Mexico is not in Europe

“Cancun?”

“Yeah.”

“As in Cancun, Mexico?”

“Yeah, but hear me out…”

Our latest ludicrous plot-twist was – as always – sponsored by Francis. Having returned home to the UK for Christmas with my family, we were beginning to worry that our trip might be over after only 3 months. People were already saying things like ‘you could just call it a day here – you’ve had a few months’ or ‘probably wise to just wait until all this covid stuff is out of the way before you set off again’; which are really easy things to say, but more difficult and impractical even, to do. 

Before we set off, we gave up our house, sold all of our furniture and nearly everything we had accumulated during our 10 years of cohabitation. All that is left of the life we lived before this trip is a pile of clip-lock boxes full of memories, one white dresser and the kitchen equipment I couldn’t bear to part with. These are all currently taking up one half of my sister’s garage. Pausing our trip, stopping after our locked down month in Germany, would essentially mean that we shouldn’t have gone in the first place (not an uncommon view, granted). I suspected that dismantling our home had been much quicker and easier than rebuilding it would be. 

We were holed up in my parent’s very cosy house at the seaside, the reliable British weather making it impossible to be outside, and everytime we turned on the TV or looked at our phones, there was yet more bad news. Covid was spreading, a new variant had been found, Boris’s ‘oven-ready deal’ seemed to have vanished and sombre European leaders were lining up to talk about how difficult it would be for Britons to move around the continent once we were out. 

On the day that Mexico was floated as a possibility, I had actually spent the day on Rightmove. Teasing out the pros and cons in my head of attempting to find somewhere new to settle or giving our current tenants their three months notice. Francis had been very quiet all day. The notion that our trip was over before it had really begun was getting him down more than any of us – it had been his dream, after all. So when he passed me his phone, I assumed he too had been house hunting and had one to show me. 

Mexico is not in Europe

He did at least agree with me on that. I thought this was among his more ridiculous ideas and I told him so; listing myriad reasons emphatically. 

“We could go and hide in the sun though,” he said. 

“We could do that in Cyprus without having to travel to central America,” I countered. 

“But they have ziggurats and snorkeling in Mexico!”

“They have snorkelling in Cyprus.”

“Yes, but you won’t find turtles and stingrays and whale sharks.”

It turns out, as I’d assumed he was quiet because of his resignation to the reality of our situation, he had in fact just been researching Mexico – in particular, the Yucatan peninsula which is where most of the worry-free travel and tourism happens. 

“Everything’s still open in Yucatan – they’re welcoming travellers. All of the covid precautions are in place – it’ll be just like staying here… except it’ll be hot and sunny and there’s loads to see!”

He was already sold – he now just needed to convince me. 

As we’re currently in Mexico, I won’t bother asking you who you think won that argument. In very early January, we gathered only our essentials (we wouldn’t have the car for storage this time) and headed to the airport. For this leg of the trip the plan had always been for Hannah -Francis’s little sister – to join us. Being a lot like her brother, she barely batted an eyelid at the change in destination, showing up with passport in hand ready to go. 

I Bloody Hate Flying

Somewhere over Bermuda, whilst simultaneously wondering if the Bermuda Triangle was still a thing and listening to Barack Obama read me his autobiography through my headphones (FYI – always listen to Obama’s lovely voice if you’re a nervous flyer), it struck me that we had actually done it. We had been convinced, right up until the wheels lifted from the tarmac, that someone – even Boris himself – might intervene at Gatwick and tell us we couldn’t go. It’s a strange position to be in; hilariously, athough we are British, we have no permanent UK residence anymore. Having booked accommodation in Mexico, we were – technically – on our way home. 

Ten hours later, we landed in Cancun. After a long wait for our one suitcase and a shorter one for our transfer, we were finally within striking distance of rest. 

Playa del Carmen

The first couple of days here were spent in a very basic hotel in the centre of Playa del Carmen; a region popular with tourists and for good reason. It’s fairly quiet during the day, with local shop owners lazily coming out to say hello to try and entice you into buying something (we ALWAYS want to buy something – everything is amazing here). However, at night the streets of Playa del Carmen become insanely busy. Loud music, fairy lights, break-dancing kids, street-food and more cocktails than you can shake a stick at. Restaurants take your temperature at the door, you wear a mask and you sanitise your hands at every place you stop. They are definitely taking the pandemic seriously – but it’s still so strange after this year to see so many people in one place. 

After a couple of nights, we were able to move into our new apartment. We have spent the last 48 hours settling in; attempting to cook some of the Mexican dishes we sampled in town and playing in the complex pool across the street. The beautiful weather has – as predicted – lifted everyone. 

So what’s the plan?

Ha. We’re not planning ever again. We were fairly meticulous in our planning for Europe. As I type this, I should be in Rome; tired from a day of exploring the Vatican and eating fresh pasta. In fact, right from the start I had been adamant that Rome was the only month we could not compromise on. Having spent a long weekend there about 10 years ago, we were so keen to go back and get to know the city properly; to go down all the alleyways and investigate all the nooks we hadn’t had time for all those years ago. Sadly, Italy looked headed for another lockdown too; and travelling in Europe – though not impossible – looks hard for the forseeable future. Without good weather to look forward to, we would just have been signing up for another cold lockdown – but we’d also have been adding a language barrier and unfamiliarity to the mix for fun…

No. This year is now about not planning anything. When the time comes to make a decision, we will weigh up our options on the spot and go for whatever makes sense; acknowledging and respecting that the world neither knows nor cares what our plans are and therefore cannot be relied upon to accommodate.

Coming Home and Coming Home

That’s not a typo – I meant to write ‘Coming Home’ twice. I played around with the title for this post, but that was the only one that made sense (or will make sense to you after you’ve read the post – if my rambling doesn’t immediately prompt you to hit the ‘back’ button on your phones…)

The First ‘Coming Home’

A figurative home-coming; how it feels to be back in Germany – particularly Bavaria – after some 30 years away. These forests and mountains that frame so many of my childhood memories now seen again as an adult – the experience is joyful, powerful and disquieting all at once. It’s like I blinked and all of those interim years happened in the time it took me to open my eyes again. Moving back to the UK, finishing primary school, starting and finishing secondary school, college, university, career false-starts and mistakes; friends made, loved, lost, weddings, funerals, birthdays and Christmasses. So much life has happened since I last stood on these hillsides and wondered at these views; so much that it all seems dreamlike and unreal now. 

Having had two weeks here to contemplate it, I can’t quite decide if Germany provokes this nostalgia in me because I spent a good deal of my childhood here, or because of its enduring place in the folklore of fairytales – or a combination of the two. I had forgotten how deep and rich this country is in breathtaking natural beauty and magic. The Brothers Grimm gave us all of our most popular children’s stories; Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretal and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and so many more. Their inspiration was largely the German countryside; forests dark and silent where the pine trees are so densely packed together that no light makes it to the forest floor, mountain lakes and peaks that are at once beautiful and intimidating depending on whether the clouds have moved in to cast everything into shadow. It feels magic here. Houses are painted with intricate frescos and wood carvings are a way of life. At any given point on a walk in the middle of nowhere, you can expect to be surprised with the sudden sight of a children’s play park, blending flawlessly into its surroundings; so creatively designed that even Frank and I can’t help getting involved in whatever game the kids dream up. Frank has said more than once that despite never having been to this area, it feels familiar. Like the landscape for those fairytales became more like real memory than simple bedtime stories. 


I have so loved watching my children react to Bavaria. They are utterly enraptured by it all and don’t even complain when we tell them we’re hiking up yet another mountain just to see the view from the top. Consider southern Germany for your next family holiday – I promise you will not be disappointed. You may, however, never want to come home!

The Second ‘Coming Home’

It wasn’t the original plan, but we’re excited now to be heading back to the UK for Christmas in early December. The Love side of our family have had their roughest year to date (even by 2020’s standards) and we’re all feeling the draw to come home and seek comfort in our own little traditions as December 25th gets closer. It will be a month full of making decorations and gingerbread houses, watching Christmas films and playing games – a very welcome wind-down after months of adventure before the next bit starts in January. With a bit of luck our planned month in Rome will still be possible, but if coronavirus makes that unlikely then we will probably head off into the Balkans for some exploring instead. 


I imagine Christmas will be hard for everyone this year, with so many norms having been scrapped for the necessity of infection control. I can only tell you that in order to counterbalance the disappointment I intend to cover literally everything in fairy-lights, wrap myself from head to foot in tinsel and drink Egg-nog while watching The Muppets Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life on repeat. I suggest you all do the same ❤

Frank’s (not quite a) review of Schloss Neuchwenstein

For those of you who follow our Instagram account you will have seen that on Monday, the sun was shining down on our little piece of the planet, so us four weasels took a cycle across from our cosy little hidey hole in South Bavaria to the impressive dreamlike Schloss Neuschwanstein. Now rationally you might expect a review of the palace and the surroundings and that is what I had sat down to write. Instead I have ended up giving you a look into my head and some of the discussions me and Gemma had, inspired by this colossal beautiful folly.

We had taken the scenic route to Schloss Neuschwanstein, choosing to follow the winding course the shallow Vils Fluß as it joins up with the power of the Lech river. 

We took this route in part to soak in the breathtaking grandeur of the northernmost Alps as we crossed in and out of Austria and in larger part because my firstborn daughter, though bright and intelligent in many ways has all the road survival skills of a hedgehog and can often be seen happily daydreaming on a main road, bike vearing from side to side as she weaves her merry way along, mindless of cars and trucks hurtling past. So in order to prevent her from being flattened, or Gemma becoming so stressed that she bleeds from the eyes, we continued our cycling training away from the traffic.

When the sun is shining the November mountains are awe inspiring, the deep oranges and fiery reds of Autumn mixed in with the dark evergreen pines that cling to their slopes. Being an experienced mountaineer I understand the importance of a map and good navigation yet being a complete klutz I had neglected to bring one. So with the help of google maps on Gemma’s phone (mine was back with the map) we felt rather than navigated our way towards the castle. 

Thankfully the Germans are rather better organised than us and we soon found signs for the castle along a footpath that we rode along merrily enough, me and the kids on sturdy mountain bikes, Gemma on a rather striking blue bike that you might imagine an old lady cycling to the shops on to get a loaf of bread in 1920’s Paris. Fair play to Gemma though she kept up just fine on an increasingly treacherous footpath that was becoming narrower and steeper all of the time. Children have an inbuilt resistance to spotting danger so Izzy and Sam spent a good deal of time chatting as they rode merrily beside sheer drops and had to be ordered off of their bikes when the terrain became truly dangerous. We pushed our bikes therefore along what we had now realised was in fact a fairly challenging walking route, plowing on regardless (as is our wont) riding some of the down hills but pushing for the most part. 

As we progressed following the signs towards the castle we squeezed our way past better prepared german hikers with boots and poles etc and tried out our faltering German, to always be responded to in perfect English. During one of these conversations we were told “you cannot bring bicycles on this track” we thanked them for the information and were forced to immediately prove them wrong as by now we were a good couple of miles in and didn’t fancy turning back. 

This got us thinking about how we use language. ‘You cannot’ is often used when ‘I’d prefer you didn’t’ or ‘it is a bad idea to’ would be more accurate, but the latter would not have the moral force implicit in the former.

Gemma observed that there hadn’t been a sign which pushed us deeper down the same rabbit hole of thought. Had the nice German man with opinions about bicycles (who I will call Fredrik as I failed to get his name) been in a uniform would our reactions have been different? I think they could have been.

A sign, in this instance saying no bicycles would likely have been obeyed, but that sign itself would merely represent the wishes of another person or at most a small group of people. This drew our musings onto why we obey authority. What if there was a sign saying Fahrräder sind unter keinen Umständen erlaubt (no bicycles allowed under any circumstance). There is a real chance we would have turned back at this point. Yet the only real difference would have been that Fredrik would have taken the time to make a sign – it would show his commitment but would not really change the power of his argument.

We wrestled our bikes along the wholly unsuitable terrain and discussed the ways we change our behaviour dependent on how we regard authority when through the trees, glistening in the midday sun, we caught our first glimpse of King Ludwig II’s Castle. It is straight from the pages of a fairytale (deliberately designed to be so) designed for beauty rather than any practicality and like nothing I have ever seen or am likely to see again. Nestled near the top of a steep ravine its main spire reaches up high over its high walls and smaller conical towers all built of white limestone designed to catch the bright sunlight and throw it into the eyes of the observer. Gemma, who had come here as a child and cherished the memory amongst her most precious, actually danced a happy jig of joy and made noises that the English language does not have enough vowels to properly explain.

My thoughts however were still on the subject of power, of authority. This amazing gem of a building is there for one reason alone,  in 1864 a 19 year old boy called Ludwig became king of Bavaria and he wanted it built (along with other grand palaces) . It came at crippling cost, with credit being taken on top of credit to build his “authentic” (the word as meaningless then as it is now) medieval castle. It seems that everyone else involved in constructing this folly knew the project to be mad and ruinous but the man in charge said it should continue, so continue it did. 

This was at a point in Bravarian history where the state was in deep financial difficulty and poverty was rife and these extravagances were extremely unpopular and damaging to both the state and the people. Yet at every step the stone mason laid the stone because the foreman told him to, the forman instructed the builders because the site manager told him to, he worked for the architect who worked for the aide who worked for the king. Ludwig ended his days tragically committing suicide after being deposed due to insanity. 

It seems that good sensible rational individuals will come together and do entirely irrational things if they are told to by the system even if they understand it to be foolish and even if the system is headed up by a certifiable madman.

As I drank in the splendor of Ludwig’s idealised castle I couldn’t help but see these thoughts through the lens of the history of some of the places we have been. Back in Croatia we visited a village that had been massacred by the Serbs in the early 1990’s (when we had Britpop and shell suits they had shortages and war crimes) those crimes were horrendous but would the individual Serbs, if not taken into the apparatus of war, have murdered innocent Croats? Every person over the age of 40 could tell us stories of that ravaging civil war but without a man (and it does mainly seem to be men) in charge to say to start the killing would it have ever begun? 

Now I must confess to a bias here. I am an ex soldier writing this on Armistice Day, I swore an oath to the Queen and went abroad to do things, in other people’s countries that would be unconscionable in my normal life. The reason we went and did these things was simply because we were told to by other people. My thinking then went no further than that.

I’m not a total pacifist by the way, I don’t think that tyrants always respond to reasoned arguments and I’m pretty sure that no petition, no matter how popular, would have convinced ISIS to stop their campaign of terror. I just couldn’t help to draw the comparison between this extraordinary sky palace and the decisions we make and the people we unthinkingly obey.

Back in the 19th Century many still believed that kings and rulers were set over us by God and that their decisions were therefore the ones God planned and should not be resisted. Modern thinking has largely moved away from this view and most of us understand that it is an accident of birth that puts some at the top and some at the bottom but our compliance has not reduced. 

In the USA they spent the last 4 years with a president that most of the people hadn’t chosen and many thought was dangerous but in that great democratic empire they obeyed regardless. In Britain our prime minister won the votes of 43.6% of those who voted (the largest share of the since 1979) thus representing the choice of 29% of those eligible to vote: Yet we give him the authority to speak for all and can make laws to be followed and act in any way he sees fit on our behalf.

And here’s the bit that blew my mind, we all obey.

 A topical example, the responses to the Covid 19 pandemic have been a mix of reasonable precautions and lunacy. Those in charge of each country claim to “follow the science” but this is completely disingenuous. Science can tell you what is likely to happen to infection rates if teachers wear masks or if they move university lectures online and ban students mingling with each other. It cannot however tell you whether keeping infection rates low is more or less valuable than a future well socialised society.

 Science does not tell us if a generation of teenagers missing out on their social life and the life memories that come then is worth more or less than a given number of new infections and deaths. These are not scientific extrapolations from data, they are value judgments. Judgements made ultimately by people most of us have never met, nor are likely to.

Yet we obey, we comply and we do so without duress. 

There was no threat of violence that compelled the Bavarians builders to impoverish the regency and build that amazing turret, but they just got on with it. Not many had a clear view on why Saudi terrorists attacking the USA ended up with Britain invading Iraq, but off we went. It is not obvious why garden centres full of over 60’s are so much safer than nightclubs full of under 30s when tackling a virus that preys on the old (a cynic would say this reflects a mad king, protecting oil and the average age of voters and their interests).

This is not a call for anarchy, we were soaking in the glory of a splendid castle so obeying the rules can give us great things. We are told to drive on the left hand side of the road and this stops us all crashing into one another, society needs rules; but in an era where the home secretary is telling people to inform on their neighbors for not complying with laws passed on the hoof, when we are told to stop the things that make life rich and fulfilling in order to preserve quantity of life over quality it is at least worth stopping and asking the question why.

Human Factors

Humans get in their own way a lot. I’ve been surprised recently by how easy it is to fall into complacency and expectation. How readily we forget how privileged we are and how much we have to be thankful for. In the lead-up to this year away; the months of planning and packing, hysterical late night chatter and nervous morning butterflies, we assumed that our excitement and gratitude for the adventure we were embarking on would always be there to fuel our enthusiasm; that the whole year would be a day-to-day study in technicoloured wonder (think Dorothy arriving in Oz – a full romp down the yellow-brick road complete with songs and the odd spontaneous dance number). So we were all a little surprised when we kind of stalled; when our appetite for exploration and adventure fizzled out for a while and was replaced by a weird, lazy complacency that had us all feeling grumpy and tired. Our slow mornings became slower. Often we weren’t getting out of the house until gone lunchtime, by which point everyone was teetering on the edge of a bad mood and not at all sure they wanted to go out anyway.

Here we were, 10 minutes away from Split, bathed in sunshine, literally tripping over history everywhere we went, and yet our mood was lacklustre at best. We still managed some wonderful experiences, but our momentum seemed to have disappeared. It’s got me thinking about human factors and how we will always find a way to turn the extraordinary into the norm. I remember asking Frank once if he wanted to go sky-diving for his birthday. When he said no, it was because he’d done a lot of it during adventure training in the military and well, as he put it, “anything becomes less exciting if you do it all the time.” Realistically, I know our rutt was triggered by some bad chicken that took a little while to recover from and some communication from the RAF that sent Frank into a bit of a twirl for a couple of days. Just normal life stuff that interrupted the dream and settled in like a heavy old blanket – putting us to sleep under its dusty, familiar weight. I’m pleased to report that we snapped out of it, and we’re back to marching up mountains and marvelling at everything we can find within a drivable distance from our little apartment.

I have to say though, it bothers me a lot. That we can so easily forget how extraordinary this experience is. That we have all of this time with our kids, all of this freedom and opportunity and we can still have days where we feel fed-up or hard-done-by. But then, even before all this it was there. I’m positive everyone else feels it too. That need to have more than you have. Desperately trying to keep up with your peers by getting the right house, the right stuff to fill it with, the right car, the right clothes. And what happens when you get them? Do the heavens burst open with song and rainbows while angels descend to bestow eternal happiness on your hard working shoulders? No. Of course not. The happiness lasts mere moments or days before it becomes your new normal, all the while the next ‘right thing’ is already lining itself up in your periphery. Everyone gets caught by it – I know we did. We bought our first house and lived with pretty grim second-(maybe fiftieth)-hand furniture for years; walking on carpet tiles that looked like they’d have been new when Alexander the Great was still in action. We were pretty happy with our shabby-but-comfortable existence for a really long time until we got caught in it. I’m sure there was a probably a payrise involved and talk of updating certain things – but before we knew it, we had over-stretched ourselves with a new car, a new bed, several arty pieces to decorate the walls with and the world’s most uncomfortable sofa from DFS (which, incidentally we’re still paying for despite no longer owning).

I guess then, that this is our new normal. And while I’d love to think we’re impervious to falling back into old habits and attitudes, we’re most definitely not.

So we’re practicing some proactive gratitude at the moment, to try to counterbalance the constant threat of complacency. It’s very difficult to look around here and think not enough. It’s near impossible to count the ways in which we’re lucky and not immediately feel like a giant arse for ever having a second where we feel anything less than full and complete gratitude.

Homeschooling with Frankenstein

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy one, I will indulge the other.” ~ Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Anyone who knows us will be shocked to hear that I am not a natural home-schooler. Frank is the teacher here; I am the one who hides in the bathroom when it’s all kicking off because Izzy doesn’t understand why she needs to know the area of a triangle. While Frank patiently outstares Sam when he doesn’t care who the Ottomans were or why they’re important, I am the one happily delivering drinks and snacks, saying something encouraging before scuttling back to my hole to utter up silent thanks to the homeschooling gods that a very small portion of this particular burden lies on my shoulders. I’m perhaps painting an unfair picture. Frank loves teaching. He gets joy out of all the ‘a-ha!’ moments and spends hours finding ways to teach that keep the kids engaged and enthusiastic. I am extremely invested in the whole process. Just… from down the hall.

Having said all that, I occupy one small corner of our home-schooling world, and yesterday I experienced some of what Frank must feel everytime the kids really get something that he’s teaching them.

I am a very keen reader and always have been. I love books more than TV or cinema or even shopping. I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go simultaneously, as well as whatever I’ve bought from Audible to listen to when I don’t have time to sit down. Happily, this is a passion I (we – Frank loves reading too) have managed to pass on to both Izzy and Sam.

I heard once, a long time ago, that while the books children read themselves should be appropriate for their reading age, the books we read to them should be much more challenging. Reading more complex texts aloud to kids increases their vocabulary and allows them to find the story – even when it’s embedded in unfamiliar or complicated language. They comprehend so much more than we think they do.

Now eleven and nine, Izzy and Sam still end each day with one of us reading to them. Frank and I each have separate chapter books for the occasion and we read on alternate nights. Up until the last year or so, we’ve had favourites from Roald Dahl, Michael Mopurgo or Enid Blyton. We even have an impressive collection of Templar children’s classics (exquisitely illustrated and beautifully produced if you ever want a collection of your very own). We have loved reading every one of them; The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden – etc. Even when the text is challenging (I’m looking at you, Secret Garden), the kids get wrapped up in the story, excited about plot development and invested in the characters. And still, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be ready for more.

For my own book consumption, I try to throw in a couple of classics for every three or four modern books I read. I have a list that I’m working my way through – something cheerful like ‘100 classics to read before you die‘ that I found on the internet somewhere. So back in August when I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sam sidled up to me to ask what I was reading, I was surprised by how excited he got about it. I tried to explain that though it was a creepy, gothic story (they’re both very keen on cheap scares at the moment), it was also quite difficult to digest having been written in the early 1800s, with unfamiliar syntax and long swathes of figurative prose. Undeterred by this, Sam leapt off the sofa to tell Izzy that our next bedtime chapter book would be ‘Frankenstein.’

I’ll be honest, I could never have predicted their reaction to this story. Right from the beginning, where Walton rescues an exhausted and dying Victor from an icy sea, they were fully in. I read, expecting to have them stop me every few sentences to explain something, but what I got instead were exclamations – dismay at Victor’s selfishness, shock at the injustices delivered to the characters around him – we even had tears from Izzy at the end of the monster’s story, so fully invested was she in the misery and sadness of his life. At the end of each chapter we’d stop and I’d ask a few questions to get an idea of their comprehension – each time they told me exactly what had happened. Each time, they had opinions and incredulity – Frankenstein became the best thing I’d ever read them.

We finished the book a couple of days ago and after giving them a little time to digest the whole story, I jotted down some discussion questions – having my first real go (save for some seaside art lessons) at playing teacher. During a walk on the beach, I began to throw my questions out: What do you think Mary Shelley was trying to say with the story? What part does the monster play in Victor’s life? Is Walton a trustworthy narrator? What themes run all the way through the book?

Joy. Complete joy. They talked for ages. They discussed compassion and empathy; how humans treat things that don’t look like them or are in some way unfamiliar. They were insensed by Victor’s irresponsibility; his play-acting god, his refusal to accept that his actions had consequences – his performative outbursts of love for his family while his actions consistently told a very different story. No other book I have ever read them has provoked a reaction like it. So it looks like the kids will be completing my classics list with me.

If you’re homeschooling your kids – or even if you aren’t – I really recommend having a go at some of the more difficult texts with them. Our obsession with infantilising children gets in the way of their developing brains. They pick up complex and subtle themes so quickly and have to work much less hard at it than I do at 36. Comprehending stories is instinctive to the young brain and I’m ecstatic that not only do they a real love for them, they are getting real preparation for secondary school or even college-level English.

Don’t underestimate your kids, folks – they’re a lot sharper than you think they are!

Nin: The Birthplace of Croatia

I am excited to write about Nin for two reasons. Firstly it was an amazing place to visit with the family with its large safe beaches and history reaching back as far as humans have been in this part of the world. Secondly, when we stayed near here and the pressure of the four of us in a small apartment became a little too much, it is to Nin that I would scuttle to find some space to read or write or have a conversation with someone not in my immediate family. 

Old Nin itself is a small islet only 500m or so across and surrounded by a beautiful grey stone wall typical of this part of the adriatic. Artifacts, dwellings and bones have been found here showing that it has been continuously inhabited for at least the last ten thousand years. The current town predates the founding of Rome and is a joy to explore if you have even a historical bone in your body. Once you’ve explored, if the weather is nice there are beautiful beaches with sun loungers and every watersport you can think of. 

Going through the town allow time to be surprised at the thousands of years of history that will fall out at you as you move from place to place, explore the alleyways and admire the views. These are the things I loved most and I have laid them out in an order that would be natural to do them in on a pleasant summer’s day.


Branimir and Gregory


When you arrive at Nin, I would recommend parking  in the car park to the West of the historic centre you will have a chance to see Nin in all its petite glory. In front of you the old walls 16th Century arched gate with a small bridge leading to it. Guarding this bridge on the mainland side is an enormous 9 ft statue of Prince Branimir of Croatia, a 9th Century duke. Created in 2007 the statue itself is not historically important but the man is. It was under the protection of his sword, prominently displayed, that Croatia inched its way towards becoming a country in its own right, receiving official recognition from the pope (as close to being recognised by the UN as they had back then). 

Once over the bridge and through the archway head straight on 200m through the beautiful narrow streets and past the bakeries, cafes and ice cream sellers, and you will see, just past the church tower, the imposing  Ivan Meštrović statue depicting Bishop Gregory of Nin. By all reports if you rub/kiss his much worn toe it will bring you luck. As we visited while the COVID 19 virus was still prevalent around Europe my suggestion is that the good luck of kissing this fine toe may be outweighed by the rather worse luck of coronavirus. But I am a cynic. 


Church of the Holy Cross: Smallest Cathedral in the World.

Having topped up on homemade icecream from one of the numerous sellers and  luck from our good and holy friend Gregory, head North just 100m to the seat of his diocese, the Church of the Holy Cross.  This 9th Century former Royal Chapel holds the claim of the smallest cathedral in the world.

 Pedants may note that there is no incumbent bishop resident at the Holy Cross so technically it is no longer a cathedral and I accept that but where is your sense of the dramatic? Also, this was the seat of Gregory of Nin, arguably the most influential bishop in Croatian History, the man who stood up to the pope and had church services changed from Latin to Croatian thus cementing both Christianity and the Croation language in this burgeoning country. I would argue that its long history as a cathedral earns it the right to keep the title.  And I suggest that when you see how impressively small this ancient cathedral is all your thoughts of ecclisastical pedantry will fall away at the simple joy of the place.


Queen’s Sand Beach and mud bath

If you are getting hot by now head over to Queen’s beach, a 15 minute walk away. This is a sand beach (a rarity in the area) and is broad and shallow making it difficult even for a parent who is focused on buying a pina colada from the bar to lose their children permanently. If you enjoy windsurfing, paddleboarding, kitesurfing or kayaking there are plenty of watersport options available during the summer months.

Typically for us though we found the most fun to be had in the mud baths to be found just behind the beach in a shallow pond. The locals claim it revitalises your skin and I can report that anything that smells that pungent must be good for you. It is a lot of fun to slither like ells in mud then allow it all to dry for half an hour while you walk like a slowly rusting tin man. To be fair to the local assertions my skin did feel amazing after we finally washed off.

1st Century AD


Roman Temple Ruins

Once you have finished cleaning the cleansing mud from your now silky smooth skin and have completed your seaside frolics you should walk back to the historic centre and spend some time in the ruins of a Roman temple. If you are not from the Mediterranean area you will doubtless be astounded by the way that history in this part of the world is just lying around the place. These first century ruins (the largest this side of the Adriatic) are no different with a corinthian still standing and beautiful carvings, the blocks laid out to show the original floor plan. 

The area is grassy and spacious with plenty of room to walk about and admire the beauty and revel in the 2000 years of history you are touching. If you have kids this is a great place for a picnic or a game of hide and seek (if you are visiting on your own I don’t recommend this people will think you strange) or just to allow them to burn off some of the pizza they had for lunch. 


The harbour at sunset

Finally, as the summer sun sets slowly over the Adriatic, make your way to the low harbour area where scores of small wooden fishing boats and the occasional flash speedboat bob quietly on the calmest of seas. You can start at the northern end, by the extremely impressive and brightly decorated graveyard (worth a visit if you share my macabre streak). There is a wide footpath that will allow you to skirt the town and watch the sky sea and mountains take on the burned orange colour of the sky. Eventually the sea will be the darkest of blues and the sky a deep crimson and you should be back at the bridge you entered that morning. 

From here there are numerous eateries and bars if you wish to continue into the night or you can depart, having enjoyed a pleasant day in the birthplace of Croatia.

Travelling with kids in a pandemic: One month in

This sounds ridiculous, but when I used to think about being away for the whole year, this was the time-stamp I was worried about. I would wake up, usually around 2-3am thinking but what about when the holiday period is over? What about 1 month in when the novelty has worn off and you just want your own bed and your own stuff around you? Even while booking accommodation for 2021, I worried that my brain didn’t get that I would be away for a year; without a solid base for a year. I definitely wouldn’t be fitting my own bed in the car (unless I balanced it on top with the kayak, the paddle board and the pink flamingo).

So one month in, how’re we doing? Let’s start with the obvious:

The Pandemic

It will come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has ever visited Croatia, that the Croats aren’t letting Coronavirus have much of an impact on their daily lives. There is a beautiful simplicity in the way people see life here and I have to wonder if it’s because the climate just allows them more space. In the UK, your lockdown options are greatly hindered by the weather. Being locked inside is giving you cabin fever, but the weather is horrendous and so your ‘going out’ options are actually limited to ‘going somewhere else in options – like the pub – but that now comes with a whole extra layer of hassle, with social distancing, track and trace, and the worry that your mate’s wife’s sister has a cough and you’re not sure if you want to open that particular can of Covid into your life. It’s hard and it’s frustrating.

Here though, just by virtue of the sun being out for 80% of the year, suddenly space isn’t an issue. Social distancing isn’t an issue, because on any given day you can take a walk up a hill and spend the entire day not seeing anyone else. Sure, you can do that in Britain, but the weather stops you from wanting to.

Croats are also big champions of young people; they occupy the universities, keep the cities open, keep the life going. In turn, the young people are looking after their elders – the sense of community here starts so early and is completely immersive. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the UK, where our youth are constantly battered by accusations of inconsiderate non-compliance, loathed for illegal parties and shouted at for daring to try and utilise our outdoor spaces. Bear with me, because I know a lot of people don’t agree with me, but I have a point – I promise! Since March, we have cut young people off from their friends – in some cases the only source of emotional and social support they have access to – and told them to stop whining about it. After months of isolation we then, in a stunningly transparent display of trying to win favour with the frequent voter demographic, opened garden centres, pubs and hunting (Ha. That last one actually made me lol). In comparison with the Croats, we have done nothing to support and help young people through this pandemic – and it shows in the reciprocal behaviour we now see in return. Just a thought…

For us, the pandemic has not hindered our ability to move about in public spaces. We wear masks indoors, we’re mindful of social distancing, but the inevitable doom we were warned of from countless people who thought we were irresponsible for heading out during the pandemic has not materialised (yet – there’s still time and it is 2020 after all).


Travelling and kids

This one was a bit of a suprise to be honest. I did research and made notes on helping Izzy and Sam adjust to this invariably unstable way of life. I made sure I knew how to support them, prepared myself with inner-coaching about having patience in the face of difficult behaviour, because it would likely be them manifesting insecurity and worry. However, whenever I sidle up next to one of them, ready to do some of my most exemplary and impressive parenting by asking – “So how are you feeling about all this? Is there anything you want to talk about?” – they look at me like I’m having a senior moment, fob me off with a generic answer and ask if they can be excused to go and throw themselves in the sea.

I have watched, through the ever-increasingly sentimental eyes of a mother watching her children become less tethered to her, as both of my kids have flourished in this banishment of routine. It occurred to me as I watched them during week one, doubled over with mirth and laughing in the kind of paralytic way you only ever do during your childhood, that I hadn’t seen either of them this happy in years. Not since they started school and became worried about how they were supposed to act. Not since it became important what clothes they wore, which football team they liked, what hair-cut they had. Because it turns out, neither of my kids give a shit about any of these things now that we’ve left the race. It’s all I can do to enforce washed and ironed clothes so they don’t look completely homeless.

The unbridled freedom of those long summer holidays has had one hell of an extension for Izzy and Sam. I am concerned for the future; that this limits our possibilities – because I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to take it away from them again by settling down somewhere.


Frank and his PTSD

It has become quite clear – and this has been a difficult thing for him to admit – that Frank’s days of ever having a career are over. This trip has done for him exactly what we hoped it would do, in that his brain is clearing and he’s now writing and reading for fun again (something he hasn’t done either of since returning from Afghanistan 11 years ago). But whenever there is something official he has to concentrate on – filling out forms, talking on the phone, even booking accommodation – his mind fogs, he becomes glassy-eyed and I find him turning circles in hallways, distressed and disoriented.

So we’re concentrating on just letting his brain enjoy its R&R. Admin has been handed over to me and we’re learning what he needs to avoid. We thought that maybe, having broken away completely from that military environment, that his symptoms would resolve, but that hasn’t been the case. What it has given him though, is the opporunity to define himself by something other than being a soldier, or an officer, or a veteran. He is starting to look as I know he’s always seen himself in his head; a disheveled and contented hippy. In a way, he has done exactly what the kids have done; let go of all that outside pressure – decided it isn’t for him – simply opted out.

It’s a strange thing to get ok with – this notion that life will necessarily have to look very different to the way we just assumed it would be. But on the other hand, this trip has shown us that you absolutely can throw the rulebook out of the window completely and still be happy. Happier.


And me? Is the one-month mark as scary as I thought it would be?

Absolutely not. One month in and all I can think is that there will never be enough time in the world to see everything I want to see.

Some people have described this trip as mine and Frank’s midlife crisis and if that’s the case, I couldn’t be more in love with it. Trite as it sounds, this is a life-changing and rich experience – one that doesn’t depreciate like a sports-car or come with the hassle of trading each other in for younger models.

Plitvice Lakes

Way back in the depths of January 2020, I came across a photo of Plitvice Lakes online while researching what to do in the Lika region of Croatia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has attracted many keen photographers and travel journalists from across the globe – all of them unanimously agreeing that the outstanding natural beauty of Plitvice cannot be captured – with any real satisfaction – digitally. You need to see it with your own eyes was the general consensus. The very popular image that caught my attention had been taken from a high vantage point, looking down onto the upper Plitvice ledges. From this, you could see staggered lakes, almost forming steps down the side of a mountain – breaking only for the dramatic waterfalls in between. It went straight on the list of things to see in this first month away.

You’d think, that with that much lead-time and excitement about this excursion, we would have been more able to cope with a 06.45 alarm. Unfortunately, having pretty much had free reign to lazily start each day nursing coffee and reading books, this was a shock to the system. We have all retired from normal productive hours. The leisurely Dalmation lifestyle agrees with us entirely.

So with all the enthusiasm of a zombie herd from The Walking Dead, we piled into the car – (my name being taken in vain for the early hour and the insistence that we don’t cancel the day trip in favour of yet another visit to the seaside).

A two hour drive, watching the sparse, rocky coastal landscape give way to lush green forests and hills, we finally started to see signs for Plitvička Jezera.

The first thing you’ll need to know upon arriving, is what kind of route you would like to take around the lakes. The park spans miles of landscape, so doing the whole thing in one day is unrealistic. There are two entrances to the park, so you pick your route before hand and then park at the correct one for your starting point.

Map of Plitvice Lakes

We chose route H, which had us start at entrance 2 and catch the shuttle bus up to the very top of the lakes. The trail is well thought-out; board-walks winding around the best views, across the top of waterfalls and through the trees. Even when it’s overcast, the colour of the water here is incredible; a turquoise you’d expect only to see in the Maldives. It is arguably what makes these lakes so famous and is apparently due to the mountain water rushing over limestone rocks, moss and algae on it’s way down the mountains. This coats the floor of each lake with a fine white chalk, which beautifully reflects the sky on to the water.

Not known for ever doing things the easy way, we decided we wanted to see the lakes from above so deviated from the trail and hiked up into one of the surrounding mountains for a better view of the lakes from above. Dreaming of the perfect picnic spot, we rambled up through bushes and thorns until we were satisfied and could look out over the valley. Unfortunately for me, my particular route must have seen me bulldoze straight through a spider’s web because upon stopping, I found a sizable, bright orange spider clinging to my knee (picture below). Anyone who follows our Instagram account will already be aware of my arachnophobia and The Incident of the Ear Spider. So 2020 continues to harass and torture me in ever more inventive eight-legged ways.


Spiders dispatched back to the undergrowth and bakery goods consumed, we decided to keep going on our path along the top of the mountain in the hope that we’d see more beautiful aerial views of the lakes along the way. It took us about an hour of happily marching deeper into the forest to realise that we were in fact moving quite far away from the main attraction, and despite having discovered very impressive lizards on our detour, we were in real danger of spending the day ignoring what we had paid to come and see.

After a short discussion about whether the path would eventually lead back down to the lakes anyway, we decided to double back to where we had had lunch, descend to our original trail and pick up where we had left off (we discovered much later in the day, completely by accident, that at the time of this decision we were only minutes away from the viewpoint that famous image had been taken from, and but a few minutes more from a natural path leading back down to the main trail 🙄).

The path through the smaller lakes and waterfalls is truly spectacular and like something out of a fairytale. The colours are so vivid and there are hundreds of fish in even the smallest pools. For a family who loves swimming, we were initially disappointed that swimming has been banned in these lakes for a number of years now, but seeing how nature is thriving when humans are kept at a safe distance, it’s easy to see why that decision was made. It was also blissfully quiet. We had deliberately left our visit here until late September, having heard horror stories about the crowds it attracts in the summer and the misery of not having a choice but to move across the boardwalks like cattle, nose-to-nose with everyone else. Even during the height of the pandemic, tourists came in their thousands over the summer months, so we were delighted that our decision paid off – we largely had the place to ourselves.

Over approximately 10miles we ambled about, taking in the scenery and stopping for breaks when there was a quiet place to sit or an interesting beast to look at. Eventually making it to the lake at the end of our route, we decided to take another trip up into the hills before getting on the ferry which would take us back to the start. I had rough instructions I’d found online about how to access the hidden viewpoint which would give us a full unhindered look at the upper lakes from above. We climbed once again, with the kids marching ahead and Francis playing ‘Hi-Ho’ from Snow White loudly on his phone. After several false trails we finally found it, nestled in a very small rock ledge jutting out from the trees. It was every bit as beautiful as we hoped it would be; dramatic and breathtaking. I have included the photos below, though they don’t do the scene even an ounce of justice. We sat here for a long time letting it all soak in, until eventually descending back down for the final leg of our trip across Kozjak Lake to where we started.

This was a beautiful trip and I’m so glad we went. I really recommend doing it out of season and on a weekday if you can manage it. The quiet and the space really made this day magical for us – one of the real stand-out experiences of our travels so far. The kids had a fantastic time rushing about unhindered from boardwalk to boardwalk, with no one to worry about and no one to dodge.

We will definitely grab the opporutnity to go again – even with the reluctant early start!

Kuterevo Bear Refuge



We’re going on a bear hunt,
We’re going to catch a big one,
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.


– Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen’s book was a firm favourite of all of ours when the kids were much younger and the old tattered and dogeared edition we read together so many thousand times is one of the few possessions I would never be willing to give up. Every reading of this book ended with a moment of sadness in which we would contemplate the fact that the much harassed bear had to go home without any dinner. So it was with enormous excitement that we visited Kuterevo Bear Refuge and to witness how happy these orphaned bears (that were not chased across woods and swamps) could be.

Kuterevo Bear Refuge is a little off of the beaten track in the Lika region of Croatia. To find it, you must journey down a succession of quaint narrow winding roads that should be taken at a steady pace and enjoyed for the stunning views. If you try to drive quickly on these roads you are liable to meet a car on the wrong side, a tractor, or a flock of geese (we met all) so take your time. The refuge is set in a valley so beautiful that it defies description and our cameras were totally incapable of capturing the magic.

The forests (home themselves to wild bears, wolves and lynx) stretch out in every direction, dark and mysterious – the deep green of fairy tales. We passed through the small sleepy village of Kuterevo and followed the hand carved silhouettes of bears to the top of a farm track. Here we had to stop because three tiny black piglets were fighting over a piece of discarded tinfoil in the middle of the road and trying their hardest to choke themselves on it.

We all piled out of the car and however chaotic you imagine four well-meaning people chasing three chubby piglets through a field to steal their chew toy is, I can promise you it was more ridiculous.

We are however nothing if not tenacious and I finally managed to confiscate the carelessly thrown sandwich wrapper before we continued the 50m down to the sanctuary.

Parking the car next to a long abandoned and well rusted Yogo (a small communist-era car) we took a few minutes to soak in the beauty of the place before walking down towards the bears.  We were met at the front entrance by a couple of volunteers and a Border Collie who were charming and knowledgeable and chased every stick we could throw respectively. We were told that the sanctuary had been started 40 years ago, originally as a rural-living community. The discovery of an orphaned bear-cub in the surrounding forest was the beginning of an eventual and complete transformation into the sanctuary it is today.

Our way to see the younger bears was impeded by a pair of geese and a chicken involved in a noisy fracas with yet more piglets.The piglets, it transpired, are a mere fraction of the offspring of a pair of particularly virile Vietnamese Potbellied Pigs that have added an unexpected and hilarious dimension to the Kuterevo experience, keeping the volunteers busy chasing them into or out of various places they should or shouldn’t be. 

Past these winged and hooved obstacles we finally made it to the large sleepy field that promised bears. And bears there were! 

Three of them, foraging and playing in the late summer sunshine. They took it in turns to climb and pose on the lip of their large earth and rock pool and came down to the fence to observe us as we watched them. Gemma and I sat transfixed as two bears pawed at each other and hugged in obvious affection mere feet from us. As you may expect Izzy and Sam were spending this magical moment examining an ants’ nest behind the rough wooden benches we were sitting on having “already seen the bears”.

We visited midweek during term-time in September, so had the entire place largely to ourselves. We took the time to sit with the bears and watch them gambol around in the sunshine before moving on. While the enclosures are large there are only 8 bears in the refuge and few exhibits but what there was was tasteful and in keeping with the rustic feel of the place. It’s immediately clear that the priority here is to provide a safe and happy environment for the animals – not keeping the humans on the other side of the fence entertained. 

The adult bears are some 300m from the juveniles with a very pleasant walk past fields of curious and friendly ponies. We were caught in a sudden and torrential shower half way up the track but took shelter in a beautiful old black wooden barn. We were joined here by Good Old Boy (the name we gave the playful dog we met) who adopted us for the rest of our visit. Once the rain relented we moved on up the hill to Bruno.

Bruno is a big old Brown Bear; somewhere in his early 40’s which is ancient by bear standards. He enjoys nothing more than to roll around in the long grass, rub against trees and dive into his large bath displacing a tidal wave every time.

Next along our trail, we met the final group of three full grown adult bears. They appear to be full of joy, foraging and bathing and grooming each other.

The peaceful tranquility of this scene was almost meditative. The only sounds, aside from the wind in the trees and the grunts of the bears, were gentle. The low hum of the  many types of insect rushing from flower to flower or dungheap to compost, chased by the noisey hoards of brown warblers, dashing about after them.

We stopped and, like Goldielocks, had a satisfying picnic lunch within feet of the three bears, who’s interest in our food led us to believe that not everyone observed the many ‘don’t feed the bears’ signs. The call of nature eventually moved us back towards the small café where we found no people but spotless toilets and delicious natural spring water on tap.

We had seen all there was to see but the place was so beguiling that ended our stay with an hour or so in which the kids wrote their impressions of the place (Sam a descriptive piece, Izzy a story about a dog) while me and Gemma passed a very pleasant hour in the company of Bruno and Good Boy taking the time to fully relax.

On our way out we stopped at the tiny gift-shop to sign the guest book and purchase some homemade Rakija (a traditional Croatian spirit which in addition to getting you fairly tipsy if you drink it, boasts many anecdotal medicinal properties) and left a donation (there is no entry fee). We spent some time chatting to the volunteers and left determined to return, and for longer next time hopefully to volunteer some of our time to help maintain this amazing place.

Zlatko’s Octopus Peka

Seafood was a big draw for us when we came to the Dalmatian coast. Luckily, our host in Vir, Zlatko, is just as enthusiastic about it as we are and offered up his recipe for Octopus Peka. Frank was keen to learn how to use the beautiful wood-fired oven in the garden, so he played chef while I took notes.

This is a one-pot slow-cooked dish and takes about 4-6 hours to cook (depending on how caramelised you like your vegetables). Zlatko is also keen to emphasise that the Octopus in this dish can be substituted with any other meat for a completely different density and tastes – he particularly recommends lamb or chicken!

Here, the dish has been cooked in a Peka, which is a cast iron dish with a bell-like domed lid. The Peka is placed in an outside wood-fired oven, though I suspect the recepie would also work in an oven on a consistent heat (between 160-180 degrees).

Serves 4-6


Ingredients


2kg Octopus (or meat of your choice)
2kg Potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
1kg Carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
4-6 Large onions, peeled and chopped into quarters
4 tbsp of good quality olive-oil
Liberally applied glug of white wine (red if using for red meat)
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 tsp granulated garlic
1-2 tsp of fine sea salt


Method


  1. Light your fire, then leave to reduce to embers
  2. While you are waiting, mix all herbs and spices together and prepare your vegetables
  3. Put all of your meat and vegetables into one dish, drizzle with the olive oil and mix to ensure everything is well coated.
  4. Add all of your herbs and spices and mix again so that they’re evenly distributed.
  5. Place in the Peka with the lid on and leave to sit for half an hour.
  6. Place the Peka into the oven. Stack the embers around and on top of it, leaving some to one side to replace any that go out while cooking.
  7. Check after 30 minutes to see if you can smell the aroma of the meat cooking forcing it’s way out of the pot (Zlatko is quite emphatic here about not lifting the lid). Once you can smell it, leave for another 30 mins before checking by lifting the lid.
  8. Thereafter, check on the dish every 30 minutes. Stir – only if you have to – to prevent sticking.
  9. Repeat until you are satisfied that the dish is cooked to your liking!
  10. Serve with fresh bread (to dip in the gravy) and salad!



The tentacles might stress some people out with the octopus, but this was absolutely delicious – even the kids loved it! Very much looking forward to recreating it with lamb or beef in the near future…

All credit for the recipe goes to Zlatko!