Our travelling Advent Calendar

Anyone who knows Cass knows that he’s not that into Christmas. Before we had kids, we just took it as time to spend with family and ignored the rest of it. Since the kids have been born, he’s had to relinquish some of his grinchyness, and I’ve taken it upon myself to keep some fun and magic alive for the kids at Christmas time.

While we have no religious connection to Christmas, for me it’s still a special time at the end of the year where you can take some time out from normality to enjoy the company of loved ones and reflect on what the year has meant to us. In Australia our Christmas fun usually means a tree made from the branch of a eucalypt with handmade decorations and lots of social gatherings. The kids always beg me for a chocolate advent calendar (and I always cave in).

This year we are travelling. It’s now 21 days until Christmas and we still don’t know exactly where we’ll be. (How exciting?!) I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate some Christmas fun into our travelling. Without descending into materialism or sugar-induced peaks and troughs, I wanted to have an advent calendar of sorts that would fit in my suitcase and wouldn’t be about more plastic crap.

Some of my friends and family over the years have created the most beautiful advent calendars, crafted with care and thought – some sewn, some painted. I love to make things as much as anyone, but I needed something compact and portable.

So this is what I’ve come up with.

The kids each have a small envelope. Each morning when they wake up, there’s a new note inside. The notes are like vouchers. They can use them whenever they are ready (even after Christmas) and they have written on them some of the things the kids love to do, but they don’t always get the chance. They are both different so they can also trade them with each other if they want to. The aim is to give them things that bring us together, don’t involve buying a toy, and aren’t all about poor-quality compound chocolate.

Some of the things that have been on the notes so far:

  • Play a game of cards – the idea is that I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to play instead of telling them I’m too busy.
  • Choose what to have for dinner tonight – this is a good one in our family as dinner is a constant source of argument.
  • The parents will cook a fancy breakfast of your choice – they haven’t cashed this one in yet – I’m pretty sure they’ll ask for French Toast.
  • Choose a movie to rent on iTunes for us all to watch together
  • Choose a treat for us all to share at a pastelería

I’m still brainstorming what to put on the rest of them, but I like thinking of the ideas as much as the kids love opening them in the morning.

Yesterday, La Chica said to me, ‘Mum, why haven’t we done this sort of Advent Calendar in Australia? It’s so much better!’

It looks like this might become a tradition that sticks.

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A craft beer pilgrimage in the heart of London

It’s been said that there are three sure signs that you’re a hipster – 1) Denying that you’re a hipster, (so basically you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t), 2) claiming to have done all the cool stuff before it became cool, and 3) having a beard, apparently.

Now, I have a beard, I grew it years before all those would-be-lumberjack, sculpted-facial-hair-and-excessive-tattoo-sporting inner-urban fashionistas made it cool, and I’m definitely not a hipster. But I don’t mind a bit of craft beer…

Which is why I found myself, one weekend in August, meandering along an alleyway in Sarf Lundun with a group of fearless companions on the trail of the Bermondsey Beer Mile. The accepted wisdom is that you start the Mile from the southern end, near South Bermondsey Railway Station, and work your way in a vaguely northward direction in an ever-increasing state of inebriation until you fall into the Thames.

No, hang on, that was just me. .. most people who do The Mile are far more responsible and genuinely interested in sampling the diverse array of beer styles and varieties available from the microbreweries found along this informal but increasingly popular trail. From fruity hops-laden IPAs, to rusty malt-heavy porters, or dense whole-meal-in-a-glass stouts, anyone who’s ever enjoyed a quiet ale will be able to find something to their taste somewhere along the route.

We started our odyssey not far from South Bermondsey Station at Fourpure Brewing Co. It’s worth noting that this area the heartland of one of England’s most notorious football clubs – Millwall – and Fourpure is just around the corner from the club’s home ground. Over several decades Millwall fans have built a reputation for brute violence and general hoodlum-ery. We were advised by our intrepid guide to tread carefully while in the area because it was a match day at The Den. The local pubs were overflowing and most patrons had the club coat of arms permanently inked onto their bodies somewhere.

I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Millwalleans, despite their thuggish reputation, ever since one of their number confronted three knife-wielding terrorists with only his fists during the Borough Market attack in June this year, with a cry of “Eff you, I’m effing Millwall!” (censored for the benefit of sensitive readers). This show of foolish bravery in the face of mindless violence saved the lives of several people at the scene, but did little, perhaps, to soften Millwall’s reputation. It did, however, make me feel much more well-inclined towards them as I passed through their sovereign territory, although it didn’t mean that our host’s advice went unheeded as we tip-toed our way past The Blue Anchor under the watchful eyes of 50 or more tattooed Lines loyalists, who were in the process of getting lagered up before the big game.

But I digress…

Over the course of the next five hours our journey took us on a circuitous route shadowing the elevated rail line through the light industrial laneways of London’s inner-south. I won’t bore you with detailed descriptions of the premises, or wax lyrical with masturbatory tasting notes. To be honest, the details get a bit blurry after the second stop (must have been a bit of a virus or something). Suffice to say that I didn’t taste a bad lager, ale or stout during the whole adventure, and I tasted more than a few.

Apart from Fourpure, which was a great start that really set a positive tone for the day, highlights from an afternoon dedicated to the appreciation of the brewer’s art include:
Brew by Numbers, whose unique method of categorising their brews through a combination of numbered codes to designate the individual batches – e.g. 08(style)|05 (recipe) = Stout|Oyster – was rendered completely incomprehensible by the several hours of alcoholic consumption that preceded our visit. Their coffee porter, however, was probably my favourite beer of the whole outing.
EeBria – Not actually a brewery, but rather a distributor of fine ales etc. But their taproom is definitely worth a visit, both for the friendly experts manning the taps and the table games, which kept our little ones occupied while we got down to the serious business of beer tasting.
Partizan Brewing – Don’t actually remember anything specific about them, but I’m sure they were great. Does that still qualify as a highlight? Probably not. Onwards!
Anspach & Hobday – By the time we arrived at A&H the Beer Mile was in full swing and there were folk spilling out onto the street. Luckily we were able to snag a table inside and thoroughly enjoyed both the atmosphere and the booze on offer.

We finished our run across the road at the Marquis of Wellington, where we filled our bellies with pizza and delicious Greek street food and tapped our feet along to the seriously talented duo playing inside. Live music was just what we needed to wind up what was a genuinely entertaining trek.

We came seeking beer, and this we found by the gallon, but the thing that struck me most profoundly during our excursion was how effectively the small businesses of London have taken up residence in this corridor and many others like it across inner-city London. A zone that in other cities would remain a sterile, under-utilised transport corridor has been turned by a growing community of entrepreneurs into a thriving artery of commercial and creative enterprise. I’m guessing that the rents for these spaces are relatively low compared to other areas of London, given the wide array of small, independent, outside-the-box outfits that inhabit them.

Apart from the various micro-breweries we came to the area to visit, we also discovered a number of awesome little food producers, distributors and/or importers that made our day on the Beer Mile even more of a fully-fledged culinary experience. Our favourites among these were:
Crown & Queue cured meats, whose Hoghton Loin and consummately prepared scotch eggs were the perfect complement to our liquid diet.
Käse Swiss – Their well-stocked counter of odiferous imported Swiss cheeses drew us to them on wing-ed feet from half a block away.
The Little Bread Pedlar, where we were able to grab a couple of incredibly crusty & delicious baguettes just before they closed up for the day, enabling us to both line our stomaches and reinforce our collective belief that life’s just too short to eat mediocre bread.
The Ice Cream Union – Seriously delicious, small batch frozen delights that had the sweet-toothed among us groaning with satisfaction.

All up it was a really fun day out – good company, great beer and some excellent little surprise finds that made it the perfect way to spend a warm sunny English summer afternoon. One of three that we experienced in the six weeks we spent in the UK.

 

Five days in Andorra – with no snow

Earlier in the year we granted La Chica’s wish to celebrate her birthday by climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. So when El Chico’s seventh birthday came up in October, we gave him the chance to choose the destination.

El Chico’s main Birthday desire was to throw a snowball; neither of our kids have ever seen snow. His shortlist was down to Alps and the Pyrenees when he heard about Andorra. Being only 468 km2 and the 16th smallest country in the world appealed to his love of eccentricities, so it was decided. That’s where we would go.

As the months progressed, it became evident that we were going to be there too early for snow. We glued ourselves to weather forecasts, asked around and made a decision to hire a car so we could drive to snow wherever it may fall. When the birthday finally came around, the closest snow we could drive to was three countries and more than a day’s drive away.

So there we were in Andorra, a country that revolves around the snow season, with no snow on the horizon. The hillsides are covered in ski slopes, our apartment came with a ski storage facility and many restaurants and businesses remain shut during the non-snow season.

We weren’t sure what to expect, or what activities we would be able to do, but from the moment we arrived Andorra proved itself to be one of the highlights of our travels so far. It was cold, but the sun shone almost the whole time we were there.

So, what is it about Andorra that carved itself into our hearts, without a skerrick of snow?

Walking

Andorra’s walking trails are some of the best we’ve come across in Europe. There are long trails traversing the entire country, there are smaller trails leading up to alpine lakes and there are trails that connect the towns and villages. They are all well-marked and take you into the hidden heart of Andorra. We did a variety of walks. All of them magical in their own way. Our two favourites were:

Parc Natural de la Vall de Sorteny

This was a tip we were given by a local and it was incredible. From here you can take a number of walks. We chose the one labelled ‘Botanical Walk’. Heading up the hill beside a steady stream with a number of waterfalls, there were options to divert from the wider fire trail and head onto rocky single trails that lead you into the forest and along the streams. There are towering sculptures and panoramic views. If not for our intense hunger, we would have stayed longer. The kids played creating cairns and nature art and loved exploring the narrow trails.

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Vall d’Inces

I stumbled across this trail on my morning run and fell in love with it. So after running it in the morning, I brought the family back and we walked it with a picnic lunch. We took a different route up to the campground and the kids giggled as they hopped over the board walks crossing the streams. After our picnic at the top of the world, the kids climbed and played on the rocks while we sat on the grass and soaked up the sunshine. The air up there was clear and the sun shone brightly through it. All in all it was a perfect day out.

Rock-climbing

For a birthday present for El Chico, we booked a lesson at Bloc Cafe Indoor Rockclimbing. We had a private lesson for the four of us with an excellent instructor who gave taught us some useful techniques we wouldn’t have known otherwise. He also gave us a number of  tips for places to explore in Andorra. Although I’m definitely not a natural, both the kids took to rock climbing like ducks to water. They then attempted to climb every rock surface they could find in Andorra. They’re hooked. If we had stayed longer, we would have booked some outdoor climbing. Something for next time!

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Lookouts

The Mirador Roc del Quer is a spectacular lookout that is well known by travellers to Andorra. It was worth dealing with the crowds even in the off-season, as it was a mesmerising sight looking down on the valley of Canillo. The sun was at that golden angle that makes everything glow. I bet it is also a gorgeous spot at dawn, another thing for next time.

We found a number of other lookouts on our drives around Andorra. Each of them had their own beauty and woah-factor. Sometimes we even just stopped at random moments on the side of the road for a look. Andorra is a truly picturesque country from every angle.

Shopping

Andorra is a Co-Principality ruled by two princes. One Prince is the President of France and the other is the Bishop of Urgell in Spain. The unusual form of Government in Andorra has led to some similarly unusual tax implications. Up until 2016 there was no Income Tax or Capital Gains Tax. At this stage Andorrans are still without Value Added Tax (VAT) found in many other EU nations leading to a steady influx of people coming to Andorra for cheap alcohol and cigarettes. This has led to some very interesting shops peddling their tax-free goods.

I would never usually suggest shopping as an activity to do while travelling, it’s just not my style, but Caves Manacor is something that needs to be seen to be believed.  Categorised on Google as a supermarket, Caves Manacor is unlike any supermarket I have experienced. Three stories packed to overflowing. The first floor packed to the brim with every type of alcohol I could think of, a salami tasting wall, a cheese corner and a giant area of chocolate and lollies including chupa-chups bigger than my head. The second floor is full of copper stills and other cooking items and the third floor is reserved for tobacco products. There is not a spare space anywhere and I feel like you have to go here at least once if you are in Andorra.

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Eating

Many cafes and restaurants were closed until the ski season, but of the open eateries, Cafe La Neu was our favourite.

On our way back from Sorteny (see above) we had worked up an incredible appetite. We spotted Cafe La Neu as we drove down the hill and what a find! Some of the best food we ate in Andorra was at this cafe and the price was perfectly affordable. They had excellent choices for the fussy kids and vegetarians in our family. Excellent food, excellent service.

On our last day we were so sad to leave and wish we’d booked an extra few nights. Just as expected it snowed exactly one week after we had left, but we had such an amazing experience that we wouldn’t change it for anything.

Some extra travel tips for Andorra:

  • Getting there – There are no airports or trains into Andorra. You’ll need to arrive by car or bus.
  • Getting around – Hire a car. There’s a lot of buses that travel in and out of Andorra, but the best parts are best explored by car. Traffic along the main road can be a nightmare even in off-season, but car is definitely the easiest way to get around.
  • Getting off the beaten track – Try leaving the main road that heads from Spain to France. Our rock-climbing instructor told us that the true beauty of Andorra lies in the country outside of the tourist areas. It turned out he was absolutely right.

DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. None of the links on this page are affiliate links.

If I was the Airbnb host I would…

A traveller’s perspective on how to be the best host

Now that we’ve stayed in over 20 units, apartments, houses, farms, caves and shacks, we think we’ve really got the knack of how to get the best out of Airbnb (and other accommodation platforms). Now we’ve started thinking about it from the hosts perspective, ‘If I was the host I would …’

So rather than rant to each other about how we could be the best Airbnb host, we thought we’d share our experiences in the hopes that some hosts out there might read it and take note.

If I was the host I would…

… List all my facilities and amenities accurately

We use filters like they’re going out of fashion. If you don’t have wi-fi, we won’t find you. If you are out of our price range, we won’t find you.

If you want more people to find your property, make sure you have listed all the facilities you have. And the more facilities you have, the more people will find you. Wi-fi is a non-negotiable for us as we work while travelling. Please also make sure it is usable. In some cases we’ve found it actually comes from a restaurant across the road, or it needs resetting every ten minutes. This does not count as having wi-fi.

… Not worry about instant book

Some people believe that offering ‘Instant book’ is going to get more travellers applying. We don’t care either way if you offer it or not. What we do care about is that you accept/deny our booking within 24 hours so we have plenty of time to find an alternative.

(Traveller tip – Airbnb actually offers a discount on other properties if your booking gets denied. We have had some of our best accommodation this way.)

… Be the host with the most

Some hosts let you in the door, then walk away. That’s fine. No problem. But if you really want a 5 star rating every time, a few small touches can make a difference. Here’s some examples of what people have done for us to go that extra step:

  • Fresh flowers on the table on arrival
  • Providing tea and coffee
  • Leaving some milk in the fridge
  • Giving excellent recommendations of local restaurants (we always ask hosts this, but we like it when they volunteer the information)
  • Provide brochures on fun things to do in the region, or talk through some suggestions
  • Have a first aid kit
  • Leave a ‘guide to the house and region’ in a few languages
  • Send directions and other information in an email or message a day or two before arrival
  • Have a book swap
  • Fresh towels
  • Have a well equipped kitchen – more on this below
  • A bottle of local wine

… Make check in simple

We’ve been left waiting over an hour by a host. We’ve had a host give us the wrong key and then it broke when it didn’t turn and he hit it with a brick. (Actually they were both the same host). We were then locked out (with our luggage locked in) for two hours on a Sunday night while we waited for a locksmith. The moral of the story is, check in should be relatively easy.

We’ve had self-check in with automated doors, where you push a button on the message you received from your host and combination locks where the key is inside a cubby hole. Whatever the method of handing over keys, the important thing is that the host is not late to meet the guests, two sets of keys is excellent, and please be available from the time listed on your Airbnb listing. We always aim to arrive at the listed check in time, so being available at that time is important.

… Provide some simple basics

We’re surprised how many places don’t have these simple items, if you want to be a great host, make sure you have each of them:

  • Free, good quality wi-fi
  • A washing machine (especially if travelling families are coming your way)
  • At least one good sharp knife
  • A decent sized saucepan
  • A colander/strainer
  • A frypan
  • A cutting board
  • Dishwashing detergent
  • Salt, pepper and oil
  • Enough plates & cutlery for the number of guests you may have
  • Working bedside lights
  • Enough pillows (a few more than the number of guests is best)
  • Towels
  • Bathmat
  • Enough toilet paper for the stay

… Be a decent human being

We’ve had some excellent relationships with our hosts. We love to chat to locals and the host is the best place to start. These conversations have led to us finding local treasures, we’ve been given local delicacies, garden produce, given discounts at a surf school and had some very rich conversations. We would never expect any of that, and it comes equally from our hosts being decent human beings, and us being interested in people’s lives.

Some hosts do not behave like decent human beings and we’ve had a handful of unfortunate experiences. Thankfully this is the exception rather than the rule.

 

But also, if I was the host, I would NOT…

… Allow anyone to enter your property while guests are staying there

We stayed at one place where the host stored the linen for his other properties. A staff member came in each morning to collect the linen. We felt like it invaded our privacy and we told our host that it did. Our host didn’t respond to our complaint.

… List amenities and facilities that I don’t have

We choose our places very specifically based on amenities and facilities. If you don’t have something and you say you do, we will be disappointed and more likely to give you a poor review.

… Ignore requests for things to be fixed

We had one place where the lights and the roller shutter in the bedroom didn’t work, so there was no light in that room for the entire day or night. After contacting our host, nothing was done about it and we had missed the Airbnb refund deadline. If your guest wants something fixed, fix it.

… Have appliances that don’t work

At one place, the washing machine flooded the laundry every time it was used. Our clothes came out bleached, and ruined half our wardrobe. We’ve experienced dishwashers, washing machines, coffee makers, lights and plenty more that haven’t worked. Check that all your appliances work before your guests arrive.

… Arrange deliveries to arrive while guests are staying

Ironically, as I write this, the doorbell has just rung and we have something being delivered in our apartment. Our host has arrived with the delivery to let us know, but we would have liked a bit of warning.

Ultimately we’ve mostly had wonderful hosts, but we are very picky about where we choose to stay. I’m sure hosts have just as much to say about travellers as we have to say about hosts.

If you’ve had any experiences as a host or a guest, we’d love you to share them in the comments section below.

 

Surfing the Severn Bore

In August 2017 my family and a group of complete strangers helped me to fulfilled a childhood dream and rode the Severn Bore. A huge thank you goes out to Stuart Matthews for his excellent and detailed advice on surfing the Bore, and to Matt Hammersley, who generously lent me his Bore-log and booties and gave me all the information I’d need to successfully achieve this bucket-list item. Thanks also to Josh and Ollie at Phrenix Surfboards in Somerset.

To read more about this adventure, check out my article on Swellnet: To ride a tidal wave.

Cycling Towards the Horizon

Traversing mountains, swimming in oceans, and getting lost in forests has increased our deep commitment to travel with  minimal impact. In an attempt to take it to the next level, our new favourite method of transport is cycling. We now travel with some cycling gear and hire bikes in every town possible.

It all began when we were given the opportunity to housesit on a farm in England, we decided not to hire a car. This was a major decision because our farm was four kilometres from the nearest village and 24 kilometres from the closest town, Taunton. It was a chance to stretch our pedalling legs, so without thinking it through, we made the decision to cycle there from Taunton and use bikes as our primary transport for the next four weeks.

Cass did a lot of research and found a bike shop, On Your Bike in Taunton, who fix up old bikes and sell them for charity. They also train and employ disadvantaged people (people with disabilities, ex-services personnel and homeless) to be bike mechanics. We loved their values, and they agreed to hire bikes for us and the kids.

There were a number of obstacles we needed to overcome. The biggest was working out how to carry our luggage. We travel light (see What’s in our luggage?) with approximately 40kg between four of us, but our bags are not pannier bags and it was too much to ask the kids to ride that far with extra weight. Cass and I would need to carry it all.

On Your Bike had a trailer for hire, but it wouldn’t fit everything, so we decided to buy an additional new trailer to put the rest of the luggage in. After researching all of our options, we decided to buy a 2-Child Steel Bicycle Trailer for our luggage (we successfully sold it afterwards on Gumtree).

We arrived in Taunton the day before our ride, so we could prepare the bikes, buy helmets and some lights and just get organised. We are so glad we did, because it took us the whole day to get everything together and go for a little test ride.

On the morning of our ride, we had a tight schedule. The people we were housesitting for had to leave in the middle of the day, and we needed enough time to learn about looking after their animals. We really needed to arrive by 11:30 am so we got up at 5:30 ate a buffet breakfast, and headed off.

There was a misty rain as we set off but it kept us cool as we rode. Cass had one trailer with half our luggage, and I had the new trailer with the other half, and a bag with all our snacks on my back. The trailer was hard to pull. Hills I could usually ride up with ease were very difficult, and I had to walk up many more than I would have liked.

The first half went well, we rode at a good pace and were enjoying ourselves. Cass and I were nervous about the ride and whether the kids would make it, but being in the open air and seeing the English countryside was a good antidote.

12 kms in and feeling hungry (but good)

After a snack break at the halfway point, the rain set in. The temperature dropped dramatically, and our raincoats were only keeping our top half dry. The hills started increasing (as we expected from our meticulous route planning) and the kids were tiring. We started questioning ourselves. Had we made a terrible mistake?

After a lot of hard pushing, under the dark clouds and heavy rain, we finally reached the last kilometre. We knew this was a continuous uphill climb to our housesit, and we very slowly trudged up feeling tired, uncomfortable and not really enjoying it anymore. We had no choice but to keep going, and much to our incredulity, we finally made it. The kids were amazing, remained positive and were so relieved when we arrived. They nicknamed the last hill ‘Giant’s Hill’ and called it that every time we saw it after that. I told them they were my heroes.

For the time we were away, we only took the kids to the nearest town once as their faith in riding was a bit diminished by the ride up Giant’s Hill in the rain. Cass and I did the trips over the hill to the closest supermarket. With the kids we did small rides down to the creek, or to the nature reserve for a bushwalk, but kept the rides small so they could renew their love of riding.

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You can find secret swings when riding a bike.

When we returned to Taunton it was all downhill without any rain and the kids absolutely loved the ride. We stopped to pick blackberries, look at horses and eat our snacks with beautiful vistas.

When we returned the bikes, the kids were sad to see them go. They lamented it for the next few days. We kept our helmets and other paraphernalia and then hired some more bikes in Cambridge.

We were treated to some lovely weather in Cambridge and cycling was the perfect way to get around (no hills either!). We saw so much more of Cambridge than we would have otherwise, and we were able to ride to the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester, where we drank tea under the apple trees.

A few of my favourite things – tea, apple orchards, sunshine – after a beautiful bike ride.

Now the kids want to ride everywhere, and we hire bikes often. It can be difficult navigating the traffic, and making it all work, so here are some lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • A strong peloton goes a long way – We ride in single file with one adult up front and one at the back. There’s a number of reasons this works; we are more visible to drivers, the kids feel safe sandwiched between us and we can adjust our speed based on how the kids are going. The one at the front has to navigate and watch for traffic for themselves and the first child, while the one at the back can stay in pace with the slower ones.
  • Teach the kids the road rules while on the road – This seems obvious, but our kids knew the rules in theory before we started. We constantly go over them before we set out, but it is a different thing when they are on the road thinking about steering, pedalling, changing gears and dealing with traffic. It is like everything they know goes out the window. El Chico constantly heads straight into a roundabout without looking for cars, or sometimes even noticing that it is a roundabout. We stop at every corner and wait for everyone to catch up, talk about what we need to do at the corner, then go across in pairs so that we aren’t holding up traffic.
  • It isn’t a money saving venture – For four bikes it sometimes costs more than hiring a car. We don’t have to pay for petrol so it probably comes out even. The benefits outweigh the costs though, as it’s a beautiful way to travel. You are out in the world on a bike, rather than being removed from it inside a car. And your impact on the places you are visiting is diminished.
  • Check your maps – A lot of places have dedicated bike lanes and paths. These are invaluable with the kids because you don’t have to worry about the traffic, you can stop and smell the flowers and go your own pace. Galileo Maps are very accurate when it comes to cycle paths and footpaths, (and can be used offline) and Google Maps has a function where you can show a layer of the dedicated cycle lanes and paths.
  • Gears are best – The kids always find it easier when they have gears. They don’t always use them, and we find it frustrating, but when they have fixies they struggle up the hills.
  • Think about your equipment – Some bike hire shops provide you with lights and locks, but not all of them, so we now travel with lights, locks, helmets and some occy straps.
  • Fuel up – Riding makes the kids hungry (this is good for us because our kids are usually fussy eaters), so we need to have a big stash of healthy snacks in our backpack
  • Bikes + trains = more fun – In our experience, you can take bikes on trains in both England and Spain at no extra cost. This means you can go more places and take your bike with you to ride around at the other end. Many of the Spanish trains have a carriage where you can chain your bike to a dedicated rail. Although a word of caution, we did get in trouble once for trying to take bikes on a long distance train (we were only going to the next stop and didn’t realise it was any different).
  • Water is your elixir – Don’t underestimate how much water you need, especially in hot climates. A good rule of thumb is to have one litre per person per hour of riding.
  • Enjoy it – Riding is such fun so relax, enjoy and explore!
DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free bikes, tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. 

Treasures of the Costa de la Luz

The beauty of the coast and hinterland along the Costa de la Luz is rugged and harsh, but not without its treasures. The passing of time is evident – the ruins of ancient aqueducts sit alongside modern wind turbines and solar farms. People have inhabited this part of the Spanish coastline for over 3000 years. This lesser known costa of Spain has been our home-base for some months, and has started to reveal itself in ways that weren’t immediately apparent.

The Costa de la Luz – coast of light – refers to the clear blue skies reflected in the turquoise oceans of the region that stretches between Cádiz and Tarifa. It is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean to the west, so is less popular with tourists who prefer Spain’s more sheltered Mediterranean coasts.

This stretch is full of Parques Naturales, incredible bird life, long sandy beaches and visible history that dates back to 1100 BC. We have loved exploring this region, so here are some of our favourites treasures in a region abundant with surprises.

Cádiz

Known as the ‘oldest town in Spain’, Cádiz was settled by the Phoenicians, who used it as a trading port called ‘Gadir’ from around 1100 BC. Since then it has been occupied by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and modern Spaniards. It was one of the few places to hold against Napoleon and is the where the first Spanish Constitution was declared in 1812. This long history is evident everywhere in Cádiz.

Entering the old part of town, you pass through the 18th century walls. Following the western coast, you can visit the Teatro Romano, a large Roman amphitheatre open to the sky, and hidden under the Tia Norica theatre  you can visit Yacimiento Arqueologico Gadir, an excellent presentation of an archeological discovery of Phoenician and Roman times in Cádiz. From the top of the Torre Tavira you can see this history written in the city’s various buildings dating from 17th century settlement to now.

The colour of the ocean in Cádiz is an iridescent turquoise that is matched by the clear blue sky. While summer here can be oppressively hot, now it is September the weather is just perfect. Sitting on one of Cádiz’s many beaches with the cool breeze blowing amongst the coloured umbrellas, looking up towards the shiny dome of the cathedral, is a magical experience.

San Fernando

Rarely visited by tourists from outside of Spain, San Fernando seemed at first not to have much to offer. However the longer we stayed here, the more we found.

San Fernando, also known as La Isla de Leon, is most famous as the birthplace of Camarón de la Isla, arguably one of the most popular Flamenco singers of the 20th Century. In English his stage name, bestowed on him by his uncle, translates literally to ‘Shrimp of the Island’. He popularised recorded Flamenco and brought together new styles and interpretations, collaborating with Blues artists and adding electric bass to some of his recordings (see video of his work here).

The Venta de Vargas, a restaurant where he found the beginnings of fame, is a monument to Camarón, with a museum for those wanting to pay homage to the singer. Many people still pay respects at his grave in San Fernando. We were in town for the 25th anniversary of his death and there were a large number of events held throughout the town to celebrate his life, including fiestas, competitions and flamenco in the bustling thoroughfare Calle Real.

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Venta de Vargas, San Fernando

Writer Giles Tremlett described San Fernando in his book, Ghosts of Spain thus: ‘[it] overlooks the salt flats, muddy wetlands and still waters on the Bay of Cádiz.’ These marismas – marshes – have winding tracks open to the public that were once the paths used by las saliñeras – salt farmers – who formed narrow canals separated by small wooden locks and farmed salt on these lands for hundreds of years. Over the centuries these canals have created a symbiotic relationship between nature and humans, and have become the home and breeding grounds of an incredible array of bird life and shellfish.

Flamingoes can often be seen here at morning or evening during the summer months, visiting to feed from their breeding ground near Malaga, 160km to the east (as the flamingo flies). A number of times on an early morning run I was able to see them in large flocks with their legs in the water, or flying overhead with their pink feathers glowing in the dawn light.

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Cantina del TiTi, San Fernando

On the northern end of San Fernando sits a fish-lover’s delight. At the Cantina del TiTi we were served some of the freshest and most delicious fish I have eaten in years. My fisherman Grandfather would have raved about this place and he had higher standards than anyone I’ve ever met when it came to seafood. While eating our fish at an outdoor table, the tide lapped in around our toes and the kids played in the sand. I recommend booking to get a table here. It’s very busy and only open for lunch.

If you love beaches, San Fernando’s Camposoto beach is one to check out. A long expanse of sand forming part of the nature reserve, it is remarkably less busy than we expected (except during the school vacation months, when it is just as busy as the rest of Spain’s beaches). If it gets too hot, you can have a beer or ice cream (or even an excellent cheap meal) at one of the four chiringuitos – beach bars – where sandy feet and swimsuit are standard attire. Surfing is also popular here at the far end of the beach, where there are a number of surf schools and local grommets enjoying the waves.

San Fernando also has its fair share of notable historical facts. It holds Spain’s atomic clock, where Spain’s time is kept precise, and it was once the point from which the whole world’s time was measured (it has since been replaced by Greenwich in England). San Fernando and Cádiz successfully resisted Napoleon’s 19th Century invasion, and it is where the Spanish Constitutional Court first took their oaths in 1810. It is worth a visit if you like to find unusual places when travelling.

Chiclana de la Frontera

We go to a lot of museums. The kids love them and it is a great way to learn about the region we’re visiting. One of the better ones on the Costa de la Luz is the Museo Chiclana. For a small museum, it contained a surprising amount of interesting information about the region and its history, with excellent displays. Our kids were completely engaged throughout our visit. The displays about modern artists and writers from the region are very informative and contained information that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.

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Getting the best view of the ceiling exhibit at the Museo Chiclana

If you are game for an uphill walk, the Ermita de Santa Ana is worth the climb. The small chapel on top of the hill is very pretty and once at the top there are spectacular views of the Costa de la Luz, and of the mountains further inland.

Conil de la Frontera

Conil is one of the many ‘de la frontera’ towns that formed King Ferdinand’s front against the Moors during the 13th century . It gets a mention here, not for it’s history or landmarks, but for the beaches. Here you will find a number of stunning playas with long stretches of sand. We particularly enjoyed a day at El Roqueo, where the cliffs give way to a beach and rocky outcrops good for the kids to rock hop. The locals here can often be seen covering themselves head to toe in a grey mud, formed by pulverising lumps of this rock. It is used as a beauty treatment for the skin. Watching people pass us by walking along the beach covered in the drying mud was too much for the kids to resist, so they stockpiled their own patch of this mud, guarded it with their lives, and proceeded to paint themselves all over.

Vejer de la Frontera

Vejer de la Frontera is a ‘must-see’ for  those visiting the region. It sits atop a hill along the coastline south of Conil, with views in all directions from its high promenades. The views are amazing, both day and night, and on a clear day you can see Africa. It follows the tradition of the other Pueblos Blancos – white villages – in the mountains to the north-east, with its white walls shining in the afternoon sun. We followed the narrow streets up and down the hill to find different views.

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Vejer de la Frontera at sunset

Our meandering took us to the Castillo de Vejer where we were taken on a guided tour by a young Scout (she was perhaps 9 or 10 years old). The tour was in Spanish, but we were able to understand enough of what she told us. It wasn’t the best tour in the world, but it was fun to walk around the castle. We enjoyed watching the group in front of us, whose Scout guide was only about 6 years old. He was very entertaining and full of energy. Great to see these kids engaging with their local history.

Also a city steeped in visible history, the Puerta Cerrada – the closed gate – still stands, separating the Jewish quarter from the area around the castle. It was always closed to keep out pirates that may have climbed up the gully of the river Barbate. Many of the ancient structures have fallen to ruin, or been damaged by earthquake and invasions. However, the keen eye can still find many ancient treasures, particularly in the old walled part of the town.

The restaurants surrounding the Plaza España and its picturesque fountain are all excellent, although getting a table can require a combination of patience, hustling and good timing. Many serve the local tuna that have been traditionally caught here using a 2000 year old net and boat system unique to the region. We also had an excellent ice-cream at the Heladeria Artesanal Italiana. The kids are always on the hunt for good ice-cream.

Tarifa

Self-proclaimed as the ‘Adventure Capital of Europe’, our first sight of Tarifa was the kites of the kite-surfers along the beach. Hundreds of them, of all different colours, lined the coast. As the southern-most point of Spain at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, the wind here is remarkable and apparently makes for great kite-surfing.

I came here to see Africa, and saw it we did. It stands only 16 kilometres away and the mountains look beautiful looming on the horizon, growing out of the sea mist. Africa is on my bucket list and, for now, this is the closest I’m going to get.

The Castillo de Guzman Bueno provides a great view of Africa, and for a very modest entry fee (kids under 12 free) we were able to spend a good hour walking along the top of the ramparts and investigating the different sections of the castle. The story of Guzman is an interesting one, and his tale traverses a large part of the Costa de la Luz. He is famous for throwing his dagger down from the castle to the Moors who held his son, sacrificing his offspring to stop the invaders taking the town. However, his complicated backstory is just as interesting and the castle’s displays give a good account.

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Castillo de Guzman Bueno

The Costa de la Luz has many hidden treasures, but the dark history of war and invasions is always present. It is a harsh landscape reaching down to beautiful beaches and incredible views. If you have some time in Spain, it is well worth a look and I assure you it won’t disappoint.

How to get around:

Cádiz is easily reached by train from Jerez or Sevilla (both with airports) and is serviced by many bus lines. I wouldn’t suggest having a car in Cádiz, as it is easily walkable, and well serviced by public transport. Towards the end of our stay in the region we hired bikes from Las Bicis Naranjas. They were a great way to get around, see the sights and explore the region. They can be taken on the trains, which extends the reach of your travels if you don’t have a car.

San Fernando is also easily accessible by train, bus and bike. A car or bike is a good idea here if you want to visit Camposoto. Avis usually have some good deals in Spain. A tramline is currently being built between Chiclana, San Fernando and Cádiz, but will not be in operation for a few years yet.

Chiclana is well serviced by Comes and ALSA buses. We find ALSA much more comfortable and easier to book, so we usually go with those. Comes buses are difficult to book using international credit cards.

Conil is also accessible by bus, but if you want to head to the beaches, I would suggest a car is your best option.

Vejer de la Frontera is well serviced by Comes buses, but you’ll have to walk up the hill from the bus stop.

Tarifa is well serviced by a number of bus lines including Comes and ALSA buses.

DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. The links to Amazon, Avis and advertisements are affiliate links as per our Affiliates page. 

Spain travel guide, 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

Spain travel guide, 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet

Reflections on Barcelona

I originally wrote this piece on Barcelona following our most recent visit in July 2017. I felt compelled to write it because of the genuine internal conflict that this visit, and our previous journey there in May, provoked in me. I loved visiting Barcelona, but by visiting, am I perpetuating a cycle that is slowly destroying the city and the quality of life of its residents?

I was in the process of trying to sell this article to various publications when events in Barcelona overtook my efforts, making the issues touched on in my piece less immediately relevant and, therefore, the article less newsworthy. However, they’re issues that are still very much affecting the city and will continue to do so when the news cycle rolls on and the attacks in Las Ramblas join the ever-growing archive of terrorist acts. 

Our hearts go out to the people of Barcelona and anyone else who was caught up in, or affected by this senseless act of violence. We know that the city, accustomed as it is to turmoil, political unrest and the occasional outbreak of violence, will bounce back. For now, we add our voices to the multitude calling for peace, love and understanding to be prioritised above greed, violence and retribution. 

T’enviem el nostre amor Barcelona!


Now that my family and I have finished our second stint in Barcelona, I think we are in agreement that its reputation as one of the world’s great cities is indeed well-deserved. There’s an vibrancy about the town, particularly in neighbourhoods like El Born or Vila de Gràcia, that fairly oozes possibility and an attitude of industry and creativity that leaves one energised, inspired and grasping for more at every turn.

But the capital of Catalunya is also a city that is fundamentally conflicted about its popularity and is in many ways is struggling, both conceptually and physically, to find a balance between opening itself up to the world, while retaining the strength and character and unique cultural identity that is so compelling to both its residents and the millions of transient visitors who fill its streets every year.

As a travelling family, we were captivated by everything this wonderful city had to offer. There was something – a multitude of things really – to delight, intrigue and ignite the imagination in each of us. We loved the adventure of exploring the various neighbourhoods, never knowing what to expect around the next corner. Even the obvious attractions – Gaudi’s remarkable architectural creations, Las Ramblas, La Mercat de la Boqueria, for example – are of such undeniable quality and international significance that even the most cynical “anti-tourist” traveller would be forced to concede that they’re worth visiting (even if clandestinely, to avoid losing their hardcore traveller’s credentials).

But to describe Barcelona as a single, homogenous entity would be misleading and overlooks a fundamental contributing factor as to why it is universally recognised as being one of the world’s great cities. In actuality it is the agglomeration of a number of discrete towns, districts and neighbourhoods barris, each with their own unique character, history and traditions, brought together into one sprawling urban metropolis by the industrialisation and inexorable population increases throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

On our first visit we stayed in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, which in theory is a separate city with its own municipal identity and administrative structures. However, other than the wording and colours of official street signage, there are now few physical identifiers to separate it from greater Barcelona – the urban sprawl continues unimpeded from one street to the next. The second time around our digs were at the opposite end of town in el Clot, a fiercely proud tight-knit working class barri in the Santi Marti District, which has a history dating back to mediaeval times and a reputation for artistic production and strongly held political beliefs, which has more than once in its history resulted in violent uprising and revolution.

 

Each of these districts, and all those between and further afield, has its own distinct personality, proud history and secret corners waiting to be discovered by the adventurous visitor. When out exploring the city on foot, we instinctively recognised when we’d moved into the next barri, simply because between one block and the next everything around us changed – the shops, housing and even the people. It wasn’t overt, but we crossed a street and the polished modern storefronts, linen tablewear and neatly dressed denizens of Eixample were traded in for the small neighbourhood fruterías, plastic chairs and tracksuits of Ciutat Vella. The atmosphere became somehow more relaxed too, as if a layer of formality and pretension had been stripped away.

And each barri has its own set of crusted-on local communities whose sense of identity is as solid and self-assured as the very bricks of the buildings that form their few thousand square metres of real estate. Indeed, the residents’ fealty to their barri often seems stronger than their loyalty to Catalunya, and much, much more so than any allegiance they may have to the greater Spanish state.

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The Catalans are a fiercely proud people with a considerable legacy of achievement – intellectual, artistic, commercial and industrial. They have, for generations, argued, struggled and often taken up arms to assert their independence from external rule, whether from Spain or other powers to the north. Many times throughout their history they have tasted self-determination on some level, only to have it snatched away violently by whomever happens to be seeking dominion over them at the time, be it the Bourbon kings of Castilla, the armies of Napoleon or the fascist junta of General Francisco Franco.

Today this struggle continues, with a debate currently underway to instigate a referendum process which could, in theory, see Catalunya become an autonomous member of the European community. Signs of support for autonomy can be seen all over Barcelona – the Catalunyan flag hangs from countless balconies in every neighbourhood, alongside banners simply stating “Si!”. Pro-Spanish flags can also be seen, but they are very much in the minority. There is considerable cynicism in the community about the likelihood for success, due in large part, perhaps, to the region’s interdependent, yet chequered historic relationship with the rest of Spain.

It is a testament to the inclusive atmosphere that currently pervades Barcelona that these dissenting views can be openly displayed. Past experience shows that people with differing viewpoints have not always coexisted peacefully within the city limits (read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for an example). Given the parlous state of the Spanish economy, rising unemployment and external pressures such as immigration and an increasingly unpredictable climate, it is not inconceivable that tensions could rise again as the current march towards autonomy progresses.

Barcelona is an incredible place to visit, but despite the overwhelmingly positive reports you’ll read all across the internet, I would issue a word of caution about wandering blithely into town without recognising that it’s a city feeling the pressure of this reputation. The sheer weight of numbers of people visiting the city, while fuelling the economy, is having some significant and increasingly negative consequences, both physically and socially, that were obvious even to the first (and second) time visitor. Barcelona’s civic infrastructure is ageing and, if the regular whiffs of raw sewage are any indication, struggling to cope with the load being forced upon them by the estimated 30+ million annual visitors. And in a great many of the traditionally working class inner-city barris, el Clot included, you can find evidence that the residents’ patience is thinning.

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The share economy, particularly in the realm of accommodation, has fundamentally changed the nature of tourism and travelling. Platforms like Airbnb allow travellers like us to have access to a much wider variety of accommodation options and, to a certain extent, the opportunity to embed ourselves within the communities that we’re visiting. Since we started our adventure we have sourced the vast majority of our stays through Airbnb and for the most part they’ve been excellent experiences.

However, there is a flip side to this, one that is having increasingly negative consequences on local communities in Barcelona and other tourist-heavy European cities. Low cost housing is becoming increasingly difficult to find for the inhabitants of Barcelona. People who have historically rented cheap housing and whose families may have lived in the same neighbourhood for generations, are being priced out of their homes by the demand from affluent short-term visitors. In 2017 the government of Catalunya introduced laws seeking to impose restrictions on short term rentals in an effort to stem the tide, but they’re fighting an uphill battle as more and more people have chosen this route to supplement their income. Realistically, what choice would the owner of an apartment make when the opportunity is placed before them to make in a night through Airbnb what they would normally get from rent in a week?

I was aware that there were problems the first time we visited Barcelona, but we were only there for a couple of days and it didn’t really impact on our stay at all. But this time, perhaps because we were staying in el Clot, where this has had a greater impact (or the local community is more politically active), there were signs everywhere that resistance to both rampant tourism and real estate speculation was building. In many places I noted graffiti opposing development at the expense of local communities. On many balconies, alongside the ubiquitous Catalunyan flags, hung banners with a clear warning for wealthy real estate speculators (either foreign or domestic), and in one or two places I saw painted slogans with a direct suggestion for us and other visitors to the city, the words of which I won’t publish here – I’m sure you can guess the gist of the message.

I love Barcelona. It’s a beacon of intellectual, artistic, political and philosophical experimentation and it’s just erupting with creativity. More so than just about any other place we’ve visited, I feel like creative, socially-progressive folk have a strong influence and are carving out a space where this kind of activity can continue to flourish. I felt like it’s the kind of city where, if you had a creative idea and the will and means to turn it into something tangible, you’d be able to carve out a space and be accepted within one of Barcelona’s many thriving neighbourhoods. It was a compelling and energising sensation and I must admit that I was very attracted by it. But as a visitor and an increasingly intensive user of Airbnb and other share accommodation platforms, I’m forced to recognise that I’m actually part of the problem, and this left me feeling seriously conflicted during our stay in Barcelona.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile these two opposing drivers. On the one hand, I could recognise my role in perpetuating the cycle that’s destabilising this wonderful city and choose to stay away. Selfishly, I don’t feel that I’m ready to adopt this course of action, because then my family and I would miss out on visiting one of Europe’s and the world’s great cities, thereby diminishing our own travelling experience and depriving our children of an opportunity to engage with this spirit of creativity and industry, and limiting their development as active, thinking human beings. Besides, it’s too late for that now – we’ve already visited. Twice.

Another alternative, and one that sits more comfortably with me, is to find a way to give something back to the city; some kind of positive, meaningful contribution to reinforce one or more of the elements that make Barcelona such an amazing place, and that helps to support the local community in some way. Then maybe, just maybe, we can offset the harm caused by us and the millions like us who, day in, day out, continue to flock to this marvellous, embattled city.

An introvert’s guide to meeting people while travelling

So we’ve been in Spain for two months now, and all of us are increasing in language confidence, discovering many new places, and investigating the ins and outs of life in a foreign country.

We’ve slowed down our travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in each place and really delve into new experiences. This has led to some incredible moments, from a farmer asking us to come and see his baby goats (which the kids got to hold), to the kids being invited to an English Language school for an end of year class party.

All of these experiences have been invaluable. The kids have made some very close friends and it has been hard for them to leave them when we do. Last night ended up in a pile of tears as we left some of their favourite new friends.

What we have found, however, is that we were constantly pushing the kids to step past their comfort limits, when Cass and I were not. ‘Go on, say hello to those kids on the playground’ we urged, however when faced with another adult, we would say ‘hello’ and then just go about our transaction without pushing any further.

It dawned on us one day that we were pushing the kids, and they were having some genuinely profound interactions, while Cass and I were missing out.

At home Cass and I truly value our strong friendships with a few close friends, however we have never needed a lot of social interaction. Both of us always got what we needed socially from work and those close friendships. We are naturally introverts who like the company of a small dedicated group. This doesn’t work when travelling, when expanding horizons is what it is all about.

We’re not new to travel, we’ve both travelled before, but as solo backpackers, where it is easy to make conversation with a similar vagabonding type over a meal in a hostel or a drink in a bar. Now we travel as a pack of four, stay in Airbnb type accomodation, and interact with each other in our own little bubble – it is so easy to get by without meeting anyone at all.

Cass and I have had to develop strategies and games to really push ourselves to have more meaningful interactions with people around us and it has really paid off; Cass met a fellow surfer taxi driver who told him all about the local conditions and explained some new Spanish surfing terms; we met a shop owner whose best friend is a coach with the Adelaide Soccer team; and we’ve made friends with the owners of a local tapas bar, who gave us an impromptu round of free Spanish liqueurs to try. These strategies have extended our experience to be so much more rewarding than before we tried them.

Here’s some little games and strategies we use daily:

1. Say something unnecessary

Every time you have an interaction with someone (buying something, riding in a taxi, asking for something) you try to say something that is completely unnecessary to the transaction. For example; when buying bread, ask if there’s been much rain lately, when at the bar, ask who is playing the football on the television, when in a taxi ask for a good place to eat. It’s amazing how often such a simple statement or question can lead to a larger conversation about something very interesting.

2. Go to the same place regularly

If you find somewhere good, go there often. We found a tapería where we really loved the food. It was cheap, near our accommodation and is owned by two brothers that were very friendly. We went back three times and by our third visit we were chatting about all sorts of things (they were the ones that gave us the free selection of Spanish liqueurs and even put some non-alcoholic colourful ones in similar glasses for the kids).

3. Say where you are from

If you tell people early on where you are from, it will often launch a conversation. It’s easier to drop in than you might think. If you don’t understand what someone says you can easily say in the local language, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I’m Australian’. If you are feeling a bit more confident you can say ‘I’m sorry, can you please say that again, I’m Australian but would like to practice my Spanish’. Usually this turns into a further conversation, perhaps they will ask where in Australia you are from, or tell you that they’ve been there, or know someone from there. It’s a good starting point.

4. Ask for help

This seems obvious but I’m not very good at this. It works in so many situations. I don’t eat much meat and we used to walk around looking at menus hoping that we would find something herbivorous. Recently we’ve learned to ask the waiter if there are any vegetarian options. This has led to finding better options for all of us, as the waiters often recommend something that is especially good on the menu, or offer a suggestion for what the kids might like. This can then give you a chance to ask more, such as what ingredients are in it, where does the fish come from, how is it cooked, for example.

5. Say yes (when you can).

It can be scary, especially when you are always thinking about the safety of the kids, to say yes to things. I was terrified of letting the kids go to an English Language school party without us in a foreign country, but it turned out to be an excellent experience for them. Of course sometimes you have to listen to your instinct and say no to something that isn’t a good idea, but generally, saying yes is going to find you in some unexpected places.

Have you got any other fun strategies or games for getting more our of your experience in a new country? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Five things to do with your kids in Burgos

It was not without regret that we boarded our train this morning and left Burgos. The ancient capital of the kingdom of Castille fairly oozes history – from being home to one of Spain’s most popular folk heroes, El Cid, to more recently having the dubious honour of being the capital for General Franco’s ultimately successful 20th century fascist rebellion. It’s a wonderful city and, for a variety of reasons, a fantastic place to visit with kids.

We found the people of Burgos to be overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, and lightheartedly tolerant of our bumbling attempts to communicate in their mother tongue (Castellano, better known outside of Spain as “Spanish”, originated in the lands of Castilla – Leon and La Mancha). Eating out in Burgos was a particularly pleasant experience, and there were plenty of things we could do with the kids that kept them engaged, enthusiastic and wanting to see, do and know more.

Because of this positive experience, we thought we’d share some of our highlights from Burgos for those of you who might consider bringing your children to visit this wonderful city in the future.


1. Museums
It might sound like I’m taking the easy option by mentioning museums, but there are a couple of truly exceptional ones in Burgos that more than justify their inclusion at the top of this list.

The first one we visited was El Museo del Libro (The Museum of the Book). This small, unassuming institution, laid out over four levels just off the Plaza Mayor, ambitiously seeks to chart the entire history of writing and books – although I noted that there was little mention of anywhere east of Mesopotamia or west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Following the story from Sumerian clay tablets through to the 21st Century and the Kindle, you’ll find a range of examples of how humanity has recorded its thoughts and the influence that books have had on the rise and reformation of western civilisation throughout history. The Museo uses a variety of multimedia and multilingual resources to inform and engage visitors of all ages.

To be honest, I was surprised by just how interesting the kids found the Museo Del Libro, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been, given La Chica’s obsession with reading. We were the only people in the Museo the day we visited, which was both a shame – because it would be great to see such an important subject more well recognised – but also great, because it meant we were able to take our time and discuss the exhibits as loudly and for as long as we wanted. We recommend this museum to anyone wanting to fill an hour or so in Burgos

Museo del Libro Fadrique de Basilea
Travesía del Mercado 3, Burgos
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday,10:00-14:00 & 16:30-20:00
Entry: Adults: 3€, Children <14: Free

The Second museum we visited was a definite highlight – not just of our time in Burgos, but of our trip to Europe so far. El Museo de la Evolucíon Humana (The Museum of Human Evolution) is one of the best natural history museums that we have ever visited, anywhere. Using a range of innovative and highly engaging technologies and storytelling devices, the museum’s installations guide the visitor through the galleries and display spaces outlining the scientific disciplines and techniques used over the years to trace the evolution of the human species.

We all loved it, but it was particularly engaging for the kids, who literally sprinted from one display to the next, impatient to find out more about this fascinating area of scientific investigation.

The Museum was built to underpin the incredible archaeological work done at the nearby World Heritage Listed dig in the Atapuerca Mountains. This is one of the world’s most important sites, in terms of an archaeological record of ancient humans, and it has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolution of ours and other closely related hominid species. But the museum covers much more than just this one site, with sections on Darwin, the role of fire and much much more to engage and fascinate visitors of all ages.

No trip to Burgos is complete without a visit to this museum. Full. Stop.

Hint: we arrived at 6.45pm and discovered that entry was free after 7pm. Because the museum closes at 8, this only left us an hour to explore the entire institution, which was nowhere near enough time. If you’re thinking of taking advantage of this little work-around, we’d advise you to plan to come to the museum on two, or even better, three consecutive days, so you can take in everything that this incredible place has to offer.

El Museo de la Evolución Humana
Paseo Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos
Opening Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:00-14:30 PM & 16:30-20:00. Saturdays, Sundays, public holidays & July, August & September 10:00-20:00
Entry: General Admission: 6 €
Children <8: free. Other benefits and concessions are available for a range of visitors – see website for more details.

2. Eating out
We had some great eating experiences in Burgos. The city is renowned in particular for its soft, white sheeps’ milk cheese and morcilla (rice-filled blood pudding), but there’s so much more to this city to justify its title as Spain’s gastronomic capital for 2013. Here are just two suggestions for places to eat:

Acuarium – We discovered this awesome little bar quite by accident one evening while enjoying a paseo through the city centre. Located down a laneway just off the Plaza Mayor, Acuarium drew us in with its sign promising “Free Tapas”. The croquetas that came with our first round of drinks were pretty good, but a couple of minutes later a delivery of food to a neighbouring table really caught our attention. On enquiry, we discovered that they were having piparra en tempura, crispy tempura baby peppers, and we couldn’t resist ordering a plate for ourselves. The tapa was huge, and mouthwateringly delicious, but unfortunately it didn’t suit our kids’ frustratingly conventional tastes. Thankfully, the alitas de pollo (chicken wings), that came soon afterwards brought about a minor miracle, at least in our little circle – zero complaints, even effusive praise, for a meal ordered out in Spain!

Acuarium

This might not sound like much, but we’ve had an incredibly frustrating time with food here in Spain – well, the food hasn’t been frustrating, it’s our children’s unwillingness to try new or “different” foods that’s been doing our heads in. But since Acuarium, we’ve found that they’re beginning to demonstrate a bit more enthusiasm for trying new things (even if chicken wings aren’t all that new).

The service here was also really friendly and professional, and their willingness to tolerate our poorly framed questions about the food was greatly appreciated.

Acuarium
Travesia del Mercado, 9, Burgos (right opposite the entrance to El Museo del Libro, coincidentally)

Another of our memorable eating experiences was had at Viva la Pepa. Mem led us to this cool little bar//cafe, having found it on the vegetarian/vegan search portal Happy Cow. As a non-meat-eater most of the time, she’s been finding eating out in Spain particularly difficult, given this country’s strong focus on the cooking of flesh of every conceivable variety. We’ve found Happy Cow indispensable in finding places that offer a less meat-heavy menu, particularly in larger towns and cities. Viva la Pepa, which backs onto the Plaza outside the Catedral de Burgos, was one of these finds. Mem’s falafel burger was a winner, while they also satisfied my carnivorous inclinations with a meatier offering, and were able to keep the kids happy with their menu infantil and a pair of generous fruit smoothies.

Viva la Pepa
Paseo del Espolón, Nº4 Plaza del Rey San Fernando, Nº6
Burgos

3. Exploring & playing outdoors
If we were to write a book about our current nomadic adventure (and we may well do just that at some point), it could quite justifiably be titled “A Guide to the Parks and Playgrounds of Europe”. If we were to do that, Burgos would warrant almost a whole chapter to itself.

One activity we all thoroughly enjoyed was the walk up to El Castillo (the castle), which sits atop a knoll overlooking the old city. The ridge behind the Castillo is interlaced with a network of paths winding in and out of the pine forests and undergrowth, which proved a real adventure land for the kids. When we got there, the Castillo was unfortunately closed, despite opening hours which would seem to state otherwise. However, just nearby we discovered – wait for it – a playground, next to which was a bar that served cold beer and patatas bravas (amongst other things), so everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Also great fun for these visiting Antipodeans was discovering the numerous storks’ nests – massive structures built on many of the city’s highest towers with no respect for history or eminence.

Storks

Another highlight, from an outdoors perspective, was the Parque de la Isla, which we discovered by following the Camino de Santiago markers along the river, and which also had an “awesome” playground.

4. Eating in
Eating out and discovering new and interesting dishes is one of the most exciting and energising things about travelling. But sometimes, whether it’s because you want to save a few euros, or you can’t face another plate of fried whatevers, you just want to cook something for yourself and have complete control of what’s going into your body, and those of your family.

Up until Burgos, we’d been pretty underwhelmed by the quality of produce available in Spain, particularly in the south. It was all just a bit tired looking and there wasn’t a great deal of variety. Paris, by comparison, was awash with beautiful fruit, vegetables and a thousand other high quality ingredients (the wine, the cheese, the… well, you get the point) – but that’s another story for another time.

Thankfully, in Burgos we rented an Airbnb flat with a functional kitchen (and good knives – the owners also owned a restaurant) and we were able to find some excellent quality ingredients. This meant that Burgos now also carries the title of “Best Homecooked Meal by the Selwoods”. The benefits, for both your physical and mental wellbeing, gained from good quality, fresh vegetables should never be underestimated, and their availability definitely influenced how much we enjoyed our time in Burgos.

One place we chanced upon and which we recommend to anyone visiting Burgos and looking for good quality organic produce (amongst other ingredients) was:
La Tienda Organica (the organic shop)
C/ Antonio Valdés y Basan 1

5. El Camino de Santiago
No post on Burgos would be complete without a mention of the Camino de Santiago. This pilgrim trail, which winds its way from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, dominates Burgos, which is one of the major towns along the route. One gets the impression that the bulk of Burgos’ tourism trade is centred on catering for the needs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who attempt the Camino every year, and it gives the town much more of a cosmopolitan, international feel than many of its counterparts in other regions of Spain. Shops are filled with paraphernalia, including walking sticks, clothing and other souvenirs marked with scallop shells (the symbol of Santiago – St James the Apostle), while restaurants and hostels advertise special rates for peregrinos (pilgrims).

The camino itself splits into two as it passes through Burgos, and we had a great time looking out for the trail markers – tiles with the scallop shell insignia – that lead the pilgrim through town. Although we’ve only done very small sections so far, the Camino is high on our bucket list of things we want to do before leaving Spain. While you’re in Burgos, however, we recommend a day’s walk out and back along the Camino. You’ll soon find yourself out in the beautiful countryside that surrounds the city, sharing the route with people from every corner of the globe. There’s a real collegial feel to the Camino and you and the kids are bound to meet some interesting characters along the way.

Check out the Wise Pilgrim Guides for some more really good information on the Camino and Burgos.


So that’s just about all we have to say about Burgos. The city treated us incredibly well – we felt welcomed, entertained and well fed, and came away wanting to return to finish off some experiences and find time to check out a number of things we’d wanted to do, but just didn’t get time to this time around.

Logistics

Getting there: Burgos is 2.5 hours from Madrid and 3 hours from San Sebastian by train. If you book far enough in advance it’s a surprisingly cheap journey. Our favourite portal for booking trains in Spain is Trainline.

You can try it through the Renfe website, but we’ve had no luck on that front because they don’t accept payment via Australian (and possibly other nationalities) credit cards, not even our travel money cards (WTF Renfe, I mean seriously!?)

Accommodation: We stayed in a terrific little family apartment sourced through Airbnb.


Have you travelled to Burgos with your family? Have any other hints, tips or general comments on travelling with kids? Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s have a conversation.

For more details on the area see the Lonely Planet guide below (affiliate link):
Spain travel guide - Castilla Y Leon (2.936Mb), 11th Edition Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet
Digital version of Spain travel guide – Castilla Y Leon, 11th Edn Nov 2016 by Lonely Planet