Thursday, 24 September 2015

Summer in Provence

Excuse me while I contradict myself and post some holiday photos and a review of our recent sojourn in Provence. I know my last post took a brutally honest look at family holidays, but like everything in life, with the rough comes the smooth, and with the passing of a few weeks any stressy moments you probably encountered during your fortnight in the sun are magically erased, leaving a trail of wonderful memories in their wake. How else would anyone get through the mundanity of everyday life, if we were unable to recall those sun-drenched - the weather is ALWAYS sunny in our memories - rather romanticised images from time to time?




With that in mind, I'm happy to forget the head injury and the train line that ran next to our campsite and just remember the good bits. Because there were lots of those...

Where we stayed

La Ciotat

While I can't recommend the Eurocamp site we stayed at this time around, I can recommend the area around La Ciotat, a bustling town located about an hour from Marseilles airport. Being based here ticked a lot of boxes - proximity to a great beach (Les Lecques at St Cyr-sur-Mer) and access to some beautiful countryside and towns. A short transfer time from the airport is always a bonus in my mind and starts holidays off on the right footing. It was also great to be able to travel from our home airport which runs the Marseilles route via EasyJet.

Les Leques Beach
The Beaches

The nearest beach, Les Lecques, is perfect for families. It's big, sandy and has plenty of facilities close to hand, including nice cafes and restaurants, toilets and beach shops. I enjoyed not having to fight for beach space for a change, and I liked the very French ambience of this resort. It's very much geared towards French families and feels authentic. The sea can get choppy in this part of France (due to the mistral winds which can whip up quite frequently) but on a calm day it's perfect for children, with its shallow and clear waters.

Another beach at St Cyr-sur-Mer

Several watersports companies offer boat, surf and kayak activities - we saw kids enjoying surf school but our two opted to take to the water on a kayak, a great way to pass a morning on the beach.

There are numerous other beaches in the region, which is blessed with some truly stunning, unspoilt coastline. A boat ride around the Calanques is a must do and gives you peek into the dramatic coves that characterise the area around Marseilles. Some of the Calanques are accessible on foot, but many are not; those that can be reached on land involve a pretty energetic hike to get there...not recommended with children in tow. There are two Calanques close to La Ciotat that can be easily reached by car - Figuerolles and Mugel - which, though beautiful can get busy. 

Calanque En Vau
We picked up a boat trip from Cassis which was a fun way to see the Calanques from the water. Due to the prevailing winds, the experience can be a choppy one and boats frequently get cancelled or postponed due to the weather. Our kids really enjoyed being tossed about on the open seas, though I found it a bit hairy at times...

Clear waters of the Calanques

Towns and Villages

This region is blessed with some lovely towns to explore, from the postcard-perfect Cassis to the bustling former capital of the region, Aix-en-Provence. If you like your towns to ooze that quintessential flavour of the Med, Cassis is a must-visit. Its pretty harbourside is lined with pastel-coloured buildings, while its compact beach is lapped by sparkling azure seas. It's bustling and charming, with lots of cafes and restaurants to sample, as well as a weekly market that provides the classic French shopping experience. 

Cassis Harbour
A little further afield lies Aix which totally charmed us with its strong French flavour, amazing market and quaint streets and squares. An affluent town, Aix has a buzzy atmosphere and interesting cafe culture - a little like Paris but on a smaller scale. It doesn't have any major sights as such, but it's a great place for a bit of unhurried mooching, market stall browsing and citron presse slurping. If you're into art you can visit the atelier of esteemed Provencal artist Paul Cezanne, just outside Aix.

Aix-en-Provence
Other pleasant towns in the area include Bandol and St Sanary-sur-Mer. We also loved Le Castellet, a pretty village perche overlooking the rolling vineyards of Bandol. 

Sanary-sur-Mer
Eating and Drinking

We were seriously impressed with Provencal cuisine, which leans towards seafood and fish. The Marseilles speciality of bouillabase is a menu standard, and you'll find delicious, fresh-from-the-boat fish everywhere you go in this region. Our local restaurant was amazing and we made a few return trips, not just for the food but for the blissful views across the sea, the perfect way to catch the full beauty of a Mediterranean sunset. 

Fresh sardines by the beach
For kids choices tend to be a bit standard - either chicken nuggets or steak hache - but Italian influenced food is also widely available. Good quality pizzas and ice cream are easy to find here, plus it goes without saying that you're never far away from an amazing boulangerie.

If you like wine you can sample the locally produced Bandol - there are numerous vineyards and wine cellars where you can give it a taste and then buy a bottle to take home. 

Bandol vineyards
Kid-friendly activities

In a word, Aqualand, a waterpark located in St Cyr-sur-Mer. It's not cheap and the extras soon stack up (lockers, sun-loungers, etc) but as a child-friendly alternative to the beach, this completely delivered. There's something for all ages, from toddler pools with age-appropriate slides to more white-knuckle experiences for older kids. We didn't really have to queue for anything and there was plenty to keep our boys occupied, from twisting tube slides to lazy rivers and rapid rafting-style rides. 

Be warned that a strict height policy is enforced - we saw a few melt-downs from kids just a few inches off the designated height requirements so you may want to check this out in advance to avoid similar scenarios.

Aqualand

More photos











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Monday, 7 September 2015

Five Truths About Holidays

Quite a lot of my posts are dedicated to the subject of holidays. This is because I love going abroad. However - and it's a big however - there is one truth I frequently skim over in the reviews of our latest adventures. And that is that going away as a family does not - for all its loveliness - usually equate with the general understanding of what constitutes a holiday.

Of course, holidays with children involved are wonderful, memory-creating experiences for the most part, but few people will tell you that those sugar-coated pictures on Facebook belie the reality of family holidays. Just like those pesky holiday brochures, the pictures you see on social media only tell half truths - here are five realities I've learnt about family holidays over the years...




1. Accidents will happen on holiday

And they will usually be quite random. You'd never walk into a tree at home, would you, but holidays seem to up the chances of having an unusual mishap (as my husband found out when he walked into a low-hanging tree branch, resulting in 8 stitches and the unfortunate necessity of walking around with what looked like a sanitary towel stuck to his head for the duration of the holiday - not a good look in the South of France) 

Be prepared for the usual cuts and grazes, as well as illness and do NOT under any circumstances scrimp on the Calpol. I spent one memorable afternoon on a past holiday scouring a tiny town for a pharmacy during the middle of the Italian siesta - a time when shops often shut until the evening - while my husband drove round the one way system, with both children in the back simultaneously vomiting and having diarrhoea. Not a great scenario at any time, but certainly one to be avoided when you're driving around in a hire car...

Then there was the time one of them got chicken pox. On bloody holiday - what are the chances! This was a particularly unwelcome development as on this occasion we'd splashed out on a HOTEL. Yes, we'd eschewed camping for 4-star luxury in Sardinia. Only to find that all those lovely swimming pools and child-friendly facilities were out of bounds to a pox-ridden 4-year-old...

2. They really do lie in the brochures

No, really, they do. I know! How can they get away with it! First rule of holiday booking is to absolutely scan the description, get yourself onto Google street view and double check things like distances from airports - there's nothing like turning up at your destination expecting a breezy 40 minute drive to your resort to be told by the hire car people that actually, due to the 'slow roads' you'll be looking at a 2 and a half hour drive instead. Especially when it's gone midnight and you have two tired, fractious children in tow.

This year's brochure wording really excelled itself, though. In Eurocamp's words we were told that 'due to the location of the site, some road and rail noise may be heard'. So imagine our surprise when we turned up at said location to find it sandwiched between a busy dual carriageway and mainline railway. And when I say 'sandwiched' I mean there was a railway line overlooking the swimming pool...

While I'm not one for obsessively checking TripAdvisor - there will always be one moany person to plant a seed of doubt in your mind about anywhere and everywhere - I would advise checking Google street view so you can zoom in on that road that seems to run alongside the resort...it's amazing how inconsequential such features can look in the brochure pictures.

3. No photo you've seen captures the actual reality of a place

Unfortunately most places I've been to haven't quite tallied up with the picture I've created in my mind ahead of a trip. It's important to have realistic rather than romantic expectations of a place; that idyllic, tranquil Mediterranean beach you've been dreaming about will look quite different in the height of August, when the world and his wife descends on it. We went to a beautiful beach in Spain a couple of years ago, but its blissful environs were slightly marred by the fact that we were packed liked sardines on the sand. On coming back form a dip in the sea, another family had pretty much set up camp underneath our parasols...they don't show THAT on the postcards...

Cars are a pain, too. You see that adorable, quintessentially French boulangerie, complete with vintage signage and a retro bike propped up outside? Wouldn't it capture the essence of a French holiday...well, it would were it not for the fact an ugly white van's pulled up just inside your shot, ruining your perfect Instagram moment. The charm of beautiful places is often, in reality, tempered by the prosaic - ceaseless traffic, huge tour parties and tacky souvenir shops, for example.

It's important to remember that those effortless shots you see on Instagram or the authentic looking images that fill your Lonely Planet guide were probably taken with a) a filter and b) at 5 in the morning when no one was around. Even the most beautiful cities are usually working places - Florence is a perfect example; you won't be magically transported to the 1400s just because you're in the birthplace of the Renaissance. And with children in tow it's even harder to immerse yourself in the authentic. While you might fancy mooching about about in a medieval village for the afternoon they just want to throw themselves down the waterslides at Aqualand. And sometimes you'll just have to go with that...

4. Camping is quite hard work

I do speak with some experience, though we only really do camping 'lite'. We've been all over Europe with companies such as Eurocamp and Canvas and I can honestly say what while it's a great way to economise (although the prices have risen quite significantly recently) it can be trying at times, quite simply because space and cooking facilities are limited. You just spend a lot of time stumbling over each other and struggling to make meals with the most rudimentary of tools. I think I was using a pair of (clean) underpants as an oven glove this time around when it transpired that Eurocamp do not include these in their mobile home inventory (I was NOT going to part with good money to buy an oven glove on holiday.) And I don't think I've ever used a sharp knife or an effective chopping board while holidaying in a mobile home.

Of course, this is also the beauty of the experience - going basic can be fun - but don't underestimate the lack of ease and convenience if you really do need a proper holiday. 

It's possibly easier staying in a tent or mobile home with younger children but with one child on the cusp of adolescence and another who, though tiny, has an amazing capacity to take up all the space in a room, this sort of accommodation can be a tad confining, particularly if the weather isn't on your side.

5. Do not bother compiling a 'holiday wardrobe'

This is perhaps only true for the kind of budget-friendly holidays I go on, perhaps not so relevant if you're staying in hotel or villa. Every year I get completely taken in by the idea of buying 'special' clothes to take on holiday. In my mind's eye, I'm holidaying in a chic Ibizan finca for a fortnight, not setting up home at a functional French campsite. So, I fill my case with floaty dresses and beautiful sandals, imagining evenings spent watching sunsets while I sip on an Aperol. 

In reality, I end up wearing old denim shorts, scruffy t-shirts and a battered pair of flip flops for the duration. That bohemian kaftan dress feels a bit wrong at the campsite disco and given that a lot of time 'on site' will be taken up walking back and forth with a washing up bowl, you probably didn't need to pack those very on-trend gladiator sandals - Birkenstocks will do and they're so easy to get on and off. Because you will need to take your shoes off every time you enter your mobile home - campsites kick up a lot of dust and pine needles that will somehow end up all over your floor, all the time, no matter how many times you sweep it.

Save yourself the hassle and excess baggage costs if you're camping - there will be more appropriate times to flash your fashionista credentials...

PS - look out for my post on our recent holiday to France. We had a lovely time, because family holidays are always lovely, no matter what happens. It might pour with rain for a week, your other half might walk into a tree and your kids will definitely drive you up the wall at some point, but I guarantee you won't ever regret a family holiday - just remember to take all those perfect holiday pics on Facebook with a big dose of salt...(and don't forget to pack the Calpol.)




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Food Life Hacks with First Utility


Going back to school is exhausting, right? Under one week in and all those leisurely summer mornings, idling over late breakfasts and not needing to be anywhere before 10 seem like a distant memory, while getting back into the rhythm of a new school term feels like an insurmountable challenge. 


Me in avatar form, holding aloft my latest culinary creation! (thanks to illustrator Genevieve Edwards)

So it was most appropriate that I was recently asked to suggest a 'life hack' by energy supplier First Utility as part of a new social media campaign to share the best tips for making everyday life a little more manageable. Who doesn't need the odd short-cut to make term-time life less stressful, particularly when it comes to putting food on the table for your family. We all want our kids to eat well, but when you throw in work, extra-curricular activities and other daily obligations, it can be all to easy to reach for the convenience foods. 

But recently I have hit on two real kitchen 'cheats', which are relatively healthy, add some variation to mealtimes and couldn't be easier to prepare. I can't take credit for the first two (you'll also find my very own kitchen stand-by at the bottom of the page) but I hope they help you out in the kitchen as you make the tricky transition from holiday time to real-life time...




Spaghetti with Marmite

As featured in Nigella Lawson's 'Kitchen' cookbook. It's an improbable combo, I know, but it really does work. Plus the recipe was conceived by legendary Italian cookery writer Anna Del Conte - if the Italians eat it, it must be good! You don't even have to really like Marmite. Bung some spaghetti in to cook then heat about 50g of butter in a pan. When it's nearly melted add in a teaspoon of Marmite, plus one tablespoon of the pasta cooking water till it all emulsifies and goes loose. Add the sauce to the drained spaghetti and mix well. Plate up and serve with plenty of Parmesan. I'm biased because I love Marmite but even if you're not so sure, give it a try just once...


Roasted Gnocchi

Although I sometimes make my own chips and even the oven variety aren't really that bad for them, I do sometimes feel a bit guilty about chips being the standard potato-based dish in our home. So, for something a bit different try roasted or fried gnoochi, another idea gleaned from Nigella. These babies take literally minutes to prepare - you simply throw them into a frying pan with some olive oil and gently fry on both sides for about four minutes. Alternatively bake them in a roasting pan with some oil for about twenty minutes. 

Spinach Pesto

I have been trying to find creative ways to get the green stuff into my kids' diets for years now. If this is a familiar scenario for you, here's something that works in our house: I add a good handful of fresh or frozen spinach to pasta and pesto, a really easy way to up the veg content of their supper. I wilt it down in a pan with a knob of butter, then whizz up in a hand-blender and mix in with the pesto. Simple, quick and super cheap.

Do you have a life hack you'd like to share? Add a comment below!

Thanks to the team at Positive for including me in this initiative, and thanks also to illustrator Genevieve Edwards for my lovely bespoke illustration!


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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A Ride on the Strawberry Line

If there was ever a name to conjure up images of gentle, bucolic loveliness, the 'Strawberry Line' is it. A beautiful stretch of tranquil cycling path, reaching from Yatton to Cheddar, this is a must-try if your family likes cycling but you're a bit over sharing space with the hordes that often clog up other popular routes near Bristol.
It's perfect for children. Not only is the route flat and off road in most places but it's usually pretty quiet - you won't meet too many other cycling pros or pedestrians, making it a much less stressful experience than, say, the Bristol to Bath towpath which can get pretty hairy at times if you're cycling with children. 

We've experienced impatience to the odd cross word from more serious cyclists who seem to view some routes as their sole preserve, but the Strawberry Line has (on the occasions we've ridden it) been much more accommodating of families pootling along at less than Tour de France-style speeds.

There's plenty of parking at Yatton Station, and you can also pick up refreshments at the small station cafe and use the loo. Just a short distance along the route you'll see signs on the right to a fishing lake and cafe. This is a lovely spot to enjoy a cuppa before you continue - it's really tranquil and enjoys nice views across the water.

Further along things get rather continental as you pass the Thatcher's Cider orchards - the path cuts a wide avenue through the apple trees, making you feel as if you've been deposited in a field in France. 

The next place to look out for is the old station at Sandford, a beautifully restored building, decorated with vintage railway posters and memorabilia. There's an old-fashioned train permanently stationed here, which will delight the younger cyclists in your family. 

The small shop sells refreshments if your little people are flagging. This makes a great end point if going any further might not be feasible, coming in at about an hour and a bit from Yatton (perhaps a bit longer with very young cyclists.)
Continuing on older kids will enjoy cycling through the eerie Shute Shelve Tunnel, a satisfyingly dark and dank stretch, bringing you out into the light to enjoy (after crossing the busy A38) amazing views across the Cheddar Valley. 
I love this cycle route - on a sunny day I can't think of a better way to get some gentle exercise and immerse yourself in the pretty Somerset countryside that lies right on Bristol's doorstep.
Visit the Strawberry Line website for more information, and read a helpful guide on The Guardian website also.

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