Baby Buns

A few months back I started with the task of baking through a cookbook that my Grandma gave me belonging to her Grandma. The first recipe I made from it was some buns, which I used to announce my pregnancy. As I’m still waiting for the baby to appear- and getting a bit bored, I decided yesterday to carry on with a couple of the easier looking recipes: one of which happened to be buns which seems apt to keep with the baby theme!

I’ll go with the shorter recipe first as it was fairly straightforward and didn’t require too much guess work!

Original Cornflour Cake recipe

Fortunately this one didn’t require too much guess work, just the oven temperature and what sort of tin to use. For the amount of mixture there was I decided it probably needed to be fairly low, so put it onto 160 C, and ended up baking for 40 minutes. It also went into a single sandwich tin which I greased and lined to be on the safe side. So here is the updated recipe:

Cornflour Cake
2oz/60g cornflour
2oz/60g caster sugar
2 eggs
2oz/60g plain flour
2oz/60g butter
1 tsp baking powder
Cream together the butter and sugar, add one egg and the cornflour and mix. Then add the plain flour with the remaining egg and baking powder. Beat well for five minutes (less if using an electric mixer). Spoon into a greased, lined sandwich tin and bake in a preheated oven at 160 C for 40 minutes. Remove and put onto a cooling tray.

The cake ended up feeling like it would be very dense- when you press down it doesn’t spring back like a normal sponge. However it tastes lighter than you would expect. There were no directions for icing but you could treat it like a sponge cake, it would probably be nice with jam, but I wouldn’t layer it due to its density, even though it is quite thin.

The second set of baking took a bit more effort but was still very straightforward. I wasn’t sure what to expect with Coconut buns, as there is no yeast in them so they’re not like the last set of sweet buns. They ended up tasting a bit like coconut scones (or biscuits if you’re from the US!) The recipe asked for 1 egg but I ended up using 2 small eggs as the mixture wasn’t coming together. This made them quite sticky but you couldn’t tell from the end product.

Coconut Buns
3/4lb flour/340g plain flour
1/4lb/115g caster sugar
1 large or 2 small eggs
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3oz/85g butter
1 gill (142ml) milk
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/4lb/115g desiccated coconut
Cream together the butter and sugar. Alternate adding the milk and egg with the flour and other dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Shape into 12 buns and arrange on a lined baking sheet. Bake in a preheated oven at 180C for 15-20 minutes. Leave to cool slightly before eating.

My plan is to bake my way through as much of Granny’s book as possible, trying to work out the ingredients, method, and baking times! Not all the recipes sound that appetising but I’ll give them a go and try and fill in where things are missing. I’ll also pop another couple of recipes below that I’ve tried out but overlooked putting on, and keep better up to date in future!

Rhubarb Chutney
2lbs/900g rhubarb
1lb/450g onions
1lb/450g sugar
1/2lb/225g dates
3/4pt/425ml vinegar
1 tbsp pickling spice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne
Peel and cut up onions. Wipe and cut up rhubarb. Stone and chop dates. Put them together in a sauce pan. Pour the vinegar over it, simmer for 30 minutes and bring to the boil, then add the sugar and stir well. Add the salt, spice and cayenne and boil together until the rhubarb is quite tender. Stir occasionally to keep from burning.

My Mum has a lot of rhubarb in her garden, so she kindly made the chutney for me and fed back that it was oniony and a bit sweet and sour! She added her notes on the recipe to try and make it easier to follow:
-you can get pickling vinegar, which makes it easier as you don’t also need pickling spice
-when you come to bottling make sure you sterilise the jars by putting them in the oven, cover the chutney with waxed jar covers and then the top of the jar with cellophane, which is easier to do while hot
-the mixture is liable to spit when it’s boiling so be careful
-the bigger bits of rhubarb need to be squashed against the side of the pan
-you can tell it’s ready when a spoon makes a path through it
-you’ll need a jug to pour it into jars, but it’s quite messy as it’s so thick

Granny’s Lemonade
1 1/4lb (560g) sugar
3 lemons
1 1/2 pt boiling water
1oz (30g) citric acid
1/4 pt cold water
Slice lemons, put into a large bowl with sugar. Pour over boiling water, stir until sugar dissolves, leave overnight.
Dissolve the citric acid in cold water. Mix with the lemonade. Strain and bottle, refrigerate.
To serve, dilute with water or sparkling water for fizzy lemonade.
You can also add elderflower heads with the lemons, or lavender flowers. For Rhubarb Lemonade use 2 lemons and 4 large sticks of rhubarb- the pinker the better for colour.
Remove the lemon slices at the end and freeze them to put in your drinks.

Back in May I also tried out a seed cake, which is another one that I wouldn’t normally make. There’s two seed cake recipes in the cook book so I tried out the one labelled cheap as I thought it might be a bit easier to find the ingredients. I was worried that the seed taste would be quite strong, but it seemed to be just the right amount as you could taste a hint of the seeds but it wasn’t overpowering.

Seed Cake (cheap)
1/2lb/225g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds
2oz/60g sugar
3oz/90g dripping (butter)
1 gill (142ml) milk
Rub the butter well into the flour, add the remaining dry ingredients; mix well together. Break up the egg, add the milk and stir both in with the dry ingredients very quickly. Put into a well greased loaf tin and bake in a preheated oven at 170 C for 1 1/2 hours.

California Dreaming

I’ve been quiet for a few months on here but it’s not for lack of things to write about! We’ve had a busy summer with work, holidays, and other exciting things going on, but as the baby is due any day now, I’ve been saving things up to write about for when I’m on maternity leave! The biggest thing to write though is about our awesome holiday to California in June, so I’m starting to write this post at the beginning of November just before the baby arrives. Depending on how things go over the next few days, who knows when it will be posted!

Steve and I went to LA for a few days on our honeymoon 3 years ago, but felt like there was more that we wanted to do, and things that the kids would enjoy. So we saved up after Florida 2 years ago, and made it back this year for a tour of California- starting in Yosemite National Park, a few days in Los Angeles, and finishing with a few days in San Diego. We managed to squeeze a lot in so here are some of our highlights!

After spending a night in a motel near the airport, we drove up from LA to Yosemite on the first day of the holiday, stopping at Pyramid Lake on the way to break up the drive. It was pretty quiet when we arrived so we stocked up on snacks and hired a little boat to go onto the lake. It wasn’t until we went out that we realised how apt the name Pyramid Lake is, with the shape of the mountains surrounding it. The kids loved jumping off the pontoons into the water and having a go at driving the boat themselves. We also learned the lesson early on that the sun is stronger than it looks, and you need more sun cream than you think you do!

When we had burnt off some energy we carried on up to our accommodation near Mariposa in Catheys Valley. This was one of the selling points of the trip for me, as we stayed on a ranch called Epic Alpacas where we had a beautiful lodge with access to a little lake, and the freedom to drop in on the resident alpacas whenever we wanted!

On our first day we decided it would be a good idea to get to grips with the area and find out what was around so that we would know what we wanted to come back to, and not waste our limited time. We booked onto a Yosemite Tour that didn’t involve too much walking, what with being 4 months pregnant and all, and met up with our guide Ira in Mariposa. We went with a small group on a minibus, and Ira took us around some of the highlights of the park, including places that we wouldn’t have found ourselves. Ira pointed out trees and seeds that we don’t have in the UK, and took us to hidden waterfalls, stunning view points, sneaky photo opportunities, and even lent Sam his hat!

One site that we didn’t get to see on the tour that we were keen to, was the giant sequoia trees, the closest of which were at Mariposa Grove. It was quite difficult to really get our heads around just how big the trees were- they were so tall that after a while it becomes difficult to comprehend. It was slightly easier to get your head around the width of them when you saw one that had come down, or that you could walk through the middle of. I was also very excited to see the wildlife that was around, particularly the deer and chipmunks!

While we were at Mariposa Grove we also popped down to a town called Wawona, which is one of the oldest towns in Yosemite, and has a population of about 170. There are a lot of buildings preserved from the late 1800s so you can see what life was like for the original inhabitants. Most interestingly is the bridge which was designed for horses and pedestrians. They still ride horses across it so it definitely feels and smells authentic!

Later that evening we stepped back in time again to the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad at Fish Camp. We’d decided to go for the Moonlight special so we arrived at dusk and had an al fresco BBQ, before boarding the Shay steam locomotive which chugged us down into the valley for a sing along around the campfire, before chugging back up to the camp. It was kind of cool to sit behind the engine and feel the ash from the fire come back down, and to hear the whistle echoing around the valley.

When it was time to drive back down from Yosemite to LA, we had let ourselves be talked into attempting to go across the Tioga Pass and take the long way round! The only problem was that there had been a lot of snowfall over the winter and so the pass still wasn’t open all the time. It was due to be fully opened the following week, but for that weekend it was only open between 10-11am, and 3-4pm. Packing up took longer than we were expecting so by the time we were on our way it was looking a bit touch-and-go as to whether we would meet the 11am deadline. As we got nearer we ended up close enough to risk it as we weren’t sure exactly where the cut off point was. We eventually reached the cut-off barrier at about 11.10am, but as we weren’t planning on driving back that day, the rangers very kindly let us through with strict instructions not to stop. We broke the rule slightly to have a quick snowball fight (when else do you get the chance to throw a snowball in 30 degree heat?!), but other than that we enjoyed the stunning scenery from the car, and discovered the detour was well worth it. We also discovered that the pass ended in Inyo National Park, so we managed to get another national park under our belts!

It only took an hour or so to drive over the pass, so there were a couple of other stops we wanted to make before leaving Yosemite. The first was a ghost town called Bodie, which was originally a mining town that was gradually abandoned over the years and is preserved in a state of arrested decay. It became a State Historic Park in 1962 and so the State have preserved the appearance of the buildings, rather than restoring them. It’s quite spooky to wander around deserted school rooms, a church, houses, bars, even a funeral directors. The road down to Bodie was an adventure in itself- more similar to a farm track winding its way through the mountains. However, you couldn’t help but be blown away by the sheer vastness of the panorama in front of you.

Our final stop was at Mono Lake, a beautiful area with the unusual formations known as Tufa towers. These columns of limestone are formed by a reaction between calcium and the alkaline lake water. They were originally formed underwater but came to the surface when the water level of the lake fell when it was diverted to supply LA with water. As well as the striking towers, the area surrounding the lake is stunning, with the mountains rising up behind, and full of bird life.

After a very long drive, where you felt like you were making no headway as the valley we were driving through was so big, we eventually arrived in Los Angeles for the second stage of the holiday. The order that we did things all blends together, but there were a few things that stand out! The kids enjoyed a day at Six Flags Magic Mountain with Steve, but as I couldn’t go on any rides I had a day at LA Zoo by myself- and was very thankful for Ubers and public WiFi!

One evening we ventured into Hollywood to watch Spiderman Far From Home at the Chinese Theatre, which was an incredible experience, unlike any other cinema. The capacity of the theatre is enormous, which gives watching a film a distinct community feeling, which you may well get in other cinemas in the US but you certainly don’t have in the UK! While we were in the area we also explored the hand prints and signatures outside the Chinese theatre, and on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and popped over to Madame Tussauds for some photo opportunities!

On another day we took a boat trip from Newport Beach to see if we could see any whales or dolphins. Steve and I had taken a trip with the same company on our honeymoon and not seen anything, but we thought we would give them another try. It was just as well that we did, as we saw one of the biggest pods of dolphins we have ever seen, as well as some Risso’s dolphins, which I’ve never seen before.

We tried a few different beaches down the LA coast, from Malibu down to Venice beach, with mixed reviews. The kids weren’t keen on swimming from the beaches as the waves were quite strong while we were there, and the sea wasn’t as warm as they were expecting! We tried to get to Santa Monica pier a few times and only managed once through a combination of bad traffic and difficulty finding parking. We walked down Venice Beach one evening though, going through the gyms to the skate park, which they enjoyed a lot more!

The other theme park that we did go to was Universal Studios. The kids went in the morning and I joined them later on in the day when they had done most of the rides, to soak up the atmosphere and have a butterbeer! I also managed to go on the studio tour, and catch the Waterworld show, so Universal Studios is definitely better for pregnant people than Six Flags!

We filled a few gaps with other things around LA in between bigger blocks. I love the Farmer’s Market so we went there for lunch a couple of times, as well as finding some YouTubers houses for the kids, sliding around the outside of a skyscraper at UAE Skyspace, and driving up to Hollywood Reservoir to see the Hollywood sign. We also spent a few hours at La Brea Tar Pits, where we finally found some actual history!

Just before leaving we went to the Warner Bros Studio Tour, which Steve and I had done before, but thought the kids would enjoy it. There were quite a few film references that they didn’t know, but they enjoyed the Friends and Big Bang Theory sets, so it was worth the trip. It was also interesting seeing the filming tricks that are commonly used, and seeing some of the vehicles from the Batman films, and which ones actually work!

One of our absolute highlights though was going to Dodger Stadium to watch the LA Dodgers play the San Diego Padres on Independence Day. It took us a little while to work out how baseball works, but we got there in the end and really enjoyed the game, particularly as the Dodgers won! As it was the 4th July the game was followed by fireworks, which just seemed to go on forever. Every time you thought they had finished a new song would start and off they would go again! It was a brilliant atmosphere though and we would definitely go to a baseball match again.

The final leg of our trip headed down to San Diego, which is fortunately a much closer drive to LA than Yosemite! After driving around LA a couple of times, I definitely preferred San Diego! It felt a lot more open, calmer, and because of all the lakes it didn’t feel as built up and congested. We also saw a lot more nature than in LA. We spent a full day in San Diego Zoo- we were originally planning to come out and go back in, but found that there was so much to do that we stayed all day.

We also spent a good few hours at the Aquarium of the Pacific, which as well as having fish also had otters, sharks, seals and sea lions, and some brilliant sea horses and jellyfish of all varieties! I did feel a bit guilty going straight from there to have prawns for tea at Bubba Gump though.

I also discovered my favourite beach in San Diego. La Jolla Cove is not great for sunbathing, but is the place to go if you want to see seals! People are allowed on the beach, but the seals (and pelicans) definitely have the priority. Seals are protected on the beach so you are legally not allowed to approach them and there are signs everywhere telling you what to do if you are worried about an animal. This is obviously generally taken on board. When a tourist kept getting closer to a seal pup to take a photo there was a whole crowd of people shouting at her to stop, and obviously quite angry about it.

One of the kids favourite places to go was at the complete other end of the scale. Although we didn’t go to any huge theme parks in San Diego, we still managed to find an amusement park called Belmont Park, with a lot of smaller rides, mini golf, and a high ropes course, zip wire and climbing wall. There was also an added bonus of the food that was available- huge ice creams, pizzas and funnel cake!

Of course, no holiday is complete without water sports, so we spent an afternoon at Mission Bay where Steve, Ryan and I went kayaking, and Katy-Grace and Sam had some paddleboards. They loved it so they stayed on longer when we had finished, which was fine until we realised we couldn’t see them anymore because they’d managed to paddle themselves to the other side of the lake! While we were waiting for them by the side of the lake we saw a jumping fish, and discovered that the noise from planes landing at San Diego airport reverberates around the lake so it sounds like you’re under attack!

Speaking of being under attack, we also headed over to the harbour to explore the USS Midway, a huge aircraft carrier from the Vietnam War, which is now a museum. It’s so big we didn’t get to visit all of it, even though we spent hours walking around, but it’s such a maze that eventually one corridor feels very much like another. The highlight for me was reading the stories of people who had served on the carrier, or on the planes that are now installed as part of the museum. Ryan and Katy-Grace also had a go on a fighter jet simulator, however they controlled it so they ended up spending most of the time upside down!

So that’s my round up of nearly 3 weeks in California. I can safely say that I don’t feel the need to go back to LA, although I could go back to the Farmer’s Market again, I’m satisfied that I’ve seen everything there that I wanted to see! We absolutely loved Yosemite, and I would love to go back there and spend some more time exploring. Particularly if I’m not pregnant and can do a bit more hiking, or being generally more active! I love the idea of camping in Yosemite, but I think that in reality, I would probably be a bit nervous about being eaten by a bear! I also really enjoyed San Diego, so although we did a lot while we were there, the relaxed pace makes me more likely to want to go back and see what we missed. We were very lucky to have another holiday this year, but it was of a very different speed so I’ll do a short post about that one later on. Bye for now!

Buns in the oven

This post relates to something very exciting that happened recently, but I’m actually writing it to begin a baking series. It was a significant birthday recently, and my Grandma gave me a book of recipes which she was given from her mother, which she thinks may have come from a couple of generations before that, roughly 1880. It’s written in an old school textbook which is falling apart and held together with string. Some of the writing is very difficult to read, and it uses measurements that we don’t have anymore, such as a gill, and twopence worth. Most of the recipes have no oven temperature and few have a baking time. I’ve decided to take on the challenge and try to make each of the recipes, checking that they work, and tying them down to a few more specific instructions!

It was difficult to decide on the recipe to begin with, but an opportunity presented itself that answered that question for us. A few weeks ago now, I found out that I’m pregnant (!) which is very exciting as we’ve been trying for a while and were beginning to get a bit frustrated. We found out we’re expecting back in March, and so it’s only been recently that we’ve been able to share that news with our friends. Over the years we’ve met a lot of people and stayed connected so we wanted to share it with them as well, and decided that the best way to suit us- or I guess, specifically me- was to do a baking related post. Cue a picture on social media of our 12 weeks scan surrounded by buns in the oven with the tagline “I’ve been busy baking”.

It made perfect sense that the buns in question should be out of my great-great…grandmothers recipe book. There were a couple of slight hiccups. I had to google how much a gill of milk it (142ml) in case it ever comes up! And I forgot that they would have used fresh yeast rather than instant so there was a slight overspill as I left the mixture for the first rise…

However the extra yeast evened out by the time it came to baking so you couldn’t tell by the taste or texture of the finished product, and they were delicious. I haven’t really had to make any changes, I’ve just clarified a few points, so here it is!

Only joking! Here is the revised recipe:

Buns

3 gills (425ml) milk

1tsp caster sugar

0.5 lb (225g) plain flour

1oz fresh yeast, or 1 sachet instant yeast

Mix the yeast and sugar together in a small bowl and add the lukewarm milk. Stir and then strain the mixture into the flour and beat well together. Cover the bowl with paper or a clean tea towel and leave to rise for one hour. In another large bowl put:

1.25lb (560g) plain flour

0.25lb (115g) butter

2oz (60g) candied peel

2 eggs

0.25lb (115g) sultanas

0.25lb (115g) sugar

When the dough in the first bowl has risen beat it into the dry ingredients, with the eggs thoroughly mixed, and beat for about five minutes until well combined. Leave the dough to rise for an hour then shape the mixture into 12 buns and leave on a greased tray to rise for another half an hour.

Bake in a preheated oven at 190*C for 15 minutes until golden brown. Mix 150g icing sugar with 3-4 tbsps milk to form a thick paste. When the buns have cooled brush the icing thickly over the top to glaze them. Store in an airtight container.

Sicilian Surprise

Over the last few years Steve and I have enjoyed going on holiday with my Mum using her timeshare. We went to Tenerife a couple of years ago, and Gran Canaria before that. We were working our way through the Canary Islands when Mum decided that the increasing costs of the scheme weren’t worth continuing. It worked out well for us as Mum paid the accommodation, we bought cheap flights, and we had a nice mini break- while Mum got a holiday abroad, which she wouldn’t do on her own. I love travelling though, and I felt a bit sorry that Mum wouldn’t be able to go away as easily, so I decided to book one last break as a surprise for her 60th birthday.

Mum, Steve and I in Tenerife, 2017

There was a bit of planning behind her back and a few white lies to pull it off, but in the end she came to stay with us for a few days with no idea that we were doing anything. I had asked her to bring her passport to help with a Boys Brigade project, she always comes with a travel size suitcase and toiletries, and I even persuaded her to bring her swimming costume ‘in case I manage to book a last minute spa deal for your birthday’. I found us a good flight and hotel deal on holiday pirates; worked out quite late that the hotel was on the other side of the island to the airport, so booked a cheap rental car and the associate excess insurance (with EasyJet in case, like me, you’re trawling through reviews and getting very confused- EasyJet were cheap and had no problems!). We were all set to go. The only trouble was that Mum turned up with twice as many bags as normal, and a massive chocolate cake that wasn’t going to eat itself- thank you Auntie Sharon!- the kids made a start and we finished it when we got back.

My initial plan was to not tell her anything until we got to the airport, but in the end I had to give her a heads up on the morning that she would need to pack her bag because we were flying. I did however, get all the way to the airport, through security, and sitting down with lunch before I finally caved and told her we were going to Sicily. She was very excited; she’d been there before with a group of clergy, but on a pre-arranged timetable that didn’t take in much outside of churches, and there was a lot more of Sicily that she wanted to see.

Me and Mum waiting at the airport

We were already due to arrive quite late in the evening, but the plane was delayed so we got in even later than planned. The original plan had been to try and find some food in Catania before driving to the hotel, but after trying that and realising that Italian driving takes some getting used to, we drove the 2 hours out to Porto Empedocle, checked in, and found a little pizzeria around the corner with cheap pizzas and local beer- all we really needed.

Semedorato beer

On our first day we woke up late and found it was a little bit damp- not entirely unexpected at the end of January, so we decided to have a trip out to the salt mines at Trapani to see some birds- as they don’t mind the rain. On the way we stopped at Sciacca where we grabbed some coffee and pancakes, and had a wander around the town in the rain. Sicily is full of scenic looking buildings, nice little balconies, and interesting details, so we spent a couple of hours taking photos in sheltered doorways. After a quick drink and cannoli (but not a very nice one) we carried on to Trapani.

We were making good progress along the main road, but when we came off onto a smaller road we were held up slightly by a herd of goats that decided they were going the same way as us. Not having many goats in the UK, we were quite excited and happy enough to just follow them down, however some of the locals were clearly used to goat behaviour and were quite happy to overtake and weave between them and carry on their way. Eventually the goat-dog got his herd to his farmer, via a very small newborn, and we continued on our way.

We weren’t sure exactly where in Trapani we needed to go- we knew we were vaguely looking out for flamingos, and our NavMii, although very good when you had an address, wasn’t very good at finding tourist destinations. We drove around the nature reserve for a bit before eventually finding a good place to stop where we could walk along a path with flamingos, windmills, some jumping fish, a kingfisher, and some other birds that Mum was very excited about.

Although the rain had stopped it wasn’t very warm so eventually we gave up and drove to Trapani itself to find some coffee and decide where we were going for tea. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll probably have picked up that food is quite a large part of the reason I like to travel, and I tend to find food experiences that are specifically local to wherever I am. We didn’t really have time to do that this time, but with only a limited number of meals we wanted to make sure we chose places to eat that were going to be interesting and have good food. So we decided to drive to Marsala- which was sort of on the way back, and found a couple of options on Trip Advisor before we set off. The first one we chose didn’t seem to exist where it said it was, so we found a car park and walked into the old part of Marsala to find our second choice- Il Girasole. It was probably the best meal we had all holiday. It was a tiny restaurant, owned by a man and his wife and although locals popped in and out all evening for a chat and a drink, there were no other customers. But the food was incredible. We had a huge sharing platter of meats and cheeses, followed by sardine pasta and swordfish, then a little cassata siciliana to share to finish off. It was so good I tried to recreate it when I got home- but more on that later.

We decided that we would do another day with a lot of driving to save the local sites for our last day, so on our second day we drove out to Syracuse, and the island Ortigia that is attached to it. Mum fell in love with Ortigia straight away, which was helped by driving all the way around it to find a parking space. It also helped that it was a beautifully sunny day when we went, so we pulled into a pretty marina with the sun glinting off the sea and the boats gently bobbing, with convenient fishermen sitting mending their nets. There were even a few fishing cats around!

As Syracuse is so far away from Porto Empedocle, we initially wandered into a little square where we could drink coffee and eat pizza overlooking the ruined Temple of Apollo before heading to the Duomo di Siracusa via the Fontana di Diana. Like in Sciacca, the streets themselves were beautiful and in the sun you could appreciate the light coloured buildings and the sun glinting off the marble on the statue of Diana, as well as admiring the stunning cakes in shop windows!

The cathedral itself is an imposing building inside a huge square which I can imagine must be full of people in the summer. There are a few cafes with tables outside to encourage that, but in January there were just a handful of tourists and a man walking his dog. I didn’t find the inside of the cathedral quite as impressive- although the sun did make lovely colours through the stained glass windows. The text ‘Ecclesia Syracusana Prima Divi Petri Filia Et Prima Post Antiochenam Christo Dicata’ was written around the inside- if anyone speaks Latin and can tell me what that means then let me know! As in many Catholic Cathedrals, there were some bone relics safely stored away, but I’m never sure who the bones belonged to.

After another quick coffee overlooking the sea we made our way back to the car along what would be a lively promenade in the summer, with children’s rides and buggies packed away, but then just had a few more dog walkers. We walked past the old gateway into the town and then through the marina and over a couple of cobbled bridges, before making a quick trip into Syracuse itself.

There were a couple of things we would have liked to see, but because it was quite late in the day, and also off-season, they were closed. Firstly were the Catacombes di San Giovanni, we managed to see the outside of the church of San Giovanni, the entrance to the catacombs and a few cats, but that was about it. Then we walked over to a park containing a Roman Ampitheatre, and apparently the ear of Dionysius, however they were closing when we arrived so we didn’t get in to see that either. Although there was another cat.

Instead we decided to take a scenic route back and went via the mountain top town of Ragusa. We didn’t really think it through, as mountain top means tiny windy roads, and it was dark by the time we were approaching, but it really was beautiful lit up at night. We stopped again for food at a little seafood restaurant called Monsu. The restaurant itself was beautiful, it felt like it was in an old wine cellar with arched ceilings and doorways. The food again was local specialities, but more stew based than the previous. It was nice, but the highlight was definitely dessert. We ended up sharing a cannoli- but a fresh one with a mascarpone cream filling, and a beautiful chocolate brownie type cake with coffee. The journey back was still a bit hairy, and seemed to take a long time, but we eventually made it back and looked forward to a quieter day.

We realised that we hadn’t actually seen any of where we were staying so decided to go and have breakfast in Porto Empedocle on our final full day. It was a good choice as the town had a lovely, provincial feeling main street where we could sit with hot chocolate and croissants and watch people going past. We drove along the coast for a bit towards Scala Dei Turchi before heading to the place I was most excited about.

We were lucky that the day was beautiful and sunny because when we went up to the Valley of Temples just outside Agrigento, the atmosphere felt as though we could have been transported to Greece- which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Past cultures conveniently placed all of the islands temples in a straight line so that you can just walk from one to the other. First you come to the Temple of Castor and Pollux, only the corner of which remains but which was clearly surrounded by a lot of other buildings, which was where a lot of temple life took place, particularly in relation to women’s worship. Across the valley you can also see the Temple of Vulcan, but it’s not as easily accessible.

When you’ve walked through the remains you come to what would have been the Temple of Zeus Olympus. It’s difficult to see that now as you enter through what would have been the rear, and only the outline of the walls remain. You can see the scale of how big it would have been, but it’s difficult to work out the layout of picture what it would have looked like. There are two atlases on the floor that would have been part of the pillars, which gives you a suggestion of how tall it would have been, but it’s not the most impressive of the bunch.

After crossing a bridge, the next temple is the Temple of Hercules. I have a bit of a soft spot for this one, but I think it’s mainly because of my love of Disney. The temple has about 8 pillars remaining on one side out of the 13 there would have been originally, and a lot of huge rocks again show the scale of the building. The path takes you along one side, and there’s a drop on the other so you don’t get to see much of what the interior would have been like, but it is very pretty!

The next temple along is the most complete, which is the Temple of Concordia. It’s the most impressive as it is the most similar to what you would expect a Greek temple to look like, with the pillars and the triangle roof. There’s a wide path leading up to it which adds to it’s grandeur, and on the far side is a statue of Icarus which lends to the Greek feeling. The elevation also gives you a good view out over the Sicilian countryside.

There’s a bit of a gap then before the next temple, which is because the defensive walls became tombs for early Christians. The thick walls had crevices hollowed out where people could be buried, in addition to further catacombs below. There were some tensions between Christians and other cultures when it came to appropriating the temples, but Christians would have been in Sicily very early on- Paul at one point landed at Syracuse so there may have been Christians buried there who had met him.

The final temple you come to is the Temple of Juno. The pillars are all remaining, although not much is left of some of them, but the roof has completely disappeared. You can imagine how impressive it would have looked though, at the end of the valley, with views out for miles over Sicily, towards the sea and back over the other temples. We got there as the sun was at the right place in the sky for it to be flaring and giving some nice light behind the temple. From there you could also look back at the cemetery in Agrigento. Italian cemeteries are very different from the UK, with huge buildings built up over graves so you could mistake them for a miniature city.

We walked along a lower path on the way back which took us past some lovely goats, as well as the lower tombs below the wall, which just looked like a series of tiny chambers until you work out what it is.

As it was such a beautiful day, we decided to try and stay within sight of the temples when the sun set so we could try and get some photos of them lit up at night. We ended up at a lovely restaurant, Il Re de Girgenti, on the Via Panoramica, with a balcony overlooking the temples of Concordia and Juno. There was lots of fish again including a fried selection and savoury cannoli, but the most memorable part was ordering a tiramisu and the waiter came and made it in front of us on the table by putting sponges at the bottom of a bowl, soaking it in sweetened coffee, pouring on mascarpone and finishing with sprinkling it with cocoa powder. It was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had.

On our final day we decided that we would have a change in weather and go and visit Mount Etna on the way to the airport. We set off nice and early and trundled off in our little smart car. The poor car had no idea what was in store. It was quite happy on the motorway, but then the satnav decided to take us off piste and took us along the service roads between the orange fields. The roads aren’t really designed for little tourist cars so we pumped our way along until we finally came out onto a normal road, and began to go from village to village, getting higher up the mountain. The car coped fairly well to start with, but as the roads got steeper it was increasingly struggling, and was trying its best to crawl along in second gear, with occasional boosts in first. But we did make it in the end, and parked in a very snowy car park surrounded by teenagers in snow suits preparing to go hiking. We, surprisingly enough, didn’t go hiking. Instead we took some more photos, trawled around the smorgasbord of tourist shops to bring back last minute cat sitting gifts, and then went and had the worlds biggest pizza in the restaurant at the top of the mountain.

On our way down we then stopped in every single lay by to get a different view of the landscape down the volcano, and eventually to get some photos of the top of Etna itself. I was very thankful it didn’t erupt when we were up there or we would never have made it down the bendy roads in time! We still had time to stop for a final hot chocolate before our flight, so we got to the airport in plenty of time, only to find that our flight was delayed anyway. We eventually landed in a very snowy Bristol at midnight before driving back to Swansea and going straight to sleep!

Before Mum left the next day I found some Italian hot chocolate from Carluccios that I’ve had for years and made her a final one to ease back into real life. When we were at the restaurant in Marsala the menu had included a recipe for Cassata Siciliana- in Italian of course. So I took a photo, brought it back and translated it with Google translate, then attempted to make it for a meeting! I’ll post the recipe I used below, and although the ingredients were right, I don’t think I quite got the hang of assembly. The ones we had were mini so I couldn’t compare it, but I don’t think the layers of cake were supposed to be as thick as I had them. I also got impatient by the time I came to icing it, so it wasn’t as thick as it was supposed to be. It still tasted pretty good though, so it’s a good starting point.

So, there is 3 and a half days in Sicily for you, I hope you enjoyed! Keep reading if you want a cake recipe, if not check in soon and I’ll be writing some actual church type stuff on the Lego Movie.

Cassata Siciliana Recipe

Ingredients:

-400g sponge cake

-200g marzipan

-green food colouring

-500g sheeps ricotta

-300g sugar

-60g chocolate chips

-50g candied fruit

-1 vanilla pod

-30ml rum

-150g icing sugar

-large pieces of candied fruit (to decorate)

Method:

– Sift the ricotta through a colander with large holes. Mix 250g sugar, the chocolate chips, the candied fruit and the vanilla seeds.

-Cut the sponge cake in two discs around 8mm thick. Colour the marzipan and roll it out in a sheet.

-Line the edges of a baking tin with trapezoids (look it up!) of marzipan, alternating with sponge cake of around a 5cm width around the diameter of your tin. Place a disc of sponge on the bottom of your tin. Make a syrup by dissolving 50g of sugar in 100ml of water and the rum. Use this to soak the sponge.

-Fill the sponge with the ricotta and cover with another disc of sponge. Weigh the top down with a plate and leave to rest in the fridge for 12 hours. Frost with the icing sugar dissolved in 50ml of water, or enough to produce a thick consistency. Decorate the top with candied fruit.



August in Algarve

As the nights start getting longer and the days get colder and wetter, it’s easy to forget that summer was only a few weeks ago, and more difficult to remember that we did use to have sunshine. I’ve realised that time has slipped away and we’ve somehow ended up in December and I haven’t written about our summer holiday yet.
It’s always difficult deciding where to go on holiday with the kids. It’s through a combination of having too much choice, my not wanting to go back to the same place twice, and finding somewhere with enough to keep three teenagers happy without spending all our time at theme parks. We decided to give Portugal a go this year, and I think we made a good choice.
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We booked the flights as soon as they came on sale as normal, but left booking the accommodation until quite late, but fortunately we ended up with an apartment in a holiday complex with a pool in Albufeira: flying into Faro and driving over. It wasn’t quite in walking distance from a beach, but close enough to drive down during the day and get a taxi down in the evenings. The kids absolutely loved going down to the strip in the evening to wander around and have dinner.
Before we went we weren’t sure we would find enough for the kids to do, but we didn’t need to worry as not only was there lots, but there were things that they would have happily gone back to multiple times. On our first day we tried to have a quiet day and went to Parque Aventura, a tree tops high ropes course near Olhos de Agua. Being away from the beach it was a bit quieter, but we were surprised to find there was enough there to keep us for a few hours, and at a reasonable price. I haven’t been to similar things in the UK so I’m not sure how it compares, but there were several courses of differing challenge levels, and you pay deciding on whether to go on or not.
There were the normal ladders and zip wires, as well as balls to swing across on and a suspended skateboard that you had to jump on with enough momentum to get you all the way across. After an initial induction you’re left to get on with it, with staff around if you need help and to make sure you’re keeping the rules. It meant that you could go at your own pace and just enjoy the course. We came away hot and sticky and with a few scrapes and bruises, but having really enjoyed ourselves.
The kids have now got to the age where they are enjoying water sports, and after a school residential, Sam decided he wanted another go at paddle boarding so we drove over to Lagos to see if we could have a go. After finding somewhere that hired boards but being told it was suicidal to take them with the weather that day, we gave up and wandered around Lagos marina to book a trip kayaking the next day instead. When the time came we boarded our boat in the marina and then went out a little way before being unloaded in the kayaks. The benefit of kayaks around the coastline of Portugal is that they give you a better opportunity to explore all the tiny caves that a normal boat wouldn’t fit into. It was fairly easy to get the hang of the kayaks and then I quite enjoyed having a bit more freedom to explore, although there’s only so far you can go as part of a group. Ryan ended up in a single kayak and managed really well, but the younger two in our double kayaks were pretty useless!

After rescuing another capsized child we clambered back onto the boat and spent a bit of time jumping off the top and swimming while everyone got themselves sorted. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was how cold the water would be – it was absolutely freezing! While jumping off the roof of the boat was fun, the shock of the water put me off doing it too many times!
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We decided to make the most of the children all being comfortable with boats and booked another boat trip while there was so much to see around the coast. We booked a dual trip going to the caves and looking for dolphins. The faster boat allowed us to go further along the coast and make it out to one of the most famous caves in this part of Portugal – Grutas (Cathedral) do Benagil. This beautiful cave has two arched entrances and a hole in the roof. There is a small beach inside depending on the tide, and is accessible only by water – whether boat, kayak or paddle board, or by swimming around from the neighbouring beach. Although we went into the caves by boat, part of me would like to ban boats from the cave to make it a bit safer for those without an engine. Although there is a traffic system, there’s too many tourists around who don’t know it to be fool proof.

After investigating some more nooks and crannies and seeing the fossilised shells in the cliffs, the boat headed out into open water. The surf got bumpier the further out we went, and at one point we wondered if we were actually being kidnapped and taken to Africa, but eventually we found some dolphins. I’ve being dolphin spotting before and been excited to see a handful of dolphins, but this time we saw the biggest school I’ve ever seen. Our guide estimated there were over a hundred dolphins including several calves. Although it was difficult to count as they were never all above water at the same time, the area that they covered suggested that might be right, and the amount the little ones jumped about showed they were quite young. They stayed with the boat for quite a long time and let us get a good look at them.

The other benefit of a boat trip is that you can see some of the other beaches along the coast that you may not have found just by keeping along the main roads. One beach that applied to was Praia de Marinha. It was quite busy but it felt more like locals than tourists. There’s parking at the top and then you need to walk down a path with some steps to the beach. The beach itself can get quite narrow but it’s much better for swimming. We spent most of the time in the water or scrambling around the rocks where we couldn’t swim. There were some good rocks for jumping into the water, even more if you don’t mind crabs, and some good snorkelling. Apparently you can see octopus around here but we didn’t see any when we went. We spent a couple of hours or so on the beach until the tide was too high when we climbed back up. The view from the top was definitely worth hanging around for, and there’s a small park you can hang around in.

After the first shock of cold water we were hoping that we might find it was just the boats that were cold, but we discovered the water on the beaches was just as chilly, which was a shame as it was the kids favourite thing to do. There were two beaches in particular that we kept going back to – Praia de Santa Eulalia and Praia dos Pescadores, primarily because of the inflatable assault course in the sea. You pay for an hour at a time and the kids easily spent that time there. I went out with them once and didn’t see the attraction – after a while I felt a bit sea sick, but they loved it.
This photo is taken by WIMIUS's Q1
On one trip down we hired a pedalo with a slide. You were only allowed four on so Sam got his paddle board. This is one of those occasions when the idea is better than the reality. In reality, the boats are really heavy with effectively four adults on them, only two of whom are pedalling. The current is really strong so you’re constantly having to peddle in one direction to stop drifting away, and as soon as you stop the current takes you again. The sea is still freezing so it takes a lot of coaxing and threatening to get anyone to use the slide, and while this is going on poor old Sam is battling against the current all on his own. We stayed out the full hour out of sheer stubbornness, but it probably isn’t something I would do again!

However something I would do from a boat again in parasailing. Steve and I had done this before in Gran Canaria, and we decided the kids would be old enough to enjoy it, and we were right. They were a little bit unsure on the boat but after they watched us and realised we hadn’t died, they were willing to give it a try. Once they got up in the air and discovered that it’s a lot sturdier and smoother than it looks they relaxed into it and really enjoyed themselves. The best bit was the look on their faces when they got a proper dunking before being returned to the boat. It was a great way to spend our final afternoon.
One thing Steve and I normally try and do when we travel somewhere new is to do a food tour, it lets us explore making the most of local knowledge and find places we wouldn’t have on our own. We didn’t think the kids would like enough food for a food tour so we decided to go on a zebra jeep safari instead. The tour was fantastic, taking us to Castelo de Paderne, a tiny castle in a valley that you could only reach with a 4×4, teaching us about cork trees as well as almond, fig, thyme and citrus. We then followed the same tiny tracks up and down some terrifying hills to see the ancient beacons up close before making our way to a local farm to try some of the produce we’d been driving through. After sampling 16 different jams, marmalades and honeys from pumpkin to fig, we finished off with Aguardente del Figo- the local fire water. About 45% alcohol and with the burn to prove it!
Our final stop proved to be a popular one that we went back to a couple of times. Outside the village of Alte are a series of public swimming pools fed by spring water. There’s a little restaurant there to buy drinks and snacks, and then you just jump in and out of the pool. It’s nothing fancy but a good way to spend a relaxing couple of hours. Apparently there is still a day set aside each month for the community to come down and do their laundry in the clean (ish) water, but we weren’t there for laundry day. It’s just a slower pace than all the tourist things by the beach, there’s no one trying to sell you anything, the water is marginally warmer than the sea and it’s a nice family place.

We normally hire a car when we go away which means that we can go and find these places without relying on working out bus systems or spending a fortune on taxis- we did appreciate having Uber to order one home after dinner though! It allows us to go exploring and see more of an area than the tourist town centre and beaches. One day we decided to venture up into the mountains towards Monchique in search of some springs. When we arrived we discovered that hotels and spas had conveniently been built up over the springs so there wasn’t really anything to see. The journey had been fascinating though as there had been large forest fires in the area, and the mountain to the side of the road was all black and burned. For the locals it meant that they were without phone lines and power, although it seemed to have been stopped before damaging any buildings. We stopped at a restaurant in someone’s olive garden very close to the fire. While they had been worried about losing their home, the fire passed them by, but it had taken out their internet and phone lines so we had to drive to the nearest village to get some cash before we could leave. It was one of the nicest meals we had though, with local dishes and a knowledgeable host who helped us to branch out fairly confidently.
After giving up on the spring we drove further up the mountain to Serra de Monchique, a view point right at the top giving stunning views out to the sea and further inland. There was a little cafe and gift shop at the top, but the views were really the highlight.
Another day we drove out in the other direction, past Lagos, to Sagres- right on the tip of Portugal, to see the fort on the side of the cliff. We got there quite late in the day and weren’t very well prepared, as it was freezing! The fort has three sides to the sea, so the wind seems to blow in from every direction. We spent some time wandering along the coast inside the fort and enjoying the views- until the fog came in when we went for cover in the fort itself. Sagres is quite big with a chapel inside, an armaments store and large walls that you can walk along, complete with cannons. There was also a strange little walled area that felt like something out of Star Wars. You enter a circular structure and follow the walls around to go deeper inside, until right at the middle there’s a chamber with a hole in the ground. The hole goes all the way through the cliff to the sea below, and if you listen carefully you can hear the wind whistling around and the wave crashing on the rocks in a cave below.
On one afternoon we drove out to Pera to see the International Sand Sculpture exhibition. There were signs for this all over Albufeira, and a a display at the airport in Faro when we arrived, so we thought it would be worth a look. I thought initially that it was only there for a few weeks in the summer, but it turns out it’s there for about 5 months- the sand sculptures are so large that they can last that long. It was really impressive what could be done with sand, and it must have taken the artists days to complete them. The exhibition was divided into categories such as art, music, animals, children’s, and Star Wars, and each sculpture had a description of what it was, who made it, and where they were from. I was most excited about the Star Wars exhibits, and was disappointed when there weren’t that many of them. But there were plenty of others, and lots of minions dotted around as well! We looked around all of them but didn’t stay that long as it was very hot and dry. The sand sculptures made you feel even more like you were in a desert- so we basically spent the whole time feeling very thirsty!
Of course, no holiday with teenager is complete without a trip to some sort of theme park, and this holiday was a water park called Slide and Splash. There’s a couple of water parks in this part of Portugal, but we went to this one first, and with their reduced return deal, decided not to try any of the others. It does get fairly busy in the summer, but the queues aren’t too bad, and there’s enough variety of slides to keep everyone happy. There’s a handful of the bigger slides that need a tube to go down on- including one of the massive ones where you slide high up the wall; but there’s also a lot of smaller tubes where you can just slide down on your own. One of the kids favourite was a multiple lane one where you can control how fast you go by how you sit. It’s good for smaller children as they can go quite slowly, but you also had a lot of adults whizzing down and crashing into the pool at the end. There were lockers there and you could bring in food and umbrellas to stake out a patch of grass. There were also plenty of food options there that weren’t too expensive, but it was useful to have a supply of snacks and drinks. We probably would go back if we were to return to Portugal, but I’d be interested in seeing how busy it is when it’s not peak season! The kids loved it and would definitely have spent more time there if they could, but it is comparatively expensive for a day out.
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So I think that’s the main bulk of what we did. There was also time spent wandering around the Old Town in Albufeira, having BBQs on the patio, swimming in the pool, sunbathing, and messing around in the surf. One thing we loved was that it was hot everyday and didn’t rain while we were there- which I think is a first for a family holiday!

A Weekend in Paris

Paris. Eponymous as the city of love. Frequently hailed as being one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Home of bohemians and romantic gestures. I’ve been to Paris six times in my life, and although I find something new that I love every time I go, I actually wouldn’t rate it as my favourite city. I would take Barcelona or Venice over Paris any day of the week, however, there is a lot to see and do that is really good.

Let me give you the back story as to how we ended up going to Paris. A few months ago my husband Steve, best friend Amy and I had tickets to see Adele at Wembley. Amy lives in Kuwait so I don’t get to see her very often. We bought tickets way in advance, so had months to get excited. Amy drove us from south Wales to Heathrow airport on our wedding night, and kept herself awake by belting out Adele songs, so her music has always reminded me of our wedding day. Which is why we were particularly upset when she cancelled her gig the night before we were due to go.

On some level we still haven’t quite forgiven her, but to make ourselves feel better we booked tickets to see Ed Sheeran. As we were feeling quite jaded we decided that instead of going to Cardiff or London we would go to Paris and make a long weekend out of it. Amy was coming from Scotland and we were coming from clergy school so we met at Bristol airport on the Thursday for a very long weekend that would last until Tuesday!

We got in late on Thursday night and made our way to an airbnb near Châteaux Rouge metro station, dumped our stuff before venturing out to find steak before having an early night. All because on Friday we went to Disneyland! The three of us are basically big kids and we love Disney and rollercoasters, so we’d factored in two days at the park which avoided the weekend.

Even though I’ve been to Disneyland Paris a few times before, and went to Disneyland Orlando last year, I still feel the same excitement heading through the gate and towards the castle. The last time I came was in January and it was cold and wet, so it was nice to feel warm and see the park in the sunshine! We spent most of the first day going on the bigger rides, we were lucky enough to have fast passes- don’t ask me how, I still don’t know!- so we managed to get on all our favourites.

Space Mountain has been rebranded with a Star Wars theme since I was last there and is now Hyperspace Mountain, which starts off with the theme music going round and you join in with a space gun fight. I thought the theming really enhanced the ride, I enjoyed our last time, but I think this time round it was my favourite. That might have been because last time it broke down while we were on it, so I didn’t have the best memory! We were eventually evacuated from the launch tube with harnesses and had to walk back down the emergency access ramp!

Fortunately Space Mountain didn’t break down this time, however one of the other rides did! Rock n Rollercoaster with Aerosmith has been one of the main rides in Hollywood Studios for years now, and its beginning to show its age. Aerosmith are now largely unknown among young people, so the backstory of the ride doesn’t make much sense. The ride itself is also much more of a head rattler than it used to be, which the flashing lights and music don’t help. Then the rollercoaster breaking down, again just before launch resulting in evacuation, just confirmed that is just limping on until it’s refurbished and returns as something else.

The other long standing ride that is already marked for refurbishment is Hollywood Tower of Terror. I hate drop towers and normally try and avoid it wherever possible, but I thought I would give it one last go before it disappears. The theming had lasted pretty well, which is helped by the staff contributing by being fairly creepy themselves – suddenly appearing behind you and looming. The drop tower was still a drop tower, but the build up is not as scary as I remembered, which is probably because I’m a bit more grown up!

The only other main ride in Studios is Crushes Coaster, which for some reason doesn’t seem to have had queue times of less than 2 hours since it opened about 7 years ago! It’s a bit more child friendly and is a Rollercoaster but one that spins and doesn’t go upside down. It does go quite fast though so is still exciting. There was initially a game that you could play on your phone that was only available in the queue line, but we all tried it and it doesn’t seem to work anymore. The majority of the queue is outside which is quite boring and feels like it’s moving very slowly, but it does start to move more quickly when you get inside. The ride is good and definitely worth going on, but probably not worth queuing for more than an hour for.

There’s another couple of main rides in the parks. Big Thunder Mountain is always a favourite, it looks like it’s going to be a kids ride but is surprisingly fast. If you can, it’s worth going at the back as the drag makes it feel much faster. It also goes on for longer than you expect it to, and has lots of things to look at and exciting bangs on the way round!

The other rollercoaster is Indiana Jones Temple of Doom, which is a wooden rollercoaster and does go upside down, along with some pretty tight twists. I always remember it as one which would bring on a headache, but they’ve done some work on it and it does seem better now, although still not as smooth as some of the newer rides.

The good thing about Disneyland is that there are always loads of smaller rides and things to do with younger children. The parades are great but I’ll come onto them later. There’s the Studio Tram Tour, which demonstrates some visual special effects such as floods, fire and earthquakes. The tour here is pretty small though and is disappointingly short. There are the smaller rides such as Snow White, It’s A Small World, Peter Pan, Dumbo and the Teacups. You can climb up into the Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse and see the home they salvaged from their ship. There’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which is also starting to want an update but still a great ride. There’s a carousel, which is fun as all the family can ride together. Toy Story Land is also a good place to visit as the theming is excellent, however it’s another place where the rides have inexplicably long queues. I’ll post more about the shows and parades later on, but we’ll have a break for now as we visit Paris.

One thing we always love doing when we’re in a new city is going on a food tour, normally as early as we can so we have chance to go back and try things again. So on Saturday morning we rocked up at Montmartre to do a food tour with Original Food Tours and our guide Eric. As normal we were joined by Americans from various states as we tried macarons, choupettes, ice cream, fresh coffee, snails, cured meat and cheese and wine!

The guide was really enthusiastic, knew a lot of local history, and showed us useful things like what public drinking fountains look like, however we did miss one of the stops out, and the group with 15 was a little bit too large for this kind of tour. We were clearly given the same amount of food as a group of about 8, which doesn’t go as far or work that easily when you don’t all know each other, particularly when you have to choose flavours of ice cream as a group!

The food that we did taste was delicious though. I have a bit of a sweet tooth so I particularly enjoyed the macarons, ice cream and choupettes, which are choux buns filled with chantilly cream and topped with sugar. We actually enjoyed them so much that we went back the next day to have a proper portion. At our final stop we had cold meats and cheese, wine and escargots- snails! Amy and Steve didn’t want to try them so I ended up with a triple portion which is fine as they are basically the consistency of mussels and taste like whatever they’re cooked in, which tends to be garlic and parsley.

The first stop we went to was also worth going back to the next day, this time for a full breakfast. The tour went because they roast and grind their own coffee on order, so we were there to try the coffee. But for anyone who didn’t like coffee they also offer a traditional French hot chocolate, which happens to be very similar to a traditional Italian hot chocolate- very thick, like drinking a cup of melted chocolate. I regretted trying the coffee instead – I really only like coffee if it’s sweet and milky so decent coffee is wasted on me. On Sunday we found our way back to Le Grain and had a complete breakfast, including hot chocolate, which was definitely a good way to start the day!

But before I jump ahead, let’s finish with Saturday! We finished our tour at the Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmartre, then made our way back to our apartment to watch the football before heading off to see Ed Sheeran. Fortunately transport around Paris is really easy using the metro, and we were only a couple of stops away from the Stade de France. We bought massive hot dogs on the walk down to the stadium, which was doing well until security decided that they needed to separate everyone into male and female for the bag checks. It was fairly chaotic as no one knew what was going on, and there were substantially more women than men so there was a massive group of men waiting for their partners to get through.

We got there eventually and settled down with enough drinks to have a complete set of keepsake cups! Anne-Marie supported Ed and was really good. I’d seen her a few weeks previously at Radio One’s Biggest Weekend in Swansea but she was definitely able to hold her own for a longer set. Ed was then absolutely amazing, as always, even in the heat he was hugely energetic, which he needs to be to hold a stadium that size with just him and a loop pedal!

After a brilliant but late night back we had planned to have a quiet, slow day on Sunday which started off well with breakfast and a wander round Montmartre. We decided to kill a couple of hours at the Musee du Montmartre, which is all about the history of the area through the eyes of the artists who have lived there over the years. They have lots of artwork from the Moulin Rouge and cabaret like Le Chat Noir. While we were there they had exhibitions on Van Dongen, Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo, as well as a really interesting display of local school children’s pictures from the First World War. It’s always fascinating and saddening to see such an adult subject from a child’s perspective, and the images that were clearly part of their everyday lives that you wouldn’t want your own children knowing about. You could also look around the house and garden that was a retreat for artists in the 19th century.

We carried on exploring Montmartre, making our way to the Mur de Je T’aime, the wall of love, making the most of the view of the city on the way.

After a brief stop in Starbucks to cool us down – did I mention how hot it was?!- we walked on to the Louvre museum to see the pyramids in the courtyard. A couple of random facts for you here. Apparently, after recent events involving a restroom in America, Starbucks now have a policy where you can use their toilets whether you are a customer or not. As Starbucks seem to be all over the world now, it’s worth remembering if you’re in an unknown city or have small children – or a weak bladder! Secondly, many museums in Paris offer free entry, at least to their permanent collections, if you’re under 26. When Amy and I first came to Paris about 8 years ago, we were still students and definitely took advantage of that. We ended up visiting a few museums, even if one of two of them were just to get out of the rain. When Steve and I came we’d spent a little while wandering around the labyrinth under the Louvre, including la pyramide invertee. We didn’t go inside this time, just relaxed in the courtyard until Steve fell in the fountain.

With a dripping husband, we walked through the park to make our way to the Hard Rock Cafe for Amy to add to her collection of pins, then after all that walking caught an uber back to our apartment. The next day was Disney day two, so we gave ourselves a slightly later start before catching the train out, and most of the day was spent on the rides I’ve already talked about. This time round though we managed to catch the parade and the fireworks at the end of the day. My last memory of a Disney parade was of the illuminated one they have on the shorter days in winter. We managed to get a good spot for the parade and it was surprisingly good. There were lots of actors who interacted with the children lining the roads, and the floats were really colourful and looking in a great condition. There were a few unexpected characters thrown in with the Disney Princesses, my favourite being a fire breathing dragon from Maleficent!

Before we caught the evening fireworks we managed to squeeze in a meal at The Blue Lagoon, which is the restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I can remember going years ago with my parents and again when I came with Amy, and it being really good. I don’t know if my memory was off or if it’s gone downhill, but it definitely wasn’t good this time around. The food and drinks were all very expensive, which you do expect from a Disney restaurant as you are partly paying for the experience, but you also expect a reasonable quality to go with it. We’d gone with the set menus to try and make it cheaper, but there weren’t many options on them so it was difficult to find 3 dishes we each liked on each menu. The service was extremely slow and when the food eventually came it was lukewarm at best. The theming of the restaurant itself was still great, but I definitely wouldn’t be choosing to eat there again, which is a shame as it has been my favourite Disney restaurant until now.

Fortunately we made it out just in time for another ride on Big Thunder Mountain and to catch the fireworks at the end of the evening. They weren’t quite as good as the show at the Florida Park, but it is on a hugely different scale. The show is really good though and definitely worth staying to the end of the night for. You need to get there early to get close to the castle, but you don’t need to be that close to enjoy it. In some ways you’re better off being further back as it gives you more chance to get out before everyone else at the end. The trains do get busy but it’s well organised and simple enough, if you already have your ticket. They don’t seem to use water projections for the show anymore, instead combining the fireworks with projections straight onto the castle, which must need to be extremely accurate but works really well. Like Florida, they’re also making the most of Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm by including a Star Wars section in the show.

After our second day at Disneyland we had half a day to spend in Paris before heading home. On Tuesday we would have had to carry our bags everywhere with us, so our first stop was to head to the Gare du Nord to leave them in the lockers. Then we took the metro to Cite for some lunch, a wander around Notre Dame cathedral, and a crepe – always an essential when in Paris. There’s normally a huge queue to get into the cathedral but it’s constantly moving so it goes so quickly you might as well wait in it. I always find the cathedral is more impressive from the outside than inside, it looks like any other European cathedral, but it does have two beautiful rose windows that you can only see from inside. There are more beautiful churches in Paris that you could visit, but if you’re short on time then Notre Dame is a good place to start. It’s also a quite nice walk around the outside near the river, with some little gardens and a good view of the external architecture.

With our final hour we decided we should stay near the train station so we went for a wander around the Jardin du Luxembourg, watching people play with model boats on the lake and enjoying the peace. We could have spent much longer there, it’s well worth a visit as we only scratched the surface, and is nice to find such a calm area in the middle of the busy city.

Apologies for the lack of photos of the Eiffel tower or the Arc de Triumphe, I can pull some out from my last visits if you’re desperate, and they are worth going to but they don’t change much over time, and once you’ve been to them you don’t really need to go again. Montmartre is fun to wander around and the Sacre Coeur is worth a visit if you haven’t been before. It’s a nice walk along the river near the Eiffel Tower, and it does look prettier when its lit up at night. I’m sure I’ve still only scratched the surface of Paris. When you get beyond the major tourist attractions it does get a lot more interesting. The city is different at different times of year, times of day, with people looking for different things. It’s full of history, art, culture, food and drink, little pockets to explore and stories to hear. If you’ve never been to Paris I would definitely recommend going. If you have then why not go again and see if you can find something new? You never know, it might surprise you.

Benvenuti a Venezia!

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Christmas has just been and gone. As a clergy family we’ve been incredibly busy over the last few weeks with Christmas related stuff- an increased social calendar in church; the kids having various Christmas activities going on; preparing for family coming to stay; buying and wrapping our own Christmas presents, and a load for people in our community- the result of which is that my good intention of writing this post a lot closer to our break, disappeared down the drain. However, the family have now gone home, the house is left to myself, and I have a little while to sit in front of my computer. Technically I’m even still in 2017!

At the end of October, Steve and I were lucky enough to have the opportunity to go away for half term. It turned out to be very useful timing as I had been planning a conference, and really needed the break when it came! We were keen to try and keep a low budget when we booked our holiday, so we booked flights early and found ourselves a B&B. I love travelling, and particularly going to new places, but sometimes it’s nice to go back to places you’ve been before with new people. One of our family holidays when I was a child was to Venice, and I was keen to return and experience this beautiful city as an adult. And I was so glad I did!

Although my memory from that long ago isn’t entirely accurate, I found that the main thing that had changed was the absence of pigeons. I think feeding the pigeons in St Marks Square is probably one of my key recollections, but now they’ve placed a ban on feeding the birds, the hordes of pigeons aren’t there. Probably just as well, as I think I’m probably too old for a pigeon on my head now!

We came away with a couple of things that we wanted to do, but we quite often have such busy holidays that we wanted this one to be a bit more laid back. Nothing was booked in before we arrived, and we spent a lot of time just wandering around the city, and listening to the recommendations from our B&B owner.

It makes sense to start with the accommodation I suppose. I don’t always talk about our hotels but this one was lovely. We stayed in Ca’ Buata, which is in the Ospedale region of Venice, and is an old palazzo, converted into about 6 rooms of different sizes, off a large central hall which is used as the breakfast room. The place is nice and private, the rooms are ensuite and have wifi; but the best thing about the place is the owner. Davide was unfailing helpful and found us some real gems to eat, as well as recommending routes to take around the city.

The Ospedale section itself is quite interesting. Ospedale just translates as hospital, but because this is Venice, a lot of things are housed in ancient buildings, and the old hospital building is gorgeous. It took us a while to work out that’s what it was because it looks more like a palace or church. At the same you have the juxtaposition of the arriving ambulance boats- which Steve found quite weird, but then, with a city of canals, what would be the point of a car?

We saw so much in the 5 days that we were there, that I’m struggling to write in a logical sequence, so I’m going to try and split it up into sections: the food, the churches, the sights, and the islands. Of course, the order of priority dictates that I start with the food. Italians are well known for their good food- pizza, pasta and gelato beings the obvious choices- so we were looking forward to trying as much as we could while we were away. We arrived in the evening, and after catching the water bus into Venice from the airport and finding our hotel, we made our first mistake of finding somewhere near the Rialto Bridge, where we were lured in by fairy lights, to have something to eat. The food was over priced, the wine even more so, and nothing to write home about. We wasted a perfectly good eating opportunity and made sure we didn’t make that mistake again! Whatever you do, don’t eat in the immediate vicinity surrounding the main tourist attractions, go and get yourself lost on a side street and go there. I can guarantee it will be better.

The best meal we had was at Osteria alla Staffa which, fortunately, was quite close to our hotel. There was a wait when we arrived, but we stood in the doorway with a glass of wine, and it was well worth it. There was a lot of seafood and black pasta on the menu, which all looked amazing when I was looking over other people’s shoulders. They also had a few meat dishes including a duck ragu; as well as an extensive wine list and some pretty amazing desserts as well- including the creme brulee below! It was so good that we came back a couple of days later with a tip as we had run out of change!

We found a little pizzeria called Ai Bari, which was great for a cheap and cheerful pizza at lunchtime while we were exploring, and we knew it was good because of the number of Venetian locals coming in on their lunch breaks, with their regular table set up ready and waiting for them.

Another restaurant we were recommended by Davide was the Trattoria Storica in the Cannaregio part of Venice. We decided to give it a go one evening when we weren’t near our hotel. The food was good and not too expensive, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite as welcoming as other places. It may have been because most of the other guests seemed to be Italian, so maybe they weren’t expecting tourists. However there were complimentary drinks at the start and the end of the meal, the staff were polite but not chatty, and the food was worth the slight detour from our journey home.

We also visited another really good restaurant near our hotel called Spaghetteria 6342 a le Tole. We were recommended this restaurant again, and it took a couple of days trying to get reservations before we actually made it, as it was busy every day we were there. This one had more of a mix of tourists and Italian families so it was a little bit more friendly. The menu was primarily pasta with some pizza as well, and a fabulous dessert menu. I couldn’t decide what to have so went for the chef’s special which was a combination of minis- definitely a good idea! It was a little bit more expensive than Osteria alla Staffa, but still very reasonable. If it wasn’t so difficult to get a table then we could have happily gone back!

It would take too long to mention all the little gelaterias and pizza bars that we stopped off at while we were away, and we sort of lost track wandering round so many of them anyway. One place that is worth mentioning though is a little place we accidentally wandered into while we were looking for somewhere to have a drink, and we’re still not entirely sure whether we were supposed to be there.

Having looked on Trip Advisor, we think we might have been in the courtyard of the We Crociferi hotel, however there was a bar at the end where the barman made us cocktails that he’d made up as he went along, and we’d been served a platter of Italian meats. The courtyard was decorated with fairy lights and deckchairs, with cushions turning the arches into benches, and seemed to be full of students. I like to think that we would still pass as students, but in all honesty I have no idea where we were or what was going on. All I know is that it was a really good cocktail and a lovely place to sit for a bit.

Discounting Burger King beers, the Magnum shop, and the multiple places we stopped for an Aperol Spritz or a Bellini, the only other food related thing that needs mentioning is the food tour we took around the Jewish Quarter with Food Tours of Venice.

We first took a food tour in Amsterdam, and really enjoyed going to places and trying food that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. They are expensive, but well worth doing, particularly if there’s only two of you and you’re not staying somewhere long. You join up with a group of other people, ours were couples but sometimes family groups go too, and then walk to different places with a guide who will have pre-arranged for your group to come straight in and eat. They decide what is on the menu, as they know what is best locally, and give you the history of the places you visit.

We started off at a restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto, where we tried Jewish wine, falafel, houmous, fried artichokes, chickpeas, fried apple sauce, sardines- a lot of things that I hadn’t tried before. Not everyone liked everything, but you were ok as long as you were willing to try.

While we were still in the Jewish Ghetto we went to a Jewish bakery, round the corner from 3 of the 4 synagogues- although not all of them are still active. Our guide explained that the Venetians were proud of their history with the Jews, as they saw themselves as being one of the few places in Europe to provide somewhere for Jews to live, however what they saw as walls of sanctuary, could very quickly become walls of prison as the ghettos became increasingly populated, and had to build upwards as well as eventually expand. At the bakery we tried impades, which are a dough filled with an almond filling.

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Before we left the Jewish Ghetto, our guide told us a bit about what happened to the Jews in the second World War. The Jewish Ghetto before the war had a population of about 2,000- which was already much lower than it had been when the Ghetto was at its height about before 1797 when Napoleon ended the segregation and Jews could live outside the Ghetto. The city of Venice was sympathetic towards Jews, and many of them fled or were hidden away before the occupation of Italy. However in late 1943 and 1944, around 200 Jews were rounded up from Venice and eventually taken to Auschwitz. At the end of the war only 8 Jewish residents from Venice returned to the city. The population of the Ghetto went down to 1500 or less.

All around the Ghetto you can see reminder and memorials to the presence, and absence of Jews. The original Banco Rosso is still there, as well as little brass plaques on the doors outside houses, that commemorate people who used to live there who died in Auschwitz- these plaques can be found throughout the rest of the city and the world as well. There is also a large memorial on the wall that depicts Jews being put onto the trains to be taken away. As with many sites of memorial around Europe, there is a noticeable security presence to protect these places of remembrance.

Our next stop was still in the Jewish Quarter, but outside the Ghetto, at a bar selling wine and cicchetti. Cicchetti are the Italian version of tapas, and vary according to where you go. They are small bites that you have with a drink to slow down the absorption of alcohol! We stopped in a couple of places for cicchetti and tried different things in each. In the first was fried cheese, smoked salmon, trout paste, ham and cheese melts, and something nice and sweet all washed down with prosecco, while we were in a comfy back room. The second place was a lot smaller so we ate on the bank on the river where we had red wine with bread, different cold meats, and polenta.

Our final restaurant was one of the oldest ones in Venice, on a road that used to be a canal but was filled in- although you can still see the difference between the pavement and the canal. There we had two massive plates of pasta- one of seafood and one duck, as well as a huge plate of gnocchi with pumpkin and amaretti biscuits. I don’t normally like gnocchi but that was pretty good. Our very last stop was what everyone needs to round off an evening, stopping at one of the oldest gelato shops in the city.

It is definitely worth doing a food tour early on in your visit, as it gives you loads of ideas of places that are worth going back to, as well as some insider knowledge of how to pick a good restaurant. Loads of city have food tours now, so if you are going on a city break and love food, then have a look into doing one when you arrive.

One of the other things that Venice is known for though, is its churches. As you wander around the city you realise that they are everywhere, and it’s very difficult to know which one is which, and which ones are the best ones to go into. We stuck our heads round the doors of quite a few, including Santi Giovanni e Paolo near where we were staying, before deciding that we would only actually visit two of the better known churches.

The first church that we ‘did properly’ was Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which is a seriously impressive church. While the outside could be mistaken for any other Venetian church, the inside was incredibly interesting. It contains a monument to the artist Canova (erected by his students), which is like a pyramid and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the church, opposite a monument to Titian, a painter who died of the plague in 1576, and whose monument wasn’t erected until the 1800s, by the same Canova who is opposite him.

The other two parts of the church that I found particularly impressive was the picture of the Assumption by Tiziano Vecellio in the sanctuary- not normally my cup of tea but it fits very well into the grandeur around it; and the relics altar in a side chapel. I always find the idea of relics fascinating- keeping parts of saints, or pieces of the cross, as if it will somehow help you get to heaven; but I haven’t seen them stored in quite this way before. All mixed in together but in a highly decorated cabinet. You could stare at it for hours and not see everything.

There were lots of other pieces of art by artists that even I have heard of, but don’t really know enough about to appreciate- Donatello, Cozzi, Bellini, Negri- and the building itself is extremely impressive. They do an audio guide which is actually very good if you ever find yourself there and want a wander around.

The other church that we visited- although I would question whether it’s not too big to come under the category of church- was St Marks Basilica. Everyone has heard of it, and it the square outside makes its way onto most of the postcards of Venice, but it is well worth going inside as well.

The basic tour is just a shuffle around with everyone else. You keep to the paths through the basilica and you’re probably in and out in about 10 minutes. However, when you leave there is a set of steps up to the left which takes you to the balcony. From here you have a much better view of the church, and can really admire the gold plated mosaics from a lot closer- and without straining your neck. You also don’t have the ushers shouting at you for taking pictures, and if you go at sunset you can really appreciate the difference that the light makes to the interior of the building. There’s also an interesting exhibition which includes the horses that actually aren’t outside, and allows you to see more of the side chapels as well.

The other benefit of going up to the balcony is that it also gives you access to the roof. From the roof you can get a nice view of *some* horses, as well as being able to watch all the people in the square, look across to the Doge’s palace, and watch a pretty beautiful sunset….

While we’re in St Mark’s Square, we might as well stick with the other two attractions that can be found there. Firstly is the Campanile di San Marco- the tower that overlooks the basilica. Fortunately, there is a handy lift that takes you to the top of the tower, where you can wander around at admire the views before coming back down. You probably spend more time queuing than actually on top of the tower, but there’s only so many pictures you can take of an unchanging landscape!

The final attraction around St Marks’ Square- unless you count the Museo Correr which we did go to but didn’t spend much time there- is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace. The Doge used to be the ruling power in Venice , and his councils met in the Palace- the Full College which organised the Senate, and the Council of Ten, a secretive body tasked with protecting the government. The Doge’s apartments are within this building, and it is linked by the Bridge of Sighs to the prisons on the other side. A ticket gives you access to all of this- apart from the Doge’s apartments which are currently being renovated, and it takes a good couple of hours to take everything in. There is lots of information to take in around the complex, and it is actually interesting, so take the time to read it!

Our favourite room of the whole palace though, was one of the larger halls. Around the outside they had a picture of each of the Doge’s who had ruled over Venice, and in the middle pictures of key historical points in the history of the city. However, they had one Doge who no-one liked. He made a major mess up and they wanted to get rid of him. But leaving him off the ceiling wasn’t enough, they had to make a point that they didn’t like him. So instead, they found the spot where he would be and covered him up with a black cloth, so that future Venetians would be left in no doubt that he was bad news.

On our first day walking around Venice, we discovered a perfect viewing spot giving you a view over the city from near the Rialto Bridge, that you don’t have to pay for. On the San Marco side of the Rialto is a department store called Fontego dei Tedeschi. The department store itself is very interesting- and very expensive. It has a central hall with the display rooms coming off around the outside, and it spread over about 6 floors. One reason I found it so interesting is that it’s the only place I’ve ever seen a dog being manoeuvred around in a shopping bag.

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The real reason we went in though was because you can book a time slot in advance (or queue for ages), to go up onto the roof. From the roof you have a fantastic view of Venice over the river without having to pay for the luxury. Plus there’s an escalator or a lift all the way to the top, so it’s no effort at all!

The final sight to mention before I get onto the islands is a little bookshop that we discovered on our last day. It’s in the Ospedale-Castello part of Venice, although from the scribbles on my map I couldn’t tell you where! It’s in the part of the city that floods when the tide is high at certain times of year. Lots of shops have flood barriers and don’t have displays at floor level- but this shopkeeper took his shop to his a new level and put his books into things that won’t get wet. The result is a quirky little shop that gets lots of people going round with cameras rather than actually buying any books.

We also spent a day in Venice going round the lagoon and visiting some of the other islands- Murano, Burano and Torcello. Each of them is different in their own special way. Murano is probably the most well known, as it is famous for making Murano glass, which is prized across the world. They have historically been at the forefront of glass production techniques, but nowadays they mainly sell it to tourists. It was an interesting island to visit, and see the glass being made, but didn’t have the character of Burano.

On the other hand, Burano is a beautiful island. It is famous for making lace, however not much lace is made the traditional way anymore as newer methods are cheaper and still a good quality. The beauty of Burano is in the different coloured houses. Apparently there is a system that is supposed to help fisherman find their way home, but all I know is that the brightly painted houses are extremely picturesque and make the island particularly memorable.

The final island that we visited was Torcello. Not famous for anything in particular, but very different from the rest of Venice. The island is a lot less built up, and has a tiny population. It really gets by from tourists alone. As you walk down from the water bus you go past a devil’s bridge- which is a lot higher than it looks! I remember going with my family and sitting on Attila’s chair- not Attila the Hun though, so I’m not sure which Attila it is!

There’s a beautiful little church on the island which has some fascinating paintings on the wall, with a very interesting theological standpoint on heaven and hell!

Attached to the church is a very high tower which you can (unfortunately) walk up, given you a brilliant view of the lagoon and a better idea of the scale of Torcello island.

So that is the end of the travelling for this year. We have some holidays booked in for 2018, so I’ll be sharing them with you in the New Year. Maybe I should make it a resolution to write them up more quickly!

I hope this blog has given you a good impression of Venice. It really is an absolutely beautiful city, and really refreshing to be able to spend hours wandering around, knowing that you’ll eventually find your way back, and not needing a car. If you’re a foodie it has all you will ever need, and if you’re not then you’ll probably become one!

There’s only a few hours left now in 2017, so can I take this moment to wish everyone a very Happy New Year!

Off to the sun

One day I will get into the habit of writing things up soon after they’ve happened, but the last month or so has been so busy that I haven’t got round to it, and it’s only because I’ve got something else to write up that I’m getting round to it now! For the last few years Steve and I have had a short holiday in September, on our own. It gives us a chance to reconnect as a couple, not just parents, and we always wait until September so the kids are back in school, and don’t notice so much. In the past we’ve been to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, and Moscow (for my brother’s wedding). 3 years ago we went to Gran Canaria with my Mum- making use of her timeshare and giving her an opportunity to go somewhere hot for once!

We decided that it was probably about time to take mother abroad again, and so this year we toddled off to Tenerife. Having done two of the Canary Islands now, I’m not sure if we’ll work towards the whole set, but it was really interesting to see just how different the islands are. When we were in Gran Canaria we spent a lot of time on the beach (parascending and camel riding as you can see, but also snorkelling); as well as wandering around little towns and ports. We did venture into the mountains a little bit, but we mainly stayed near where we were based. This time we found that Tenerife is a bit smaller than Gran Canaria, and we ended up going over most of the island. Here are a few highlights from our week away:

Los Gigantes:
Our accommodation was in the town of Los Gigantes, named for the huge cliffs towering over the sea. We could look out at the ocean in the morning and watch the fishing boats going in and out, or the sun rise over the cliffs and Teno lighthouse at the end. The town itself is made up of a more urban area of shops, bars and restaurants, and a beach and harbour end where you can swim, watch the crabs scuttle around the rocks, or take one of the many boat tours that go out.

We ended up taking two boat tours from the harbour, one with Mum and one without. The first one, with Mum, was on the Flipper Uno, which is a pirate style boat that takes you out towards the cliffs. The main attraction was trying to spot dolphins- which we did, and were then given huge plates of paella with fresh local bananas, beer and wine to wash it down.

We then had the chance to swim off the boat. I had remembered the water in Gran Canaria being quite warm, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite as warm as I remembered it in Tenerife. To get it over with, we took advantage of the rope swing that was rigged up on the boat and jumped into the water. It was quite difficult to keep the water going up your nose, but also quite addictive so Steve and I both ended up jumping in a few times while Mum took photos.

On the way back one of the sailors fed the seagulls chips out of his mouth- not something we would recommend having met the seagulls in Aberystwyth! Then they came round with rum, but they seemed to have run out of cups as it was just squirted straight into your mouth!

The second tour we went out on, which Mum wasn’t feeling adventurous enough for, was with West Tenerife and was a bit more action based. We left the harbour on a small rig, along with another couple, where we were taken to the nearest cove and switched onto jet skis. I’ve never been on a jet ski before and found the bumpiness completely terrifying- I was convinced I was going to fall off the back into the water! We had originally been told we were going to ride out to Teno- the lighthouse at the end of the coast, but it was just too choppy for our little jet skis to cope. So instead we did a little loop round before coming back to the cove to move to a bigger boat for a break.

After some fruit and water we had a little swim, using the flippers, snorkels and underwater scooters that they provided for us. The scooters meant that we could go fast enough to have time to get towards the rocks at the shore, which was the only way to see any fish! Steve also tried his hand at paddle boarding, but wasn’t hugely successful!

After returning to the boat to dry off a bit, we clambered back on to the jet skis to go back to the harbour. If you do go to Tenerife and are thinking of taking this tour, it’s worth mentioning that they lend you a GoPro5 for while you’re out with them. It clips onto the front of the jet ski, underwater scooter, or onto a selfie stick so you can take photos or videos the whole time. You then keep the SD card at the end and just take the whole lot home with you. They take some photos of you as well, which they email to you at the end of the tour.

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Masca:
One of the attractions that you can book through resorts is a bus trip to the little village of Masca, way up in the mountains of Tenerife. The village itself isn’t that spectacular. One of the attractions is that you can hike from there, through the valley to the beach, about 5km. The choice then is either to get a boat there, hike and bus back; get a bus there, hike and catch a boat back; or bus or drive there, and hike both ways. In the end we didn’t take any of the hiking options and just drove. The village is nestled in quite a pretty valley, and there’s a little restaurant there to enjoy the view, with an interesting gift shop. We took a break from driving to have a cactus lemonade in this shop! There is also a nice little square that you can imagine may get quite busy at festivals, and some interesting little statues, but I can’t tell you who they were of as I don’t speak Spanish!

What was more interesting about Masca was the drive up- and down- to get there! The roads are very steep and windy- fortunately there are mainly 2 lanes- but that’s not much comfort when there’s a bus coming the other way. It can be quite a nerve wracking drive, with hair pin bends and huge drops on either side; but the views are spectacular, and there are lots of handy stopping places where you can get out to take photos or have some relief from the mental strain of trying to control a car!

Garachico:
Another destination that requires travelling on terrifying roads is the town of Garachico, where you can visit Las Piscinas Naturales El Caleton– a series of rock pools with steps and ladders leading down where you can go swimming. Again, the water is quick cold, so it took a little while to get in, but it was definitely a good place for snorkelling. There are a series of channels and pools with walk ways between them, that we spent ages just swimming around in, but there were also people jumping in from the sides- it is deep enough- or just sunbathing from the rocks.

We spent ages in the channels that come in from the sea, but with the tide you do get pushed and pulled around a bit. As they are tidal it was much deeper when we left than when we arrived! The best snorkelling was in a pool to the side of the channels, which still had pipes to let the water in, but was a lot calmer. In that pool there were the most, and the most interesting fish, and we even found an octopus hiding on the rocks, by almost stepping on him!

This photo is taken by WIMIUS's Q1

The town of Garachico is also worth a visit though. Most importantly because it is where we discovered banana wine, at a food gift shop where they were very generous with samples! Secondly because Restaurante La Almena de San Miguel does an amazing seafood paella with local fresh fish. And thirdly, because the town is a really pretty one to wander around. There are a lot of pedestrianised streets and little squares. There is a little park that’s full of anchors and has the original gates to the town. There are some interesting churches and convents, even a castle. And there are chickens just wandering around aimlessly.

Icod de los Vinos:
On the way back from Garachico we were recommended (by the man who sold us the banana wine) to visit Icod de los Vinos to find the Parque del Drago, home of the dragon tree. We got a little bit lost in the one way system and steep roads, but eventually found  a car park and went to find the tree. We first came to a square with a concert being set up, which had quite a big tree, but we decided it probably wasn’t big enough to warrant being called a dragon so we carried on looking. Eventually we came to a little park, of which the tree was the central attraction. They do charge for you to get in, but they also have clean toilets and a cafe and gift shop. It was a nice park just to wander around and look at other plants, birds, lizards, and the odd duck and cat; but the tree definitely stood out. There are only three of them on the island that are that size, and it is over 1,000 years old, so it has seen quite a lot. There is also an old cave that you can go into, but if you don’t like spiders then you might want to give it a miss as it is full of cobwebs!

Teno:
Also on that side of the island is Punta de Teno– the lighthouse. This one is actually even more difficult to get to because the road isn’t always open. The first time we tried to visit we made it to 5km away, and the barrier was closed so we couldn’t go all the way up. The cliffs above the road to Teno are quite dangerous with falling rocks, so they restrict how many cars are allowed to drive down. We made up for it by getting lost on the way back and stopping for a swim in the sea in a random town!

We did make a return journey to Teno though, and it was well worth it. You can’t get in to the lighthouse itself, but you can climb the cliffs around it to get a good view back towards Los Gigantes, and there is a little harbour there that people were swimming from. We were there as it was getting towards sunset so we had the beauty of the light turning orange behind the lighthouse. There was also a little walkway where you can sit with your feet dangling over the edge to watch the waves lap in and out.

El Teide:
The reason that the roads around Tenerife are so mountainous is because it is a volcanic island. The volcano in the middle is called El Teide, and although it’s not technically dormant, it hasn’t erupted for over 100 years. I expected that driving up the volcano would be even more windy than the roads around the outskirts of the island, but it turned out to be largely straight, wider, and better maintained. It was fascinating driving around the island and seeing the landscape change dramatically. You went from the rocky shrubland like that around Masca, to lush forests, up to pine forests like you would expect to find in Finland, and then to such barren terrain that you could mistake yourself being in the middle of a desert or on the moon! In fact, several films and TV series that have needed an extra-terrestrial landscape have filmed in Tenerife. We had hoped to do an evening cable car ride up to the top of the mountain, but unfortunately it was too windy while we were there so it wasn’t running. That meant that although we could drive most of the way up, we couldn’t make it right to the peak. On the drive up the weather echoed the changing terrain as you would go through beautifully sunny areas, to heavy cloud, and then to dry dust storms. The higher up you went though, the colder and windier it became. No matter how hot it is at the coast, don’t let the mountain fool you!

It’s difficult to tell from the pictures the sheer scale of El Teide- it really is huge! You don’t realise quite how high up you are until you compare it to the surrounding mountains, and remember how long you’ve been driving for! On one of our earlier drives, we’d spotted this impressive cloud formation over the top of the mountain, and spent the rest of the week teasing Mum as it was the only day she didn’t take her camera with her!

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As well as visiting some of the natural sites of the island, we did also go to some of the other attractions. The most widely advertised were the twin parks of Loro Parque and Siam Park- a zoo and a water park, both highly rated within Europe. Mum was happy to come with us to Loro Parque- so that she could spend the day taking photos of animals, and we were impressed with it. There were a lot of conservation projects going on, and several of the animal enclosures were very good compared to others we’ve seen- we were particularly impressed with the penguins. They have a few animal shows- one with the birds, which is why the park originally started; as well as dolphin, whale and sea lion shows; and the regularly animal feeding. We didn’t see the dolphins as they are currently refurbishing their enclosure, but the whales were comparable to SeaWorld Florida, and the sea lion show very similar to things we’ve seen before. Both enjoyable though if you’re into that kind of thing. There was also a captivating wall of fish in the aquarium section of the park, which I’ve not seen elsewhere. As always, some of the animals are inevitably sleepy- the big cats seem to be whenever and wherever you go- and sadly I never found the sloth, but we did really enjoy the park and would recommend going. Mum also particularly enjoyed the walk through aviary and probably would have spent all day there if we’d have let her!

The following day Steve and I also visited Siam Park, which is a huge water park on the island. In case you’re worrying about the use of so much water in such a hot country, they do recycle a lot of it and source their own energy so they’re pretty biologically friendly. I’m not normally a huge fan of water parks because I don’t really like the slides where you go down on your own, without a tube or anything, but fortunately there weren’t many of those at Siam. Most of the slides were 2 person, and a few were 4 or 6 so we joined up with other couples. The queues were still quite long when we went so we invested in the fairly cheap fast passes, which let you go on each ride once- and which were definitely worth it as hardly anyone seemed to have them, and it meant that we could go on every ride within a few hours. One of my favourite rides was The Volcano, which is in the dark and includes a laser light show as you slide around a huge basin. Steve also really enjoyed Singha, which is a slide but also blasts you around with water jets so it goes faster than normal. Somehow I managed to fall out at the end so, although I didn’t hurt myself, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about going on again! We also both enjoyed the lazy river- Mai Thai River. Although you can chose the slow option, there is also a part where the river splits, and if you go in the left hand lane you end up on another water slide in your tube. It’s very confusing if you don’t know it’s coming! The most famous ride at Siam in the Tower of Power, which is a drop slide that goes through a shark tank. Neither of us ended up going on it in the end though as I didn’t want to, and the queue was too long for Steve to want to go on his own. People were coming off pulling their swimming shorts back into a comfortable zone though!

I think our absolute favourite place on the island was one that we went to fairly early on, and liked so much that we actually went back on our final day. We found the Monkey Park at Los Cristianos on Trip Advisor, and it had fairly mixed reviews, but we decided to give it a go anyway. We read the advise to take your own fruit in rather than buy it there, so that the animals are more interested, and came loaded with grapes and tomatoes. You have to show them what you’re bringing in, but as long as it’s not food the animals can’t eat then they let you. We walked past some crocodiles and tortoises on the way in, and then to some enclosure with lemurs, parrots, iguanas, and lots and lots of guinea pigs. If you like guinea pigs then this is definitely the place for you as they are everywhere. We tried to coax the lemurs down but they were sleeping and not really interested. Moving through we found that there were two aviaries, so that kept Mum busy for a while, but that wasn’t the highlight.

The excitement came when we found the squirrel monkeys were happy to take food out of your hand, as long as you stood still long enough. It didn’t take long to work out that when there were no noisy kids around, you could also coax them to walk up your arm and around your shoulders to get food. Just to point out, they also had food in their enclosures so they weren’t being starved to make them perform, and at no point did we try and hold onto them or stroke them- if they didn’t want to get it, they didn’t. The first time we worked it out Mum was with the birds, and was pretty jealous when she found out. So we ended up going back so that she would have a chance as well! I’ve never been so close to a monkey before, and I was amazed at how soft their little hands are, and how gentle they were with them.

There were also some much bigger monkeys in enclosures that you couldn’t walk through. Some of them were on their own, and some in small family groups. But there was also quite a large colony of monkeys living together, and watching them interact and try and work out the monkey hierarchy was quite funny. The other monkeys were also quite keen to supplement their diets and would quite happily take food off you through the bars. We got drawn in a bit by animal cuteness and tried to prioritise little ones and mums, but unfortunately the monkey hierarchy doesn’t work like that so they were quite often chased away, or had to climb higher out of reach! The gibbons however, were quite happy to share food with each other- not sure why they felt so differently but it paid off for them! It did take them a little while to figure out how to get their hands back through the bars while holding a tomato though…

We had a lovely week, catching up on the last bit of sun for the year. Although we spent a lot of time driving around the island in the day, we made up for it in the evening by eating good food- tapas, calamari and canarian potatoes being the most popular; and drinking large amounts of sangria, mojitos and caipirinhas! Maybe we will visit more Canary Islands after all…

 

Birthday baking

One thing I really enjoy about being a stepmum is the opportunity to make birthday cakes for the kids. When I was growing up, me and my brother would always have a homemade birthday cake, so it’s something that I take for granted as part of family life. Having said that, my brother always had- and still has now if he happens to be in the country for his birthday- the same cake, which was a chocolate, nutty, biscuit, rum fridge cake. I’m not sure why my mum thought it was a good idea to give an alcoholic cake to a small child, but it was a good tradition.

Every since I first met my husband I’ve been making birthday cakes for the children. The first year they all had separate cakes- Spiderman for Sam, a princess castle for Katy-Grace and a wrestling ring for Ryan.

 

But because their birthdays are all so close together, we couldn’t eat that much cake so the next year the younger two had a joint cake. So in 2013 Sam and Katy-Grace had a lido pool cake with a playmobile family around it, and Ryan had a Smiler (Alton Towers ride) cake.

In 2014 the younger two had a minion loom band cake, and Ryan had a Shambala (Port Aventura ride) cake.

2015 had a minion beach cake and a Pac man cake, which you can see in my post Baking catch up from October 2015.

Last year we split them up again as they had separate sleepovers, so Sam had a snake cake, Katy-Grace had an Oreo cake, and Ryan had a cheesecake, but it collapsed a bit so I ended up without a photo!

Every year I plan to blog about the kids birthday cakes, as it tends to be my most creative baking, and cake is one of my four c’s! But somehow I never get round to it. As we’re going away next week and I’m going to have another travel blog to do, I thought I’d try and get this year’s cakes in while I have the chance!

Sam and Katy-Grace had a joint cake again this year, which sort of tried to tie in Katy-Grace’s current obsession with all things Harry Potter, and Sam’s constant love of sports, with a quidditch cake. I normally go to Pinterest for inspiration and bring together various aspects to make something I can feasibly make myself! I also thought I’d try and make the inside of the cake more exciting this year by having a checker board effect in the Hogwarts house colours- grey and green for Slytherin, red and yellow for Gryffindor, yellow and blue for Hufflepuff and blue and grey for Ravenclaw. I made a layer of cake in each of those colours, and then cut it into rings which slot together to make a new layer in the right colours.

Unfortunately my green dye wasn’t quite strong enough so the colour was a bit disappointing, but the rest of them were ok. I was a bit lazy at this stage, which I regretted, because I should have straightened out the tops of the cakes before cutting them. Because I didn’t, it was very difficult to get a level top on the new layer, and when I stacked them up there were bigger than normal gap at the rim. Fortunately I could fill them in with icing, but the perfectionist in me was annoyed.

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The next stage was fairly straight forward. I covered the whole cake with green icing, and drew on the pitch markings with white writing icing. I made a broomstick, snitch and the ball case out of fondant icing, and crushed up some digestive biscuits to make the sand for the bottom of the posts. The posts themselves were made out of the big gummy dummies you get in tuck shops, stuck onto a wooden kebab stick, and then covered in Brown fondant icing. They were a bit thick and bulky, but I left it too late to try and find confectioners wire to cover instead.

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The next stage was to make the spectator stands. I decided that the match was going to be between Gryffindor and Slytherin, so only made those two stands. The base itself was a chocolate cake baked in a loaf tin, which I then cut in half to get two stands. I covered each half in butter cream, and then cut out squares of fondant icing in the house colours and stuck them to the sides. The roof of the stands and the flag were also fondant, with a cocktail stick to keep it together.

I did have a bit of a problem getting the stands to stay straight next to the pitch so I ended up using a system of wooden skewers and supporting glasses in the fridge to get them to stay upright.
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By the time the kids were ready for it though, it was all staying together, and they were pretty happy with it.

Ryan’s this year was a bit more difficult to plan. I was originally intending to do something linked with his favourite rides at Europa park, which is a theme park in Germany where Steve took him for a few days at the end of the summer with his uncles as a birthday present. However, it’s not the sort of theme park that has a lot of theming so there ended up not being anything I could turn into a cake!

Instead I turned to the parks we’d been to in Florida, where our favourite rode as a family was Expedition Everest at Disney’s An