokyo. This week we finally admitted that Tweed will not get to Tokyo this year, and cancelled our flight home and our Japanese accommodation. This had been looking likely for a while now, but now it is done we need to look at what the last seven weeks or so will look like.
We think the planning will take us about two weeks, and there are various things we need to do (planning, booking, packing, maintenance) and would like to do (Ben’s birthday in early July, some walks, some socialising, a little cycling) before we go. In the first weeks of pre-lockdown adventure, we achieved a lot in 5 weeks, so even if we wrap up the Chartreuse stay in 2 weeks, that gives us a lot of room to play with.
There are questions we have to resolve in the planning: should we take advantage of the opening of most Schengen borders and plot a route through Italy, Switzerland, Germany (or further afield)? Will we finally get to Slovenia for Bled cake? Should we head for somewhere beginning with T so we can rename ourselves TweedtoTrieste or TweedtoToledo?
The current front runner is probably to stay mainly in France and take a long route home, which might feel a little unadventurous, but still offers a lot of scope. The reasons against the exotic other (though we would have laughed at the idea of Germany being exotic five months ago) are both practical – in France we speak the language, we know how things work both generally and new regulations-wise, and there are many ways we can have fun – and a bit of once-bitten-twice-shy risk management – the potential of getting stuck somewhere and not being able to cross a border, potentially not even back to France, and this wonderful bolt-hole in case there is a second lockdown.
We think, and this is still very vague, we will head South and West, before turning North probably along the Atlantic coast. If the Zeebrugge/Hull or Amsterdam/Newcastle ferries are running, that will be our route back to the UK. Currently we think that only Calais/Dover is available, which with current quarantine regulations would require a Dominic Cummings-style 450 mile dash with no stops for fuel or a wee, before 14 days of supernoodles, clothes-washing and Netflix in isolation at home.
Early last Sunday we packed up again and headed for the main station in Ulaanbaatar for our last booked train. From here on in (weird mental leap here) we didn’t (in March) have much actually booked; plenty of plans and ideas but nothing concrete.
We arrived in Beijing on Monday afternoon and have spent the week exploring this amazing city. We left it briefly mid-week for a night. In a tent. On the Great Wall of China.
Where did we actually go? What did we do?
St Pierre de Chartreuse
Sunday was a day of torrential rain, but we needed to get out, so we put on lots of waterproofs and drove 5 miles or so down the gorge towards St Laurent du Pont and explored a path recommended by Fabienne, whom we met last week. This path was the original path used by the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery before the late 19th century road was built.
The way was marked by painted blue fishes, and the river was in full spate, which was glorious to behold, as was the beech forest. Ben could not believe he had never been there in the 30 years of coming to the Chartreuse.
Wet river walks aside, the top excitement at home prior to our departure was the arrival of the dishwasher repair man. Keen readers will remember that the dishwasher broke about three days into confinement and dishwasher repairs were not considered an essential service. It has taken this long since deconfinement a) for us to ring him and b) for him to come up the hill and see us. When he arrived Harriet had just taken a batch of biscuits out of the oven. He had a cup of coffee and several biscuits and… turned the dishwasher on. €48 for the privilege. Oh well.
If free French lessons and endless pots of delicious jam aren’t enough, our now-not-so-new friend Debbie went further to the top of Harriet’s list by (apparently) being genuinely astonished to discover that she (Harriet) was over 40. As Harriet is rapidly heading for 43 and a half and hasn’t worn make up in months this was A Good Thing.
Pont du Gard
Anyway, we left the Chartreuse on Monday morning intending to head straight for the Camargue, about four hours South.
The drive was easy and those of us that were looking out of the windows enjoyed watching the landscape change entirely: the beech and fir were replaced by the iconic cypresses, the roofs became flatter and the buildings more golden, Mont Ventoux loomed over the horizon and as if we needed any more Provençal clichés, there was lavender growing in the field next to where we had our picnic.
The plan to head directly South went awry though when Harriet spotted that our route took us within five miles of the iconic Pont du Gard.
Ben had first been here thirty years ago, when there were no railings and you could walk along the top (as parents we were very pleased that is no longer possible), and Harriet and Ben came 15 years later when there was major building work going on.
Now, though, there is a swanky visitors centre, with museum and cinema, and over 1.5 million people visit each year.
Except in 2020 of course. It was both extremely eerie and an extraordinary privilege to have the place almost entirely to ourselves. There were perhaps a hundred or so other people across the entire site. That elusive tourist photo that makes it look like you are the only person there was suddenly easy.
It is also possible to walk down to the river Gardon itself and paddle (or jump, or swim, although as we hadn’t come prepared we stuck to paddling). The water is absolutely clear and the little fish will come and give you a pedicure…
The Camargue is formed by the delta of the Rhone, which forks at Arles into two branches. The land is marshy and low-lying and famously home to wildlife found nowhere else in France: flamingos, Camarguais black bulls (no one ever mentions the cows) and white horses and infamously, hordes of particularly vicious mosquitoes.
The main town in the Camargue is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small seaside resort of the reassuringly unclassy variety. It is named after the four Saints Mary, two of whom you have never heard of (St Mary Salome and St Mary Jacob). According to legend these saints arrived in France by boat after the resurrection along with their maid Sara. Sara had dark skin and is, apparently just because of her skin colour (even writing this feels wrong now) the patron saint of gypsies. (That’s another word that feels wrong. The French use the word Tzigane which is traditionally translated as “gypsy“. We have done the same but if that is wrong we would love to be educated).
In any event there is a huge Spanish and Romani tradition in the town, with massive festivals twice a year, though not this year of course. The famous bulls are bred for the ring, but we were relieved to discover that in Course Camarguaises the point is to snatch a rosette from between the bull’s horns (or possibly shoulders) and not to kill it. The best bulls become local superstars.
Sadly of course the bullring is another casualty of Covid-19 but we were all agreed we would love to come back and see it.
We were staying, for the first time on this trip, in a hotel. We had wanted somewhere right by the sea in the hope that might lessen the threat from the mosquitoes. In any event AirBnB accommodation seemed thin on the ground. Whether that was Covid, short notice or just because there are so many of us we don’t know.
Staying in a hotel was a useful exercise as it reminded us why we don’t stay in hotels. They are too expensive (not to mention having to eat out for every meal) and we like having our own space.
But it was lovely being so close to the sea. We couldn’t see it, but we fell asleep to the sound of the seagulls (ish, they were very noisy and there was a whiny mosquito too) and woke to the waves on the sand.
If we are honest, we suspect that the beach was the highlight of the Camargue for the children. A sandy, gently shelving strand with regular breakwaters and not a sunlounger in sight. We treated Magnus to a bucket and spade and he was as happy as one of the local clams digging endless holes, making castles and burying anyone who sat still long enough.
The girls, on the other hand, turned into water babies. It may have been the Mediterranean but the water temperature was still only about 15 degrees. Nonetheless they were in it like fish, swimming, jumping and generally enjoying their new and much-longed-for bikinis. As parents the (2 and a half year) age gap between Magnus and Aurora and Sophie has never seemed wider.
Having said that, on the beach, all four of them seemed closer than ever. The girls were brilliant with Magnus, keeping an eye on him in the water and actively wanting him with them. This isn’t normally the case and it was lovely to see.
On our second day we dragged them away from the beach and onto a boat for a tour along the coast and up the Petit Rhone. This was billed as a chance to see some of the wildlife up close. Although it was slightly disappointing on that front, sitting watching the world (and the many herons – which possibly would have been more exciting had we not been so used to them at home) go by was a very happy use of ninety minutes.
We got much more up close and personal with the birdlife at the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau. Harriet had been longing to see flamingos and this more than fulfilled her wishes. As a protected wetland area it is home to many more species than just the pink leggy ones and we also spotted more herons, storks, avocets, oyster catchers, black kites, endless swifts and swallows and many more including a coypu, a large aquatic rodent rather like a giant swimming guinea pig.
We also enjoyed some proper frivolous shopping for the first time this year (all our Christmas presents last year were very trip-ly practical (when will we ever get to use our filtering water bottles?)). As well as the bikinis, Aurora and Sophie got new matchy-not-quite-matchy skirts and Ben treated himself to the first collar he’s worn since leaving Britain. Magnus was hugely tolerant of a morning spent waiting outside changing rooms and was rewarded with a slushie and a bucket and spade.
On Thursday we headed away from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towards Aigues-Mortes. This medieval walled city was once on the coast and was the port of embarcation for Louis IX when he set out on crusade. Now however it is some five miles inland and is surrounded by salt flats. Baleine sea salt, the one with the whale, is extracted here (and probably other places too).
It isn’t the salt itself though that makes this area spectacular. That credit goes to a little algae called dunaliella salina which lives in the highly concentrated salty water. In Summer it blooms, turning the water in the salt pans a spectacular bruised raspberry pink.
The town of Aigues-Mortes itself rises out of the salt flats like a Disneyfied dream. It’s lovely inside too, all little boutiquey shops and houses with hollyhocks outside and stephanotis climbing the walls. It’s also (who knows why) stuffed with sweet shops. It felt a bit twee and clichéd in some ways but it was lovely for a wander and lunch. There’s really not much wrong with a big salad in a plane tree-shaded square after all… and in case it all felt too predictable it also had an All Blacks Rugby shop. Who knows why?
The Campbell girls had hoped to ride the famous white horses too. This would have been Harriet’s first time on a horse in thirty years and Aurora and Sophie’s first time ever. Sadly though the arrival of 40 mile an hour winds meant it had to be cancelled.
We left the Camargue on Friday morning. Our next “big” plan is to canoe down the Ardèche gorge but Ben was keen we should avoid the weekend for this if possible. This forces us into a few extra days in Provence. A bit of spontaneous AirBnB-ing saw us booked into a very glamorous and surprisingly reasonable place in the centre of Avignon. The high winds drove us inland early in the day, and we headed for Arles, based solely on the fact that it gets a specific mention in our road atlas and Nîmes doesn’t. This turned out to be a good thing as there was a serious police incident in Central Nîmes yesterday and we are very pleased to have been well away from that.
Arles was lovely for a wander and we enjoyed the Roman Arènes, which is now used for bullfighting of both the Camarguais and Spanish varieties. We also wandered through the Roman baths and the Theatre. Once again we had these almost entirely to ourselves.
We accidentally followed in the feet of Van Gogh when we found ourselves lunching feet from where he painted his Café, le soir. Lucy recognised it, which we were most impressed by. (Though it may help that it is yellow).
We arrived in Avignon yesterday afternoon, after a traumatic (for Aurora and Sophie) bus ride from the park and ride (“But everyone will be looking at us with our rucksacks” (They weren’t, and the bus was virtually empty anyway)). The apartment is stunning and extraordinarily central. We can see the Palais des Papes as we clean our teeth.
This morning we visited both the Palais, and the famous Pont d’Avignon (where we didn’t dance but Harriet did do 25 press-ups, much to the bemusement of the only other people on it at the time).
Once again, both were virtually empty and it was an extraordinary experience to have these normally thronged and world-famous places to ourselves.
What were our impressions? What surprised us?
Sophie: Wearing a mask is horrible. It’s difficult to breathe.
Harriet: The overturning postcard stand surprised us all. Chasing beautiful postcards down a narrow street in blazing sunshine felt a bit like being in a film.
I absolutely loved the Camargue. I loved the sea, the wind, the huge skies, the endless flatness (and yes, I am from East Anglia). I loved the brightness and clarity of the light and the colours. The paddy fields the most acidic green, the sea in the harbour turquoise, the salt lakes and flamingos pink, pink, pink. I found myself noticing the birds and plants more – the oleander trees, the vines, the endlessly wheeling swifts and swallows.
I was very pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t bitten at all. I am to mosquitoes as marshmallows are to my children, and everyone we had mentioned the Camargue to had said “ohh, mosquitoes“. I slathered on repellent several times a day and it worked. Maybe forewarned really is forearmed.
Aurora: Sandy, loads of shops open and masks everywhere.
Lucy: I felt St M de la M was very Spanish which was odd because we are in France. I liked all the walled cities and roman culture though I wish there were more roman mythology things. I thought the Camargue was very pretty and I like the southern france architecture. The Camargue was very pink! – pink water, pink birds and even pink high-viz!!
Ben: Travelling again has been a massive change, and I’ve been surprised how much of a mental leap it has taken to get into the cadence of it. Spending lots of money (after all these relatively frugal lockdown weeks), no washing machine, eating out, even filling the car with fuel have all been novel and a little jarring at times.
The museums, sites, shops, beaches, and all the public places were a worry – how would people act or react – but they have felt very normal, if almost empty apart from the shops, with fairly cursory attempts at post-Covid regulations.
In terms of places and sites I have enjoyed the cities – Aigues-Mortes, Arles, Avignon – and their histories. The ipad guide thing in the Palais des Papes eventually won me over, but the interminable audio guide to the half bridge that is the vastly over-egged Pont d’Avignon was daft.
Magnus (in five words): Watery, sandy, busy [in Avignon, apparently] salty (because of the massive salt mountains), pink.
What were the highlights?
Sophie : The best bits were shopping and getting my bikini and skirt. I also enjoyed having meals out.
I also liked how there were lots of sweet shops in Aigues-Mortes. I adored being by the beach.
Aurora: My bikini, the sea, staying in a hotel, seeing flamingos, window shopping.
Ben: Sitting in the sun as almost the only passagers on a tourist boat up the Petit Rhône was lovely, as was watching the children be children on the beach.
Saying goodbye to all those mountains and hills has been good for my running – I achieved my fastest 10k ever in the Camargue this week, helped by being at sea level and being entirely flat (total elevation gain of 2m). I’ve realised that I need little goals to keep going with getting fitter, and looking for great backdrops for our RSABI 25 pressups challenge has been fun. So far we have had the Pont du Gard, the beach, a boat, the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon, much to the bemusement of various onlookers.
Meals out have been a treat, both with the children (now that they will eat more than just bolognaise and pizza) and without (happy anniversary to us), and being able to go to any restaurant and immediately commandeer a table for six has been a never-experienced luxury.
Magnus: Flamingos, digging in the warm sand on the beach, and jumping in the waves, though I was quite nervous sometimes, was good fun.
Lucy: I LOVE the beach and being in the sea. I have also enjoyed pottering round and going into shops. I was pleased with my Van Gogh knowledge (I spotted the cafe) and I really liked the salt flats. This seems short but I can’t really describe the good bits because I loved all of it. And flamingos.
Harriet: Apart from the Camargue itself? I have really enjoyed the Provençale architecture and narrow streets. It was lovely having a meal with just Ben for our anniversary on Thursday. Weirdly I have rather enjoyed the press-up challenge. I enjoyed the utter pointlessness of the three-minute ferry across the Petit Rhone on the way to Aigues-Mortes (you can go the other way round on the road and it’s exactly the same distance). Every single flamingo was a thrill, whether in the bird sanctuary or just viewed from afar. I loved watching the children looking out for each other on the beach.
It has just been lovely being on the move again.
Any bad bits?
Harriet: I was surprised by how disappointed I was that our horse riding was cancelled. It sounded so wonderful – splashing through the marsh with the wildlife all around. I hadn’t been that keen (hence leaving it to the last minute) but I wish we’d done it earlier.
I’d forgotten how expensive travelling is. Admittedly this trip was even more expensive because we were in a (very basic) hotel, but eating out, activities, shopping (forgotten about that!) all adds up very quickly. After 13 weeks where our only expenditure has been the boulangerie and a weekly trip to Intermarché the bleed of money out of our account has come as a shock. Even though that’s exactly what the money was there for.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A, not horse riding, not having all the teddies we brought and Magnus being annoying.
Lucy: It was raining today and I was wearing flip flops and looking like a baby giraffe on the (very slippy) streets of Avignon and I found it a bit boring waiting for Sophie and Aurora to try on every bikini in the shops.
Magnus: I got tired on the Pont d’Avignon and had sore feet because of blisters from my flip flops. Sharing a room with mummy and daddy was annoying, and there was sand in my bed and it was too bright and there was no duvet in the duvet cover. It was so boring going shopping for bikinis with the girls, but in the end it was finally OK, because they got bikinis, even though there were 26 million in the shops, and I did get a bucket and spade and a slushie.
Ben: The Pont Bénézet (the famous one in Avignon) is massively over-hyped. It is half a vaguely interesting bridge.
Although I love seeing my happy family being happy on the beach and in the sea, I’m not personally a beach person – too sandy, hot, windy, wet, salty, suncreamy. I’ll stop whinging now – it has been a great week.
Sophie: Something that I would change if I could would be Magnus having a single bed not double to himself, so Lucy’s sleeping on the floor, in the house we’re in right now. [Editor’s note: This is Lucy’s choice]
What about Covid?
Part of the point of this little holiday-from-our-holiday was to see how travelling in a Covid-19 world is. The honest answer is: Variable. All the tourist sites we have visited have been oddly empty. On the one hand this is lovely – we really can get the perfect camera angle any time we want – but on the other they can feel very sterile and unreal without the buzz of others around.
We were worried too that we might not feel welcome: that we might be viewed with fear or distrust, as outsiders and potential carriers of the disease. This has not at all been the case. Perhaps not surprisingly, half-empty restaurants or quiet shops are desperate for our business. Hand gel is everywhere but the requirement to wear masks (which is obligatory in public transport but up to individual shops) seems to be getting less and less and we certainly see very few on the streets. The only tourist site where mask wearing was strictly enforced was the Palais de Papes.
Covid remains a hot topic of conversation and attitudes to it seem to vary enormously. Most people seem to display a sort of resigned optimism: all they can do is carry on and hope things improve, but we have also had conversations with people who don’t believe it was as bad as they said, people who think we should still all be in lockdown, and one woman who said she’s given up swimming in the sea because of it. We never got to the bottom of that particular piece of logic.
What did we eat?
Although Harriet’s elderflower smelt amazing while infusing, once completed it was rather insipid and disappointing. A new recipe and the all-important citric acid are in the post from Essex. Now we’ve just got to hope that the elderflowers aren’t all over by the time we get back.
Being in a hotel meant lots of meals out. (Restaurants here were allowed to reopen last week). Having not eaten out since Vienna (treating Granny) and only once or twice on the trip prior to that (for budgetary reasons), this was a bit of a shock.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer isn’t a particularly gastronomic destination but Ben and Harriet had a lovely meal out on their anniversary and prior to that we all enjoyed a variety of foods including octopus, Camarguais beefburgers, tellines (which may or may not be clams but were totally delicious either way) and a lot of pizza and ice cream.
The local treat is Fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes, a sort of sweet focaccia-type bread with orange flower water. It is supposed to be eaten as part of the treize desserts (yes, that is what it sounds like and yes, it is a thing) on Christmas Eve but, as with mini eggs and hot cross buns is now available all year round (bah humbug). We failed to find an open boulangerie in Aigues-Mortes but one in Saintes-Maries did us proud. After all that effort, it was, in the words of Magnus: “a bit like soap“.
Lucy asked, mid-week, why there aren’t any blue foods. She was proved wrong at a restaurant in Arles.
Continuing our tradition of eating as many baked goods as we can, in Avignon we tried pompe d’huile from Bella Ciao, a self-proclaimed boulangerie d’utopie. It was pretty good but honestly in utopia we’d hope for something with chocolate in.
What about the tadpoles?
Who knows? Fortunately for them it’s been raining all week in the Chartreuse so they won’t have got dehydrated.
But keen tadpole-watchers will just have to come back next week to find out how they have coped without us.
Tomorrow we leave Avignon and head back north, stopping on the way with Harriet’s uncle and aunt. We plan to canoe down the Ardèche gorge on Monday and will probably head back to the Chartreuse after that.
More long term though this dip of our travelling toes in the water has made us realise that travel is possible. At present we can’t leave France (they wouldn’t let us back in) but that may change in the next week or so. The plan is to see what happens when Macron addresses the nation (again) on Sunday and make our decisions after that.
The big picture though is that we will be on the road again soon (hopefully). It won’t be where and how we planned but it will be an adventure.
For the fifth week in a row we remain in exactly the same place. Tomorrow we will have been here for the same amount of time as we were previously travelling.
Where should we have been?
When you left us last week we should have been staying in Oslo with friends. Aurora in particular was totally delighted to be with her BFF. We celebrated Easter with them, before heading off on two trains and a rail replacement bus service (have to admit to not being entirely devasted to miss that one) from Oslo to Stockholm.
Then two days in Stockholm, staying in a hostel which would have been a new experience on this trip (and a new experience full stop for four of us). On Wednesday night we got another overnight ferry to Turku, which is on the West Coast of Finland (as recommended by Harriet’s brother). An afternoon in beautiful Turku (where the weather was stunning) and then a bus to Helsinki.
On Friday we got a train to St Petersburg, where we are until Lucy’s birthday on Tuesday.
What was new and exciting this week?
None of the above, clearly: no trains, no boats, no galleries, no friends.
But we have not done nothing:
The Easter bunny came, leaving little offerings all round the garden. We have, now, just about finished all of them, although an excess of yeast (sounds unpleasant) means that we may accidentally have to make some more not cross buns later this week or next.
We received lovely letters from friends. And some parcels to be opened by Lucy next week.
Sophie and Aurora dyed their hair magenta.
After a request for “no more circuits” we tried Joe Wicks’ PE lesson. It was universally agreed that it was harder and he was more annoying than circuits. We will be going back to circuits.
The flag irises are out in the garden and looking stunning.
Our walks continue to provide exercise, distraction and endless beauty. Top interesting moment this week: half a snake.
Magnus’ godfather organised an online quiz with his kids. The Campbells sadly failed to claim the coveted Loo Roll Trophy but a great time (and a lot of shouting) was had by all, even if Magnus disputed a key answer on the Superhero round….
Sophie and Lucy each had a day “in charge”. Lucy gave everyone a notional £500 to buy presents for everyone else (more generous than her parents) and we enjoyed seeing what we were “bought”. Ben is going to be playing a lot of lego.
We earned our keep by doing lots, and lots, of gardening. Some of us are more enthusiastic than others.
When we made our epic dash here from Vienna we had the idea that the children would use this time to learn French. Of course what we failed to realise is that as the children aren’t allowed to talk to anyone other than us, they’re not exactly getting much exposure to French. They’ve been rather unimpressed by our brief moments of speaking only French (although given that French is what we use when we don’t want them to understand, there could be benefits or other consequences to this, which they don’t seem to have worked out). This week we tried a new tactic and Ben has now labelled all the important things in the house….
Magnus has started reading a story to his cousin by video.
We started gathering and painting stones to put in one of the newly cleared flower beds (as approved by our landlords!)
The Trivial Pursuit score is currently 5:2 to Harriet. She is not smug about this at all. Ben is not at all peeved about it either.
Ben decided enough hair was enough and got his father’s ancient set of clippers out.
Aurora has done a deal: if she doesn’t bicker with her siblings for two weeks she can download tiktok. This is day 2 (and day one went through on a whisper and a prayer).
How was it?
Lucy: Easter. Because Easter. It’s got chocolate. Stone painting. I felt it was really nice, especially when we were doing it all together. I enjoyed my day in charge and I think everyone else did too. I tried to make sure that everyone had something that they would enjoy. The weather has been lovely.
Sophie: I liked Easter. We got chocolate. I liked painting rocks. I also liked getting letters from and writing to Jo and Harry. I like my hair. I didn’t like the dying process because Mummy pulled my hair and my head went slightly pink but I love it now. I love Daddy being a dog.
Ben: The weather has continued to be lovely, as have the food, the drink and the panorama. I’m thoroughly enjoying my current book (Lotharingia, by Simon Winder), though I should have probably read it during our time in the Netherlands, Belgium or western Germany, given that’s what it is about. None of us is ill, which is certainly to be welcomed, and Isère remains relatively lightly affected by COVID-19.
I was pleased to be able to complete my target 10km within the legally prescribed hour-limit on Monday morning, scraping home by the skin of my teeth with 18 seconds to spare. I might have to try to improve. I’m still enjoying getting fitter and stronger and losing weight, despite eating lots (and Easter).
Magnus: I liked Easter. Definitely. Because we eat chocolate and chocolate is yummy. I liked the brightly coloured lizard we saw. I enjoy reading to Amos because it is Bad Dad which is a good book about cars.I like painting rocks. My new t-shirt is awesome.
Aurora: When Daddy ate all my chocolate. It was really funny. I gave him a tiny bit and he just took the rest of my bunny. It was so funny. I liked dying my hair. I liked Easter because we had loads of food. Simon’s quiz was fun and it was good to talk to Isabel and Olivia.
Harriet: Pollyanna alert: the extra four weeks of lockdown gives us a better chance of seeing our tadpoles fully mature (this was a small but real concern). In a similar making-the-most-of-it-vein, not being able to sleep one night meant I saw the mountain at its most spectacular. The weather has continued to be glorious. This would be so much worse if it was pouring every day. I really enjoyed painting stones. I am definitely fitter than I was (not difficult, really.)
Sophie: Not having any ankle socks that aren’t in the wash. The French labels are fine but it’s a bit annoying because everywhere you look there’s one and I don’t like it.
Lucy: The glitchiness of WordPress is really annoying.
Ben: Confirmation that we will be here for at least another 4 weeks took a while to sink in, despite not being unexpected, but has not been pleasant. I don’t expect that I’m alone in feeling a bit trapped and uncomfortable, as the worldwide lockdowns continue, but I have found myself being a bit petulant and grumpy. I think that has contributed to poor reactions on my part to some niggly situations.
I have been excessively checking the post for a pair of t-shirts I ordered over 2 weeks ago, and reacting with slightly shameful jealousy when packages arrive for others, especially when Magnus’s t-shirt (which I ordered after mine) arrived. [But thank you to all of you for letters – they bring joy to us all.]
I cooked a tartiflette this week, which I normally love, but I didn’t boil the potatoes for long enough, so it was a bit rubbish, and given the reaction it got, we probably won’t have it again. Grrr.
There’s something too about having achieved various lockdown goals I’ve set myself – whether it’s the running thing, or getting to the top league on Duolingo (a language app) – and being a bit “prowly” looking for something else to fill the days, and trying not to think about the missed / postponed / longed-for / receding possibility of the countries we had planned to visit. That jellybaby jigsaw is keeping me occupied in fits and starts, but let’s face it, jigsaws are just jigsaws.
I might well bite off more than I can chew and attempt to renovate the heavy wooden front door next week. That should shut me up.
Aurora: I am still missing Duplo. I didn’t like Joe Wicks it was really boring and hard. Some of my friends at home are annoying me and so is Magnus. My knee hurts.
Magnus: I have no idea. Fighting, but I don’t want to say that because I say fighting every week. I don’t have anything else bad to say.
Harriet: I found Macron’s announcement of a further one month extension to our lockdown (which, if anyone is comparing, will mean that France has been locked down for 8 weeks as against the UK’s 6) very difficult to take. I know it is the right thing, but on a personal level it makes the hope of our travels continuing recede ever further. This is not something we can easily postpone until next year (for all that we could then go to the Olympics) – there were years of planning and saving and negotiating with employers to get to this point. We can hardly take the children out of school again. This was a once in a lifetime event and it has been, at best, changed beyond recongntion. There is a part of me that is very angry about that.
Even the things that some people are enjoying about lockdown aren’t necessarily “good things” to us: My brother-in-law said to us that he is quite enjoying not having to get on a commuter train or travel for work and instead having time to spend with his family; many of the children’s friends are loving not having to go to school. We can of course see that these are good things and at home we would be enjoying them too. Indeed we are enjoying them here, but we had set aside this six month period to do exactly that. So while it is a good thing, for us it is not a consolation for the dreams we have lost.
Generally my emotions are very variable. Mostly (my family may disagree) my rational, sensible side is to the fore and I know, and believe, how fortunate we are. Sometimes, particularly if the children are fighting or being difficult (unhappy, recalcitrant, argumentative unenthusiastic, sullen, phone-obsessed, delete as applicable) I sink into what can feel very much like despair. It passes, as these things do, but it’s not much fun for any of us.
The passing overhead of military aircraft which we believe are transporting the ill to Grenoble and other nearby hospitals (Isère has a comparatively low infection rate), was a timely reminder of how lucky we are.
How are the tadpoles?
Our frogs-to-be are continuing to thrive, although oddly one of the groups of bird bath residents seems to be fewer in number. We can’t work out if they’re just shy and hiding at the bottom or if something is eating them (possibly at night), or even, horrors, if they’re eating each other. There’s no sign of bodies so they may just be hiding.
They certainly don’t seem traumatised. Their eyes are visible and they are becoming more froggy in shape. In the sunlight they are flecked golden and shimmer. They seem to enjoy turning upside down at the surface and their mouths open and shut, presumably as they eat microscopic things off the surface of the water. They remind me of lambs as they butt up to the side of the pond to feed and wiggle their tails.They are (proud mother – honestly, it’s like having another baby) visibly pooing.
Any new foods? Plastic update?
A lot of Easter chocolate, of varying quality, a mediocre tartiflette, some good vegetable curries, excellent cheese (a Tomette de brebis was/is a winner), saucissons from the still-open local Sunday market, and plenty of beans. The live yeast naan breads that we are having this evening are exploding as I type.
La Crystal IPA from the Brasserie de Mont Blanc is going down well, better than the tizer-like Aperol mix I thought might work well. Lots of tea.
Squadrons of fruit pots and yoghurts as well as plastic bottles of milk is not helping the eco-friendliness situation, but it remains much as previous weeks.
The French lockdown has been exended for another four weeks (from last Monday) so we will be here until 11 May at the earliest. What happens then will depend on what is then allowed in France and all the other countries we still hope to travel to.
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.
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…
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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