Heat Wave!

As we were approaching our departure date from Portugal we were looking ahead to our next stop on the schedule; Marrakech, Morocco.  We thought the temperatures in Southern Europe were high, the forecast for Marrakech made the hollows of hell look down right chilly.  After our brush with heat stroke in Seville at just over 40 Celsius, the temperatures in Marrakech were expected to be at least 47 Celsius.  Clearly that would be extraordinarily unpleasant for more than just me in my personal menopausal heatwave, but for the rest of the family too.  The thought of trying to do anything in those high temperatures seemed impossible so we made the decision to re-route ourselves.

This is when it got a little tricky.  Our Schengen Tourist Visas were set to expire on August 1, so we need to get out of the EU.  We were scheduled to be in London after Morocco so that was easy.  But what to do in the meantime?  Croatia was just too far to consider for only 5 days.  Maybe Edinburgh, but that required more flights and the weather there was practically autumnal.  We didn’t have the clothes for that.  What about The Cotswolds?  Under a two hour drive from London, we could fly from Lisbon to Heathrow, rent a car and drive to the countryside.  After a few days we could then drive ourselves right back into Central London and resume our pre-planned itinerary.  This would eliminate a flight from our schedule overall which was also a nice bonus seeing as airline and luggage delays were still a going concern.  Luckily we found a centrally located Airbnb that was available in the market town of Burford so we locked it in.  We were very sad to miss Marrakech, but this seemed like the most sensible solution.

The Cotswolds are so charming.  You can see how Beatrix Potter and Lewis Carroll were inspired by the pastoral, rolling hills.  It’s also a fantastic central location from which to explore this part of England.  We decided to take full advantage of that.

Our sweet little cottage was right on the Main Street of Burford with a pile of charming pubs right outside our door.  All plans to take advantage of finally having a kitchen to cook in after a month went out the window after our first pub dinner at the Cotswold Arms.  The steak and ale pie accompanied by fresh peas, mash and loads of other veggies was the most comfortable of comfort food we could imagine and we welcomed it with open mouths!  We also had one of those fun, stars-aligning travel moments at the Cotswold Arms.  We started chatting with our server S.  He was re-counting to us his Covid experience and coming home after working and travelling abroad for many years.  He is currently building a new career as a professional photographer.  Lighting strike!  We had the idea at one stage of our trip, to get some family photos taken to commemorate our adventure.  We asked S if he might be interested and available to take them for us and he was!  Lucky thing! We made a plan to meet up in a few days.

In the meantime we managed sample many more meat pies at several of the other cute pubs in Burford.  The Highway Inn, The Angel and The Royal Oak were all highlights.  The Highway Inn was particularly good – perhaps it was the sautéed kale served with the pie or the fact that it was about 4 doors down from our cottage?  I’m not sure but we ate there twice.  Pub food in The Cotswolds is excellent and we had meals that rivalled any of our best in Italy.  So there.

Our first day in The Cotswolds was deemed a day off to mess around, do laundry and wander the village of Burford.  We were happy to stay close to home.  Peanut butter and jelly on toast for breakfast.  Hummus on crackers for dinner.  We were very happy for a chill out day.  But not wanting to miss the action, day two was far more jam packed.

Day off “at home” in the Cotswolds with ice cold Appletisers

We were up early to drive the hour plus to Highclere Castle better known as the location of Downton Abbey.  As long time Downton fans, we nerded out on the long walk up to the castle and as we toured through the house.  This is the room where Lady Mary slept with Kamal Pamuk and then he died and she was nearly ruined!  And here, this is the spot where Lady Edith threw her veil after being jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony.  And over there, that’s the door where Mr. Bates surprised Anna after he was released from prison.  Ahhh, memories.

Following our scheduled visit at Highclere and the obligatory swing through the very flowery gift shop, we mapped our next destination – Stonehenge.  Just over 30 minutes away and growing by the minute as the throngs of tourists were beginning to descend.  Our plan was to hop on the motorway and drive past Stonehenge, waving and snapping a photo.  From there we’d swing back northwards and stop in the town of Swindon to visit the nearest Nandos to Burford for lunch.  Easy.  Except we underestimated the encroaching tourists.  The Google Oracle was mapping us, constantly diverting us as we got closer to Salisbury to avoid the ensuing traffic jams.  Turn left here, take the second exit at the roundabout, turn right here and so on and so on.  Before we knew it, we were turning into the parking lot for the Henge.  F**k.  Google sent us off the motorway so we had taken the long way round and were taken straight to the visitors centre.  Well, now that we’re here at this ancient monolith we can’t very well turnaround and go without seeing it.

So we followed the line-up into the parking lot.  We trudged across the lot and found the line-up for ticket sales.  With luck, tickets were still available for today.  Then we wandered around until we found our way to the bus stop.  We waited for the bus that would take us the 2 miles up the road to see Stonehenge – 2 miles return seemed a little too far to walk when it was way past lunch and people were hankering for their Nando’s fix.  We rode the bus, arrived at The Henge, got out, walked over to the site, took 4 photos (one was crap), turned heel and got back on the bus to head back to the visitor’s centre.  Probably 45 minutes of rigamarole for a 5 minute visit to see the Henge.

Back at the Visitor’s Centre we dropped 20 quid in the gift shop – check out the Little’s Stonehenge shaped pillow – we were back in the car and racing to Swindon before anyone got VERY hangry.  Swindon is a town that tourists definitely skip, but the Nando’s was nice and everyone was happy for some good South African/ Portuguese fast food.

Exit through the gift shop…

The following day, we pre-booked tickets to visit Blenheim Palace.  The ancestral seat of the Duke of Marlborough but also perhaps more famously known as the birthplace of Winston Churchill.  The Palace is modelled a bit after Versailles and is extraordinarily grand.  We spent some time googling the current Duke of Marlborough who still resides on the Estate, he seems to have recovered well from his addiction issues and brushes with the law.  Ahhh the British Aristocracy, how the other half live!

Blenheim is located in the town of Woodstock just a short drive from Oxford.  We figured we should take the chance to see the town and famous University.  Oxford is a very cool place and would definitely warrant a future visit for a longer period of time.  A city filled with students from all over the world lends an international flair.  Not to mention all the incredibly famous university buildings through the centre of town.

On our last day in The Cotswolds, we decided to try and see some of the other famous little towns in the area.  We visited Bourton-on-the-Water with its shallow river and real Wind in the Willows vibes.  We also drove through the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.  Such charming little communities where you expect the squirrels to have names and for the ducks to start speaking out loud. 

At the end of the day it was time for our photo shoot. S gave us coordinates to a place called Minster Lovell.  A tiny village with an abandoned manor house that would serve as the backdrop for our shoot.  S took some great shots of us that afternoon that will serve as a great memory of our trip.

Pretending to get along at Minster Lovell in the Cotswolds

While it was MUCH less exotic than Marrakech, The Cotswolds were a lovely place to spend a few days.  The slightly cooler temperatures made the days bearable and the nights comfortable for sleep.  The people were so kind and gracious, happy to have tourists coming back through their doors.  We loved our cozy cottage and imagined that it would be a lovely place to visit in winter as much as it was now in summer.  We have now added another great place that we’d love to visit again.

The Algarve

Editor’s Note: Due to a severe case of jet lag I managed to post out of order. In fact, we travelled from Seville to The Algarve and from The Algarve to Lisbon. I’m posting this a little late. Mi dispiace.

Following our hasty departure from Seville, with a slightly heat-stroked and nauseous little we made the trip to Albufeira in about 2.5 hours. We arrived at the beach resort and were grateful that the temperature was about 10 degrees cooler here on the Southern Coast of Portugal.

Why yes you are…

It was a bit of culture shock to walk into a massive resort. It is a huge gated community with golf course, several houses and condos and finally our hotel on the cliff overlooking the sea and the beach below. After staying in places with under 50 rooms, we were not in Kansas anymore. This place was a monstrosity with several restaurants and swimming pools. Here people jockey for lounge chairs. We worried a little that perhaps we had made a mistake.

Big resort beach club vibes

But as Monsieur repeated the mantra we carried for all of our travel decisions “It’s All Good”. Everything was an opportunity to experience something new and we would just go with the flow. The kids were happy to have a little break from all the museum visiting. The hardest choice of the day was beach or pool. Catering to British holiday-makers, everything was in English including the TV options. It was a nice change of pace for a minute not to have to work as hard to order or choose some entertainment. But I will admit, we missed the opportunity to try and learn more Portuguese language and culture.

In the meantime, while brushing his teeth Monsieur threw out his back. He managed to spend a day in bed in the room. By the third day at the beach Monsieur was finally healed enough to hobble around a little. We decided to hop in the car and explore a bit. The historic centre of Albufeira was only a short 20 minute drive away and about as far as he could manage sitting in the car. Surprisingly, it was a serious disappointment. Overrun with crappy trinket shops and sunburned and drunk tourists (at 11am!!) we didn’t last a half an hour. Truth be told, we probably should have ventured a little further to the east to see Faro or perhaps further west towards the open Atlantic, but we were lazy and if you saw Monsieur trying to get in and out of the car Albufeira was far enough.

This shot kind of sums up Albufeira perfectly

The Algarve is indeed a very beautiful place. The beaches are epic with their high cliffs and white sand. But its catering to the holidaymaker more than the traveller, so this time around the Algarve wasn’t for us. Maybe we’ll try it again in the future. Who knows???

Lisbon and The Mandalorian

Grateful for our few days off in The Algarve, we were really looking forward to some time in a big city again. We put in the coordinates for our hotel in Lisbon into Google Maps and off we went. Wait a minute, this says that the drive is 3.5 hours. I thought it was more like 2.5 hours. And why do we have to head so far east when we want to go north? The main north/ south toll highway, the A2 was closed from the starting point in The Algarve until about Ourique due to a raging forest fire. The drought in this part of the world is very evident with many dry river beds and scorched fields, especially with the epic heatwave we had been experiencing. So off we went with the Google Oracle as our guide, twisting and turning on single lane roads through Southern Portugal. No peepee stops here, there’s nowhere to stop. Finally we reached the apex, on top of a mountain we seemed to be in the highest point in Southern Portugal and found ourselves in the middle of a wind turbine forest. Another notch in the cap of the European Environmental initiatives. Wind turbines are a very common sight.

We were glad to finally reach the A2 again and found a service centre with ice cream bars and a clean washroom for a stop. It wasn’t long before we were crossing the Ponte 25 de Abril (a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge it was built by the same contractor) and into lovely Lisbon. Happy to be back in the land of walking tours and Uber, we gratefully returned our rental car and continued our journey on foot.

This calçada in Chiado is a nod to the important seafaring history of Portugal

Lisbon is a beautiful city. The calçada sidewalks are stunning mosaics and an art form unto themselves and the beautiful tile works on many of the buildings create a distinctive Portuguese design element.

We booked a walking tour that started at the top of Avenida Liberdade at Parque Eduardo VII, walking along the very broad and tree lined Avenida through the Praça Dom Pedro IV and towards the elevator that would help reduce the climb up to the historic Alfama neighbourhood. It was a fun tour, full of historical information that I won’t bore you with, but we were glad to get a real taste of Lisbon. Alfama is extremely quaint and charming, mostly because it is still a residential neighbourhood. Locals hang their laundry and put their bird cages in the windows while tourists bustle by trying to capture it all on our iPhones.

Lisboa!

At the top of Alfama we decided to hop in one of the many tuktuks (an import from Asia, the streets of Lisbon are overrun with tuktuk tour operators all vying for your tourism euros). Our guide chose one that looked the safest with a female driver. Never judge a book by its cover, because this woman was a maniac on the road and we were all holding on for dear life. Not to mention that she was hell bent on proving that she knew more than our guide. After a hair raising 30 minutes, we finally arrived in the upscale Chiado shopping area and bid farewell to both our guides with the intention of getting lunch.

We ended up at the historic A Brasileira cafe for Prego Rolls (Portuguese steak sandwiches) and Cokes. Don’t judge, Coca-Cola is the fuel that kept us on the move on this trip with just the right combination of sugar and caffeine. When we get home there will be a strict Coke moratorium. The cafe was ok. It was more about the historic wood-panelled decor than the food. We decided that we would take our Pastéis de Nata order elsewhere for dessert.

Just up the street, we found the Manteigeira – Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata. A bakery that only sells the ubiquitous Portuguese egg custard tarts. Everyone claims to have the best in town, and Manteigeira was no different. I’m not enough of an expert to definitively say which one is the best, but we gave it a real effort and tried quite a few at all of our Portuguese destinations. Truth be told, I don’t mind taking one for the team and continuing this quest for the perfect Pastéis de Nata. I’ll make that sacrifice for you!

Once everyone’s grumpies were sated by the delicious tarts we hoped in an Uber and headed back to the hotel so we could put our kids in the pool to cool off and recharge before dinner. As you know, the aforementioned Coca-Cola does have a very short energy burst that wears off quickly. The trick is to get the kids into a swimming pool before the effects of the sugar wanes.

Luckily, the hotel pool was very nice and had plenty of shade. I myself was off for a much needed mani/ pedi and missed the action. The Little Kid was swimming away and with her celebrity hawk eyes, spotted the one and only Pedro Pascal suntanning on the other side. Pick your franchise – Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Narcos – Pedro starred in all of them. Of course, the Little knows him from The Mandalorian. Our Friday night routine during Covid was to watch (and re-watch) the show being fans of the Child and Mando himself. I’m partial to that calm husky voice, thank you very much… IYKYK…. Anyways, with a boost of bravery from Monsieur, the Little ventured over and said hello. They had a lovely visit with Pedro (I call him Pedro now because clearly my family are so tight with him) who was extremely kind, gracious and even a little chatty. I was only a little jealous because I now had a much needed refresh on my fingers and toes.

This is the Way… to the pool

Our favourite dinner was at Time Out Market. Seeing it on every list of things to see and do in Lisbon, I was expecting it to be like Granville Island Market in Vancouver so I wasn’t racing to get there. But we decided it might be a good option with the kids since its essentially a food court with plenty of dining options. It’s a food court alright, but with some of the best chefs in Portugal serving up signature dishes. You can get pizza, burgers and hot dogs too but they are gourmet all the way. The hall is several long communal tables surrounded by loads of food outlets. In the centre amongst the tables are beer, wine and cocktail purveyors so it feels more like a beer garden with much better food. Make sure to leave room for dessert as there’s plenty of sweet options like gelato and of course the best Pastéis de Nata in the city (or so they say… this jury is still deliberating).

Time Out Market is located down closer to the River. We decided to walk back to the hotel only realizing when it was too late that it was uphill the whole way. We hiked up into Bairro Alto up a flight of stairs that rivaled those on the side of Montmartre. With a full tummy and one or two pints of Sagres down, it felt a lot more like the Grouse Grind to me. Once at the top, weaving through the bar filled streets of Bairro Alto the kids finally convinced us to stop and call an Uber.

Back at the hotel, the kids headed off to bed and Monsieur and I found the bar to enjoy a nightcap. Ever since watching the Love Boat as a kid, I’ve always LOVED the word “nightcap”. It’s so seventies and sleazy.

“Care to join me in my cabin for a nightcap?” she said suggestively as the strap of her sequinned evening gown slipped from her shoulder, her feather boa dipping to the ground.

See? So why not? Here we were in Portugal where they MAKE THE MOST delicious nightcap ever: Port! It would be rude NOT to head to the bar for a nightcap, a glass of yummy chilled white port. So we did and it was delicious. The kids only texted us asking for the wifi password twice and to complain that the other kid was bothering them three or four times before we packed it in and called it a night.

The next day, still facing the continuing heatwave the kids decided to have a chill day in the hotel. Not wanting to miss a minute of Lisbon, Monsieur and I took off to explore The LX Factory. Located in an industrial area underneath the 25 de Abril Bridge, its a collection of old warehouse and industrial buildings that has been converted into artists studios, creative workspaces, unique shops and lively restaurants. We loved exploring the area and had fun checking out all the cool Portuguese art and design. In my opinion, LX Factory is a must-do when in Lisbon. Try to hit it on a weekday, sadly we were there on a Saturday and many of the smaller ateliers weren’t open on the weekend.

I figured out that this was in fact my fourth visit to Lisbon as I used to travel here on business for a couple of years. I was very glad that Monsieur loved it as much as I did. It’s a city we definitely want to go back to and spend more time. It’s full of history – like anywhere some good and some bad. But its a vibrant place with lots of young people building a life and solid communities of people that have made it their home for decades. Don’t underestimate Lisbon, it’s definitely worth a visit.

I am the Barber of Seville!

Not really. We never even found a barber in Seville. What is that opera even about? All I know is what I remember it from Bugs Bunny cartoons and here we were in Seville and Elmer Fudd is singing that song over and over in my head.

The Seville Cathedral

Following our stay in lovely Comporta, we were scheduled to head to the Douro (aka wine) region of Portugal. However, upon closer inspection we were booked into a hotel on the Douro River with the word Douro in the hotel name but it was in fact two hours away from the Douro Region and it looked like the kind of place where couples go to celebrate their golden wedding anniversaries with a good book and lovely wine pairing menu. This is NOT the place for a family of four with two kids who really want to hang out by swimming pools and do cannonballs. We decided that 7 nights in this no man’s land location would be too much for us all to bear and we changed our plans. We had a rental car, so the world (or at least Portugal and parts of Spain) were our oyster. We decided to head from Comporta to Seville, Spain where we could spend a couple of nights and then drive back into Portugal to enjoy the beaches of the Algarve for a few days.

Road-tripping through Portugal

This was actually a plan we really enjoyed. Perhaps we would have liked the sleepy Douro hotel, but we were very happy with our decision to can that idea and save it for another time when Mommy and Daddy were on their own.

Seville is just under four hours drive from Comporta. We had fun driving the length of the bottom half of Portugal with our newly minted Italy Spotify playlist along for the ride. The highway was fantastic and we loved seeing the changes in the landscape as we rolled into the mountains north of the Algarve. It was very dry the entire way to Seville. We saw many dried up riverbeds and the scars of recent forest fires.

We did very little research in planning for Seville but we did book into the historic Hotel Alfonso XII and a walking tour of the city. With the temperatures clocking in at around 42 celsius in the afternoons, we were glad that we only stayed for a couple of days. But we did make a note that Seville is a place to return when the temperatures get a little cooler. We had no idea that Seville was so ripe with history and incredible landmarks.

The Hotel Alfonso XII is one of the most picturesque historical hotels that I’ve ever visited. It was commissioned by the King of Spain for the 1929 Exhibition. Modelled after the moorish architecture seen throughout the adjacent historical centre of Seville, its been lovingly maintained over the years. The central courtyard is home to the restaurant and is quite a picturesque spot. We were impressed with the tile work and carvings.

In the lobby of the Hotel Alfonso XII

Our guide met us in the lobby at 10am, perhaps not early enough as it was already quite hot. We were glad that we were headed to the Real Alcázar which was just a 5 minute walk away. A complex of palaces, the vast rooms are now a museum and sometimes a movie set. In fact it played host to the Game of Thrones crew when it stood in for the Palace in Dorne. Most interestingly, the palace is built in the Moorish architectural tradition and the tile work makes the tiles in the hotel look almost basic. It’s quite a sight to see.

Following our tour of the palace, we took a meandering walk through the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter and circled our way back to the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede (aka Saint Mary of the See or more commonly known now as the Seville Cathedral). The fourth largest (according to Wikipedia anyways) cathedral in the world, this church is massive. Following St. Peter’s at the Vatican, the Milan Cathedral and a church in Brazil, St. Mary of the See is not only extraordinarily big it is also the current burial place of Christopher Columbus, or so we are led to believe. Apparently according to our guide, recent DNA tests of the remains that were repatriated from the Dominican Republic proved that in fact this was Columbus. But I suppose if you ask the guide in Santa Domingo, they will tell you the same thing about the remains they claim to have buried in their Columbus Lighthouse. Regardless, someone forked out a ton of cash to create a seriously monumental tomb for Columbus that also has quite a travel history (it was initially commissioned in Cuba and eventually brought to Seville and installed in the Cathedral). Whatever the story is, we were a little sheepish that we had no idea that we would see all of this on our tour!

Christopher Columbus’ Tomb… Maybe…
The battle to get a nice shot of all of us in front of cool monuments. There may have been some yelling…

In fact, Seville boasts a seriously epic maritime history. Even though the city is quite a distance inland from both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts (including the Gibraltar Strait), the Guadalquivir river was the launch and return point of many explorations on behalf of the Spanish empire.

By the time we left the Cathedral, the sun was high enough in the sky that we were melting and it was time to make a beeline to our air conditioned hotel. Well after dark, we did make it out for a bit of yummy tapas at Ovejas Negras.

On our second morning, we hoped to squeak in a visit to the Plaza de España mostly because it featured as a city on the planet of Naboo in Star Wars: Episode II. We are big Star Wars geeks after all and we didn’t want to miss it, but it was already just too hot. So we decided to climb back in the car and head to the beaches of Algarve a few hours early to try and beat the heat.

Crossing the bridge from Spain back into Portugal and the Algarve

Comporta

From Barcelona we flew to Lisbon where we rented a car and started a two and a bit weeks in Portugal. Our first stop was the beautiful Alentejo coast line just south of Lisbon. A friend recommended Comporta as a must-see spot, so we planned a 5 day visit here. Even though it is very close to Lisbon as the crow flies, its about an hour and half drive south around the Sado Estuary and back up the coast line towards the base of the Tróia peninsula.

It’s a peaceful place with cork tree and pine forests, wild rice paddies, epic sand dunes and untouched beaches that run for miles. The Espírito Santo family (a renowned Portuguese banking family) has owned most of this area for years and subsequently have kept development to a minimum. The beachside has a few beach clubs scattered about, but its mostly deserted. You won’t find the massive resorts like the Algarve up here. In fact the few bigger hotels are actually still comparatively small and are located away from the beaches.

We were still recovering from bronchitis so Comporta was a very nice chilled out place to land for a few days. Lacking hordes of tourists, we loved visiting the town of Comporta itself. More of a village really. We were charmed by the vast local stork community that seem to have built a nest on every high point in town. Power lines, telephone poles, chimneys, rooftop nooks – whereever they can fit their massive nests. In addition to the storks, I loved the cool little shops scattered around town. Every single shop seemed to carry fantastic stuff that’s right up my alley. Cool caftans, yes please. Vibrant ceramics, of course. Fun sunglasses, well duh! I actually restrained myself as my caftan needs were waning as we were weaving our way to cooler weather soon enough and how many pairs of sunglasses does a girl need. And ceramics? Lets just say I’m becoming an expert. Comporta may be in the middle of nowhere but there’s lots of cool shit to buy.

The Little Kid took a few horseback riding lessons during Covid times, so they were particularly excited for the beach ride we planned through Cavalos an Areia stables. Monsieur, the Little and I ventured out on the ride on a beautiful sunny day. We armed ourselves with sunscreen (smart) but forgot two very important things (dumb). Any experienced rider will tell you that riding in shorts isn’t very comfortable, that was our first mistake. The second was that we underestimated how many mosquitoes can breed in rice paddies! Our guide had to take us through the paddies and traverse the sand dunes before we got to the beach. The sand dunes were clearly where all the mosquitoes in Comporta hang out during the day. Monsieur and the Little are literally mosquito magnets on a good day, but this was madness. We did think to wear plenty of mosquito repellent but it was to no avail, we were swarmed. It was brutal. Luckily as we came out to the beach, the mosquitoes stayed in the dunes and we were given a reprieve. We enjoyed a lovely ride along the waves with hardly any other people in sight. Luckily on the way back, the wind was in our favour through the dunes so were didn’t have to endure another swarming. Phew.

Riding in Comporta

We enjoyed some delicious Portuguese food, but struggled a bit as the majority of the options were seafood centric and we aren’t big seafood fans. However, we did try the yummiest steak sandwich called a Prego. Delish. We did also venture down the seafood road a little with sole, which was always awesome. Our favourite meal was at Praia do Pego at Sal Beach Club. We loved the beach shack vibe and watching the amazing west coast sunset.

Comporta reminds me of Big Sur, Makawao on Maui or maybe Montauk (the last one I’ve not experienced first hand). But the design aesthetic is minimal but beautiful, think baskets and white wash. I would definitely come back to this sleepy little place for a break from the everyday tourism routes in Europe.

Bronchitis in Barcelona

After several Covid swabs and a second doctor’s appointment, it was clear that the big kid’s throat infection had escalated to bronchitis. Armed with a puffer, N95 masks, lots of Ricolas and a clearance to fly we hopped the flight from Mallorca, headed for Barcelona.

Barcelona is one of our favourite places! We spent 10 days here in 2019 and fell in love. So much so that we almost chose it as our home base. But with tight timing and lots of other new destinations to see we only had 3 precious nights in Barcelona. No sooner did we arrive at the hotel when I started with that dreaded tickle in the throat and came down with the big kid’s bronchitis too. We kept Covid testing to be sure, always negative. But a heavy cough and when the big kid or I get a cough EVERYONE within a 5 kilometre radius knows it. It’s deep and its loud and it sounds waaaaaaay worse than it is. In Covid times, a cough is the bright red A sewn on to Madame Bovary’s dress. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Big Kid and I spent A LOT of time in the hotel.

Me and the Little, masked up and ready to roll in the bus that we took from the airport.

On our first day in Barcelona, we had booked a Gaudì Tour. On our last visit here, some of Monsieur’s love of Art Nouveau architecture and of Gaudì’s incredible designs rubbed off on the kids and I. So this tour was something we were looking forward to. However the bronchitis kept the Big Kid and I in the hotel room while Monsieur and the Little were the lucky ones who headed out with the guide. They returned to see the amazing Sagrada Familia Basilica, no surprise that the very lengthy building time was only further delayed by Covid. They also visited the beautiful Park Guell.

After many more covid tests and a break in the bronchitis, we did manage a visit to Barceloneta and a seaside lunch along the marina. Monsieur and I also managed a stop at the Apple Store to buy some AirTags for our checked suitcases.

Managed to catch a glimpse of Sagrada Familia from the rooftop of our hotel

Shopping in Barcelona is pretty good. Of course, all the big chain shops are here but since its home to both Zara and Mango, it seems like there is one of those on every corner. Sprinkled in here and there are some very cute little shoe stores and other boutiques. We were also impressed with all the little bakeries that have croissants as nice as their French neighbours.

Tapas bars are everywhere but since they are quite small and jam packed, we avoided the close quarters. We did have one totally rotten meal at La Taperia at El Nacional on Passeig de Gracia. A highly Instagrammable and stylish location, El Nacional boasts four restaurants, four bars and a dessert place all under one roof. We were unimpressed with the rubbery tapas that was served with such speed and lack of care. The servers didn’t even bat an eye when we paid the bill and left after only 15 minutes.

El Nacional looks good from far but its far from good, if you know what I’m saying…

We did however have an absolutely delicious meal at L’Olivé where we found a really yummy paella. The interior was decorated with a vast collection of olive jars, one of my current Mediterranean obsessions so I was very happy to check all of them out.

Swooooooooning over olive jars

Our stop in Barcelona was sadly very brief, even more restricted by this stupid bronchitis that keeps hanging on. But we were reminded how much we love this part of Spain and the Catalunyan people. We’ll definitely come back.

Hola, Olé

The Santa Maria of Palma Cathedral

Monsieur and I were all recovered from our colds and survived our wait in the horrendous Heraklion airport (it makes LaGuardia look like Versailles). It was time to go west again, this time our destination would be SPAIN! We were done with Gyros and we were ready for Tapas. But first, we needed to get there.

If you’ve been following the news, then you’re probably watching all of the horror stories surrounding European airport these days. We were traveling from Heraklion, Greece to Mallorca, Spain via Zurich. We were worried about our bags making the connection, but we really needed to be worried about ourselves. Checking in at Heraklion, the gate agent offered us 6 boarding passes… for four people… for two flights. Luckily, we were all boarded for the Heraklion – Zurich leg, but who were we going to have to leave behind in Zurich? Funnily enough, it was both kids. Oh well, tough luck kiddos. Dad and I are off to beautiful Mallorca and we’re leaving you in the most expensive city in Europe on your own. Godspeed. Well, I gently tried to get the gate agent to try and explain WHY our kids were not able to get boarding passes. Were they bumped? Were their tickets not paid for? What was the issue? She had no idea.

So we boarded the plane for Zurich, tried to shelve the worry and waited for our arrival to try and sort it out. In Zurich we made a beeline for the transfer desk on our departure concourse, only to find it as deserted as you’d expect at an airline help desk in summer 2022. Since we’re Star Alliance Gold, we decided to head to the lounge. They’re always helpful there. Guess what? Nope, they were not. Not at all. So I sent the Monsieur and the starving kids in search of snacks while I found another Transfer Desk. Luckily the third time was the charm, the agent was very kind and our kids were given boarding cards. We were on our way.

Arriving in Palma, Mallorca airport we witnessed some very busy scenes but tickety-boo (who even says that anymore?) our bags popped out on the carousel, our rental car was parked at the front of the line and we were on our way. Ten minutes later (yes, can you believe that the airport is that close?) we were parked in front of our hotel in the centre of Palma.

Cruise ships and ferries are common sights in the Palma Harbour

Palma is a fantastic city. Plenty to see in the beautiful historic old centre including a stunning Gothic Cathedral the Santa Maria of Palma and the impressive city walls. We had a great time strolling the streets and enjoying some yummy tapas.

We didn’t really expect that it would be round two on the cold front however when both kids came down with the throat infection and were laid up in the hotel room for a couple of days. After some antibiotics and rest, we were able to manage a day at Son Matias beach. We wanted to venture further a field, but decided a city beach was probably wise since the kids still weren’t 100%. We managed to rent 4 lounge chairs and umbrellas for a whopping €35. Lunch was a super yummy chicken paella served at the Siso Beach Club.

On our last day, we had plans to meet our new friend Mariska at her fabulous shop in the town of Artà. It was great to drive across the Island to get see some of the beautiful landscape. As you would expect, Artà is a very charming Balearic town and Mariska’s shop did not disappoint. She arranged for us to have lunch at Coco Beach Club at Cala Ratjada. Monsieur and the Little enjoyed a post lunch swim while we finished our margaritas.

Mallorca is a destination where we definitely want to return. A great place for a beach holiday, but also plenty of culture and history as well as great food too.

Street art in Palma

Fever!

Okay, not a fever. But sick nonetheless.

We wanted to experience a Greek Island on our trip but were hesitant to head to the popular islands of Santorini or Mykonos. Preferring something a little less busy perhaps. Crete came up, mostly because of the Airbnb options. We rented a small house with a pool on the north coast just above the town of Rethymno (we were luckily there about a week before the forest fires happened).

My lonely feet with a peekaboo of the Cretan Sea

We were grateful for this stop for few reasons… the first is we had a special guest joining us. Auntie A was flying in from Toronto to stay with us for a few days before she met up with family on another Greek Isle. The second is after weeks in hotels we were happy for a kitchen, a washer/ dryer and quite surprisingly we were very happy for some privacy. And the third reason we were grateful only materialized after we arrived; both Monsieur and I got sick. Luckily NOT Covid, but we both needed antibiotics and were glad to be some place quiet and not away from other people to recover.

Crete is beautiful, but its very different from Italy. This part of Crete felt a lot like Mexico to us. Piles of beach resorts and lots of tourists soaking up the sun. The main street was one beach shack after another with the odd Greek restaurant mixed in for good measure. Luckily there was a great walk-in clinic and a big pharmacy close by.

We did manage to squeak in a little bit of sightseeing. We took the ride up the narrow mountain roads to the Arkadi Monastery. An interesting stop up on the hillside that was a focal point of the Cretan restistance to Ottoman rule in the late 1800s. Still an active Monastery, its a beautiful site with its Orthodox church at the centre.

The big kid at the church at the Monastery of Arkadi while Monsieur sneaks a peek inside

Rethymno has a charming old town with more beach and souvenir shops. Many selling wooden penises of every size as keychains and bottle openers. I still do not even understand the significance. They were almost as plentiful as the Evil Eye paraphernalia. We did manage to have a great lunch on a side street at La Rentza Taberna and indulged in some of the best dolmades ever. It was fascinating to see the many layers of rule that built the island of Crete; Turkish, Venetian etc including the historic Venetian Harbour.

Chania was another stop during our stay. Also boasting a Venetian harbour with a gorgeous lighthouse, Chania old town was even more vast than Rethymno, with EVEN more wooden penis stores. But it also had some unique boutiques with local designs. We decided that if we returned to Crete, Chania would be home base.

Crete wasn’t what we expected for a Greek Island. If you come here you won’t see the white washed buildings and windmills that you see in pictures of Mykonos or Santorini. Nor will you find the charm of the fictional Mamma Mia island. Its a cost-effective beach holiday destination for a lot of Europe and that’s what the emphasis is on here. Its a great big island with lots to see, plenty of history (Knossos Palace – the ancient centre of Minoan civilization or the Cave of Zeus – one of the proposed birthplaces of Zeus), hiking and beaches to explore. For us, it was a great place to take a little break from all the busy traveling we’ve been doing so far.

The doctor at the walk in clinic recommended we eat at Prima Plora overlooking Rethymno and the historic Venetian Fortezza. Best meal in Greece!

Its All Greek to Me

The Acropolis and The Parthenon

Flying from the very quaint and peaceful Puglia into Athens was a bit of a jolt to the system. We were able to fly direct from Bari, Italy into Athens but it meant a late evening flight. As you may have been following, this is basically the summer NOT to travel in Europe as the airports are an understaffed mess. We didn’t really notice this in Bari, besides the fact that our flight kept getting delayed and there were loads of people in the airport all facing similar delays. We didn’t arrive in Athens until around 2am. We arrived in the baggage claim area to mountains of unclaimed luggage and started to sweat a little that we may be one of the many other travellers plagued by the lost bags routine. Luckily after a bit of a wait our two checked bags rolled out and we were on our way.

A common sight in airports across Europe this summer, this wasn’t even a third of the piles of abandoned luggage

Arriving somewhere in the middle of the night is always strange, especially if its a new destination for you. Its dark and you have no frame of reference. Add to that a new language AND a new alphabet. Interesting. We were happy when we were finally checked into the hotel and could climb into bed around 4am.

The next morning we headed up to breakfast on the roof of the hotel. And there it was, like you could reach out and touch it, The Acropolis. Wow. I mean, that’s why we came to Athens so why should we be surprised. But its right smack dab in the middle of this vast sprawling city. I really had no idea. I just imagined it being out on some sacred mountaintop in the country. Nope, its right here and its walking distance. I guess I need to brush up on my Lonely Planet reading.

Les Enfants were tres fatigues, so we left them to their (own) devices in the air conditioned room and Monsieur and I took a walk. We ended up in the Plaka neighbourhood enjoying all the little shops with the cute dresses and eyeball paraphernalia (we were taught that these are not in fact Evil Eyes, but rather intended to ward off the Evil Eye and its bad luck). We ended up in a little shop called Laetitia, home to hundreds of reasonably priced super cute dresses and a very bossy AND handsy sales lady. I bought two – only to realize that one of my picks would be found in just about every other dress shop in the Plaka and on the Island of Crete (and probably in loads of other places too that we didn’t get to). Oh well, its cute.

While on our walk, we did a little lunch reconnaissance and stumbled on a taco place. Well, we hustled back to the hotel, woke the kids and went straight back to indulge in some guacamole and el pastor. YUM. After a month in Italy, we were over pizza and pasta. I never thought I would ever say the words ”I’m sick of pizza” but just before leaving Puglia it happened and I couldn’t imagine having a slice any time soon. The tacos were awesome and we were thrilled for some variety in our cuisine.

I was really amazed by how seemingly new Athens is. Of course, it is arguably the oldest city in Europe and is filled with ancient ruins, but as a modern city it is relatively new. The buildings are new and the city feels modern in comparison to the historic centres of Rome or Paris. Unlike our time in Italy, where the only variety of cuisine is limited to the different regions, Greece had options; juice bars, burger places, taco joints, Indian. The vast variety of international cuisines that we take for granted in Vancouver seemed to have also infiltrated this European capitol and we were grateful.

Although that evening, we needed to have Greek food. Of course we did because who doesn’t love Greek Food??? We went to a modern Greek restaurant called Ella Greek Cooking and had a great meal accompanied by a yummy local wine recommended by our server. Don’t ask me what it was, he just brought it! We were amazed by the kids walking through the restaurant patio begging for money. Somehow this seems to be a professional endeavor when one of the little guys whispered ”fuck off” to me when we didn’t cough up. We asked the waiter what the deal was and he confirmed that it was a professional enterprise and that these kids were trained for the role.

The next day we were booked for a tour of the Acropolis. We were all excited. Our seasoned guide recommended that we take a taxi up and then walk back down. This was great advice as it was already very hot and to be honest, the taxi stop is only part way up the hill anyway so we still had plenty of climbing to do. Now if you’ve been to the Acropolis, feel free to scroll on. If you haven’t, then this part is for you.

As I mentioned before not much of a Lonely Planet reader, so before our tour I was a little foggy on what was the Acropolis and what was the Parthenon (which I always mix up with the Pantheon in Rome and the Pantheon in Paris – which is Par, which is Pan? Who can remember?). ANYWAYS, turns out that Acropolis means “hill” in Greek. So when we say Acropolis, we are referring to the hill that the temple is on. The Parthenon is the large temple with the many columns that we know from the pictures. In addition to the Parthenon, on the Acropolis there is also the Temple of Athena (oh hey, Athena=Athens) and many other ruins to see. On the south slope of the Acropolis are the two amphitheatres – The Odeon of Herodes Atticus which is now an amphitheatre but was originally a covered theatre and the much larger Amphitheatre of Dionysus. Traveller’s note: atop the Acropolis (and like Pompeii), there’s no gift shop or coffee stand. Bring water, wear a hat, be prepared.

Luckily, in addition to our guide we also had the Big Kid who happens to be an avid fan of all things Greek Mythology so she helped fill in the blanks on many aspects of the tour. It was fascinating to experience the scale of the complex and the crushing heat that goes along with a summer visit to Athens. After our trip up the Acropolis, it was straight back to the hotel and into the AC.

Our Grecian Goddess could’ve made some pocket money by posing with tourists at The Acropolis

Our trip to Athens happened to coincide with a tour date of our friend Diana Krall. It was old home week as a pile of former colleagues descended onto Athens while we were there and coincidentally all stayed in the same hotel. Its always such an amazing time to see familiar faces on this trip and helps us feel just a little less homesick. We were very grateful to S, D, P and G for making sure we had great seats for Diana’s show. Even more amazing, the show was in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Not every day you get to see a show in a venue that is 2000 years old. While the seats haven’t been updated, the theatre now fortunately supplies cushions (2000 year old marble is as hard as you can imagine) but that’s the only modern amenity. The steps are steep, the seats compact. It was hot and cozy. But Diana slayed and we were grateful for such a cool opportunity.

It was very hot in Athens, so we kept the daytime activities to a minimum. We did manage to pop over to the Parliament to catch the hourly changing of the guards. Otherwise, our hotel was packed to the gills with tourists and in order to avoid the crowds and the high temps, we spent the afternoons in our room. After a few days, we were ready to continue on the journey and were on our way back to the airport and onward to Crete.

The changing of the guard at the Parliament happens every hour. In 35+ degree heat who would want to stand out in these uniforms for any longer.

Pu-Pu-Puglia

Finally, after recovering from our shame of knowing so little about Matera we were back in the car and completing the last leg of our journey across Italy to Puglia.

But here’s the thing and I feel a little weird about this. I’m not sure I want to share the tales of our trip to Puglia. I mean, one of our most favourite things about this place is that it wasn’t completely overrun with goofball tourists. It feels a little bit undiscovered still. And if I tell you about it and you tell two friends and they tell two friends and so on and so on, then BAM! Its Cinque Terre and we won’t be able to get a hotel room to save our lives.

FINE, alright. I’ll tell you. But you need to pinky promise that YOU WON’T TELL ANYONE. Ok? Deal? Deal. Can you tell? We really love Puglia. But not at first…

Monsieur at the very charming Monopoli Harbour

After our adventurous drive across Italy seeing the rest of the Amalfi Coast and Matera, we were pretty pooped when we arrived at the Masseria. It is a beautiful property, an old farm that’s been converted into a hotel.  The farmhouse was now the gift shop and reception area, the stable now the spa and restaurant.  Inside the barnyard now the swimming pool and bar.  Surrounded by a lovely golf course (which no one ever used but provided lovely green space) and many ancient olive groves. It was quiet and peaceful.  Maybe a little too peaceful? We were booked here for the next 8 nights. Would we get bored?

That’s right, we never got bored.

Puglia is littered with some incredible little towns and some very important big towns (like Lecce or Brindisi – the latter is the legendary end of the Roman’s Appian Way). All along the Adriatic is a smattering of cute little fishing villages that are now home to great restaurants, cute hotels and still plenty of locals to keep it real. We loved spending time in Monopoli (especially their old town) and Savelletri. Next time we need to check out Brindisi and Polignano Al Mare. In land, you’ll find a thriving agricultural community especially on the top of the escarpment looming over the shoreline, as well as cool towns like Ostuni, Fasano, Locorotondo and the amazing Alberobello. There is literally so much to do and see in this part of Italy. And of course, the people are warm and welcoming. We met some of the most amazing, kind, genuine folks here that we vowed to come back if for no other reason than to catch up and see how everyone is doing.

We did a lot over our eight days here, so I won’t bore you with the all the details. But here are the real stand out moments for us.

Grottaglie – On this trip I have become obsessed with ceramics. Old ceramics, new ceramics, whatever. I’m just in love with the artistry in this medium that you find here in the Mediterranean. The town of Grottaglie is the ceramics capital of Puglia so we ventured there to visit the “Ceramiche” District. We visited one studio, Enza Fasano. We were introduced to her work through the Masseria as many of her pieces adorned the walls and shelves around the property. We were not disappointed. Enza is a true artist designing incredible and special pieces. She is joined by her husband and two adult children who all work with her in the studio. Her studio is a vast warehouse of several rooms with bowls and platters and lamps and plates piled high. It was epic.

Some of Enza Fasano’s gorgeous Pupe Con i Baffi, a local legend about a poor worker who on his wedding night didn’t want to succumb to the local custom of allowing his bride to sleep with the Feudal Lord. To avoid this fate, he disguised himself as his bride so that he could go to the master and kill him. Unfortunately his impeccable disguise was marred by the fact that he forgot to shave his moustache and the ruse was up.

Alberobello – In researching Puglia, one of the top sites that comes up is the town of Alberobello and its well preserved Trulli Houses. Like something out of a Tolkien novel, the perfectly preserved Trulli Houses are now restaurants, shops and B&Bs. We were amazed at how many Trulli there are in Alberobello and in this area, with their whitewashed round walls and conical roofs. So charming. After our visit to the Trulli Houses, we took the kids to a waterpark. They were a little bemused that the waterpark consisted of only about 6 water slides and was not the vast complexes they are used to at home. They were also a little unimpressed by the Italian health authority requirement that all swimmers wear bathing caps. I think I rocked mine perfectly. But at the end of the day it was a fun activity that didn’t require historical learning so they were happy.

The Masseria – this little haven, a kilometre from the beach was such a great stop for us on this big trip. We were grateful for the very kind staff, our comfortable and cozy room, the lovely amenities, the delicious food and the heavenly setting. We often opted to stay in and have dinner in the patio bar of the Masseria. It was such fun as we were hosted by Carmelo, The King Piano Player who played requests all night and roped us into all the fun. We also took a fantastic cooking class with the executive chef Nicola and learned the best technique for making pasta.

On one of our final days in Puglia we were very lucky to coincide with the celebratory feast day in the small nearby town of Fasano. This was a big deal in the region and many of the staff in our hotel were looking forward to a return of the holiday after the long two year Covid break, including our new friend and concierge F. He offered to show us around the parade and town so we could experience all the best Fasano has to offer. The festival honours the town’s patron saints of Madonna del Pozzo and San Giovanni Battista. It also celebrates the battle on June 2 1678 where they defeated the Turks.

The main event of the festival was the parade through the city where many locals dressed in costume and re-enacted the battle with the Turks. It was impressive and we managed to follow the parade along and catch it in a few places. F and his lovely girlfriend S, guided us through the town eventually meeting up with F’s parents and family who invited us to join them for dinner.

As part of the Festival the local butchers set up large BBQs and tables on the streets. F’s sweet family showed us the ropes. Inside the butcher you buy several large spears of meat. Steak, chicken wings, sausages, livers and beef wrapped with intestine (we didn’t partake in the latter). The butcher then takes your large spears to the BBQ and grills them up, eventually delivering plates of grilled meat to your table. F apologized; no salads, no vegetables, no dessert – just MEAT. And a lot of it. We stopped into the cafe across from the Butcher and bought large bottles of beer, water and cokes for the crowd that was starting to join us. F was born and raised in Fasano, so he has plenty of family that were stopping by. All of them wondering, who were these random people sitting with their family eating all their meat. ”Canadianos!” answered F’s delightful mama. None of them spoke much English and our Italian is embarrassingly sparse but we managed to enjoy a lovely a meal and a wonderful connection with this sweet and hospitable family. We were so grateful for this chance to experience this important day in Fasano just like a local!

After dinner, F and his family guided us to the amazing light show that filled the main square and street of the town. It was one of the most incredible light displays I’ve seen, all choreographed to music. We were fascinated by this whole experience and were so grateful to F and his lovely family for playing host to us.

Finally it was time for us to bid Arrivederci to beautiful Puglia and all the new friends we had made at The Masseria. You know it’s been a good stay when the staff comes to the gate to say goodbye. After a month in Italy, we were sad to say Ciao to such a warm and inviting country. We loved every minute of our stay here and we vowed that we will be back before too long.

Mom and Dad at the Masseria