French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.

San Sebastián

Jen and I visited San Sebastián on our first holiday together, way back in 2010, when we’d only known each other a few months. It was only a brief stop en route from Biarritz to Bilbao, but we absolutely loved the town and vowed to return. So when our Australian friends, Nicki and Mat, told us they were going to be in Europe for the summer a plan was formed to meet up for a week in San Sebastián.

The run up to our trip was more relaxed than Owen’s first foreign holiday – for a start our airline didn’t go bust a few weeks before we were due to fly! We must have been excited about the trip as we all woke up naturally before the alarm and were even early setting off for the short drive to Birmingham airport! Owen was on his best behaviour, and without any stress or rushing we were on the plane bound for Biarritz. Or at least we thought we were… About half an hour into the flight the captain announced that there was a problem with the plane and that we were on our way back to Birmingham! Fortunately Flybe were pretty good about things and we were back on a spare plane and on our way less than two hours after the announcement. By this time Owen was due for a nap, and managed to fall asleep as soon as the engines had started and slept through the take off and a good chunk of the flight. This second flight was uneventful, Owen was well behaved, as were the large group of school kids we’d spotted at check-in that I’d been dreading having on our flight.

The delay wasn’t really a problem, as Nicki and Mat weren’t due to land until the early evening, so we had less time to hang around in Biarritz. Just enough time to pick up our hire car and pop to the supermarket for some essentials (and a photo with the tank of crabs). I’d never realised that French supermarkets all shared the same smell, but as soon as we walked in, I was taken back to family trips to visit relatives in France as a child.

We returned to the airport to pick up Nicki and Mat, loaded up our Peugeot 5008 hire car and headed for the Spanish border. We took the slightly longer route, avoiding the motorway tolls, but got caught in the rush hour. The Airbnb was easy to find, and our host Laida was waiting outside to guide us into the very tight underground car park. At this point I was slightly regretting not opting for the excess waiver on the hire car…

The flat itself was really nice and was even equipped with some toys for Owen to play with. After unloading the car, we headed out for pintxos (Basque tapas) near the Airbnb. The bar was next to a playground, and all the local kids seemed to be out playing, so it was ideal for Owen to stretch his legs after a whole day of travelling. We all spent a lovely evening catching up.

Nicki and Mat started our first full day in San Sebastian with a run to explore town, whilst Jen and I got Owen ready for the day. After breakfast we went out to explore the city centre, a 15 minute walk down the river from our Airbnb in the Amara area of town. Rather than head into the old town we crossed the last bridge and visited Playa Zurriola Hondartza – the surfing beach. We had planned to just have a look, but Owen really wanted to have a play in the sand and a paddle in the sea! The sea was colder than I was expecting, considering how warm it was on the beach, but it still made me want to go for a surf! After washing the sand off our feet we crossed back over the river and walked round the headland to the aquarium. All the running around on the beach must have tired Owen out, as he fell asleep in the pushchair, only waking up when we stopped outside an ice cream shop. We escaped the midday heat by wandering round the narrow streets of the old town, stopping for a pintxos lunch in a cafe. As we were eating our lunch the ice cream shop next to the cafe opened – so of course we had to get an ice cream for dessert!

From the old town, we walked past the harbour to Playa de la Concha, the main town beach. We hadn’t planned on stopping at that beach either, but Owen really wanted to try out his new bucket and spade, so we had an hour on the beach, digging holes and building sandcastles. The sea was still cold at Playa de La Concha, but unlike the Playa Zurriola Hondartza, it is in a sheltered bay, so the sea was much calmer for swimming. Once again all the excitement of the beach tired Owen out and he was asleep by the time we got back to the Airbnb. We had only popped out for the morning to explore the town, but ended up spending the whole day out! Mat and Jen made a great tapas dinner and we just spent the evening chilling out.

The next morning dawned overcast, however the surf forecast for Zurriola beach was looking good – the best conditions it would be during our stay. So when Nicki and Mat got back from their run, we had breakfast, then went down to the beach. I hired a board and wetsuit from Bluemotion surf shop – they had changing rooms and showers downstairs, which was very useful. The surf conditions were a lot like Croyde at low tide – best described as punchy. I got pummelled a few times, but eventually found a slightly mellower part of the beach and managed to catch a few decent waves. Owen was mostly digging holes on the beach, but did come down to where I was surfing to watch for a little bit.

After surfing, we picked up some supplies for a picnic and took a boat trip around the bay and over to Santa Clara island, which is in the middle of the bay over from Playa De La Concha. We climbed up the hill and had our picnic before exploring the island. It was pretty quiet – I think there were more little seagulls, butterflies and little lizards than people there. We got back to the dock just as the boat was pulling away, so we retired to the cafe, then the beach to wait for the next boat back to San Sebastian. It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Airbnb, time for a quick shower and nap before heading out for pintxos.

On the way into town we came across a big protest, I assume about the “wolf pack” being released. After some wandering, we found a pintxos restaurant that looked suitably child friendly. It turned out to be a bit strange, but the food was lovely, albeit not as substantial as we were expecting, Owen started to get fed up in the restaurant, so I took him for a walk and checked out the pintxos at nearby bars. I spied some interesting bacon/egg pintxos, so had to take a couple of them for the walk home. These were probably my favourite pintxos of the week. Looking at my iPhone later that evening, I had managed to set an all time steps record of 23,363, beating my previous record which had been set in Las Vegas!

Friday I had a days mountain biking booked with BasqueMTB, which is a whole other blog post!

On Saturday we went to Bilbao, which is just over an hour’s drive from San Sebastian. We started off with a walk along the river, on the opposite bank to the famous Guggenheim museum. We found a playground for Owen, and made our plans. We didn’t think Owen would appreciate the art in the museum, and Jen and I had visited on our previous trip, so Mat and Nicki went off to the museum on their own. We stayed at the playground for a while, then went for a walk around town to try and find somewhere for lunch. Once again lunch seemed a bit confusing, but was very nice. Jen and I ended up with a whole grilled turbot to share, which the waiter filleted for us at the table. It was a bit posher than we were aiming for, but the food was lovely. After lunch, we met Mat and Nicki at the “Puppy” sculpture outside the Guggenheim. We all went for an ice cream, before checking out the sculptures on the outside of the museum, including the new Joana Vasconcelos “Solitaire”, which is a giant engagement ring made from gold alloy wheels and whisky tumblers. Of course the whole building itself is also a work of art!

From Bilbao, we followed the coast road to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an island hermitage accessed by 241 steps. I’d originally seen it on BasqueMTB’s bike hire page and thought it looked like an interesting place to visit, and it didn’t take much to convince Nicki and Mat either! We were prepared for the 241 steps to climb to the hermitage, but hadn’t been expecting the two kilometre walk down a steep hill to the bottom of the steps. The walk down was hard work, especially in the heat and with Owen in his pushchair. For the climb up to the hermitage and small church, we took Owen out of the pushchair and started off with him on my shoulders. I must have looked like I was struggling a bit, as Mat offered to take him the rest of the way to the top. The church at the top is dedicated to John the Baptist, who allegedly visited back in the day. Our visit was the day before Saint John’s day, when a big pilgrimage had been planned. It is said that ringing the church bell three times will cure you of your ills and ward off evil spirits, so of course, we each had to ring the bell three times! What ringing the bell didn’t do, was make the walk back to the car any easier! Going back down the steps with Owen on my shoulders wasn’t too bad, but the climb back up to the car park was brutal and we were all ready for dinner by the time we got back to the car.

The plan had been to call in at Mundaka, a famous surfing town just down the coast, for some food. However, when we got there the whole town seemed to be out celebrating in the street, so we figured that we would carry on as the restaurants would either be closed, or about to be very busy! We stopped in Guernica instead, a town that Jen had wanted to visit anyway. We walked into town and found somewhere to sit outside for dinner, I went for the speciality, which was a bun-less burger, with peppers. While we were waiting for our food, another protest march came past. I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence, of if they just have a lot of protests in Spain! The food was good, although I spent most of the meal wrangling a wriggly Owen. On the drive back to San Sebastian, we noticed a lot of bonfires burning, which we later learned were related to the festival of San Juan. It was quite a sight seeing the smoke rising from bonfires along the coast.

After spending most of Saturday in the car, we thought we should do something Owen wanted to do on Sunday – so we went down to Playa de La Concha to build sandcastles and play in the sea. It was a lovely warm day, and the beach was already busy by mid-morning, but we managed to find a space to lay our towels. On our previous visit, I’d looked at the pontoons floating in the bay and thought it would have been cool to swim to one of them, so this was my chance! The water was cold at first, but lovely once I was in. I was surprised to see fish swimming close to the bathers, including some fairly big fish. The pontoons were only a few hundred metres from the beach, it was an easy swim. I climbed onto the pontoon, bomb dived in, then swam back to the shore. By the time I got there, the beach looked busier, probably a combination of more people arriving at the beach and the tide coming in. I dug holes and made sandcastles with Owen, then took him down to the sea for a paddle and to look at the fish. Owen didn’t seem too convinced by paddling in the sea, possibly as it was colder than in Cyprus last year. We came back from the beach, with the idea of Owen having a nap, but he was too excited, so it was much later in the afternoon before Owen fell asleep. Jen took the opportunity to head out and explore on her own, whilst I caught up on blogging and had a nap myself. We went out for dinner by the cathedral, calling in at the park on our way home.

After the excitement of the previous evening, Owen had a lie in, so it was already past 11:00, when we set off towards the aquarium. We had been saving the aquarium as a rainy day activity, but we were lucky with the weather all week, so we saved it for the last day, despite the glorious sunshine. It was only a small aquarium, but Owen enjoyed looking at the fish, especially the octopus. From the aquarium we walked into town to hunt down some pintxos for lunch. We were successful – I think we found the best pintxos of the trip in the old town. We followed that up with the best ice cream of the trip at Gelateria Boulevard. I also treated myself to a pair of Havianas flip flops, as with all the walking on this trip my feet had been cut to shreds by my old pair.

Once again we went back to the Airbnb for a siesta. The plan had been to visit the Iguelda theme park, overlooking the town, but Owen was fast asleep and we ran out of time. Instead, we walked along the promenade to the Miramare Palace gardens. The beach was so busy, my theory was that the locals were calling in after work, as the weather was so good. We had a lovely time chilling out in the gardens, watching the world go by. Not getting covered in sand was a result too. We walked back along the beach to town, then to a bar near the Airbnb for drinks and pintxos (and a run around on the playground for Owen).

I am always a bit sad waking up on the last day of a holiday, but also looking forward to getting back to Coventry and all the comforts of home. The trip wasn’t ending for everyone though – Nicki and Mat were moving onto the next stage of their trip! They are running across the Pyrenees, on the GR10 trail. You can follow their blog and be sure to check out Nicki’s San Sebastian post. On our way back to the airport we dropped them off at the start point – in Hendaye, just over the border in France. As we had a bit of time before needing to be at the airport we parked up on the promenade and found a cafe/boulangerie for second breakfast.

The flight back to Birmingham was uneventful, Owen was well behaved and slept for the last hour, including the landing! It was strange getting home and the weather being as nice as it was on holiday. It made me want to go to the beach, then call in at a bar for pintxos, but unfortunately you can’t do that in Coventry – it was only the weather we had brought back from San Sebastián.

Cyprus: Part Three – Protaras

Despite his late night, and my even later night celebrating Partho and Marilena’s wedding, Owen was awake at 7:00 and not at all sympathetic to Daddy’s hangover. Jen took him for a walk along the beach, so I could catch up on some much needed sleep. We met Partho, Marilena and Richard for a late breakfast as we would all be going our separate ways that morning. Partho and Marilena for a minimoon in Ayia Napa, Richard over the border to Northern Cyprus (which Jen and I checked out in 2011) and we were going to Protaras for a few days relaxing. Before checking out, we took Owen for another swim in the indoor pool, which he enjoyed.

When we visited Limassol in 2011 there was a lot of building work happening near the old town – a swanky new marina was being built. We decided to have a look round and grab some lunch before settling off for Protaras. The marina was beautiful, with super yachts parked in the turquoise waters and pastel coloured villas lining the marina. I’m not sure if the boats or villas would be more expensive, but imagine that the owners have both anyway. There were regular security patrols on golf buggies, making it feel a bit like a Bond villain’s lair. We had frappes (iced coffees) sat outside Cafe Nero, as that was what the locals do. Then we went for lunch at TGI Fridays, not normally somewhere we’d go on holiday, but it was sheltered from the sun and wind and had a great view over the marina.

After lunch we drove to Protaras, taking the coastal route to Larnaca, then the motorway to Protaras. It was good to see some new parts of Cyprus – I’d previously only seen Limassol and the motorway from the airport. Some of the smaller villages were really nice, others just seemed like ramshackle hamlets. Our first impression of Protaras was driving down “the strip” to get to our hotel. It looked much like any other typical holiday resort, with English themed pubs (Only Fools and Horses bar etc) showing English football and advertising full English breakfasts. After putting Owen to bed, I popped out to the ice cream shop next to the hotel – this was to be a recurring theme of our stay.

Once again, Owen woke up at 7:00, despite our efforts to keep him on British time, so I took him for a walk. Fig Tree Bay was two minutes down the road and looked beautiful, with shallow clear water and a small island in the middle of the bay. We walked around the headland to the main beach with all the big hotels. I really liked having the promenade/boardwalk along the beach and that there were municipal sun loungers and parasols, rather than the beach being carved up by hotels for residents only.

After breakfast we took Owen to the beach for his first taste of swimming in the sea! He seemed to enjoy it, splashing away and wriggling his feet into the sand. When we got out he made friends with the couple on the sun loungers behind us, playing peekaboo and waving at them. I went back into the sea with my GoPro and swam out to the island, where there was a shelf of rock just under the water, which was a perfect place to watch the fish swimming around. There were even some pipefish swimming around, which I had never seen in the wild before. Some of the GoPro photos looked otherworldly and some even had fish in the frame.

All the swimming and playing in the sand must have tired Owen out as he had a long nap, meaning we had a late lunch. We walked back down to Fig Tree Bay, to Zefkas, for traditional Cypriot kebabs. They were amazing, probably the best food we ate all trip. Jen had pork, I had Sheiftalies (a Cypriot sausage) and Owen had halloumi and lountza -Cypriot ham. To work off our lunch we walked the length of the promenade to the other side of town, stopping for an ice cream, then back via the strip. In the evening we went to Paladela, which was just across the road, I had Pork Tavas (chunks of pork and potatoes baked in a tomato sauce), Jen had moussaka and Owen had pizza. Then when Owen was in bed I went to the ice cream shop to bring back a late night snack. Once Owen was in bed it was nice having some time to relax, sitting out on the balcony reading a book, sorting through photos or blogging.

Our last full day in Protaras was much the same as the first, except that Partho and Marilena joined us for lunch at Zefkas and a walk along the promenade. We all then joined Partho’s sister and brother-in-law at the beach, where Owen befriended some Russian kids, although I expect he was planning to steal their ball! Our evening wasn’t quite so relaxing, as we had to pack for the flight home. We still managed to have ice creams though.

The journey to the airport went without a hitch, we even had time for breakfast pizzas and a bit of shopping at the airport. We had seemingly the only empty seat on the plane next to us and Owen had a much better flight than on the way out, despite a fair bit of turbulence. We got through the airport quickly – our bags came round the carousel just as I got there, which never happens! Before embarking the long drive back to Coventry we stopped at McDonalds for a late lunch, which was Owen’s first Happy Meal, he was especially excited to be given some balloons.

Traveling with Owen was certainly different to our previous travels, we’re used to traveling light, but Owen had more stuff than both of us combined. He seemed to cope well with the food, even if he wasn’t eating as healthily as he would at home – but that is all part of holidaying, right? We did miss out on a few things, such as paddle boarding and eating later with everyone else but he certainly made the holiday more fun.

Cyprus: Part Two – The Wedding

Photo by my good friend Richard Long, as I was too busy being best man to take any photos.

After a busy build up, this was the day we had come to Cyprus for – Partho and Marilena’s wedding! I had been told that my services would not be needed until 13:00, so we had a relaxing morning, swimming with Owen. The outdoor pool was too cold for him, but the hotel had a heated indoor pool, which was perfect for Owen. It was also empty, so he could splash and squeal in delight as much as he wanted! I was going to take him in the sea, but had been told it would be better to wait until we got to Protaras for that, as the sea in Limassol is “cold” – this was from a Cypriot, who obviously hasn’t surfed in the English Channel in February!

I had been told to report to Partho’s hotel at 13:00 for the ritual shaving, a Cypriot tradition where the best man shaves the groom. Although these days it is mainly symbolic and for the photographers. Partho must have wimped out, as I merely had to help him get dressed, button up his shirt, tie his tie etc, again, all for the photographers.

After the photos we had an hour or so to kill, so we thought we would get Owen lunch, which turned into a rushed affair, with both Jen and I getting stressed that we’d be late for the ceremony. Partho actually thought I was doing it on purpose as Marilena was so late to our wedding she missed the ceremony! After the quickest outfit change for all three of us, we made it to the hotel lobby a mere six minutes late. Only to be told that the bride was behind schedule – panic over. Owen looked so smart in his blue trousers, white shirt and blue bowtie, especially as he was matching Partho and I.

At the church I didn’t realise what was going on – I’m not too au fait with British weddings, let alone Greek Orthodox ones, and all the logistics of who needed to be where etc were in Greek. Rather than the groom waiting at the alter, the bride and groom meet outside and walk down the aisle together. I eventually got the right place, next to Partho at the alter, then realised that I hadn’t been given the rings! Fortunately the best man isn’t responsible for the rings at a Cypriot wedding and the priest had them.

The ceremony was a bit of a blur, the priest did explain some bits in English to Partho, so I had a vague idea of what was going on. My best man duties were swapping the rings between Partho and Marilena’s fingers twice. I had been told I needed to do it three times, so was a bit confused there. As I was when I didn’t need to swap their “crowns” (beaded head pieces, which are tied together) – I had been told that I would need to swap them three times, and that if they were dropped the wedding had to be postponed! I also had to hold a napkin under Partho’s chin in case he dribbled when eating the holy bread and drinking the holy wine. Partho joked that I was best qualified for this as I’d had plenty of practice with Owen. One thing that surprised me about the ceremony was that the photographers and videographers where free to work during the service, even posing Partho and Marilena when the priest was talking to them. They had lights and camera dollies set up behind the alter and at points it felt more like I was in a film about a wedding, than at an actual wedding.

The wedding reception was back at our hotel, with canapés on the lawn. This was a good opportunity to try some typical Cypriot food, which was all very tasty. Even Owen ate plenty of it! As best man I was sat on the top table for dinner, but hadn’t been expecting Jen and Owen to be up there with me. Having a tired little boy on the top table was a risky strategy, but Owen seemed to take it in his stride, making friends with Partho’s sister.

I found my speech more difficult than when I was best man at my little brother’s wedding in 2015, despite Partho giving me so much material to work with over the years. The language barrier and the fact speeches aren’t usually part of a Cypriot wedding didn’t help, but Partho had decided I wasn’t getting away with not doing one. I did get a few laughs at the key moments and didn’t upset Partho, or Marilena, with my stories, so I’ll class that as a success!

After the speeches a short wedding highlights video was shown, with both Partho and Marilena getting ready, and some shots from the ceremony and reception. As a photographer I was impressed at how quickly they turned the video around. I’m also looking forward to the full wedding video and photographs, as there was much more focus on capturing the day than at a typical British wedding. I don’t envy Partho and Marilena having to choose the images they want for their album!

After the wedding we spent a few days relaxing in Protaras.

Cyprus Trip: Part One – Before the Wedding

We’re in Cyprus for a few days, to celebrate Partho and Marilena getting married. This post will cover the first part of the trip, which we spent in Limassol before the wedding.

Travelling with Owen is far more stressful than just Jen and I. We tried to get everything organised in advance, but then Monarch, the airline we’d booked with ceased trading and we had an extra stressful few days rebooking. We ended up paying double the price and having to fly from Stansted, rather than Birmingham, which made it a really long day travelling.

Owen slept all the way to the airport, but seemed to enjoy taking in all the sights of the airport – the bus from the car park, the security check, the train to the gate etc. He was mostly well behaved on the plane, but four hours is a long time for a little boy to be sat on his Dad’s lap in such an exciting environment. He made friends with a little Norwegian boy sat in front of us, and the girl sat next to me, who just happened to work in a nursery, so was used to inquisitive little boys. I felt sorry for her a bit – she was probably looking forward to a holiday away from small children!

Getting through Larnaca airport was fairly easy, apart from when Owen decided to wee everywhere when we were changing his nappy. I guess it was inevitable after he drank a bottle of water on the plane. Our “Golf or similar” turned out to be a Nissan Pulsar, which was fine, for the 45 minute drive to Limassol. For some reason Apple Maps gave us a route, but didn’t give us turn by turn directions. Then when we switched to Google Maps it insisted on spelling out the road names Greek letter by Greek letter.

Just as we got to the hotel, Partho phoned to suggest a nightcap, so it was a case of checking in, transferring the now fast asleep Owen into his cot, then straight to the bar for me to catch up with Partho and Rich, who was already at the hotel. Jen stayed with Owen, but I did bring some beers back, and it was nice to sit outside on the balcony, listening to the sea lapping against the shore.

We decided to keep Owen on UK time (Cyprus is two hours ahead), so it was 9:00 before we got to the breakfast buffet. It was lovely sitting outside on the terrace for breakfast, but it was already getting warm! After breakfast we explored the pool and beach areas and walked up to the shops to get some supplies for Owen. All the heat and excitement must have tired him out, as he was asleep by the time we got back to the hotel. Jen took the opportunity to go for a swim in the adult only pool, whilst I stayed in the air conditioned room with Owen – working on my best mans speech.

When Owen woke up we drove to the Colours Cafe at the Four Seasons hotel, where Jen and I had shared a huge ice cream sundae on our previous trip to Cyprus in 2011. The cafe had been redone recently and it looked very swanky, however the highlight was the long counter with ice cream, cakes and pastries on display! We had lunch whilst waiting for Partho and Marilena to join us for ice cream. I was surprised to see chicken curry pie on the menu, so I had to order it to share with Owen. I thought it was amazing, but Owen didn’t even want to try it – his loss was my gain. When we eventually got ice cream and cakes, Owen’s appetite had reappeared, and he did a good job helping us to polish off our chocolate sundae. Disappointingly the sundae was only half the size of the one we’d had on our previous visit. I also found out more about what my best man duties would entail, complete with a warning that if I messed up my duties during the ceremony, the wedding would have to be postponed until the next day.

After all the excitement of lunch and ice cream, Owen was ready for a nap by the time we got to the hotel so I used this opportunity to go for a swim in the sea and mess about with my GoPro. The hotel had a pontoon to avoid the rocky foreshore, so I jumped in off the end of that. The water was clear enough to see the bottom and shoals of fish swimming by. I also went for a dip in the pool, which was actually colder than the sea. Having worked up an appetite we went out in search of dinner, ending up at a German bierkeller – it wasn’t hard to find, due to the massive inflatable beer on the roof. We were able to get a table outside and all had a great meal, included Owen, who learned about dipping his food into a pot of sauce. The local stray cats must have clocked Owen, as they were waiting by his highchair, waiting for him to throw his food around. However Owen was eating really well and the cucumber slices were the only offerings for the cats. After dinner Richard and I retired to the outdoor bar for a few beers, the plan had been to give Partho a bit of a send off on his last night of freedom, but he was late getting to us as Marilena had given him some jobs to do…

The other posts from this trip are now live: Partho and Marilena’s Wedding and Relaxing in Protaras.

Long Weekend in Yorkshire

Jen’s fitness goal for 2017 was to run the York 10km race, and as our main family holidays were earlier (Croyde) and later in the year (Cyprus), we decided to take a few days off work and turn it into a summer mini break.

Our first stop was with our friends, Helen and Phil, in York. Phil and I, along with his son William, had been planning a bike ride whilst the girls ran their race on Sunday morning. However, that plan was vetoed, so we sent Owen and the girls into town and went for a bike ride on the Saturday afternoon instead. Phil had chosen a great route, with some off road sections and a stop at an ice cream boat! After the bike ride Phil fired up the pizza oven for a pizza party! Our other friends, Hayley and Will and their children, also joined us. The kids all had a good time together, especially once the bouncy castle was set up. Owen was the youngest there, but got stuck in playing with the bigger kids, even if he couldn’t keep up with them. We all had a lovely evening eating pizza and playing with the kids.

I woke up on Sunday with a dodgy belly – thinking that I’d disproved my theory that “there is no such thing as too much pizza”, and discovered the “pizza hangover”. However, in reality I think I’d caught the stomach bug that Owen had earlier in the week. Unfortunately he seems to have spread it to everyone he came into contact with at the weekend. Phil and I took the kids to the Knavesmire to watch the start of the race, then walked further down the course to cheer the girls on, managing to spot them in the crowd of over six thousand runners. After the race we went to Hayley and Will’s for a BBQ. I cycled over with William – I think we were both still excited about our new bikes, so didn’t need any excuses to ride them. It was less than half a mile up the road, but as William is only just starting to ride on the road I felt a great responsibility. I can’t wait until I am able to ride with Owen. Owen must have sensed this, as at the BBQ he was sat on a little trike and looked so pleased with himself. He sat on it for at least half an hour – he never sits still, so this was unheard of. After getting off the trike he crawled over to my bike and looked at it as if that was his next target now that he’d “mastered” the trike. After the BBQ we drove to our next stop an Airbnb in a secret valley in the North York Moors. It really was in a secret valley – located about a mile from the nearest road, but the hosts were lovely and the cottage was perfect for the three of us.

I woke up feeling much better and snuck off for an early morning bike ride. The Airbnb was on some trails mentioned in my Good Mountain Biking Guide book – this was genuinely a complete coincidence! As I didn’t want to eat too much into our day, I did a shortened loop, which started with a brutal climb up through some sheep fields. Looking back towards the Airbnb I could see how it got its “Secret Valley” name – you couldn’t see it at all! The next section of trail was really boggy and just as difficult as the climb. Fortunately the return leg was much more fun, except for the part where I came round a corner and hit another boggy section. The bike stopped dead, but I carried on into the bog. By the time I got back down to the secret valley I was covered in mud, but had a big smile on my face.

After a quick shower we went to Helmsley to meet another of our friends, Els, who had got the bus out to meet us. After a brief tour of Helmsley and some elevenses we all set off to the seaside! When we got to Scarborough we quickly checked off a lot of the traditional seaside activities – fish and chips, 2p machines and slightly disappointing funfair, before heading onto the beach. Owen loves playing in sand, so he was in his element, digging, crawling and throwing sand around etc. I’m sure he could have stayed there all afternoon, but we had to meet Jen’s cousin Virginia, who we have stayed with on previous trips to Scarborough.

We had a nice catch up before driving back to the Airbnb. Before dinner, we had a visitor to the cottage – Vinnie, the owner’s puppy, who befriended Owen. They crawled around the cottage after each other and seemed to be having a great time together. All the reviews had mentioned how good the food was, so we were very excited about dinner. We had lamb tagine with roast potatoes, and homemade bread to mop up the sauce. All of the ingredients came from the farm, from the lamb, to the pickled wild garlic seeds and the wildflower garnish. It was one of the best meals we’d ever had! Jen has said that she is going to try and recreate it sometime – which I am looking forward to. For dessert we had mille feuille and the custard was infused with flowers from the local hedgerows. It wasn’t something I would have chosen from a menu, but I really enjoyed it.

Our last day in Yorkshire started with a pre-breakfast walk up the farm track, with Owen on my back, to see a calf that we’d noticed on our way out to Helmsley the day before. When we got to the field it mooed at us, then walked over to see us. It certainly liked the attention. We had breakfast at the Airbnb, which was just as good as dinner the previous evening. I was actually quite sad to be leaving the secret valley, I could have spent another day there.

The original plan had been to call in at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on the way home, but given that the weather forecast was for heavy rain we decided to go to York Designer Outlet for some shopping. It was Jen who wanted to go shopping, but me that ended up buying loads of things – new work shoes and Jen’s Christmas present, which she had already been dropping lots of hints about. The real winner was Owen, as you can hire little cars to wheel kids about in – he absolutely loved it! After pizza for lunch we drove back to the shire, the heavy rain didn’t let up until we got to Nuneaton for a quick stop off with Jen’s Mum and Dad. All the way down the motorway I had been trying to work out if I could get the car back home just as it clicked over to 75,000 miles, but the odometer just clicked over to 74,999 as I pulled onto the drive.

Long Weekend In San Francisco

After dropping the Dodge off at San Francisco airport we got the metro into town, checked into the wonderful Triton hotel, but we headed straight out again – we had a baseball game to go to!

We hadn’t managed to get to a sporting event when we were in New York in 2013, so a ball game was high on the list for this trip. The AT&T stadium has got a great view over the bay and some tasty fast food options – we got to have our first corndogs. The game was a bit boring – at one stage they went well over an hour without anyone hitting the ball, but the atmosphere made the experience worthwhile.

The next morning we had an early start – Jen was doing Parkrun, a 5km run that happens at 9am on Saturday mornings in parks all over the world. The San Francisco Parkrun is a lot smaller than Jen’s regular Coventry Parkrun, it is also the furthest west, so the last one in the world. The run was held at Chrissy Fields, a large park alongside the bay, from the city to the Golden Gate Bridge, so whilst Jen was running I was taking my first photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Jen finished 29th – technically her highest ever finishing position, but also the last in the world that day! We had breakfast with some of the other runners at Chrissy Fields, then walked along the bay to Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the main touristy areas of San Francisco. From there we took the old-school tram to the Ferry Building, which is now a hipster food market, where we had a tasty Mexican lunch. After lunch we had our first experience of the famous San Francisco Trolley Cars. We rode from Market Street, up California Street as far as China Town, then walked back to the hotel. After such a busy morning, we had a relaxing afternoon, a spot of shopping on Market Street and wine at the hotel (the hotel provides complimentary wine in reception from 5-6pm) before heading out to a highly recommended restaurant for dinner. The speciality at the Stinking Rose is garlic, but that didn’t seem to put people off, they were queuing out the door – even with a reservation we had to wait a while for our table. The food was worth the wait, we shared a sort of garlic fondue to start, then for main I had garlic meatloaf and Jen had forty clove garlic chicken.

Our second full day in San Francisco was a very touristy day, starting with a ride on the cable car to the top of Lombard Street. We walked down the iconic windy road and from there back to Fisherman’s Wharf where we boarded a boat for a cruise around the bay. We hadn’t been able to book on a tour of Alcatraz, but the cruise around the bay was a good alternative – we had a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge and learned a lot about the bay area. A highlight for me was seeing pelicans skimming across the water in tight formation. Later we had lunch at an amazing bakery; I had a pizza, although I think Jen’s chowder in a sourdough loaf looked like a better choice. After lunch we went to see the famous Pier 39 Sea Lions, they felt more like a tourist attraction than the sea lions in Monterey. Pier 39 was the closest we saw to a British seaside town. From Fisherman’s Wharf we got the restored 1930’s tram to Market Street, then transferred onto a modern tram across town to Golden Gate Park. The park was a lot calmer than either the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or the hustle and bustle of Market Street, although when we got to the bottom of the park we stumbled across a music festival. My favourite part was the Japanese garden, which felt a lot like ones I have listed in Japan. To refuel after a long day of sightseeing we went to Mikkeller Bar, where we had food with beer pairings – very similar to when we were in Copenhagen a few years previously.

Monday started with a traditional diner breakfast – we needed the fuel, as we were off on a bike over the Golden Gate Bridge! After breakfast we got back on the cable car, all the way to Fishermans Wharf, where we collected our bikes for the day. We retraced our steps from Saturday to Chrissy Fields, and continued along the coast to Fort Point, an old military fort, pretty much underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort overlooked the narrow entrance to the bay – you could see why it was such a strategic point and why there would have been hundreds of cannons pointing out towards the water. From the fort it was a steep climb up to the Golden Gate viewing point, where we stopped for some photos before crossing the bridge. After climbing up the hill, riding across the bridge and down into Sausalito was easy. It was only when we got to Sausalito that we realised just how many people had cycled over the bridge – the town was full of bikes! We had a nice lunch in a deli and some drinks by the bay, before catching the ferry back to San Francisco. Just a word of warning for anyone doing this in future – the ride to Sausalito is either off road, or on quiet roads, but the ride back from the ferry to Fishermans Wharf is on the city roads – including tramlines. After freshening up at the hotel, we got the cable car back to Fisherman’s Wharf for another wine tasting. The wine tasting was even better than in Santa Barbara. I’m not a wine connoisseur, I rarely drink it, but even I could taste how good some of it was – we bought a zinfandel, which was by far the best wine I’ve ever tasted. We spent so long wine tasting that the restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf  were pretty empty, but we managed to get our last clam chowder in a sourdough bowl of the trip.

We didn’t have anything planned for the last day of our honeymoon, our flight wasn’t until the late afternoon, so we had another walk around the shops on Market Street and Union Square. Following many recommendations from friends at home, we went to the Cheesecake Factory for our last meal in California. I tried to be healthy by having a salad, but even that was massive. I still had room left for a huge slice of Oreo Cheesecake, but only just.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 12: To San Francisco

Our last day with the Dodge Challenger started with another run up the CA-41 to Yosemite, then west along the CA-120 back towards San Francisco. There was a section of road west of Groveland which was a series of hairpin bends descending thousands of feet into the valley which I really enjoyed. So much for America only having straight roads!

We dropped the Challenger off at San Francisco airport having added 1677 miles onto the clock – it had been a great car for the trip. With the road trip done it was time to start the second part of our honeymoon, a long weekend in San Francisco.