We had a good last week in London but I think we’re all ready to say our goodbyes. Even by local standards, it was unseasonably cold for this time of year. Our Airbnb was fine but it was hard to overlook that it was a damp and rather moldy basement apartment. Rafe literally couldn’t stop sneezing and Theo developed a weird horsey cough. So yeah, maybe not so fine after all! Onwards today to the countryside where some fresh air will do us good, I hope.
Anyhow, London. My parents lived here for a time in the late 60s/early 70s, my brother was born here (and returned here for grad school) and I lived here for half a year as an undergrad. So I certainly feel a connection to the city…even though with each subsequent visit, it’s almost unrecognizable. That funky neighborhood where Vince used to live now has a Pinkberry and a Five Guys! And that one beloved pub around the corner from my old dorm– the one where George Orwell and Dylan Thomas were regulars, the one that had been in operation since the 1730s…CLOSED. Gentrification: inevitable and predictable.
One night we had a babysitter and went with our host’s recommendation for dinner. (We knew nothing of “cool London” and needed all the help we could get.) We ended up at a casual local spot in the hip-happening Shoreditch neighborhood.
These days, since we usually eat at 5:30 pm, we had the tiny maybe 20 seater restaurant to ourselves. That is until I noticed the actor Jason Momoa (from Game of Thrones fame) –and a group of a dozen other vaguely recognizable actors –saunter into the place. They were in town promoting their new movie Justice League…I had a great view of all the action.
Meanwhile, Rafe was faced towards the wall and wondering what all the fuss was about. On the way out, someone else was coming in with an entourage. I was coming out of the bathroom and wondering what was going on. It was Drake! For a hilariously long awkward moment, Rafe was trying to walk around Jason and Drake engaging in an absurdly long and enthusiastic bro-hug. Pardon my girly excitement here, but you gotta admit it’s pretty random considering we were eating so early at a little ho-hum restaurant. We’re usually at home with our 3-year-old scarfing down a hastily-prepared dinner. So yeah, I was entertained.
So…London. We’ve definitely had our fill of its gray weather, leafy parks, cozy pubs, quirky coffee shops, double-decker bus rides, and Jason Momoa.
Oh, and the London Eye! How could I forget? It was $80 for a single revolution and that’s including sneaking in Theo for free as an “under 3.” He did say it was the most amazing experience of his entire life, so I guess it was worth it 🙂
We arrived in London last week and it’s freezing! Well, it’s the 50s so not technically freezing but still! Quite a change from Majorca. I can’t believe it has been 11 years since we came to London for Rafe’s 30th birthday and 16 years (!!) since I studied abroad here. Just days before 9-11, I arrived in London as a wide-eyed 20-year-old. This city has always held a special place in my heart so it’s nice to revisit it. That, and we’ve officially maxed out all our time in the EU.
Each day, we’re making an effort to check out different neighborhoods. When I lived here oh-so-long ago, I didn’t venture out much from the central part of the city so it has been interesting to see other areas.
We’re staying in Hackney (think Brooklyn) on a road that used to bear the cute nickname of “murder lane.” But that was in the 90s. It’s still a little rough around the edges but way cheaper than staying somewhere more central and it still has everything people like us enjoy: a wood-fired-oven pizza joint, multiple beer gardens, a coffee shop/record store, a coffee shop/bike shop, and a yoga studio housed in a refurbished train depot. Hipster neighborhoods are kinda the same the world over, aren’t they?
The first day we went to Marks & Spencer, a seriously wonderful grocery store I’d been missing. Then off to the local playground where Theo was excited to play with kids his age. He kept informing us, “the kids speak English here! But a different kind of English!” Then off to the local pub for a proper pint and fish and chips. (Great travel tip about London: many pubs are child-friendly!)
Since then, we’ve adjusted to the weather and the sad lack of sunlight. It has been getting dark by 4ish. While London is a magical city for wandering when the sun is shining, that’s a rare occurrence this time of year (or anytime, let’s be honest.) Thankfully, there’s a lot going on here to keep us busy. Just in the last few days, we’ve taken Theo to the V & A Museum of Childhood (featuring toys from all the way back to the 1600s), the Discover Children’s Story Centre, and the Natural History Museum. Oh, and a stop at the Disney Store for a Halloween costume. (It was the only place I could think of to procure an Iron Man costume, his little heart’s greatest desire.)
For Halloween itself, we found out that there aren’t a lot of neighborhoods were trick-or-treating happens but one of the few main ones is St John’s Wood, a fancy neighborhood where a lot of wealthy American ex-pats live. We wanted to go early since we knew it would get crowded later on, but Theo fell asleep on the underground ride there and rousing him awake was challenging. When he eventually woke up, the streets were as crowded as could be with roaming packs of candy-hungry children. He got into the swing of it quickly though and even went up to houses all by himself by the end of the night. All in all, a fun evening was had, even if the candy was unfamiliar (unwrapped violet flavored candies, anyone??)
Well, we found it. The Shangri-la our family was looking for. All thanks to sheer procrastination!
After Portugal, we hemmed and hawed as to where to go next. I know, what a problem to have. We had only 2 weeks left in the Schengen zone (as Americans, turns out you can only stay in most of the EU for a max of 90 days before having to leave for another 90 days!)
Rafe was the one to find out about Soller, a village on the Spanish island of Majorca. I knew nothing of Majorca other than some ill-informed impressions of Ibiza, which is actually a different island altogether haha.
We inquired about a nice-sounding Airbnb even though it was out of our price range. But since we were so last minute, they didn’t have other guests lined up, so we got a very steep discount. Again, procrastination pays off! (For any children out there reading: most of the time, procrastination does not pay off.)
Soller was a huge surprise (I doubted Rafe — but I will publically admit here that he was right.*) I’m in love. From our cottage, we just walk down a very steep hill through cobblestone streets to the village center where there’s a square lined with outdoor cafes, kids playing soccer, tiny shops full of Mallorcan-made goods, and a real sense of preservation. Miro and Picasso lived here for a time, and the dinky train station in town (it only goes two places) has an impressive collection of their works.
From where our cottage is, looking down at the village, there’s nothing to indicate you’re even in the present day. Just moss-covered stone houses, rambling gardens, orange and olive groves as far as the eye can see, and the peaks of the Tramuntana mountain range behind you. The loudest thing you hear is the gentle choo-choo of the steam train rolling by.
The setting is awesome for families. It’s mountainy (fresh air, quiet, walking trails galore) but with all the amenities of a nice town (mama needs her cafes) and also easy access to the beach. Its seaside sibling village, Port de Soller, is just a short ride away. As in, a charming 100-year old wooden trolley goes back and forth between the two towns.
Once you get off the trolley, Port Soller has a sandy beach and a nice promenade for strolling. It’s fairly upscale but not stuffy. Mostly families, bikers, hikers, and honeymooners enjoying life before it gets real. And the food is fresh and good. We will never tire of jamón and cheese baguettes at the beach.
We’ve encountered several European families who’ve told us they come here year after year. I can see why. If it weren’t for the fact that we legally can’t stay here any longer, we would in a heartbeat. Maybe we’ll retire here –that’d be nice, too.
This was our second time in Lisbon. In fact, we were in Lisbon this exact same time last year celebrating Rafe’s 40th birthday.
We didn’t plan it this way. In fact, we initially thought about skipping Lisbon but I’m glad we decided to go again.
Last year, with just a few days, we stayed in a hotel. This time, we had a full week so we went for a more authentic experience and rented an apartment in Mouraria (the ancient Moorish quarter). The neighborhood hits that balance between quiet and lively, where you feel like you’re really in the mix of things but it’s also not too dense or chaotic. For a Goldilocks traveler like me, I loved it.
From our balcony, you could see São Jorge Castle and beyond. You could also neighbors leaning from their balconies, having long conversations with each other across the street or from one floor to the next.
You can tell just walking around that tourism has really exploded here, even compared to last year. For good reason. Lisbon is a joyful and colorful city (and one of the sunniest in all of Europe).
Yet thank goodness, it still retains tons of charm and is cool without trying too hard.
One night we went around the corner to an outdoor wine bar and they served us some great wine for just a few bucks a glass. While we were hanging out, a spontaneous duet broke out between a Fado singer (Fado is the national folk music) who happened to be walking down the street, and a lady leaning out of her second-story window. It was all very dramatic and beautiful, and the whole scene almost seemed staged. But it wasn’t! That’s just Lisbon.
And our host went above and beyond. When my dad and Susan ended up having to stay with us the first night, she was so welcoming. She even took the two of them around town all afternoon to run some errands!
For 10 days, we rented a big house in Cascais, a relaxed beach city 30 minutes outside of Lisbon. For the first 5 days, Rafe’s mom and husband visited –and for the next 5, my dad and his girlfriend. It was such a special time to spend with family. Back home in San Francisco–even though we all live in the Bay Area– we rarely if ever have this much quality time just hanging out. We miss them all already! Next up is Lisbon for the week.
From Jelsa, we took a ferry back to Split and drove 3 hours on a nauseatingly windy mountain road up to what appeared to be the highest point in all of Croatia. Our mission: Plitvice Lakes National Park. We chose a small family-run guest house basically inside the park. Definitely felt remote but seemed like a good base from which to explore during our brief stay. And the air! So crisp and fresh!
When we arrived at the guest house, we were greeted by a young man, no older than maybe 18 or 19 (I really can’t tell how old people are anymore but he was young.) He said that unfortunately, his parents were out of town but he and his brother and sister were going to be in charge of the inn. Despite not being very adult-ish, the trio were very friendly and seemed capable.
We arrived in time for the traditional dinner prepared nightly for guests. On the menu: grilled trout (I’ve eaten enough fish to last me a lifetime at this point) and a nice pasta they whipped up just for Theo. We ate with the other guests, a young Thai couple on their honeymoon and an older English family. They were all so quiet! Theo was, well, decidedly not quiet as it was his usual bedtime by the time we were served food. I’d like to believe that we’re a quiet bunch by American standards, but by any other standard, it seems we are actually loud. We’ve noticed this a lot where we’ve been traveling. A crowded place will be surprisingly quiet. Speaking voices–even those belonging to children– are just more respectful and…softer maybe?
After dinner, our loud American child was D-O-N-E but they didn’t let us leave until they poured us some samples of their homemade liqueurs. One was walnut, one cherry, and one I can’t recall. They said the cherry one would help Theo sleep! Well, when in Croatia! Just kidding.
In the morning, we went on what we thought was a short hike but it ended up being an all-day affair. But that’s why we were at the lakes – to experience nature damn it, and experience it we did. Theo was pushed to his physical limits but he seemed to enjoy/tolerate the challenge. As he hiked on, he kept repeating to himself: “I’m a rough and tough guy. I’m a rough and tough guy.” But then when he was truly too tired to carry on, he would revert to: “I’m NOT rough and tough, I’m just a boy!” He was a champ though. Especially after we decided to bribe him with candy. One Skittle for every 5 minutes walked without complaint. And one for me, too.
I think the two full days we had in the park were sufficient. I’m glad we made it here: the scenery was out of this world and the unreal turquoise waters were just stunning. And at night, it was quite the experience to show Theo a sky full of stars.
But the lakes were way more popular with tourists than we had anticipated, especially in late September. Tour groups were just unloading one after the other on the trails. Seriously – at some points, it was single file marching. But other times, we were actually able to find pockets that were relatively empty and that was cool. Anyhow, we came, we saw, we hiked. Now off to Portugal!
We were supposed to leave the island today and take the ferry back to the mainland. Or so I thought. I mixed up our dates and we were left with a whole extra day with nowhere to go. We weren’t looking forward to packing up and trying to find accommodations for just one night but our rental host said the next guests weren’t coming until the day after anyhow so it was fine to stay. What a gift because none of us wanted to leave Jesla. Sometimes plans go horrifically wrong…but not today.
For the last five days, we’ve been in Jelsa, a delightful village just 30 minutes from where we were staying in Hvar Town but it’s a completely different world here. There are no cars allowed in the village so it’s the perfect scooting environment for Theo. There’s a town square and a boardwalk “riva” lined with cafes and shops. It’s way more family-friendly and authentic-feeling than party-loving Hvar Town. It seems as if many tourists have cleared out by now so it’s pleasantly uncrowded but still buzzing with local life.
Theo has never been happier. He can freely scoot where he likes and the scale of the town is like Mr. Rogers neighborhood. Rafe and I were even able to enjoy a meal at a cafe one day in relative silence while Theo scooted round and round an old well out front.
From our limited experience, Croatians are very friendly. Yesterday, a neighbor selling vegetables and olive oil out of her home stopped Theo and offered him a nice-looking tomato (maybe not so exciting when you’re 3) but later in the afternoon, when we walked by an ice cream stand and Theo stood longingly in front of it, the teen scooping behind it offered him a free cone! Theo, to his credit, said he had just had a lollipop and wasn’t sure…but was I going to say no when the guy was being so nice? Well, no. And tonight after dinner, the same thing happened. Another free cone! Kid heaven here, I tell ya.
Our apartment is located above a popular fish restaurant. You actually have to walk through the restaurant to get in our front door. It makes for some noise at night but it’s not all bad. Theo even made friends with the owner. After daily small talk and many invitations to dine there, we finally did one night whereupon Theo asked where the owner was from (um Croatia) and Theo responded proudly, I’m from California. He then asked the owner if he spoke English, and when he said yes, Theo responded, “You don’t speak English very good.” Oy. We’re working on being more polite, but it’s nice to see him enjoy adult interaction like this, a change of pace from his usual shyness around strangers.
You wouldn’t expect it given its location smack-dab in the middle of the village, but our apartment is a hidden garden paradise (in fact, that’s its Airbnb headline). Not all of the places we’ve picked have been winners but this one is a gem. There’s a lush backyard full of fruit trees where we’ve been eating breakfast and doing evening yoga (ok, we did that once, but it was nice!) One night, bats flew overhead. Then the stars came out, and our city kid asked what they were (!) and if we needed a flashlight to see them better.
And a true village experience: very early on Sunday morning, bells from a nearby church rang for a straight HOUR, prompting questions from Theo about religion and church. In case you were wondering: trying to explain the concept of religion to a preschooler whose favorite word is still “why”–and before coffee at that–is not advisable.
Jelsa has made me see why Croatia is such a travel hot spot but as far as the food goes, so far it has been rather…unremarkable. Every restaurant we’ve been to, despite jazzy names and promises indicating otherwise, serves basically the same menu: pizza, pasta, and grilled fish with grilled vegetables. Even the supermarkets have little variety and the produce selection is limited to grapes, dates, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, and potatoes. The wine is good and cheap, though! Add sunny days (supposedly Hvar has some of the sunniest weather in Europe), going to the beach to dig in the sand for hours, and swimming in turquoise water…what more can one ask for? Not much, except or maybe some hot sauce.
I write to you from a ferry headed to the island of Hvar.
Split, where we spent the last three days, was a nice introduction to Croatia. We stayed at a pleasant if sterile IKEA-furnished apartment near Diocletian’s Palace, the ruins of an ancient palace built for the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century. More recently, it was used as a location for filming Game of Thrones. And, interestingly, it is one of the only heritage sites in the world where people (about 3,000) still reside. This is truly living history. But…touristy. Lots of tchotchke shops, restaurants, bars, and hordes of cruise ship tourist groups. I can”t imagine how much more crowded it is during the peak of the summer tourism season. I guess it’s true that Croatia has really become more popular in recent years!
Theo thought the palace was very exciting and had a lot of questions about the king that used to live there. Did he ride a motorcycle? How exactly did Roman soldiers fight their enemies? Did they wear Birkenstocks like he does? We went to this tiny ancient church where Theo asked the lone person there, an ancient nun (who didn’t speak English) what would happen if Godzilla came. What can I say, he saw one poster of Godzilla in Copenhagen and has since been obsessed.
Ok, we’ve now arrived on the island and I have a few minutes to finish this post. Our rental host just texted us to let us know that we can’t check into our apartment until tonight. She thought we were arriving tomorrow and now she has to catch a ferry herself to let us in. Oh well. Unfortunately, we just loaded up on a week’s worth of groceries. The amount of cheese and yogurt it takes to get us through the week is significant and is now melting in the trunk. On another note, I haven’t been much for writing lately (nor have I had much time with Theo not really napping anymore and going to bed at 10pm!)…Given the dismal state of global affairs, everything is seeming so trivial over here. And frankly, mentally adjusting to and navigating new places so often is, well, exhausting! I’m inspired but tired. We’ve only planned up until Portugal (where we’re headed next) so we still have time to adjust plans. I think we’d all benefit from having more downtime and taking turns caring for Theo more often so Rafe and I can each have more time to focus on our own work and projects.
Portugal should be less daunting as it’s both familiar (having visited last year) and we’re meeting up with family there. We’re renting a house outside of Lisbon where Rafe’s mom and stepdad come first for a week, then my dad and his girlfriend the week after. We’re really looking forward to seeing everyone. And I know Theo will be over the moon for some quality grandparent time.
It has been two months since we left home and we’re missing everyone back home. I can count on one hand the friends we’ve been lucky enough to see so far (not counting New York.) Theo is talking wistfully about our “California house” and what he’s going to do when we return (go to preschool, play with the toys we had to leave behind, ride his bike at grandma’s house, etc.) His sense of place is really developing. He knows we’re far from home, that people speak different languages in each country and he can recall where we’ve been and knows where we’re headed next. He can arrive in a new place like this island, take in the view, and say “This place reminds me of California.” (The coastline does actually resemble Big Sur in parts.)
Picking up this post again. At this rate, I’ll finish by the weekend. We finally made it to our apartment in Hvar Town. Hvar is known for its party scene although we’re in a more quiet, residential area. It has two bedrooms and a separate, detached kitchen with a courtyard ” living room” in between. Island living for ya! The host was endlessly apologetic about the mix-up and was very kind to Theo, letting him play with her Chihuahua and plucking sweet grapes off the vine for him to sample.
Wrapping up this post at the beach now. We had a rough start to the morning having temporarily lost the car keys (pro parenting tip: don’t let 3-year-olds play with car keys) but we eventually made it out the door. Most beaches on the island are pebbly rather than sandy but I don’t mind as there’s no annoying sand to deal with! On recommendation from our host, we found a sweet little beach shaded by pine trees and full of families, a handful of nudists, and people of all ages and sizes wearing their underwear instead of swimsuits. I think we might be the most clothed people on the island, ha.