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.

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.

Eurail Passes; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fifteen years ago I travelled Europe for two months on a Eurail Pass and it was one of the best ways to get around. I found it so easy to hop on and off, and didn’t need to book ahead. For this trip with the family, we were very unsure about whether it was going to be a good option for us. We wanted some flexibility, but also wanted to be able to get around as easily and as cheaply as possible. A quick Google search brought up a lot of articles bemoaning the cons of the Eurail pass, and TripAdvisor is brimming with reports of negative experiences. We read Nomadic Matt’s article, which weighed up the pros and cons, but mostly looked at it from a single person’s point of view. Given my previous experience with Eurail, I was pushing for it all the way. Cass was a little more wary.

We had promised La Chica that we would take her to Paris for her Birthday, so we knew we would have some expensive travel coming up – we had to explore all our options. The cost of train travel is not necessarily cheap, but it’s a fantastic way to travel. You get to see the countryside, there’s no pressure of negotiating traffic and you can get up and move about when it’s  a long journey.

The Good

fullsizeoutput_1cd0The best feature of a Eurail pass for family travel is that kids under 11 years of age travel free.  That makes family travel cheaper than all other transport options by far.

We also waited for a Eurail sale where they were offering 30% off the usual price. We ended up buying a Three Country Family Pass with 6 days of travel in 2 months. Here’s how the costs worked out (all prices in Australian Dollars):

Usual cost of pass for two adults & two children (under 11) $1182.00
Minus 15% discount for travelling together at all times -$177.30
Minus sale discount of 30% -$301.41
Total cost of Eurail Pass $703.29
Price per trip (6 trips) $117.22

Barcelona to Paris without pass for two adults & two children one way is $724.95 (as at 15 June 2017). So we knew the Eurail pass was going to pay for itself just on this one trip.

The Bad and the Ugly

Hurdle number 1

Our first experience trying to book a Eurail seat reservation (required in Spain) was a challenging one. We were in Guadix wanting to book a trip to Sevilla, and we were staying 4kms from the train station without a car. Cass and Los Chicos walked all the way there, only to be told that they couldn’t make Eurail reservations at that station as it was only a small one: we would need to call or go to a bigger station. We tried calling Renfe (the Spanish train network). We called 10 times. Each time, we were on hold for half an hour. When we finally got through and started asking in broken Spanish for our reservation, the operator would cut us short and put us through to an English-speaking operator. While being transferred, it would hang up. Every time.fullsizeoutput_1cd3

On the eleventh call, after the usual hold time, the first thing I said (in carefully rehearsed Spanish) was ‘Please don’t transfer me, I’ve called 10 times and it hangs up every time. Please help me in Spanish’. He tried to transfer me but I managed to convince him not to. We finally muddled our way through the Eurail reservation in my limited Spanish and his limited patience, and got to the point of payment. My travel debit card wouldn’t work. I tried my credit card. No luck. It turns out that foreign credit cards and debit cards don’t work with Renfe.

So. We ended up paying full fare for a ticket to Sevilla (where we were going anyway) and then booked our next trip at the station there.

Hurdle number 2

After our previous experience, we thought we would get more clever about booking our trip from Spain to France. We did some more research on reserving Eurail tickets on the Eurail website. We even downloaded the app.

It turns out that you have to book more than 7 days in advance if you want to book using the Eurail website or app, and then they will post it to you. Wait…what? We don’t have a fixed address, how will they post it to us? We’re travelling on our Eurail pass!

Ok, so then you can book an e-ticket up to 2 days before your departure. Good. But only for travel within Spain or Italy. France not included. That rules that out.

So. We ended up going back to Sevilla and booked our next two trips in person there. We waited in line for over half an hour but it all got sorted and the Renfe staff were very helpful. It did cost an extra €90 to book all our seats, but financially we were still coming out ahead by a long shot.

Hurdle number 3

So now we realised that the only way to book tickets was going to be to go in person to a big train station. In Paris we went to Montparnasse station to book our departure from Paris and the queue was ENORMOUS! It was a ticket system and they had 5 tables operating, but it took a long time. There were a few chairs but nowhere near enough for the number of people waiting. We waited for over an hour and a half with tired, hungry children. I think that our children have relatively long attention spans, and we entertained them as best we could, but it wasn’t easy as there wasn’t much room to move or muck around. When we finally got our turn, it was all very easy to book. But by then our patience had waned and we weren’t feeling very positive.

Hurdle number 4

We hired a car for a few days in the north of Spain and made a special stop in Burgos to book our next Eurail trip, as it was a big station. The Renfe staff told us that there were no seats left. I couldn’t believe it as we had allowed plenty of days before departure. It turns out our Eurail pass is a first class pass, so automatically pulls up only first class seats. This is the only type of Eurail pass available to people over 28 years. I asked if we could book second class seats with our first class pass? Turns out you can. Thankfully. And there were second class seats available. Good. This was an easy hurdle to jump. Good to remember to ask for second class seats (the difference between first and second is pretty much negligible on Spanish trains anyway).

The Finish Line

Eurail passes are definitely not easy to use. Fifteen years ago they were simple, but that was before online bookings were the easiest option. If you could book online with foreign credit cards, it would be the perfect pass.

We’ve only got 2 more travel days left on our passes now, and we feel like we’ve finally got the system sorted out. There’s been a lot of stress and annoyance at how difficult our Eurail passes have been to use, but they’ve already saved us somewhere around $1000, so ultimately it’s worth the hassle. Hopefully some of you can benefit from our mistakes.

We’d love to hear about other experiences with the Eurail pass. Leave us a comment below.

DISCLAIMER: We were not given this product nor were paid to review this product. We paid for it with our own money and these are our own opinions.


Let the journey begin with Rail Europe

Creative Fun for the Engaged Junior Traveller

One of our great motivators in planning this adventure was that we knew it would open doors for our children and show them that the world is full of opportunities, if they only have the courage and confidence to step up and grasp them.

But travelling with children, while full of unexpected moments of joy and wonder, is also not without its challenges. As we expected, being in a country full of unfamiliar sights, smells, sounds and speech has at times been quite overwhelming for the kids. We’ve had days where they’re beating down the door to get out into the world and soak up the novel experiences, and others where they just want to hunker down in the safety of their own little world and shelter in the familiarity of each other’s company.

This was not unexpected, and we understand that this is a necessary part of the process of familiarising themselves with their new circumstances. Thankfully, our schedule has been flexible enough to accommodate these periods of withdrawal, which we ourselves also crave at times.

However, we also know that it won’t be doing us or the kids any good if we shut ourselves off from the outside for too long. Life is there to be lived and there’s a world of experience to be had just out the front door. So despite their protestations, some days we browbeat the children into getting dressed and we drive them out the door to see what surprises the world has for us.

We’re always thinking of new ways to encourage them to engage with the world around them; to help them gain confidence and be more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. I’d like to share one game that I came up with, which we trialled a couple of days ago and which worked quite well.

At the start of the day, one of the children chooses a theme. It can be anything – a colour, an animal, a shape – anything they can think of. Then throughout our adventures that day, whenever they encounter an example of that theme, we photograph it and at the end of the day we sit down together and compile a photo essay on the theme. While we do this, there are many opportunities to dig deeper into the world around them, opening the door to lessons on history, architecture, language and a myriad other subjects. If Mem and I don’t know the answer immediately, well there’s an opportunity for further research.

So we kicked off the first of these days with La Chica selecting the colour Red as our theme. Below are the photos we took as we trekked our way through the ancient town of Guadix, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Andalucía, in southern Spain. You’ll note that we even managed to find an Australian native plant to include in the day’s photo gallery – a bright red bottlebrush we found poking its way through a wrought-iron fence in one of the more affluent barrios that we passed through.