Tuesday, 31 May 2016

A Dream Summer in Europe...

One thing which always marked our summers out when I was younger was that we would inevitably head somewhere abroad.  Not somewhere exotic or far-flung but somewhere close by, in Europe.  Somewhere which could be reached by car so that we could pack it sky high with every conceivable item we might possibly need for a 2 week stint in a gorgeously sunny country.

Those summers were wonderful and exciting and interesting (because at 10 years old everything is pretty interesting, right?) and as I got older and my interests widened, it also became about the language and the culture and the heritage...

I think it was these initial forays into Europe which gave me a taste for travelling and which in turn makes me keen to pass on that interest and passion to Meg and Eli.

Something we have talked about doing for a number of years now is heading off for a road trip around Europe during the summer holidays.  Practically, we have no idea how James would secure so much time off work or how I would work from abroad but it sounds pretty idealistic doesn't it?  Just the 4 of us, our car and a few supplies.  Maybe we'll take our own tent and equipment or maybe we'll just book a few nights in various open air hotels such as the ones offered by Yelloh! Village.  I can just see us spending a few days discovering the Dordogne whilst staying at Lascaux Vacances before heading further south, our eventual destination being the Costa Brava and Mas Sant Josep.

I'd love to go slightly further afield too, maybe crossing the Alps and heading into Italy although I've only ever been to Italy once and that was for a fleeting day trip to Rome so I'm less familiar with the terrain than I am in France and Spain.  Still, it would be a pretty fantastic opportunity to travel just that little bit further afield than we've been before.  

There's a certain kind of freedom which comes with not having a direct plan, I think.  Partly it terrifies me because I like order and systems and knowing where we are going to be staying for 2 weeks allows me to factor in as many different scenarios as possible.  But then, at the same time, not knowing exactly where we will be lends an air of unbridled freedom and excitement.  It would certainly be a learning curve for us a family and an amazing summer adventure for Meg and Eli to boot.

The great thing about just travelling with yourselves and your car is that the continent becomes your oyster; so much of Europe is connected and it gives me a thrill to think that we could, on a whim, journey across a border and into a whole new country just at the drop of a hat.

I'd love to give the kids an experience that they will remember for many years to come; maybe even to set a precedent for the way that our summers will be lived.  'Remember when we journeyed across Europe in six weeks?' ~ I'd love to have that kind of whimsical discussion with Meg and Eli and I think with a bit of clever planning it could really be the kind of dream summer we eventually get to have.  There's so many places, even in France and Spain, that I've never been lucky enough to experience never mind if you consider surrounding countries such as Portugal, Germany, Belgium and so on.  To be able to venture out to the different areas and get to enjoy a slice of them all...I think that would be a pretty special way to spend the summer.

Don't you?

This is a collaborative post.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

4 Nights in Dubai...

It's hard to imagine a place you've never been before, hard to picture what your senses will experience when you first step foot out of the aeroplane.  Will there be a wave of heat which hits you as you move from the cool air-conditioned cabin into the daylight?  Will there be unusual scents wafting from the market as you travel the streets heading to your hotel?  Will the colours be brighter?  The noises louder?  The smells stronger?

One thing which never fails to amaze me is how different individual countries can be; there is the obvious such as the culture and the people, the language and the dress but then there are the less obvious things like the sounds and the smells.  When I think of Dubai I think of exotic and vibrant...of the desert and the history...of modern meets old.  I'd love to find out if I'm right!

A few weeks ago I would never have considered Dubai the kind of place I would visit for a family holiday and then one travel related twitter party completed turned that on its head.  Here is a country which offers more than just stunning sandy beaches and glistening clear oceans.  A country which is more than just desert dunes and camel rides.  I could get lost for hours dreaming about the adventures that we could have in Dubai.  

And adventures are what we seek; I know I've shared before how different we all are when it comes to holidays and how we try to find a nice balance for each of us.  I am the history-seeker, James the foodie, Meg the adrenaline-junkie and Eli the water baby.  For us a successful family holiday is one where we combine all the individual parts and come up with something which is truly special and unique to us.

I think we could easily find something to please each of us in Dubai so when Tots100 asked for posts sharing our #DXBDreams for the Dubai Dreams blogger challenge I had lots of fun coming up with the answers:-

For the history-lover
I would love to take a trip down to the Creek; to see the ancient side of Dubai and the traditional buildings which still stand there.  We'd forgo the water taxis and travel like a local, catching an Abra boat across the water before experiencing historical Dubai with the Souks, the twisting and turning streets and the architecture.  I'd also include a visit to Al Bastakiya and the Old Fort whilst here which I've heard is a wonderful place to pick up arts and crafts (something which would also appeal to Meg); Al Bastakiya is the home of many authentic mud-brick houses and was supposed to be demolished in the 1980s until it was saved and transformed into a place of cultural importance.  One thing we always try to do when we visit a new country or city is to find out what makes that city so special and I think a trip to the old town and the place where it all began would help us to capture the real essence of Dubai.

For the foodie
Of course alongside the history, nothing helps you understand the culture of a place quite like trying the local cuisine and I know Emirati food would be right up James' street.  For our next adventure we would definitely visit the Spice Souk; as spices feature so much in the flavouring of dishes in Dubai, it would be fascinating to see all the different variants of spices whilst getting to experience an authentic Dubai market to boot.  The Spice Souk has been located in the heart of the old town for more than 50 years so it's a lovely opportunity to discover some more history of Dubai at the same time.  I imagine for Meg and Eli this will be a wonderful sensory experience from the colours to the scents.  It's also free to enter which would be great for anyone visiting on a budget.

For the adrenaline-junkie
For Meg, it's about the thills and although I don't think I could quite stretch to skydiving in Dubai (which is a possibility if you are brave enough) I think we could manage horse riding in the desert.  I imagine at 7 years old that's got to be a pretty exciting thing to do, right?!  The joys of being out in the wide expanse of the desert alongside getting to ride a gorgeous Arabian horse...definitely once in a lifetime.  If we could time it so that our visit coincided with a sunset then that would just be even more incredible.  It gives me actual chills just thinking about it and not just because of the stunning photo opportunities!

For the water-baby
Dubai is the place to go if you have a love of waterparks so we would definitely have to factor in a visit if we were lucky enough to get to travel out.  The Atlantis Aquaventure Waterpark looks perfect with fast-paced slides, the opportunity to swim with Dolphins, the lazy river for those of us who don't like anything too quick (that would be me...) and a beach for relaxing after all the fun as well.  This sounds like a full day in itself with the opportunity to soak up some of that glorious year-round sun Dubai is so famous for as well.  As Meg is planning to be a marine biologist when she's older I know she would also adore the chance to get up close and personal with the dolphins.

So what would be left?  If we've discovered the rich heritage, taken in the sights of the Souks, ridden horses in the desert and gone nose to nose with Dolphins at the water park?  I think that in itself sounds like an absolutely amazing holiday and one which we would treasure for many years to come but that just scratches the tip of the (probably melting) iceberg when it comes to things for families to do in Dubai from the marine life to the relaxing beaches, the stunning architecture to the biggest malls in the world...you are spoiled for choice.  Narrowing our list down to just these 4 things was tricky enough!!

And I really can't think of anything else better than being given the opportunity to experience them as a family, can you?!

Oh Wait...

How about the opportunity to win your own #DXBDreams adventure?  If I win then the best comment on this blog post will also win a family holiday to Dubai.  So get dreaming, and commenting!

This is my entry to the Tots100/Dubai Dreams blogger challenge

A Monster High 7th Birthday Party

Like most years, Meg knew exactly what she wanted to do for her 7th birthday celebrations.  She wanted to have her friend's round to make pizza, watch a movie and have a sleepover.  With a Monster High theme for good measure.  No amount of cajoling that maybe they weren't quite old enough yet for a sleepover (read: we like our sleep too much to give it up again just yet!) would convince her otherwise so in the end, we acquiesced.

Luckily there are only 7 girls in total in Meg's class so we knew that the party overall would be quite a small and contained one.  Unlike Eli's the week before!

As parties go, this one was pretty simple to set up and was fairly cost-effective too.  Making your own pizzas is such a simple activity and yet every single one of the girls said it was the part that they really enjoyed.  We made some dough a few hours earlier and left it to rise and then simply laid out some ingredients and let the girls create their own masterpieces.

We had quite a few who accidentally let their chocolate melt on the top of their pizzas and this also seemed to be a hit, I think next time we might try pizza for dessert too.

The film choice was a little bit harder as I think it's always difficult to know exactly what people have seen before, and what type of film they will enjoy.  In the end we settled for The Princess Diaries which seemed like a nice little classic and something Meg hadn't seen.  They didn't quite make it to the end of the film but we gave it a good run.

Alongside the pizza making and the film watching we also decided to give them a little pampering in the form of face masks and nail painting.  I was so dubious about this to begin with as I think I've only ever put a face mask on myself once but again, it went really well.  All the girls seemed to enjoy it and although we ended up with a marginally flooded bathroom when it came time to wash them off, that was a small price to pay.  James was in charge of monitoring pizzas and I was in charge of the pampering but I wish I'd had another pair of hands; I couldn't mask them and paint their nails fast enough and the ones who went first had a tougher time getting their masks off than the rest, bless them.

Our table decorations and party bags were courtesy of Party Bags and Supplies who sent me their Monster High Party Kit for review.  The kit was worth £28 and contained enough table settings and filled party bags for 8 children which worked out perfectly in this case.  I'm not a fan of sending tat home for the sake of it so I thought the items included in the party bags were great and just the right amount with the addition of a slice of birthday cake to go with them.  I was very impressed with the delivery as well which was really quick, just a couple of days after placing the order the items arrived.

The table decorations really finished the party setting and as Meg is a high Monster High fan this was a real winner for her.  She even wore her Monster High pyjamas to keep the theme going.

The cake we made ourselves with a cake topper ordered online.  It wasn't my best work as the cakes didn't seem to rise for some reason but we slathered on some pink buttercream and nobody seemed any the wiser!

After some dancing, shrieking, party games and some more shrieking, some of the girls went home and the rest stayed on for the sleepover.  I'd like to say it all went swimmingly but that unfortunately wasn't the case with one little girl having to go home at 3am because she was so unsettled and upset.  However, the rest of them stayed asleep and we enjoyed a lovely little birthday breakfast in the morning before they went outside to burn off some energy whilst they waited to be collected.

Overall this was a low key, but effective birthday party.  Seeing Meg's face was completely priceless and as it was everything she had asked for we were confident she would have a good time, which she did.  A winner in my book.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

My Summer TBR List...

In recent weeks you might have noticed that I have begun to move more of my book related content over to my YouTube channel.  That doesn't mean that I am pulling the plug on sharing books over here however; I know that not everyone enjoys watching my mug talk about books for 10+ minutes, and likewise, that some people don't hop over to visit the blog after watching a video.

I'm not usually good with TBR (To Be Read) lists as I never stick to them but as my bookcase is now beginning to overflow with books I have bought and not got around to reading yet I am setting myself the challenge this summer of at least attempting to make in-roads into this ever-expanding collection of books.

On top of this, of course, there are the books which I received for my birthday (video coming soon!) and the books which I have recently been sent and asked to review.  So not a tall order in the slightest then...nope...

The Lake House by Kate Morton
I could talk about Kate Morton until the cows came home; she is one of my absolute favourite authors and I have been desperately waiting for her latest book to be released in paperback so I could add it to my collection.  When it arrived I had to leave it in the packaging because I knew as soon as I opened it I'd want to put down the book I am currently reading and dive straight in.  Must. Resist.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
This is a bandwagon I have yet to jump on.  I think I've said before that I'm not always a fan of books which are surrounded by a whole load of hype because I hate being let down and it's only for this reason that I haven't yet picked this book up.  I am curious to read it though so I'm adding it to my list.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This is the first of two books which have sat on my TBR bookshelf for quite some time because I have felt intimidated by the size.  It might not look that hefty but the writing is teeny tiny!  I have heard so many good things about this book though that I'm desperate to pick it up.  I'm just hoping to somehow find the time this summer!

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo
This is a new addition to my shelves and one I'm really looking to pick up soon.  As a family we have spent the last couple of weeks having a major shift around and clear out at home; the kids getting new toys for their birthdays prompted a lot of it.  The rooms looked fabulous and then, somehow, it all disintegrated into chaos again.  So I'm keen to see whether this book can help us solve some of the common tidying issues we seem to continually face.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I picked this book up in April, along with some others and am determined that this summer I am going to read it.  It's the other book which I have avoided even buying because of the size of it but I have heard such raving reviews about it that I really want to read it.  I just need to make myself do it.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
I was filming a video a couple of weeks ago sharing my bookcases and I realised that I have had the entire Vintage Dickens collection for a number of years now and so far only read one of his books.  Isn't that shameful?!  For someone who claims to love literature I need to hang my head.  So that's why this book is here.  Even if I only manage to read one Dickens book a year that's still better than zero!

The Magicians' Guild by Trudi Canavan
This poor book has been from pillar to post since I bought it.  James read it first and said it was great so I stuck it on my nightstand and intended to read it as soon as I'd finished my current book.  But then I got side-swiped and started reading another fantasy book.  Once I'd finished that I didn't fancy another fantasy so it just sat on my nightstand and there it has remained, forgotten about.  Hence it's appearance on this list.  I WILL read it.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A Return to Speke Hall...

Last September, following our recent decision to become National Trust members, we visited Speke Hall for the first time.  We all had such a good time that I'm not sure why it has taken us so long to arrange a repeat visit, especially when, in good traffic it's only about an hour's drive from our home.

One thing the weather was not doing this time around, compared to last time, was playing nice.  The day started off okay as we pottered around the house and contemplated what do.  By the time we had decided and gotten everyone ready and into the car, the heaves had opened and torrential rain was hammering down.  We very nearly turned around and headed straight back home but figured we could all do with some fresh air, rain or not.

It turned out to be the better decision as by the time we arrived the rain had stopped and just a short time later the sun had come back out and we were treated to glorious blue skies and beaming sunshine for the rest of the day.  Go figure with British weather!

The first place both kids wanted to head was the maze.  They could spend absolutely ages just tearing around, trying to find each other.  I don't know whether it's the exhilaration they get from the possibility that they 'could' lose us and each other or the fact that they just like making one another jump by leaping out around corners but it was the one place they wanted to go last time and it was no different this time around either.  We could only get them out by promising a return visit before we left for the day.

I had been keen to do some bluebell spotting but disappointingly we had left it a little late in the season.  There were still a few of the pretty flowers dotted around but nothing like the carpet I had been expecting.  I think we need to time our visit better next year.

One of the benefits of the weather being so unpredictable was that we had the place basically to ourselves.  The grounds of Speke Hall are big enough that you don't really see many people anyway but it was really quiet which was lovely.  We opted not to visit the house this time around and instead spent the remainder of the afternoon on the lawns just outside the house.

The kids put on a little gymnastic show for us before getting distracted by plans to build a squirrel house.  They had this grand idea that they would be able to capture a squirrel and keep it as a pet.  Given that we were fairly confident the squirrels wouldn't be interested in the 'bait' of pink petals and pine cones we just left them to it...

It never fails to make me smile when I see the kids engaging with nature around them.  As we hear more and more about how our children don't spend enough time outside, I can be confident that we are raising two children who are quite at home rolling around in the grass and clambering through woodland hunting out the perfect door for a miniature house! 

Even if that comes with the price of having to have selfies taken all the time...

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Birthday Bucket List

Happy Birthday to Me!!  Today is my (whispers) 29th birthday.

I can hardly believe it actually, I still feel like I'm about 18 some days and I look around and wonder how on earth I got to the place I am!
So, as I nudge ever closer to the big 3-0 I was thinking about some of the things I might want to do this year, some of the things I have wanted to do, or thought that I would have done by now and just haven't yet gotten around to it.

Of course, I am a terrible person for resolutions and I very rarely see them through to completion so I don't think that a '30 by 30' type of post would actually be any good for me; I'd start off really well and then just end up getting distracted by other things, reach 30 and that would be that!

But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't at least give some intention to this last year in my twenties.  After all, I'll never get to go back and do it all again so I should make the most of it, right?!

So here are some very loose guidelines on things that I might quite like to achieve before next year on my 30th birthday:-

Learn an instrument
I think it was some time in 2012 that I came into the possession of a piano (don't ask how because I don't remember) and I had all this fire about learning to play.  I never did, and when we moved we couldn't bring the piano with us so that sort of went out of the window.  However, now that both Meg and Eli are in school and I have a little more time during the day (haha...) I'd quite like to learn either the keyboard or the flute.  I have always wanted to learn to play the flute but ended up learning the clarinet at school because my fingers were too small for the flute apparently...I'd like to think I've grown a little since then and would love to give it a go.

Travel somewhere new
Travel is such an important thing for myself and James and we talk about it all the time; the places we want to visit and the experiences we want to have.  Somehow we just never get around to sitting down and booking those plane tickets though.  This year I'd like to try and go to at least one new place, maybe somewhere in Europe?

Finish my second book
Writing on my second book has completely ground to a halt as I've been caught up with blogging and vlogging and freelance work but the story is still there, ticking away in the back of my head.  I'm pretty sure the characters are going to start shouting at me any day now so I'd like to try and factor more time into my week to write and to actually get it finished and published.

Take a risk
Yeah, I know this one is probably the vaguest thing on my list but I'd like to take a risk this year.  I don't know whether that will be job related or travel related; whether it will just be me stepping out of my comfort zone in some way and trying something new...I don't know what it will look like but this year I would like to try.  Hit me with some ideas if you have any!

Master bike riding
Okay, so don't laugh but I haven't actually ridden a bicycle in about 14 or 15 years.  I can ride a bike and I don't count the spinning bike which I do once a week.  I'm talking about an actual, physical bike.  I love the idea of cycling around the village with my little vintage bike and basket on the front loaded with local fruit and veg...that might be a pipe dream but with the kids learning this year and James being such an avid cyclist, I think it's time I got over my fear of falling on my face and re-master the art of bike riding.

So there you have it, 5 seemingly simple ideas that I should definitely maybe hopefully be able to achieve by the time I'm 30 years old!!

What do you reckon?!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

A Visit to The Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo

The Vigeland Park in Oslo is the world's largest sculpture park created by one single artist and is a very popular tourist attraction in the city.  The park itself is actually called Frogner Park with Vigeland being the name of the installations within the park but as everywhere we looked there were references to 'Vigeland Park' that's what we are sticking with for the purpose of this post!

The park is in the Kirkeveien area of the city and is very easy to get to, although I think we made it harder than we needed to!  We caught the train from Jernbanetorget (right next to Oslo Central Station) to Majorstuen and then had a 15 minute walk from the station to the park.  Had we known there was a tram stop right outside the park we would definitely have used that instead and we did to head back into the centre of Oslo.

Vigeland Park is free to enter and contains around 200 sculptures cast from bronze, granite and iron by the sculptor Gustav Vigeland.  It is just over 110 acres in size and is split predominantly into 5 areas; there is the Main Gate, the Bridge, the Fountain, the Monolith Plateau and the Wheel of Life.  These refer to the main areas of the park which contain sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland.

We headed to the park first thing after our visit to Oslo Opera House and it was already pretty busy on arrival, even despite the freezing temperatures.  I can see that on a warmer day, or perhaps if we'd gone later in the day, it would have been much busier.

We came through the main gate and were greeted by a huge Christmas tree decorated with fairy lights; to our left was the playground and to the right was the Vigeland cafe which we made a note of!  We headed first to the Bridge which contains a long stretch of rather interesting sculptures.

Cue lots of questions from Meg and Eli about why none of them were wearing clothes.  Some thoughtful person had also gone along and placed handprints in the frost on the sculptures as well which raised a lot of wry smiles and sniggers from the other tourists visiting.

We kept going in a straight line and came to the Fountain which was probably my favourite installation of them all.  We must have timed our visit right as the way the light was coming through the trees and hitting the fountain made it seem quite magical, especially as everything was laced with a layer of frost.

The Monolith Plateau was next and then finally the Wheel of Life.  It took us about half an hour to walk from one end of the park to the other although we weren't timing ourselves, or rushing particularly.  It was much quieter at the Wheel of Life and we only really spotted a very dog-walkers and runners.

Between the Monolith Plateau and the Bridge, there are paths which veer off into the parkland but we were all pretty cold by this point and Eli had spotted the playground so he was very keen to try that out.

The playground was great, if a little treacherous.  We saw a number of children slip and tumble whilst climbing the ladders or the walls...one of the hazards of heading out in winter I guess!  Perhaps unsurprisingly we didn't last too long at the playground either before we all started looking longingly at the cafe and dreaming of hot chocolate...

I think Vigeland Park was a lovely way to spend the morning; I can imagine that if the weather had been more pleasant we would have made more of a day out it, perhaps packing up a picnic to take along.  I'd definitely love to return and see it in the warmer months when the park isn't so bare and frosty although that did lend it's own type of beauty to the visit as well.

I understand there is also a museum which is situated in the park and costs about £5 for adult entry and £2.50 for children aged over 7 (60 NOK and 30 NOK); it showcases the early work of Gustav Vigeland and is actually located in his former studio and home.  The building which houses the museum is itself said to be one of the best examples of neo-classical architecture in Norway although we didn't manage to get around to visiting it.

Maybe next time!
Wander Mum

Travel Monkey