Johannesburg. Founded in 1886 when gold was struck and the mines were dug. Its an ironic beginning for this major African city when you look at it now and how its developed over the past 130+ years. It is now a city of barbed wire and electric fences. Regardless, its Monsieur’s hometown and we couldn’t come all the way to South Africa and not stop by for a visit. Most importantly we needed to spend some time with Granny D, Monsieur’s grandmother and our kids’ great grandmother.
We routed ourselves from Cape Town to Jo’Burg. It was a social visit and not a tourist stop, so our stay was just 3 quick nights on our way to the Timbavati and our safari. Our plan was to visit Granny D as well as some of the remaining friends and family still living in town. Monsieur also wanted to take the kids on a tour of the city so that they could see his hometown.
Johannesburg is the scariest city I’ve ever visited. The crime rate here is extremely high. Not just robberies, but violent crime is rampant. People live behind walls and fences with electrified barbed wire across the tops. Red lights are approached with the most caution as you never know when one of the many poor folks begging on the corners will be a carjacker. Cellphones stay out of sight and handbags tucked under the seats. You are always on guard here and as a Canadian we are truly fish out of water in a place where you’re constantly on edge. So our visit here was jam packed and compact so we could get in and out with our (ok MY) nerves still intact.
Day one, we headed out with a driver (feeling this was the safest way to approach our transport around the city) to tour around the neighbourhoods and schools Monsieur frequented as a kid. We managed to wind our way into his old neighbourhood in Orange Grove and found his childhood home. He was surprised at how little had changed, although the fence was higher. He rang the bell at the gate and the sweet woman inside answered. He explained why we were there and if you can believe it in this crime ridden city, she let us in to have a look! It was lovely and Monsieur was very touched.
We eventually found our way to the home of Monsieur’s old classmate W and his lovely wife S. They hosted us for lunch in the sunny garden and our kids all had a ball getting to know each other. It was a fun afternoon while the boys reminisced about their childhood and adolescent adventures. They also filled us in on how life in South Africa was changing.
Day two was devoted to visiting Granny D who is now living in a Senior’s Home in Jo’Burg. We met up with her in the snack bar at the home where she had invited a few of her neighbours to join us. It was clear that Covid has been hard on this community between lockdowns and visitor restrictions. They all seemed very happy for the chance to meet some new faces and chat about all the things happening in the world.
After the tea break, we took everyone out for lunch. In Jo’Burg, people spend their spare time out and about in gated shopping malls with plenty of security. So we followed suit and took them all to a strip mall with a collection of restaurants called “The Neighbourhood”. They all agreed that they were glad for a break from the meals served in the cafeteria at the home and were happy for a good South African grilled meat meal!
After lunch, Granny D was worn out so we brought her back to the home for a rest and bid her farewell, promising we would visit after our Safari before we flew home. Monsieur’s Mom (aka Granny B) was with us so we headed back to her hotel and a nose around the gated community she was staying in. Melrose Arch is a secure CBD area with plenty of security so its safe to walk around and visit the shops and restaurants.
Following our stay in the Timbavati, we had to return to Johannesburg for one night before we flew home and ended our trip. During that stay, we spent more time visiting Granny D. We also took the kids to Sandton – essentially the new downtown area of Johannesburg. We stopped for lunch in Sandton Square to see the massive statue of Nelson Mandela which interestingly enough is out of proportion, unless Mandela had such short legs.
We were grateful that the most heart-pumping moments we faced in Jo’Burg were on the way out. As we were headed to the airport we watched a car beside us, driving in the fast lane with a driver busily texting away not watching the road. In true South African fashion, the road works were set up in the lane with little to no warning. She luckily looked up at the last second, avoided swerving into us, slammed on the breaks and only took out the traffic cones and fortunately none of the workers.
A few minutes later, with elevated heart rates we arrived at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. The driver was busy unloading our luggage when all of a sudden tires screeched and people were yelling. A small white pick-up truck had backed out of the drop-off area at high speed and was now being chased by security on foot. Doors of the truck were open and luggage flying out and falling under the tires. I guess some person saw the car running, took the opportunity and stole it. It all happened so fast it was hard to piece together what had taken place.
Hearts really pumping, we hightailed it into the airport to get ourselves checked in and to the safety of airside. At the check in counter, we were checking all the bags and one box. An airline employee came to me and said that the box needed to be brought to a special baggage check in area and offered to take it once it was tagged. I’m Canadian so I unquestioningly follow instructions of people that seem to be in authority. I handed him the box and off he went. He came back minutes later and offered to escort us through the security line up so we didn’t have to wait in the long line. He would do this for a tip. Ok sure, I guess. We were out of rands but cobbled together a few US dollars and British pounds. He agreed and told us to wait while he went to find a wheelchair. “Wait, what?” Hang on a second. This fast track operation would require a fat tip AND a need for us to lie about our mobility ability. Ummm, no. I don’t think so. So we told him “it was fine, we don’t mind the lines.” As we approached the lengthy line up at security, I started to piece things together. Had I just handed my box of South African souvenirs to some random guy? Was he even an airline employee? What have I done? This is Africa, filthy lucre rules and many people are open to earning in all sorts of ways. Luckily, it seems that he was just a guy looking to make a buck in a society that’s so riddled with corruption that lying that you need a wheelchair to skip a line is no big deal. Much to my pleasant surprise, when we landed in Vancouver the box was with us and nothing was amiss.
It was hard to believe that after 8 months on the road, we were now starting the last leg of our trip. We were headed to South Africa, the former homeland of Monsieur and one of our favourite places to visit. This was my third visit to South Africa and we were both quite excited to share this incredible place with our kids.
The first stop on our 2.5 week stay was Cape Town. Known as The Mother City, Cape Town is one of the three capital cities in South Africa, acting as the legislative capital. Its also a city near and dear to Monsieur’s heart having spent most of his childhood summers on the beaches here learning to Body Surf and taking in the waves.
We booked ourselves an Airbnb in the seaside neighbourhood of Bantry Bay overlooking the Atlantic side of the Cape. Bantry Bay is just a 15-20 minute drive south of the CBD of Cape Town and the famous V&A Waterfront. Its a great jumping off point to explore the Cape as there is so much to see.
We booked a direct flight from Frankfurt to Cape Town flying 12 hours through the night arriving mid-morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Monsieur was all primed to drive on the left side of the road after our stay in the UK. Navigating from the airport to Bantry Bay was relatively easily between Google Maps and Monsieur’s memory, though much has changed since our last visit here 13 years ago.
After dropping our bags at the rental house and cleaning up a bit, we took a drive to visit our cousins L & H down in Kommetjie (pronounced coma-key). We took the kids through the enclave of Clifton Beach, through the stunning Camps Bay with a view of the incredible Twelve Apostle mountain peaks and over the famous Chapman’s Peak. The latter a vertiginous cliff-top, seaside drive towards Cape Point on the Cape of Good Hope.
L gave us some directions to stop at their local beach in Kommetjie before we were expected at their house. This wild beach with a fabulous break was full of after work surfers. It was amazing to see this wild beach so close to a big city like Cape Town. Perhaps this is part of the Cape Town charm. You have such wild and tumultuous natural spaces like this juxtaposed so closely with a world class, global city. Littered with bull kelp and plenty of salty sea spray, Kommetjie is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help but marvel that if this were in North America, there would be skyscraper hotels lining this beach, not rows of quaint beach cottages and surf shacks.
Our second day in Cape Town was devoted to a walk down memory lane for Monsieur and Granny. We took a drive over the north end of Table Mountain, past the Rhodes Memorial and on to Muizenberg (pronounced Mu-zen-berg). A small surf town overlooking False Bay and depending on who you ask, the Indian Ocean side of Cape Point. Technically, the southern most point of Africa is actually Cape Agulhas located southeast from Cape Town. However, the romantic division between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans continues to be the Cape of Good Hope.
Driving through Muizenberg, Monsieur and Granny noted many changes but were amazed and at how little had changed at all. South Africa is not a country where infrastructure improvements happen with any speed at all. Instead we found a beach with several of its famous, colourful beach boxes falling down in disrepair.
While it was the middle of winter it was a sunny day and the surf was breaking in False Bay, so there were plenty of folks beachside to catch a wave including a large gang of would-be surfers from the Muizenberg Surf Emporium gathered for a class. Much too cold and great white shark-y for our tastes, we popped into the shop instead to collect some surf-enirs (see what I did there) for friends back home.
For lunch, we headed south along False Bay towards Kalk Bay. We stopped at a fish and chips shop right on the wharf called Kalkys. Nothing fancy, it was order at the counter and sit at picnic tables. Kalkys clientele was definitely the fishermen coming off the boat, so there was no excuse for frozen fish here. There was plenty of selection of locally caught seafood; snoek, hake, calamari, prawns and even octopus.
Filled to the gullet with fried food, we continued driving south towards Simon’s Town – home of the South African Navy and on to Boulders Beach. Boulders is home to a colony of endangered African Penguins and offers a fantastic visitor experience with boardwalks through the massive granite boulders, along the beach to best view the birds. We were all happy to see the funny little penguins up close and waddling around and get our first taste of South African wildlife.
That evening we were treated to another yummy home cooked dinner, this time with Monsieur’s Auntie T. The main reason we added South Africa to our trip was so we could visit Auntie T and help her celebrate her 80th birthday which had been postponed a year due to Covid. Auntie T lives in the V&A Waterfront and took us on a walk to visit her resident seal colony. V&A Waterfront is a genius bit of development with several cool hotels, a vast shopping complex, an aquarium, a food market, a fabulous local craft and products market just to name a few of the attractions. Auntie T is our Queen of Cape Town having lived here her whole life, serving as a Counsellor and Mayor of the city in the 90s. She has a fantastic knowledge of the city and we made a plan to visit some art studios with her the following day.
Leaving the kids at the Airbnb with wifi and devices, Monsieur, Granny and I headed out on an adventure with Auntie T. She first took us to visit the ceramics studio of her friend Clementina van der Walt. Unfortunately Clementina was away on holiday in of all places, Canada. We were sad to miss her, but we did enjoy visiting with her apprentice Adonis N’sele Mumpango. He is from the Congo and was working on some of his own ceramic pieces drawing on Congolese artistic traditions. It was a lovely visit, I just wished that some of his pieces were finished so we could take one home!
Our second stop on the Auntie T adventure brought us to one of my most favourite places in Cape Town, MonkeyBiz. Founded in 2000 by Barbara Jackson, Shirley Fintz and Mathapelo Ngaka the goal of MonkeyBiz is “economic upliftment”. They hire people, many women who can’t find other employment, to work as artists creating traditional beadwork. They can work from home and are empowered by the MonkeyBiz community to seek financial independence. Initially they started with the mandate to hire HIV positive women who struggled to find work. Its now expanded to employ all genders who need a helping hand. The beadwork is incredible and much more elaborate than any other tourist trap beadwork I’ve seen. Each piece from MonkeyBiz is a one-of-a-kind piece of art.
We first visited MonkeyBiz in 2004 in their studio in the BoKaap. When we returned in 2008, they had opened a stand alone shop just down the street. Covid was not kind to MonkeyBiz and they were now relocated into a studio space shared with famous South African table wear designer Carroll Boyes in an industrial park. Carroll was partners with Barbara Jackson, both have since passed away but the incredible synergy between the two brands remains and you can find MonkeyBiz pieces in Carroll’s stores around the world.
To me, MonkeyBiz is an inspiring story. Three women came together to address an issue in society, with poverty alleviation as a mandate but also encouraging and promoting the locally acquired cultural artistry. Its fascinating to see how they have evolved and we were very happy to be in a position where we could help support them in a small way by buying some more pieces – this time some very sweet Christmas decorations.
On our fourth day in the Mother City, we picked up our young cousin L who happens to be around the same age as The Little Kid. We took all the kids over to the V&A Waterfront. Our plan was a stop to pick up some safari supplies and some cozy pj pants for the Little Kid. We did all that and Monsieur insisted that for lunch we have Steers Burgers. With apartheid, many brands left or boycotted South Africa, leaving the country to develop its own homegrown cache of products and brands. This is why any city with a sizeable South African community can easily sustain a shop selling all the favourites; Mrs. Ball’s Chutney, Flings Snacks, Jelly Tots and always biltong (South African dried meat) to name a few. Steers is the South African McDonald’s but with a slightly better reputation. It was a dirty fast food lunch, but it was one we could only get there so Monsieur was very happy!
After lunch, we walked with the kids over to see The Watershed Market. A fantastic collection of over 150 artisans selling arts, crafts and other local products. We loved getting a look at some of the fantastic African carvings, bead work, baskets and canvases. We loved this indoor spot to shop for great souvenirs and African artwork. The other great place in Cape Town for this sort of shopping is downtown at Green Market Square. Also an amazing destination for African handicrafts, but somehow the Watershed was a little less chaotic and feels safer.
That evening we had planned to meet L & H for dinner at a steak house in Camps Bay. It was a well timed plan as there was a scheduled power outage between 8-10pm. Load shedding is a fact of life across South Africa at the moment. The crumbling power infrastructure has left the country with not enough power to go around to the 60 million plus residents so scheduled power outages are necessary to stretch the limited supply. The restaurant was packed as flashlight carrying residents made the decision to eat out since there would be no power to cook with at home. Most restaurants have generators to kick in when the load shedding occurs. Around 8pm the power went off in the restaurant and seconds later the generator kicked in and powered everything back up. We would hardly have noticed besides the fact that it was so dark outside. We preferred to languish over dinner rather than brave the roads with all the traffic lights out.
The real highlight over dinner was meeting Tonda. Tonda was the manager of the restaurant and a member of Xhosa tribe. She is a firecracker of energy and joy. We immediately fell in love and were absolutely smitten when she took one look at the Little Kid and sized them up perfectly.
“Can you tell me where the washroom is?” The Little asked.
”Well,” said Tonda “You go outside and turn left. There you’ll see a big tree. You squat there!”
The Little turned as pale as can be. “This IS Africa.” Tonda boomed.
The Little burst into laughter, as did all of us. Then Tonda taught us a little Xhosa, an amazing language with 3 separate click sounds. A fabulous cultural experience right there in that steak house in the dark. We were super grateful that Tonda was so willing to share with us.
Our final day in Cape Town was a busy one. Our cousin R invited us to have lunch with her and her daughter M in Kalk Bay. We met at the eclectic, yet delicious Olympia Cafe. It was good that we ate a solid meal, because we needed it for the next stop. Conveniently located just upstairs from the cafe is Kalk Bay Modern. Another haven for impeccable locally made art, jewelry and other handicrafts it was a feast for the soul. From fabulous embroidered tapestries to contemporary Bushman art to captivating canvases, Kalk Bay Modern was teeming with amazing original pieces. We were most taken with Patrick Makumbe, a Zimbabwean artist who’s work captures such humanity through colour and subject. What a treat to visit such a great incubator of Southern African art and artists.
Finally, to close out our amazing stay in Cape Town we hosted dinner for all our local family in the Airbnb. Our fabulous host connected us with Nicole who cooked one of the best meals of our trip. Believe me I’ll be first in line when Nicole finally publishes her cookbook. It was out of this world. We were very happy that we could have all 10 cousins, Auntie T and all of us for a feast. It was fun to host again, especially with Nicole cheffing it up in the kitchen so I didn’t have to lift a finger!
We were sad to say farewell to Cape Town. We had so much fun getting to know our Capetonian family better and were thrilled to see a different side of the city. In the chilly, rainy and wintry weather we were able to explore the more artistic nooks and crannies rather than our usual beaches and wineries. Although we did wish we had more time so we could show the kids some of the very old wineries of Constantia and the stunning landscapes of Paarl and Franschhoek. We decided that next time we needed to allow more time and return for the summer/ fall months when we could take better advantage of the amazing landscape.
We had such a great time in London at the beginning of our trip that we thought it would be good to get back there for a bit of an extended stay. We have lots of old friends and family there and besides its f**king London and its awesome. Luckily we could spare the time, because our schedule was packed. We could’ve easily spent another week.
The drive from The Cotswolds was super easy. Monsieur had mastered the art of driving on the left side of the road and I had mastered the art of not constantly wanting to adjust the rear view mirror. We had honed these skills in the peaceful countryside and truth be told, we were a little anxious about exercising them in the city. Especially a city well known for formidable traffic.
We arrived late-morning on a Friday and we only screamed at the kids around 6 or 7 times. Why is absolute silence needed in these hairy driving moments? We pulled up in front of our hotel (we splurged on a posh one that we like to call Clams) in our Volkswagen hatchback rental. Four Canadians fell out of the car along with several Starbucks cups and chip bags (English snacks are pretty great) to find the front of the hotel cordoned off behind red velvet ropes and the street blocked by hordes of teenagers and paparazzi. I wasn’t daunted and wove my way around the throngs to find the sweet doormen that helm the entrance of our beloved Clams. I tapped him on the shoulder and in my best stage whisper said “We’re checking in?”
”Well, then!” He bellowed, “Let’s get you sorted!”
And that was that. In we were swept through the masses of people waiting for someone far more famous than we could imagine and found our way to the front desk, leaving our VW hatchback parked out front next to the Bentley. We would be leaving to return it to the rental agency soon enough. The Front Desk Clerk welcomed us with a big smile. “Who is it?” I said. “Is it J Lo and Ben?” He looked down and shook his head. “I can’t say.” I started wracking my brain. I do love a challenge. Who on earth would warrant such a showing of rabid fans and paparazzi in the middle of the day? “Beyoncé?” Another head shake “I can’t say.” I know! “Kim Kardashian?” He wavered “I can’t say.” Its not Kim. “Its one of her sisters?” He glowed red. EUREKA! Now which one…. Turns out it was Kylie, Stormy and Travis Scott. We only needed to wait a minute to hear the crowds roaring outside for them. Personally a Jenner/ Kardashian sighting doesn’t thrill me in the least, but the Little Kid was suitably impressed. Score another point Clams!
We never did see the Scott/ Jenners in the flesh. To be fair, I’m sure that they were sneaking out by the dumpsters. THE most glamorous lifestyle if you don’t mind the stench of garbage.
Monsieur and I deposited the starstruck Little Kid and the non-plussed Big Kid up in the room and headed back out on the streets. By then the paps had all but disappeared and only a few diehard fans were camped out waiting for the famous(er) folks to return. We had the pleasure of continuing our journey back to the car rental place across London. I navigated well enough that we barely fought and successfully dropped the car. We were glad to be back on foot and car-less in the big city. Between London’s amazing Tube network, prolific black cabs and Uber we wouldn’t miss it at all.
As I mentioned, we had a packed schedule while in London. In addition to all the fun, we were preparing for the last stop on our trip (more on that later) so we had lots of little missions to accomplish. Luckily we were able to tick them all off the to do list within just a few blocks of the hotel.
We planned an afternoon hang out with our friends D & J on the Saturday afternoon. We met them in Camden Town right in the middle of the Saturday mayhem. They led us on a walk that looped us up to the top of Primrose Hill to take in the view of the whole city. We carried on down the hill and met up with the canal walking through the zoo section of Regent’s Park. We stuck to the cooler canal side and eventually looped back to the Camden Lock. It was a fun side of London that you can only really see on foot.
We had booked dinner at an Indian restaurant near Covent Garden called Cinnamon Bazaar. We missed ALL the Asian food while travelling around Europe and we were gonna make up for it goddamnit! So D & J as true Londoners, took us on another adventure. We took the tube to Tottenham Court Road station and continued the journey on foot through the Seven Dials traffic circle and on to Neal’s Yard. How charming is that place? Not JUST because it’s home to Monty Python’s first crash pad/ studio/ workplace or whatever, but because there’s some very cool little wine bars and pubs nestled into the courtyard. We picked the first one that had enough seats for our 6 bums and tucked into some super yummy natural wine. I think it was called Casanova & Daughters. It was great and we were YET AGAIN grateful to D & J for showing us a side of London we had never seen. Before we knew it our reservation was coming up fast and we needed to hightail it to dinner. On foot again, D would shout out things like “That place has a great beer selection.” Or “The Indian food there is the best.” I wished I had filmed the whole speed walk to dinner because I can’t remember any other delicious and important-for-future-trips-to-London sort of details. And in case you were wondering, the Indian food at Cinnamon Bazaar was pretty damn good too.
Following dinner, we spilled onto the streets of Covent Garden and found our Uber who drove us through a very busy Saturday night in Soho. We saw some stuff that was new for the Little. “I think that guy was dancing in the window butt naked?” They said. Indeed he was Little, indeed he was. Clearly Covid was in the rear view mirror here in London and I wasn’t about to adjust it to get a better look.
On Sunday morning, we had to divide and conquer our little team. Monsieur and the Little headed out on the Tube towards Heathrow to meet our soon-to-be-arriving Granny. The Big Kid and I headed to Selfridges on the errand train – we needed to pick up some cosmetics, a birthday gift and a new piece of luggage. We were successful, including a scratch and dent suitcase marked down to £100, which is a bargain anywhere let alone at Selfridges. We marvelled at all the people whiling away their Sunday, juggling multiple bags from Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and others. Fancy pantsy in a way that we just didn’t encounter in Paris. The level of wealth in Mayfair is unreal. Makes Beverly Hills look like a trailer park. I lost count of the Rolls, Maybachs and Bentleys parked on the street.
Granny arrived without a hitch and like a champ powered through her jetlag. We had a lovely dinner with Monsieur’s cousins. It was so pleasant to sit at someone’s home for a casual, chatty dinner. I couldn’t remember the last time we had experienced that luxury.
Monday was a special day. It was our wedding anniversary and I decided to celebrate by getting my highlights touched up. Romantic right? See, I told you London was fully of errands. It had been 10 weeks since my last visit to the salon back in Paris and it was clearly time. So Monsieur obliged.
The afternoon was spent touring Buckingham Palace. We felt lucky as the Palace is only open to tourists for a couple of months in the summer. It was especially poignant to visit during Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee year. Now that she’s passed away, it was a big memory for our kids who felt especially connected to this historical moment after having been there so recently. The Big Kid is also a very big fan of all things Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, so she enjoyed the chance to view the portraits and revisit their history with the Palace.
Feeling suitably cultured, coiffed and having fed the kids and Granny Gran with take-away Nando’s, Monsieur and I headed to Knightsbridge for another Indian dinner. This time at Amaya, a Michelin starred Indian tapas restaurant that was very good. I’m not much for a Michelin star restaurant – too foamy and truffle-y. But Amaya was lovely.
Tuesday we took the morning off to chill out a bit because we had a big afternoon planned. We were going to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour. Located about an hour northwest of London in Leavesden, we struggled a bit with how to get there and opted to take a black cab. This worked pretty well as we were able to get all 5 of us in and it was about the same price as the train tickets. For the return, the only really viable option was to take the shuttle bus to Watford Junction Station and then hop on the train to London Euston Station. It was a super quick trip back and if we were to do it again, wouldn’t hesitate to do the train/ shuttle bus route. You can’t miss the double decker shuttle buses – they have Harry plastered all over the sides of them.
The Studio Tour was amazing. We are big Potter fans (books and films) so were very impressed with just how in depth this tour is. It includes many of the major movie sets, props and costumes. It was impressive and was definitely worth the price of admission for the three hour tour. We finally got back to Clams and had hamburgers in the bar before we fell into bed for the night. It was a big outing and one everyone loved it.
Wednesday was spent exploring Oxford Circus and Regent Street searching for back to school clothes and replacing all the things that the Little had grown out of over the past three months. Later, we took a taxi up to Notting Hill to have a poke around Portobello Road. It was fun to peak into the little goofy shops mixed in with cute brocantes/ antiques. We also popped into visit Yottam Ottolenghi’s tiny Notting Hill outpost where we picked up some fun spices including his own Za’atar.
Craving a pie we decided we needed to find a good pub for lunch. This sounds like it would be very easy in London. But, its sort of tricky. While pubs are everywhere, they don’t always serve food all the time and if they don’t, the kids are persona non grata. Feeling like we weren’t up for the challenge of “Let’s Find an Open Pub, Serving Food More Than Just a Burger and Will Also Serve the Kids”, we hopped a cab and headed straight to the Duke of Argyll Pub again in Soho for lunch. We knew they served a great pie from when we last visited back in March. We also tried to get the Little to down some coffee and smoke a pack of cigarettes to try and stunt their growth in an effort to reduce all the new shoes expenses we were incurring on this trip. Alas, no luck. We will have to keep re-investing in shoes for this Little goober for many more years to come it seems.
The big highlight on this day was that the Kids decided that they were tired of errand running and weren’t interested in boring shopping at Whole Foods and Nespresso and asked if they could head back to the hotel on their own. We were about a 15 minute walk away. The Big Kid was cool with the challenge and felt confident that with the help of Google Maps, she knew the way. So off they went, into the heart of Soho. I didn’t know whether to dance a jig or bawl my eyes out. I was so proud that they were ready to stretch their newly earned travel muscles on their own, but a little heartbroken that they were growing up so quickly before our very eyes. You two sure you don’t want some coffee and smokes?
Thursday was another big day with some locals. B & A, more London-based cousins of Monsieur met us with their lovely daughters at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Our kids were happy to meet some more new-to-them relatives and were doubly glad to have some kids to hang out with.
Following St. Paul’s B guided us on another walking tour, this time South of the Thames. Crossing over the Millennium Bridge we swung past the Tate Modern (we did sneak in for a quick peek until the kids rebelled – NO MORE MUSEUMS), past Skakespeare’s Globe Theatre and onto the Borough Market passing The Clink and through some even-creepy-in-the-daytime Jack the Ripper territory. We ended up in The Old Thameside Inn for another yummy pub lunch. I would remind myself that I would return to a wheat and pie free diet when we were back on Canadian soil.
After lunch, we hopped on the Uber Boat and headed towards Canary Wharf. Unfortunately that day the boat wasn’t going as far as Greenwich our planned destination. Instead we braved the very boring and office-y Canary Wharf. With everyone a little seasick from the boat, we decided we should take the train back to Mayfair and hopped the brand new Elizabeth Line which brought us right back to Oxford Circus and steps from Clams. It was a fun Ferris Bueller-y kind of day where we saw tons and squashed a lot into a few hours.
We left all the 4 kids in the hotel room where they were very amused by the swanky Japanese toilets. The 5 adults headed to Knightsbridge for sushi at Zuma. It was pretty good but overpriced by Vancouver sushi standards. We had a nice time but were not Kardashian enough for the place to NOT be rushed out the door as soon as the meal was done. After dinner we were waiting for a cab and realized we were at the world famous Harrods. So OF COURSE we popped our noses in to have a look. I hadn’t been inside Harrods in years and we made a beeline to, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the store – The Food Hall. We picked up some chocolate because DUH, its chocolate.
Only because we’re maniacs and we were trying to pack it ALL in, we had another busy day Friday. Just in time for another serious heatwave in the UK. Temps would soar into the mid-30s just as we were heading out on another walking tour. This time the emphasis was on Victoria & Albert. Mostly for the Big Kid since she’s such a fan thanks to the PBS series about young Victoria, but we managed to enjoy it too. We walked from Clams, through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to Kensington Palace. We tried to keep to the shade and made a pit stop at the Palace gift shop of course. We wound our way back to the Albert Memorial and around Prince Albert Hall. The whole time, the guide shared with us much information about their legendary romance as well as the incredible strides that they supported into the industrial revolution. Fascinating.
Friday night was the highlight of our trip. We had booked tickets to see Coldplay at the first of their six shows at the legendary (although brand new incarnation of) Wembley Stadium. After 25+ years in the music business, I have to say that this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It was impeccable. An incredible performance from the band with state of the art production, it was like a religious experience. From the jump, the audience sang along to every word of every song. Every audience member was part of the light show with LED wristbands that created a stadium wide effect. Three different stages transported the band around to play to every seat in the house. The fireworks blasted from the roof of Wembley as the first song began and continued at various points throughout the show. Its easy to forget that this band has a repertoire of hits that rivals few others except maybe U2 and The Beatles. Every song they played in their two hour set was a hit.
It was emotional. We danced to every song and at one point during Fix You I looked at the Little whose eyes were welling with tears. “Are you ok?” I said. “I’m fine,” she said blinking. And then, “Actually, no I’m not.” And then the tears started to fall and we both cried, overcome with so much emotion charging the atmosphere. We cried with happiness being back in a place where we could share this connection with other people, with complete strangers. This band understands the power that they can wield with their audience and they used it quite expertly. It was impressive and I’ll say it again, impeccable. Every element of the show was built with thoughtfulness and intention. Bravo Coldplay.
Saturday was our last day in London. We were still a-glow post Coldplay and had planned to see Mamma Mia in the West End. I’m not sure if anything could have competed with our Friday night, but we couldn’t help but feel Mamma Mia was a little tired. We went for the kids, who loved the movie. We wished we had opted to see Hamilton instead. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.
We were very glad to have planned such a long stay in London. As you can see, we had plenty to do. London’s easy to return to and we definitely will. Now we are headed to the last country on our itinerary: South Africa!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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???
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.