Easter travels

It feels a bit odd to come home after a holiday in Spain and Portugal, much of which we spent wrapped up in warm clothes and rainwear, to good old Blighty where the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, the sun is cracking the flags and it’s shorts and sandals all round. In some ways, though, it’s a good thing. We had a fabulous holiday, despite the weather (and the sun did come out a bit), and there’s no denying that some lovely warm sunshine here has eased the transition back to normal life.

This was our first fortnight’s holiday for 3 years, since our mini inter-rail round Northern Italy and Switzerland when Sophia was a newborn baby. I think we were all ready for it, especially my husband who, in the intervening time, has started his own business and has been working incredibly hard with long hours and very few days off. Last summer he wasn’t able to come on our planned holiday to Anglesey due to last-minute work issues, and although he came to Cornwall in August he was welded to his laptop and mobile for much of each day. This fortnight was a complete switch-off, and it was brilliant for all of us.

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Our first week was in San Sebastian, or Donostia, in Basque, which is the local language. We had heard this was a foodie paradise, and oh my goodness it didn’t disappoint. We relaxed bedtime sufficiently to allow the children to come out with us each evening for pintxos, which is the Basque equivalent of tapas. Every bar and cafe has the most amazing array of delicious-looking morsels laid out, and you just point to the ones you want, or order from a blackboard list if you want the hot specials of the day. The locals invariably eat standing up at the bar, or at bar height outside tables. I must admit that my British sensibilities can’t quite cope with this – I like my meals sat at a proper table, preferably with cutlery and a napkin thank you very much! Also, if you’re 3 or 9, a table which is chest height on an adult doesn’t really work for you. We generally found some stools to perch on, or one inspired night we sat outside on the steps of a local church, eating sublime food and watching the world go by, as well as having a sneaky few glasses of the local tipple txakoli (pronounced something like chickoli) which is an ultra-dry, light, slightly sparkling wine which might well knock prosecco off my top spot. That was one of those evenings you know will stay with you forever.

The flavour combinations were just stunning. Goats cheese with local ham, black olive tapenade, sundried tomatoes and caramelised onions. Roasted red peppers stuffed with a creamy sauce of hake and fresh herbs. Squid cooked in a light tempura batter so tender that it almost literally melted in the mouth. Anna took to all this like a duck to water and revelled in trying everything, the more adventurous the better. Sophia…not so much. She is going through an ultra-fussy phase anyway (I really hope it’s just a phase), and she was resolutely unimpressed. Luckily she loves fruit of all kinds and there was a luscious selection in the shops, so she basically survived on bread and fruit, with the odd ham sandwich thrown in . What she did love was the adventure of going out in the evening and experiencing all the fun and colour and excitement of a new city. She usually still has an afternoon nap anyway, and so was more than happy to catch up on her sleep through an extended siesta.

San Sebastian also has the most beautiful beaches, and the children got to build sandcastles to their heart’s content, and I got to stroll contemplatively along the golden sand with the turquoise (and very cold) waves lapping at my toes, which is one of my favourite things to do in the whole world.


Then we got the overnight ‘hotel train’ to Lisbon. As someone who has travelled across Europe fairly extensively by sleeper train, often in a couchette which has six people to a cabin, cracked faux-leather berths to sleep on, and a fairly malodorous single toilet at the far end of the carriage, these en suite twin cabins with crisp white sheets, snuggly blankets and complimentary toiletries feel the height of decadence. I adored the adventure of our couchette journeys, but that was when we were child-free twenty-somethings. I have to admit that I’ve gone soft, and that this level of comfort now feels like a necessity. It is still the most brilliant system. We boarded the train at about 7pm in San Sebastian, had a picnic tea in our cabin, and then settled down for the night. We woke up at 7am ready to get dressed as the train pulled into Lisbon station. Sadly breakfast on the train had sold out, so we had to make do with a panic snack of the slightly stale bread and leftover fruit from our tea the evening before, but that was the only hitch.

Husband and I went to Lisbon about fifteen years ago, loved it, and have always been intending to return. In the last fifteen years it has become much more of a tourist hotspot  – it sometimes felt as though English and French were as commonly heard on the streets as Portuguese, but it has so far retained all its charm. One enormous benefit of visiting in spring, this time, as opposed to autumn last time, was the heavenly scent of orange blossom which lingered everywhere.

We ate pasteis da nata (gorgeous custard tarts), took a boat across the river, rode on the charming 1930s yellow trams, visited the largest aquarium in Europe which was absolutely stunning – penguins, sea otters and puffins, as well as a massive variety of all kinds of fish and sharks-  and took a day trip out to Sintra. This was the town where, in days gone by the Portuguese royalty and aristocracy built their summer palaces so that they could escape the intense heat of Lisbon to the cooler mountains and coast. It is truly fairy-tale like, an impression heightened by husband having arranged to have us met at the station by a horse-drawn carriage! Needless to say the girls (including me, to be honest) were in heaven.

It was fun to revisit old favourite places, and discover lots of new ones this holiday. We ate delicious food, drank delicious wine, and got lots of fresh (albeit occasionally rather bracing) air. We also got the chance to really relax away from school runs and homework and emails and deadlines and all the pressures of day-to-day life which sometimes mean that I feel all I ever say to my children is ‘hurry up’. It was a total pleasure to watch how much the girls enjoyed each other’s company; Anna made up the most amazing stories to entertain Sophia during long walks or boring airport waits, they ran around ancient squares or enormous beaches together and got lost in elaborate imaginative games.

anna and sophia lisbon
Anna and Sophia in Lisbon’s grand ceremonial central square.

Anna and I are both glad to be home – we love travel and adventure, but we’re home bodies deep down. I think husband and Sophia would travel forever if they could – Sophia got really upset this morning because she thought that me applying suncream when I got her dressed meant that we were going to the beach, and she would have infinitely preferred that to preschool!

But we have had a gloriously memorable and relaxing holiday.

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