Italy Part 2: Rome, Tropea & the (long) journey home

Rome

We’ve been using an Interrail One country pass for our train travel in Italy and it works out well if you get the slow regional trains but if you want to get a fast train you generally have to pay a 10 Euro reservation fee.  I considered getting the 3 hour train from Florence to Rome but with Bear Cub’s increasing frustration of travelling and cities and my increasing intolerance of his whingeing I decided the 20 Euros for us both was well worth it.  We arrived in Rome after just an hour and a half. Our new Air BnB host had advised us to get a taxi but I wanted to save money and add to the adventure so we opted for getting the Metro as it seemed pretty straight forward.  It was – just 10 minutes ride away from the main train station but then we had to find the apartment which was apparently a 5 minute walk away!  Now if there is one thing I have hated on this trip it is unclear instructions.  We were told to come out of the Metro station and the road we needed was ‘behind’ the station.  However, of course, this depended on which of the 4 exits you came out of at the station as to where ‘behind’ the station was!! It was so hot – about 34 degrees – and the back pack was so heavy.  We asked two different people, both of which either didn’t understand me and just pretended to know what I meant or simply didn’t know either.  Finally we found the right road – which really was almost next to the station.  It was then up hill. By the time we made it to the apartment I was fit to collapse and knew I’d hurt my back.

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Once I’d recovered our host, a lovely older lady who works as a scriptwriter showed us around the apartment and made me a wonderful strong, Italian coffee which helped to revive me.  The apartment was old and spacious and we had our own balcony from our room.  Our host, Angiola, was a very interesting lady and I told me all about how she’d been a successful scriptwriter but lost all her money after a bad business deal with a dodgy business partner.  She still writes but her style is quirky, almost weird storylines and she says the Italian market does not always ‘get it’.  She described to me a comedy she’d written about a woman in search of a ‘special kind of orgasm’.  Once the woman found the guy who could do this, she married him but found she was only in love with the other guy!! You meet the most interesting people on Air BnB stays!!!

Angiola’s place was fantastically located to access all the sights of Rome by the well-connected Metro (which really was just 5 mins walk away) and Angiola had a wealth of knowledge of the area and acted as a great tour guide.  After some lunch we caught the ten minute Metro ride to the Colosseum.  It really is quite an awesome sight as you emerge from the modern metro station and immediately you’re faced with a world-famous ancient relic!   The sun was so hot so it was difficult to do anything except amble along at a snail’s place.  We visited the Roman Forum (Roma Forma) and the Palatine Hill (Palace of the Roman Emperors).  Bear Cub wanted to see a real ‘Roman’ – I think he meant Roman soldier – and we happened to see a guy dressed up within minutes of arriving at the Colosseum.  I excitedly pointed him out to Bear Cub only to have him reply, ‘He’s not real mum, he’s a fake!’ When I asked him how he knew he simply replied, ‘It’s obvious! He just took his helmet off and Roman soldiers don’t have hairstyles like that!’

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The heat really zapped our energy so we headed for the nearest restaurant and shared a lovely mushroom pasta dish.  We have saved a lot of money by buying just one meal to share when we have had to eat out.  This has saved Bear cub wasting food and helped me to lose some weight!!  Exhausted we headed back to the apartment in Libia.  Angiola had warned me that they had a bit of a mosquito problem and without air conditioning it was impossible to have the windows closed at night.  I always get totally munched by mosquitos so was grateful when she offered one of those spiral things that you burn to keep mozzies at bay – how do they actually work?! Anyway in the morning I had just 2 bites and I think they had been acquired earlier in the day so it seemed to do the trick.

Angiola was great at making suggestions that would entertain and occupy Bear Cub as well as interest me and so she recommended a day out at Ostia Antica.  It was roughly a 40 minute train ride away and was a perfect balance of history (some really well-preserved remains of an ancient town) and space for Bear Cub to run around and explore.  You needed little imagination to pretend you back in the past walking in the ancient town when it was alive and vibrant and the walls provided a fun maze for Bear cub to explore and climb and let off steam.  One of both of our favourite features were the wonderfully preserved mosaics in the gym and bathing area of the palace and the amphitheatre.

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We were only a few stops away from the beach area so after we’d exhausted Ostia Antica and ourselves we headed there to chill out a bit for the afternoon.  It wasn’t a very nice beach to be honest, compared to others we’d been to, but Bear cub, now a fully fledged water-baby and lover of the sea, still donned his swimming trunks and went for a dip.  we headed home late afternoon stopping off at the supermarket to buy some food for dinner and lunches the next couple of days to keep our costs down.

We had three nights in Rome as I was aware we’d been moving around a lot and also there was a lot to see.  For our final day I planned a schedule specifically for bear cub as he was really beginning to miss kid-company and his frustration was affecting his behaviour – badly!  So we headed for Rome’s equivalent of Genova’s ‘Kid city’ – Explora.  Explora is aimed at under-12’s and is a space for them to create, explore, play and learn.  Although relatively small it had a lot packed in including water play, a real fire engine, a mini shop, bank, garage and vegetable patch and an area for creative workshops.  Bear cub took part in one of the workshops where the children had the chance to make their own recycled paper and then decorate it and turn it into an instrument – some castanets.  Although the workshop was in Italian, Bear Cub thoroughly enjoyed it and the guy running it did his best to speak English every now and then to him to make sure he understood what to do.  Time at Explora was limited to just 1 hour 45 minutes and could have done with being a little longer but we managed to fit a lot in to the time and finished with a nice lunch in their very reasonably priced cafe.

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We then went to explore around the Flamina area but really it was too hot to walk around much and another meltdown was imminent from Bear Cub (or maybe me it was hard to tell by this point!)  I have to say at this point on our travels it was difficult to know whether Bear Cub really was being a little s**t or whether I was being a prize b***h! It had been a long time away from home for him.  He was missing home, his friends and his routine.  We’d had a lot of intense time together just the two of us and perhaps it was a little too long for him.  Am I being a good parent by taking him on this trip or a selfish and irresponsible one?  I flit between the two but generally feel it has been a positive and important experience for both of us.  I’m not sure how much of the details of the trip he will remember in time but I do hope it will at least give him an open mind and sense of adventure for life!

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Anyway, Bear Cub was hot and tired so we took a ride on the Land train around a lovely park we discovered an hopped off at the nearest play park.  This seemed to calm things down a lot. Until it rained and we missed the land train back! :-/

We eventually caught the next land train (25 minutes later) and by chance met a really interesting lady and her daughter.  I have loved on this trip how in chance meetings you can have such interesting conversations with interesting people of all walks of life.  I couldn’t help but notice the lady as she was alone with her daughter, like me and Bear Cub and she also spoke English – she was Canadian.  As is often the case, our children got chatting first – Bear Cub will talk to anyone and is often a great ice-breaker for me as I’m much more shy at meeting new people than he is.  We got into a conversation and it emerged that the lady was also a single mother (separated from her Egyptian husband) but still living in Egypt.  She had left Egypt on the very day all the violence broke out there and had extended her stay in Italy to try avoiding returning while the unrest was at its height.  The great thing about travelling and meeting other people with different lifestyles and circumstances is that it puts into perspective your own experience.  This lady told me how as a mother in Egypt without a job and separated from her husband she had virtually no parental rights.  She wanted to leave Egypt but was not allowed without her husband’s permission.  He had parental responsibility due to her circumstances and with no family of her own in Egypt it had been a long and difficult time for her.  She told me how it is frowned upon in Egypt to be divorced and a colleague of hers at the University she works at continued to wear her wedding ring for over a year after her divorce to avoid criticism and frowns but also the very pressing and unwanted advances from Egyptian men!  Compared to this lady my own ‘rough’ journey seemed like nothing.  She told me of an online community she is starting up called ‘SOS – Start Over Sister’ and I in turn gave her the details of More than a Mum.  It is empowering to know there are some amazing, strong, single-mums all over the world doing great things in small ways and inspiring their children!

With 3 nights in Rome we felt like we adequately ‘did’ Rome and were very ready for our final stop in Italy and indeed final stop of our travels – some relaxing beach time in the beautiful, coastal city of Tropea in Calabria.

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Tropea

Even with fast trains, it took almost 6 hours to reach Tropea. Just over 5 from Rome to Lamezia Terme Centrale and another 50 minutes from there to Tropea.  Bear Cub was great for most of the journey and was occupied doing a puzzle I’d bought him at the Explora museum and his Usbourne Travel Activity book for Little children which I really cannot recommend highly enough!   However the last couple of hours he was truly awful.  Again the lines began to blur between whether it was my tiredness and bad mood fuelling his behaviour or vice versa but I was close to the edge by time we arrived and had the usual trouble of locating the hotel which was apparently 500 metres from the train station.  Everywhere felt much further in the heat of the sun with a whingeing 4-year-old and a back pack that is heavier than him on your back! However, we finally found it and checked in.  The hotel was 3 star and again although basic it was clean and very reasonably priced for high season and in a great location.  Once we rested and showered we ventured out for dinner and to explore and it was then that I realised what a beautiful place Tropea was.

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Our hotel was literally on the edge of the historic part of the town with its characterful and picturesque little streets and shops and restaurants.  Tropea is set high on a mountain with a sheer  drop to the beaches below.  The main road led straight down to a truly wonderful panoramic view of the beach below and the striking Chiesa Dell’Isola. Even at 7.30pm the sea was a vibrant turquoise blue and the sand smooth and golden.  I smiled.  I began to relax.  This was going to be a great way to end our travels.

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We were booked to stay in Tropea for 5 nights to really have a beach holiday as an end to all our hectic travelling to enjoy the sun, sea and sand, relax and have fun – and that is pretty much what we did.  Bear cub loves the beach and is constantly in the sea.  His confidence in water has grown rapidly and even when he had a little scare (and a big one for me) – when he went in too far without his arm bands when I was not at the water’s edge and i had to rush in and save him – it still didn’t put him off!  I however was put off swimming for a day after being stung by a jellyfish! I am really scared of jelly fish anyway and have never been stung before.  It was only a little one and not very bad at all really but it was quite a shock!

A couple of days we ate at the restaurants where you can always find a cheap pasta dish but many days we also opted for a cheap meal from the Pizza snack bars where you can get a giant slice and a drink for just 4 Euros.  During the day we would buy rolls and filings from the shop and make our own picnic lunch on the beach.  Our days were mostly spent on the beach, in the small play park near the train station and ambling around the little shops in the old town.  It was also nice to have the hotel room as a base for when Bear Cub got tired and he watched quite a few hours of Italian children’s TV and given how active we’ve been on this trip, I didn’t feel guilty for it at all!

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It’s been a very healthy trip for us both despite the amounts of pasta, bread and pizza we’ve consumed. With all the outdoor activity we must have been exercising more than I realised as I have never been so happy with my body – even in pre-baby days!! I’m sure within a few weeks of being back in London the comfort food and lack of exercise will change that but for now I look and feel the best I have in a long time – physically, spiritually and mentally!

On our last full day in Tropea there was still time for one more unexpected experience and adventure!  We decided to make the most of the beautiful beach.  We settled down for the day and a man with two little girls started to chat to me.  He was from Milan but had lived in many countries and spoke very good English.  When his wife joined us we all got chatting and they told me they had just finished renovating an apartment in the old town and invited me to come and have a look and a ‘cocktail’ that evening with Bear Cub so he could play with their two girls toys.  I have been known to be a bit naive when it comes to men and never really know someone has ‘designs’ until they actually make a move.  I was a little suspicious of this man’s friendliness and hospitality but figured seen as he was there with his children and wife he was just being kind and Bear Cub really enjoyed having children to play with.  When his very beautiful and sophisticated wife met us in the square to take us back to the apartment and we approached the gate to the property, I suddenly realised that these people were probably millionaires!  I have never seen such a stunning apartment – if you can call it that – it was huge! As soon as you walked in a massive open arch way revealed a direct view of the sea and the beach below the cliff.  ‘Milan Man’ as I’ll call him showed me around the place, which was on two floors, pointing out details such as the tiles he’d had imported from an ancient Church in Calabria and a vase that was bigger than Bear Cub and hand-made from Sicily.  He then pointed out one of the balcony’s and explained to me that he had something special in mind for this place – something that I will enjoy on my next visit to them when I will be their guest (!) – a mini swimming pool and jacuzzi! He said all of this in front of his ‘wife’ so I still wasn’t sure if they were just really friendly or if he was making a pass. Was this intelligent and very beautiful woman oblivious to her husband’s, albeit subtle, advances or did she simply not care/mind?

Anyway, I had a lovely evening with them sitting on the amazing balcony watching the sunset over beautiful Tropea, sipping Prosecco and eating exquisite nibbles.  Milan Man was actually an ex-professional gymnast and actually competed in the Olympics for Italy 20 years ago and he readily demonstrated some impressive moves for the children (and me I think!).  At the end of the evening I was sent of with a string of authentic red Cipolla onions, which are famously specific to Tropea, a business card pressed into my hand and a ‘promise’ (from him not me) that I would be back.

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I have to laugh at the situations I have found myself in on this travelling adventure.  I think I could have been away longer.  Much longer in fact.  But for Bear Cub the last couple of weeks have been tough and because they’ve been hard for him, they’ve been trying for me too so it is definitely time to go home.  We still had the exciting trip of an overnight train from Salerno to Milan before flying home to London so it would be an adventure until the very end.

Unfortunately the journey home turned out to be one of the most trying days of the whole trip!  I think a combination of tiredness, long journeys and the prospect of imminently being home was all too much for Bear Cub and his behaviour was at its worse.  The tiredness, long journeys and heavy back pack also meant my patience was at it’s thinnest – an unfavourable combination!  I’m pretty sure that the only thing that stopped me doing something I’d regret at some points was the fact that we were constantly in public places!  We had a long stop of 3 hours to fill in Salerno before our night train arrived and there was absolutely nothing to do at the train station.  Thankfully we managed to stagger out of the station and the sea front was a 3 minute walk away so Bear Cub could let off a bit of steam and I could seethe in silence!

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When we finally did get the night train Bear Cub was so excited at the thought of sleeping on a train that he was hyper.  I was also looking forward to the experience having never done it before but our spirits were dampened when we discovered we’d be sharing our tiny cabin with another couple and their small child! This meant it was very cramped and I had to further try to contain Bear Cub’s excitement which further wound him up! Needless to say we did not get much sleep that night and arrived pretty exhausted in Milan at 7am the next morning.  My tiredness meant I felt even weaker and it felt like the backpack had somehow doubled in weight overnight.  We also had to get another train from Milan Porta Garibaldi to Milan Centrale where we would be getting the bus to the Milan Linate airport.  Fortunately once we reached Milan Centrale it was a very big station with many really good cafes.  In fact we found one that not only had great coffee (much-needed) and pastries but also free wi-fi and iPads you could use which kept Bear Cub occupied while I consumed a lot of caffeine.   I’ll spare you the details of the numerous meltdowns and tantrums we had at the airport and skip to arriving at Heathrow feeling like a foreigner in my own country.

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It was so strange to hear the English accents all around me.  It didn’t sound real, as if they were putting it on and faking it – either overly posh or dramatically cockney!  When the lady at security was foreign I suddenly had a rush of admiration for her and for anyone who has come from the comfort of what they know in their own country and settled in another culture, learned another language and engaged with another people, another lifestyle.  It is no small thing I now realise.  Having been the foreigner for even such a short time.

And so my travelling ends but I’m hoping my adventure is just beginning or maybe I should say continuing…

France Part 2 – Marseille – Ramatuelle/St Tropez – Frejus/Nice

Marseille

We already had a campsite booked near St Tropez so Marseille seemed like a good stop in between from Lanuejols. The only problem was, French holiday season had literally started this weekend so I was warned it would be difficult to find anywhere.  One of the first places that popped up on my Internet search was a Facebook page called ‘Yes We Camp!’ in the L’estaque area of the Marseille coast. It called itself an ‘experimental’ campsite. It had been set up since April 2013 and would run until October 2013. It was a community project aimed at developing a space that was eco-friendly (dry toilets and sun-warmed showers) that was open to people from all over the world to come and share and help build and develop the space. There was also a programme of workshops, music and artists. It was also 7 Euros a night including breakfast! I sent an email. I got a reply saying their booking system says they are full but they will make an exception for Bear Cub and I. I was a little apprehensive at staying at what sounded like a cross between a music festival and a hippy commune so I also sent off an email to a ‘conventional’ campsite that was also cheap. They came back to me saying they were full so Yes We Camp it was!

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It took ages to get there. In miles it was not so far but coming down the constantly winding mountains in a car that can only cope with 30 mph on any incline made for a slow and tiring journey. Once we got to the coast we stopped for lunch in Montpelier in the old part of the city and it was actually really lovely. A very characterful and elegant city.
When we finally arrived in Marseille, all I knew was that it was in the L’estaque part of the city. Amazingly I found some signs and stumbled across the campsite. My first impression was ‘where have I brought my child to?’. All though very ‘cool’ looking it looked very ‘unfinished’. It was built on a disused patch of concrete land in the port of L’estaque and basically consisted of some scaffolding structures that housed various caravans, old boats and pods an cabins that had been made into makeshift accommodation for campers. There were also a few astro-turf ‘platforms’ just a few inches of the ground to accommodate campers who brought their own tents. I’d been informed by email that there was no room but an exception would be made for us. What this meant was that we had to erect our tent on the actual ground next to one of the platforms on the first night and could move to a platform for the second night. However, this was easier said than done as it turned out underneath the gravel on the ground was concrete!!! We ended up putting up the tent using stones to hold the ropes out and tying the front to one of the platforms. It was very flimsy but remembering our first night of camping I felt the tent would survive one night and so would we. We had a quick look around the camp at the ‘dry toilets’ (gag) and sun-warmed showers – I wondered if we could do 2 nights!

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We were tired and hungry and I am ashamed to say we resorted to evil MacDonalds!! I NEVER eat MacDonalds yet on this trip we have done twice! Mainly because I have found it to be one of the only places with strong, free Wifi! They also always have a park outside so I can get to work booking our schedule while Ru has some kid time and plays. I was kind of dreading going back to the campsite but we reluctantly did so only to find the whole place buzzing with a great vibe. Music was playing and the bar had opened and people were beginning to mill about. It was not a very big campsite so was not too crowded. Yes We Camp has it’s own currency – Gastons – and you have to go to the Gaston van to buy them before you can get any drink or food. It gave a real feel that this was indeed it’s own little experimental world.  Bear cub found a little boy of 5 dancing his heart out on his own in front of the DJ and promptly went and joined him while I headed to purchase some Gastons. This was where I met the ‘French Toy Boy’.

‘French Toy Boy’ was a cheeky chap with a friendly open face, good looking (and knew it)and with a quick tongue. He must have said something about me in French to his companion as when I didn’t respond he said ‘You don’t speak French then?’ His English was very good. He had in fact lived where I work in London and he’d done everything from working in Hostels to being an unofficial social worker to an Au Pair. We got chatting . He started flirting. It was then I realised he didn’t realise I was on ‘old lady’ so I hit him with the line that usually gets them running ‘Yes I’m here travelling with my 4 year old son’. ‘Damn!’ he exclaimed before he could stop himself and then ‘How old are you then?’ The French, I’ve found, are very direct. ‘Guess?’ I said – my favourite game. ‘Well I would have said 26 but now I know you have a kid then maybe you are 30 or 31?’ It always amazes me that people think if you have kids you must be old when my mum had my sister and I at 19! Anyway it was a lot of fun to see his face as I continued to say ‘older’ as he worked his way up the 30’s! By time I said ‘yep’ at 37 his eyebrows were almost touching his hairline! So I thought that would be it – I’d successfully scared him off and given my ego a massage in the process 🙂

However, I then kept running into him – lastly in the communal showers!!! (He did have a great body, though a little short for me). He continued to flirt. I told him I was probably old enough to be his mother and asked his age to which I was shocked to find the answer was 23!! A baby! He was however, great company and we had some fun and at 37 I was taught how to properly French-kiss for the first time! In my head it was meant to help me get over the guy I was here to get over – let’s call him ‘The Artist’ (I know, I need to date a maths lecturer or computer engineer in future – all artists and musicians are trouble and hereby banned!) but it didn’t :-/ I just felt guilty for some reason and missed him even more! Still progress to do on this one.

Being at ‘Yes We Camp’ did turn out to be a really fun couple of days though and certainly added to our ‘experience’ of travelling. We also got a boat to the main town, which Bear Cub loved, and had some amazing Crepes at a Creperie in the centre of Marseille.

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I don’t know what it is about Marseille but I have never been in a place where I got so many compliments from young men. In one day I was called ‘beautiful’ and ‘a model’ by 3 different men! So if ever I feel low in the self esteem area I know I just need to take a trip to Marseille! 🙂
Bear Cub enjoyed the freedom of ‘Yes We Camp’ where he could stay up late and go wherever he wanted really but we were both also looking forward to getting some beach time again.
Ramatuelle/St Tropez

I had thought the journey to our next campsite – Les Eucalyptus – would be the most straight forward as it was just up the coast from Marseille and less than 2 hours away. It actually turned out to be one of the most stressful! Suddenly, when we were only 40 minutes away, the Sat Nav told me to turn off the motorway.  I thought it a bit strange but it had been pretty good so far so I did and continued. After around 20 minutes it suddenly went crazy and then simply said ‘no route found’. Whatever destination I typed in it said the same. I knew I couldn’t be far so continued for maybe another 10/20 minutes before I realised I was actually heading back where I came from! I was so annoyed! I turned around and headed back for the big motorway. It added 40 minutes to our journey but as soon as I rejoined the motorway, we should never have left in the first place, the Sat Nav randomly started working again. Hungry and stressed (again) we stopped for lunch by the beach and bought a bucket and spade and Bear Cub had a ride on the merry-go-round and both felt a little better.
Again, I had a bit of trouble finding our campsite but it was exactly between a lovely little village n a hill called Ramatuelle and the bustling, vibe of St Tropez. The beach was literally through a gate of our campsite and 100 metres away! We got the tent up and then headed out for dinner and thought we’d check out St Tropez.

I have never seen anything like St Tropez! Firstly the sheer amount of traffic in one tiny town was incredible. We circled for half an hour trying to find a space to no avail. While circulating I felt like I was in some weird special episode where ‘The only way is Essex’ meets ‘Made in Chelsea’. I have never seen so many fake body parts and pretentious looking people in my life! In the end we had to drive to Ramatuelle which was the same distance the other side of our campsite. It was still tough to find a parking space here but we eventually did and the lovely little village was a welcome surprise. We went to the first restaurant we saw and ordered quickly. However, the service was slow. Painfully slow! Bear Cub was bordering on a meltdown and we were both close to being too tired to eat when it finally arrived. In fact we even left before the dessert that was included in the meal. To make matters worse there was a police diversion the way we came so I had to somehow find my way back in the dark along country roads to our campsite!

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Les Eucalytpus was a small site in a great location close to the beach as I said. It was literally just a campsite with a toilet and shower block but was very well kept and clean. Most of the campsites I booked for our French leg were via ‘Cool Camping’ which I highly reccommend, however, Les Eucalyptus did have one completely scathing review. It was so in-depth and long and bad it did make me think twice about booking it and I did meet a family in Lanuejols who said they didn’t book there because of it.  However, I always feel things are sometimes a matter of perspective and depend on what a person’s expectations and desires of a place are.  We actually enjoyed the campsite. The only part of the review I could agree with, which was a bit annoying, was that is was very close to a private resort on the beach that played very loud ‘party’ music until quite late at night. However, we’d just come from the campsite in Marseille which was a bit like a music festival and there had been quite a storm on the last night and Bear Cub had slept through all of it oblivious, so I wasn’t too worried.  (In fact after our Yes We Camp experience it has made me determined to take Bear Cub to an actual music festival next year – something I would never have been brave enough to do before this!) Apart from the loud music, for a beach holiday it was perfect. Also at 8am every morning the ‘bread man’ would drive in and toot his horn and you could buy fresh bread, croissants and other pastries for very cheap.

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It was nice to be on the beach and Bear Cub had a great time playing in the sea and with the sand. We also continued our daily reading of ‘Life of Pi’ together. Bear Cub was absolutely riveted. I kept expecting him to get bored but he insisted I read more and more of it to him just occassionally asking what certain words meant. I’m sure it looked like I was a pushy mother forcing her 4-year-old to read modern literature instead of nursery rhymes!

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On a motherhood note, and to prove it has not all been fun and plain sailing, Bear Cub suffered from really bad constipation while we were here (sorry for TMI factor but that’s parenting!) probably due to all the bread and pasta we were eating. So much so that we had to go to the chemist to get some immediate relief. And when they say ‘immediate’ boy do they mean it!!! It is so glamorous being a mum :-/ He then proceeded to go the other way for a few days which believe me, was worse!
We had 3 nights at Les Eucalyptus to slow down our pace and had some good beach time and it was much needed after our busy schedule.
Frejus

Our next stop was just an hour away along the coast line in the seaside port town of Frejus. we were staying at a Youth Hostel that had been recommended to me. We couldn’t check in until after 5.30pm so we headed for the port and arrived to find a vibrant food market along the sea front. They were selling some delicious hot cooked food as well as fruit and vegetables. We bought some fresh cooked ham, sausages and chicken which ended up providing lunch and dinner for two days.
Annoyingly we could not find the hostel for a while but then some young guys actually drove us there (we followed them) and it turned out we’d been a stones throw from it but missed the turning as it was quite hidden. The Frejus Youth Hostel was a great location. The hostel itself was very old but it was set within its own Wood and you could choice where to put your tent anywhere you liked. They also had kitchen facilities so we could cook rather than eat out (our little gas stove had run out of gas just the day before! It had been a good excuse to dine out for our one posh meal of the trip so far and I had an amazing seafood risotto!) Again it was all very basic but was in beautiful surroundings with a supermarket close by and a 5 minute drive to both Frejus and the other little port town St Raphael. The only problem for me was the amount of mosquitos. After the first night I woke and Bear Cub and I counted 20 bites on my body!! I’m slightly allergic to them too so they swell up and throb as well as itch so not fun 😦

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I think the tiredness had been catching up with BearCub again and also the fact that we’d had so much intense time together as his behaviour had got increasingly difficult over these next days so I was pleased we would soon be reaching Italy where he could sleep in a proper bed – though he seemed to sleep just fine in the tent – just needed less late nights!

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For our second day at Frejus we went to St Raphael and visited the beach and Bear Cub played in the water while I read. Back at the campsite we made our dinner and at the kitchen area found ourselves surrounded by 7 French men of varying ages where only 2 spoke very little English. However, they seemed to be very sweet with Ru who jabbered on to them anyway.  After Ru was asleep in the tent I went to use the Wifi at the hostel and on my way back from the showers one of the French guys asked me if I would join them for a drink. I was going to say no but then thought I’d have just one so sat down for a glass of wine. The guy who had invited me spoke really very little English so the conversation dried up pretty quickly. He then started tapping away on his phone. He kept fidgeting about nervously and then finally showed me the screen where his ‘translator’ had written ‘You are a very beautiful woman!’. ‘Merci Beaucoup’ I replied thinking him very sweet. It was only when a little later he showed me the screen again which said ‘I don’t want to offend, but do you want to spend the night with me?’, that I wasn’t quite so impressed! Around the same time one of the other guys casually pulled out a gun to show the others. It was real, it was loaded! It was time for me to go to bed!!! ‘French phone guy’ walked me back to the tent and in pretty clear English this time said very abruptly, ‘Give me a kiss!’ to which I simply replied ‘Non!’ He got the message and sulked off! Never a dull moment eh?!
We were up early the next day as I wanted to get the tent down before breakfast so we could leave for the 1 hour drive to Nice to drop the rental car off as soon as we’d eaten. I felt a little sad, very proud and mostly pleased to pack up the tent for the last time. This city girl was definitely converted to a camping adventure queen!

France has been wonderful: Beautiful, freeing and expansive for me inwardly as well as outwardly.

I wonder what adventures Italy will hold….

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Spain – it’s been personal! The first leg of our trip.

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Alicante

Well we’re here! Getting Bear Cub up at 3.45am was not the ordeal I expected and he seemed to cope with it better than me!  The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Alicante still fairly early in the morning.  I was very proud of myself that I managed to get us to our guest house by bus and not taxi as was tempting.  La Milagrosa was only a 5 minute walk from where the bus dropped us at the beach but with me loaded up like a packhorse with our stuff it took more like 10-15.

Alicante’s old town is beautiful – quaint and picturesque – exactly what you’d want and exect from an old Spanish town.  The B&B we stayed in turned out to be a real find. Though basic, it was clean, cheap and superbly located – in the old town and a 5 minute walk from the beach, opposite Basilica Santa Maria and with views of Castilla de Santa Barbara from the rooftop breakfast terrace. The Basilica of Santa Maria is the oldest active church in Alicante, Spain. It was built-in Gothic style between the 14th and 16th centuries over the remains of a mosque. Santa Bárbara Castle is a fortification in the centre of Alicante, Spain. It stands on the Mount Benacantil.

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On our first day we had a lazy explore and hit the beach in the afternoon after Bear Cub had tasted his first proper Tapas.  The beach at Plaza del Mar was crowded but lovely and with beautiful blue, clear, warm water so we enjoyed a dip, a splash and a play as well as a little snooze together on the beach in the sun 🙂  For dinner after a much needed shower we ate at a fish restaurant that was fairly reasonable and Bear Cub was fascinated and repulsed by the squid!

On our second day in Alicante, we ventured up the mountain to Castilla de Santa Barbara, Alicante’s famous castle.  We wisely took the lift up (€2.50 for me and free for Bear Cub) and walked back down (and got a little lost!) The views at the top were breath-taking and Bear Cub loved seeing the old cannons, battering rams and catapults they had there.  There also happened to be a great little exhibition on at the Castle of the ‘History of Alicante’ told by Play Mobil figures and scenes.  It was a bit pricey for what it was €7 for me and €4 for Bear Cub – but fun nevertheless and Bear Cub thought it was very cool!

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After a brief rest back at the B&B we spent the afternoon at the beach again frolicking in the sea and building sand castles – which it turns out I am rubbish at!  Then it was back for a shower and out for dinner – Pizza this time!

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On our last morning we made a brief visit to the Museum of Contemporary Arts which was also just opposite our B&B and had a lay on a park.  Then it was time to load up the pack-horse and head to the airport to pick up our hire car for the next week.  As we left the B&B I was a bit apprehensive realising it was the last time I would be sleeping in a proper bed for a good few weeks!

Valencia

Our first camping stop was in Valencia – two hours drive North from Alicante.

It has been eventful! It has been challenging!  First there was the ordeal of the car hire.  It turns out you can’t pay cash for the fuel and one-way fee I had outstanding and they only accept credit card.  I don’t own a credit card!  Nobody told me this!  I used the airport computer to transfer money from my bank account to my Post Office Travel money card which has the MasterCard symbol – apparently this was no good either as it did not have my name on it!  In the end I was forced to take their insurance even though I had already bought my own stand alone policy which saves a lot of money, and they took my debit card while I prayed it didn’t bounce after I’d moved most of the funds to the P.O card! It didn’t bounce – we were off!

The next challenge was getting used to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.  Little did I know this was to be the least of my challenges over the next 24 hours!

After wasting an hour deciding I didn’t trust the Sat Nav to take me to Pedralba, Valencia, we finally got on our way and thankfully Ru slept for most of the journey.  Arriving at our campsite in the Valencian countryside  – Campo Pedralba – run by a lovely Dutch couple Rinco and Annalieke – it was certainly rustic!  Absolutely beautiful, but rustic. Campo Pedralba has a cabin, a Yurt and 3 adorable Tipees as well as the field we had to ourselves.  There is a lovely outdoor kitchen for the use of campers. Immaculately clean with a great little pool that Bear Cub loved it was a little haven but felt very far away from the city and the coast.

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My first camping experience was to be a baptism by fire.  Why oh why did I not practice this in England before? I’d sort of had a go at putting my tent up in my mum’s garden but without the tent pegs and this was the part that proved to be a big problem! The ground was rock solid from the scorching sun!  It was 6.30pm and still 32 degrees and I sweated and stressed over this tent for an hour at least tying to get the tent pegs in using a large rock and bending most of them in the process!  I finally got it up in a fashion.  Bear Cub who was understandably, bored hot and bothered by now was hungry and tired too!  I was stressed and close to tears and wondering if the whole thing was a bad idea! Camping? Abroad?  What was I thinking?? After a quick pasta dinner and a much needed shower – I seriously have not sweated so much in my life – It was bedtime!  Bear Cub slept like a log and I hardly slept a wink!  It was just so hot in the tent and I couldn’t get comfortable.  Plus my head was full of worry – about the tent pegs, about being an irresponsible parent, about the whole trip – while Bear Cub slept peacefully on.

The next day was an early start and I was exhausted.  But we ventured to Valencia (40 mins away)in search of the Oceonografic – Valencia’s famous aquarium – apparently one of the biggest in Eurpoe and Bear Cub is a huge fan of sea life!  As usual in the past 24 hours, things did not go t plan and due to a series of bad directions, miscommunications  and travelling in circles, we finally got the right bus to the aquarium.  thankfully it was worth it. The Oceonografic was very impressive and Bear Cub was enthralled, though a little too tired to enjoy it fully due to the long walk in the hot sun.  But we watched the amazing Dolphin show, saw sharks and Beluga whales up close and every kind of fish that must exist.

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On the way back to the camp site we stopped in sleepy, quaint Pedralba where no body seemed to speak a word of English – the butcher didn’t even know the word for sausage which made for some interesting gesturing! We bought dinner and returned to the site and cooked on the lovely outdoor kitchen.

It’s another late night for Bear Cub at 9.45pm and I’m writing this in the dark while he sleeps next to me through an almighty thunderstorm – wind, rain, thunder and lightning – the lot! If the tent is still standing by the morning – I’ll be amazed!  Well this was meant to be an adventure!

Castellon

Well the tent stayed up so my skills can’t  have been as poor as I thought and I slept a little better too.  After taking down the tent (much, much easier than putting it up) Bear Cub had a swim in the little pool while I chatted to our lovely hosts who in one word became my camping saviours – Decathalon!  Decathalon, as I discovered to my utter delight was not just a camping show but a camping superstore – an outdoor adventurers heaven and the holders of stronger tent pegs, a mallet, a cotton sleeping bag liner (much cooler than a bag) and a mini stove and pan set that I left with an hour later.  Plus new sandals as I was very annoyed to find my Merrell geek sandals broke already less than a week in!  Equipped for anything we headed for Castellon and arrived at Camping Ribamar under two hours later.  This time we’re right by the sea and I am not just pleased but downright chuffed and patting myself on the back and doing a victory dance to say that I am tying this in a tent I put up like a pro with my new gadgets and in a fraction of the time and sweat as before! High-fiving myself as I type this.  I also cooked us a pasta dinner on our little stove and pan set!  Camping Ribamar is situated actually in the Natural Park of Sierra de Irta. The site is really well equipped but much more commercial than Campo Pedralba and bigger and busier and therefore much noisier.  The little kids seem to be allowed to stay up al night here! Bear Cub is asleep next to me so it doesn’t seem to bother him but I’m not good with noise. but I am slowly adapting to camping.  Better stop now and close the tent as I have a feeling I’m being eaten alive by mozzies!

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We plan to visit Peniscola tomorrow which has to be good if it’s named after the male most *troublesome body part and a soft drink!

Adios Amigos!

* perhaps this should be amended to ‘the mind’

Peniscola was beautiful; a little walled village high on a mountain overlooking a beautiful beach. Unfortunately Bear Cub was too tired to climb to the top to see the castle, which I would have liked to do, so we headed for the beach instead and into the clear, blue sea and he was delighted to find fish swimming around us! On the way back to the campsite we stopped off for dinner at Alcossebre the nearest town to our campsite which was just beginning to come to life for the evening at 7pm!  We’re gradually getting used to the siesta when everything pretty much shuts down from 2-6pm and children seem to stay up a lot later here.  It is pretty much 33 degrees every day until 8pm so it is impossible to put Bear Cub to bed any earlier than 9/10pm.  We are getting around this by letting him have a sleep during the day usually when we are travelling in the car.  It has worked so far although I think the tiredness is beginning to catch up on him. It’s off to our last stop in Spain tomorrow before we venture to France.

Girona

The journey from Castellon to Girona was our longest yet of around 3 hours so we stopped for lunch in Tarragona.  One thing I am discovering as a hidden cost is the huge amount of toll roads on the Spanish highways.  It is of course possible to avoid them by taking a different route but this can add up to a couple of hours on to your journey which is undesirable with a four-year old in tow! I really should say my one of my saving graces when travelling around so far has been a brilliant Smart phone App I saw recommended on Money Saving Expert called ‘Nav Free’.  It is a Sat Nav App that is free and requires no Internet connection – unlike Google Maps.  I downloaded the App for Spain, France and Italy and so far it has been great.  You can also switch it to walking mode which has helped me to find places in towns and villages.

Our campsite in Girona was Can Toni Manescal and turned out to be my favourite so far in Spain despite being the most basic.  We had lovely views of the Pyrenees in the distance, a nice pool and it was basically run by a family on their farm so the air was filled with the sounds of Cocks crowing, donkeys hee-hawing and ducks quacking.  The friendly host, Llorenç ran the campsite from their lovely farm-house and they also provided the menu each evening which turned out to be the best food I’ve had in Spain so far, particularly their ‘Coloured salad with fresh flowers from the garden’ – this was possibly the best salad I’ve ever had.  On the two nights we stayed we were treated to grilled pork loin, barbecued sausage and grilled giant prawns.

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When we visited the town of Girona just a short drive away I fell in love.  We parked by the old part and crossed the little bridge into what seemed like a magical land the centrepiece of which was the stunning Cathedral.  I don’t usually like paying for looking round churches but it was so beautiful on the outside I wanted to see inside and Bear Cub was unusually keen too.  At 7 Euros it was worth it as the Cathedral was stunning.  The best word to describe it was awesome.  It really did fill me with awe.  I’m not sure if there really is something special about Holy buildings themselves or just the effect of so many people seeking God and talking to him there, but there was most definitely a tangible feeling of peace and holiness and I found it centred me in some way.

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For the afternoon we headed back to the campsite for a lazy session by the pool and then I prepared to fit everything back in the back pack as we would be returning our car the next day to Girona airport.  This was quite a task as we had spread out somewhat over that last week pretty much dumping stuff all over the car and had acquired a few items too including some camping materials.

On the morning we left, Bear Cub woke up feeling ill but I suspected he was  so let him sleep over-tired in the car while I packed down the tent and attempted to squeeze our life into the backpack.  Then it was off to the airport to return the car and then to the train station to travel to Perpignan for the French leg of our trip!

Au Revoir!

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