Category: Europe

10 Things My Kids Loved About Spain

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It is amazing the impact that family vacations have on our children. My daughter, two and half years old during our recent adventure in Andalucia, Spain has not ceased talking about it, even 3 months later. The most interesting part is finding out what she liked about it and what has made a lasting impression. In random order, here are the top 10 things she talks about regularly:

1. 1.  The Bidet- Also known as ‘the bum washer’. She was amazed when she saw the extra porcelain bowl in our vacation house. After we explained how and when to use it, she needed to use the facilities a lot more frequently than usual.

2. 2.  Architecture – We did spend some time pointing out to her the differences between homes in Spain and homes in Canada but didn’t realize it was sinking in until one day she saw a picture on a magnet and told us it was Spain. It was actually Italy, but she was recognizing the cobblestone streets, flowers in window boxes, narrow alleys etc.

3. 3.  Fascination with Donkeys- While we were waiting for check-in time at our vacation house, we wandered around the quiet streets in the village of Gaucin. We came across a donkey tethered to a stoop in front of somebody’s house. We could hear the ‘hee-haw’ before we could see it. It must have been the excitement of hearing him and trying to find him that started this fascination. Once we found him, she didn’t want to leave and for the rest of the trip kept asking if we could go find the donkey. She still talks about him today.  (incidentally it also started an obsession with talking about donkey poop).

The Donkey, Gaucin, Spain

The Donkey, Gaucin, Spain

4. 4.  The airplane-This was a no-brainer. We knew she’d love it and all that was associated with the airport, security, luggage etc.

5. 5.  The moon- She has always loved the moon but actually seems to understand the concept of the world turning. In the daytime, she will say ‘Now the moon has gone to Spain’.

6. 6.  Mango flavoured ice cream- We were spoiled with daily gelato (Mom’s favorite) and she caught on quick to this daily ritual. She says she doesn’t like mangos, only mango ice cream? One gelateria, also gave her a chocolate cookie with her icecream and a clown on a stick.

7. 7.  Her special toy. Also a gift from a gelato stand. We bought various souvenirs throughout the trip, but this was her favorite. It was a free, red foam and plastic toy that you can pump. I believe it is to be filled with water and used for water fights but she doesn’t know that . She just imagines that it is something different each time she plays with it.

8. 8.  Patterns in the stone tiled streets and alleyways- It wasn’t too long before I noticed that she was examining the stone tiled streets very closely and would often decide to only walk on one particular shape or colour in the pattern. It was a game that could amuse her for ever. img_2415

9. 9.  Getting Lost- Ok, so this happened a couple of times. She picked up on it and is now forever wondering if we are lost again.

10. 10. ‘The Cottage’– This is the name she came up with for our vacation house in Gaucin. It was a beautiful whitewashed house in the country side complete with pool, pool house, many nooks and crannies to play, her own pint sized bed, toys galore and lots of farm animals in surrounding properties. She was in love. We could hardly tear her away. Whenever we went somewhere, she just kept asking to go back to ‘ The cottage’.

Many of the things she learned and loved were not those that I expected. I was excited that she was being exposed to a new language and culture. I thought she’d love the castles, swimming in the pools or maybe the horse and carriage rides.  She did, but they were not her favorites. When I asked her on the plane ride home what she liked the most about our trip, she said “ I liked that Daddy was with us the whole time”. What more could a parent ask for!

Inexpensive Family Vacations

The website www.1001-vacation-ideas.com, recently published my story about our family vacation to Portugal.  I spend a lot of time planning vacations, and always try to get the most value for the least amount of money without compromising too much comfort or missing out on experiences.  This article shows how we went to Europe for $2500 Canadian (approximately $2000 U.S) and had a fabulous time.  Check it out!

Travel to Portugal: Itinerary Series

Portugal is a great option if you are looking for  a vacation that can combine independent travel with some resort and/or beach time.  Throughout the country you will find medieval castles, white-wash countryside villages, vineyards, outdoor adventure opportunities along with cosmopolitan cities that still maintain an old-world flare.  The Algarve region boasts some of the most picturesque beaches in the world set amidst ochre cliffs and myriad of relaxing resorts.  Although it maintains many historic and cultural sights, you will also find modern amusement parks, aquariums, playgrounds and more to give your vacation a balance that your children will be craving.  At a minimum, I would recommend this 15 day itinerary to cover Lisbon and the southern half of the country.  Accomodations are in the moderate price range but have been chosen to get the best experience for your money.

Day 1:  Arrive at Lisbon Airport via international flight.   Take a taxi to your accommodations.  We rented an apartment through www.travelingtolisbon.com.  Apartment 85 was great for our family in a good location with a beautiful terrace but there are many options to choose from.

Day 1-5:  Sightseeing in Lisbon.  Take time to wander through the various neighborhoods.  The Alfama district is difficult to navigate with a stroller as there are lots of steps, so I recommend a backpack carrier for your small children.  The Oceanarium at Parque das Nacoes is a highlight for all ages.  Try to be there on a Tuesday or Saturday, so that you can go to the flea market ‘Feira da Ladra’ in Alfama

Day 5:  Take taxi back to airport to pick up Rental car.   Drive 90 minutes to the village of Estremoz.  Stay at Monte dos Pensamentos (www.secretplaces.com) in an apartment that will sleep four.  They also have a baby cot available if needed.  Tel # 011-351-268-333-166.  Relax at the pool, wander the property to see various farm animals and vegetation.  Visit the village or pre-arrange a tour of the local vineyard- J. Portugal Ramos-vinhos.

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Day 6: Drive to Vila Vicosa and tour the castle and village.  We stayed overnight at www.pensaopolicarpo.com tel # 011-35-266-702-424.  It was a basic hotel at a good price in a great location.  They are able to provide extra beds and baby cots but may not be suitable for large families.

Day 7: Tour the town of Evora.  Take your children to the park.  Visit the standing stones, Almendres Cromlech on your drive south.  Drive to Lagos ( 218 km ) via toll highways for the quickest route.

Day 7-14:  Stay at www.clubeportomos.com tel # 011-351-282-790-550 in Lagos in the Algarve region.  Take day trips to Sagres, Lagos Zoo and/or Zoo Marine theme park.  Take a boat trip to see the grottos and sea caves.  Walk the historic part of town ( lots of children’s toy and clothing shops) and kids can take a spin on the carousel.  The beaches are beautiful and there are cliff top hiking trails from the resort all the way to town.  There is also an indoor pool, gym, sauna and jacuzzi and games room for rainy days at this resort.

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Day 14:  Drive via toll highway back to Sintra.  Allow approximately 5 hours for the drive.  Stay at www.casadovalle.com tel # 011 (+351) 91 937 1622.  There is a set of 2 adjoining rooms that can be rented for larger families.  They also have a crib available.  Tour castles  (Palacio da Pena and Castelo dos Mouros are the 2 most impressive), gardens, walking trails.

Day 15:  More time in Sintra.   Try to arrange flight departing in the late evening or stay another night in Sintra.  Drive to the airport to drop off rental car. (30 minutes)

I hope you enjoy your trip and can find this blog entry useful.  Everybody has different interests, however I think this can give you a starting point.  Please check out the websites for each destination to see if it looks like a fit for your family.  For background information on this series, please see Introduction: Itinerary Series.


Europe: Eat Lavishly, Sleep in Your Car

We had been driving most of the day, waking up in a coastal town just outside of Nice, driving to Monaco, then continued on for a quick stop in Pisa.  As we drove into Monterosso al Mare, the first of five villages that made up Cinque Terre, Italy, we were surprised by the number of people and tourists in this small coastal town.  There were no parking spaces, so I ran in and out of a few buildings to try to find accommodation to no avail.  We decided we’d keep driving to the next town on this Italian Riviera, called Vernazza.  It was barely visible by sea but based on our guidebook it sounded like a quaint place to spend the night.  It seemed that it took hours to wind back up into the hills, then back down narrow roads with hairpin turns.  There were tiny goat paths visible from the road, leading (we presumed) to cove beaches below.  We saw wild boars, orange and lemon trees as well as beautiful coastal views.  As Vernazza finally came into view, the sun was starting to sit low in the sky.

by Rayced on Flickr

by Rayced on Flickr

You cannot drive in the village as most of the cobblestone streets are too narrow to pass.  We went on foot in search of a room for the night but the only one available was $200 per night. At the time this was more than our entire budget for the day.  What were we going to do? It was almost dark, we had very little gas left and were unsure if we’d find a room in the next town, so we decided to give up and enjoy what little time we had in one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been.  We had a delicious pasta meal as we drank wine at a bistro table in a lamp lit courtyard.  We watched cats waiting for table scraps, observed the locals, lounging and laughing and talked until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer.  At that point we stumbled back to our car, put the seats back and slept in our Renault Twingo on the outskirts of Vernazza.

As it turns out, it was a really comfortable sleep.  The front seats went back to be flush with the back seats which also reclined.  We had a sheet and a sleeping bag as well as towels that we covered the windows with to prevent peering eyes.  When we crawled out in the morning, we realized that we had not been alone on the side of the road.  Other travelers were also appearing from their cars with bedhead.  And so it began, a series of nights spent in our car.  Once we realized how comfortable it was, it was really hard to resist.  We could eat lavishly, see all the sights and indulge in any other cultural experiences we wanted and were still coming in under budget if we decided to sleep in our car for the night.  From that point on, we would usually find a campground at least, so that we could use their bathroom and shower facilities, but it was still a great way to experience Europe.  Now that we will be traveling as a family, we would need a bit more room, but a small camper van or VW Westphalia could still be an option to keep in mind!

Dreaming of Street Meat

The world is full of tasty delights.  While sitting down to a meal in a nice restaurant can be a great way to end the day, there are lots of other options that are easier on the pocket book and sometimes end up being the food you remember most about a country.  In many places ” Fast-Food” doesn’t involve looking for the golden arches, it is available direct from a local entrepreneur and prepared fresh in front of you.  My husband and I , affectionately call this ” street meat ” because the first time we encountered it, we were terrified that it would make us sick.  It turns out however, that every time we have been sick while traveling, it was after eating at a nice restaurant.

There are of course some guidelines, you need to follow, to ensure that the food is safe for your family to eat.  Always be sure that meat products were properly stored.  Watch to see if it is removed from an ice chest and make sure it is cooked fresh in front of you and hasn’t been sitting out for a while.  When possible, bring your own mug or glass, because re-usable drinking cups may not be washed in safe or hot water.

The following is a list of some of the best street food I’ve enjoyed.  Whenever I get home from traveling, I always want to eat like this but it seems that the key to these regional specialties is the availability of fresh food which we don’t often have access to in North America.

1.  Fresh Fruit, Bangkok, Thailand.- Fresh pineapple and melons on ice are peddled around in glass carts and sold on street corners.buying-fruit

2.  Corn over charcoal- Chaing Mai, Thailand.

3.  Donairs, Halifax, Canada- Atlantic Canadian version like the usual doner kebab, but uses a slightly sweet milk-based garlic sauce and tomatoes/onions. It should be very soaked and sloppy when served.

4.  Grilled mystery meat on any street corner in Asia.

5.  Fresh Seafood on the beach in Oualidia, Morocco.- The fisherman will come around to take your order then set up a BBQ and grill it right in front of you. Oysters are also on this impromptu menu if you are so inclined.Fish in Oalidia

6.  Orange Juice in Djamaa El Fna, Marrakesh- freshly squeezed but I recommend your own glass.

7.  Red Tea Djamaa El Fna, Marrakesh.

8.  Mint Tea, Fez, Morocco.- Made with green tea and fresh mint leaves steeped in you own tea pot with lots of sugar and poured using a special technique into what look like large shot glasses.

9.  Cheese, bread and sausages-Portugal, Spain, France and Italy- A staple found in any market, bakery etc.

10. Gyros,  Corfu, Greece.  – Consisting of meat (typically lamb and/or beef), tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce, and is served in pita bread.

Meals to Remember- The Best Food in the World

During this festive season, I’ve been doing a lot of eating and it seems that food begets food.  The more I eat, the more I think about what my next culinary delight is going to be, and so I have been reflecting on some of the best meals I’ve ever had and whether or not I could re-create them.  This is unlikely since, although I love to eat food, I have little time or patience for actually preparing it.  I guess that is why all of the meals on my list, are those that were cooked by someone else!

This will be one of the many posts I will have about food.  The following list is meant to get your taste buds watering.  They are not in any particular order, just the order in which I am recalling each feast.

1.  La Quebecoise, La Paz, Bolivia- On a dark, tree-lined street, where each quaint home, building and business has a wraught-iron fence and a bell to ring to be received at the front door.  It was my birthday, 2003, and we decided to try out this homey French Canadian restaurant, found so far away from home.  Regrettably, I don’t remember the exact name of the dish I had, but I remember it resembled cannelloni and was served with fresh baked bread and good wine.  This restaurant is highly recommended for a date night!

2.  Happy Campground, Rome, Italy- Home cooked meals prepared by the family that owns this campground, were served on a porch or at tables set in amidst the greenery.  Between my husband and I we tried most of the pastas on the menu and they were all so flavorful that we didn’t want to eat anywhere else.  Great place to take your kids as menu was mainly pastas and pizzas that they would enjoy.  The campground had a nice pool and provided transportation to the train station into the city.

3.  Forodhani Gardens ( Night Market ), Stonetown, Zanzibar, Tanzania- This is the place that I learned to like seafood.  Every night the fishermen set up food stalls and charcoal grills ready to prepare their catch of the day.  The choices are endless.  I tried crab for the first time, and have never again tasted anything like it.  It was so fresh, and right off the boat.  I also had kebabs of flounder, swordfish and other delicacies of the sea.  I tried the Zanzibari pizza too.  I will put a disclaimer on this that I got sick following this meal, however none of my other 3 traveling companions did, even though we all ate the same thing.  Even though I paid for this meal after the fact, I am still putting it on my list because it was that good!  Oh, and it was also probably the cheapest feast I have ever had.

4.  Freeman’s on the Alley, New York City, USA –  My meal was a chicken dish that is no longer on the menu, however, my husband ordered the ‘Seared Filet Mignon’ which was to die for.  It was so simple, yet so tasty. It came with a whole roasted onion and a large dollop of horseradish cream.  I’m salivating just thinking of it.  It was also reasonably priced for NYC at $24.   We shared the restaurant with Mike Myers where I had to restrain myself from going to his table and reciting ‘Git in ma belly’ or that will cost ‘ One Million Dollars’.  Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) was also in the restaurant that evening.

5.  Bha Bha, A Persion Bistro, Naples, Florida- Located in a strip mall but elegantly decorated, this bistro was a delightful surprise!  I went with my family so was able to try a wide variety of fragrant dishes all served over saffron basmati rice.  I would recommend, Shireen Polo with Saffron poached chicken, Duck Fesenjune (a succulent orange braised duck with pomegranate and walnut sauce), and Lamb Bademjune ( done in tomato lemon sauce with eggplants and sour grapes ).  This restaurant was also very accomodating for our baby.

6.  The Press Gang, Halifax, NS, Canada- There are many restaurants in Halifax, I’d like to list but that will have to be a separate post.  For now, I’d like to highlight the Sweet Potato and Blackened Scallop Chowder and Flourless  Chocolate Espresso Cake I enjoyed at this cosy restaurant located in an historic building.

7.  Bar des Imagens/Costa do Castelo, Lisbon, Portugal-  The outdimg_1500oor patio has spawling views of the city and a casual relaxed atmosphere.  The food was prepared with such care.  Suprisingly my husband daughter and I had the restaurant to ourselves most of the evening as we dined.  I ordered a salad prepared with greens, beets, mixed vegies, goat cheese, garlic and oil.  The main course was a chicken dish and then we splurged on a chocolate dessert that melted in my mouth.  I wish we’d had another night so we could go back there!

I haven’t even started to share my favorite Asian cuisine but I think I’ll leave it at that for now.  I’m craving so many things I’m going to have to sign off, while I go make a snack.  I hope your holidays are filled with good food and good company.  Don’t forget to make a donation to your local food bank so that the less fortunate can also eat well this holiday season.  Bon Appetit!

Do's and Don'ts for infant travel in Europe

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Portugal with our seven month old daughter.  We have gone on backpacking adventures all over the world, and were determined that having children was not going to keep us from continuing to travel.  

 

I chose Portugal because we had enough points to fly to somewhere in Europe from Canada and since I am currently off work on maternity leave we wanted to go somewhere that would be relatively inexpensive once we arrived.  We wanted some relaxation time and some time to explore the country. Portugal seemed to meet all these criteria. 

 

I was thrilled to find out that the Portuguese love children and our daughter had a steady stream of women and even men stopping to pay her some attention.  The little old ladies would cluck their tongues and rhyme off beautiful sounding sentences in Portuguese. One woman stopped to talk to us while we were waiting for a tram in Lisbon.  She didn’t speak any English, and we didn’t speak Portuguese but we signed our way through a img_1438conversation.  She insisted on giving us a euro which we believe she was telling us was for our little girl’s piggy bank.  She wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Our tram driver also kept clucking and smiling at her to the point that we started to worry that he wasn’t really watching the road.

 

I think many of our friends and family thought we were crazy Read more »


 

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