Walk the (ridge)line

Despite having a wonderfully drawn out, gloriously golden summer, the days of swimming and grilling and short sleeves are now feeling like a distant memory. There is gold, still, but of a different sort: the leaves that tumbled into the kids’ hair as they ran rambunctiously through the park, the pumpkins – edible and ornamental – we’ve been selecting at every trip to the markets, the increasingly early sunsets that reflect off the distant Alps, turning the early snow into halos.  It’s a breathtaking time of year, but before we declare hiking season well and truly over let me take you back to what will probably be our last for the year.

It was a good one.

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Almost a month ago (!), Tim’s youngest sister and her partner arrived in Switzerland. They had the better part of a week with us before heading off – we reunited later in Italy – and, if we agree to judge a Swiss holiday by the number of mountains scaled and amount of cheese eaten, theirs was highly successful. On what was forecast to the the finest day of their visit, we decided to tackle the Stoos Ridgeline hike.

Stoos, a mountain resort not far from us, recently built the world’s steepest train: the Stoosbahn (coincidentally, the train it pipped to the post is actually located in Australia’s  Blue Mountains, from which both Soph and Jake hail). An odd looking, caterpillar like series of circles, the train feels more like an elevator as it lifts you from the foot of the mountain to the top. It didn’t seem like it would work, entirely, so we spent the trip repeating our standard mantra: ‘Swiss engineering, Swiss engineering, Swiss engineering’. Safely deposited at the top we then had to get a ski lift to the start of the walk, much to the delight of the fearless kids and the terror of their mama.

The walk itself is short in length – about 5km – but since it spans the ridge between two peaks and drops and rises quite a lot, it took us quite some time to hike it (two children in backpacks didn’t speed us up any. While Addie is a very good walker, the drops were so steep at points that I didn’t trust her tired little legs to stay on the path. I only saw one child around Ads’ age walking it – a rope had been tied around her waist and was firmly held by the accompanying adult in case of any slipping).

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While a little challenging (my rickety old knees weren’t delighted with the descent plus 15kg toddler on my back), it was easily the most stunning walk we’ve done to date.

Thankfully, Uncle Jake took one of the brats (little Teddy, who I swear I overheard attempting to say ‘Jake’ in his lispy little whisper) for the final climb to the end of the hike (a bar! restaurant! playground!), leaving me free to ogle the landscape in peace (by which I mean huff and puff).

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(In the picture directly below, if you follow the water around to the far left, hidden behind the peak are the islands we visited on Swiss National Day. The large deep blue body of water throughout the snaps is Lake Luzern – Vierwaldstättersee – and this is where it meets the Reuss river at the delta. We didn’t realise it was the same spot until right at the end of the hike where our perspective shifted into place.)

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She’s an unusual lake, the old Vierwaldstättersee. The name translates as ‘lake of the four forested settlements’ (vier = four, wald = forest, stadt = town and see = lake), and this is really only obvious when you view her sprawling, tentacled form from above. Our own little slice of the lake – a few blocks from our apartment, where we walk and roll down hills and swim and grill and smell second hand weed and watch tightrope walkers tumble (maybe due to said weed) – seems like a completely different world when we look at it from this angle.

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It’s hard to imagine from the snaps above, but the very next day Soph, Jake, Tim and Addie went up Mount Rigi and were greeted with a heavy snow. In the weeks following this hike the days have shortened and darkened, and the temperature has dropped dramatically. Snow is falling on the peaks and sticking on the higher ones (and scarily it’s forecast for Luzern town – typically on the day that Addie and I are due to run our ‘races’ – a half marathon for me and an adorable 195m for her). Autumn is unquestionably here.

What I think about when I think about running

Apologies. The above title is a fairly ungainly riff on Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is itself an homage to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In his book – a collection of essays, really, put together to explain both to himself and his reader the effect and influence running has had on his life – Murakami states that he generally doesn’t think people should talk about the sporting activities they undertake. Instead, they should just do them. I am afraid I do not adhere to this probably admirable stance. I like to discuss the minutiae of any recreational activity I undertake. I think it’s partly to make a challenging process feel more obtainable (I am about the furthest thing possible from a natural athlete) and partly to extend the enjoyment I get out of said process. While I appreciate Murakami’s title is a tribute to a work he admired, and despite the fact I am clearly happy to chat about my mediocre foray into The Sports, it’s not really talking that I associate with running. It’s thinking, and lots of it.

I’m currently training for an upcoming event, which is both pleasant and painful. The painful is probably obvious. Long runs, creaky old limbs, dark mornings, not much time sans brats to juggle the increasing time out, low motivation to actually lace up my runners and go. The pleasures – the reminders I try to give myself when the alarm goes off in the increasingly chilly mornings – are also multiple. Of course, the adrenalin and sense of achievement are fab (you never regret a run, I repeat to myself constantly). But there’s also the time for myself, the meditative state that comes with laboured breathing and throbbing limbs, the reminder that some things are simple. Just one foot in front of the other. There’s also the treat of piecing together the town I live in by foot, mapping the previously haphazard patchwork of neighbouring suburbs like a (bad 1990s) magic eye picture suddenly shifting into focus. Always and forever, there are the views that this beautiful country gives. A lake, a mountain, a chestnut tree, cheering me on. And of course, I think.

I think about muscle memory, usually in the first instance as a criticism. I would run so much faster and easier, if – like Murakami – I ran for six days a week and never had more than one day in a row off. My body would be forced to adjust, to adapt and develop, to stop complaining. Then I remember how once I had a baby, and my betrayed body literally and figuratively screamed in fear and pain. A few years later, I had another. My mind cowered, huddled in a corner dreading the inevitable repetition, doing its best to repress any recollections it still held. But my body was having none of it. Crunch time came, and the message was loud and clear: I remember. I’ve got this. And then I’m not so worried about my burning thighs, my cranky lungs. I’ve got this.

I think about being alone. I breathe huge grateful breaths for my children, and for the temporary absence of them. I remember the fear I had – irrational and unsupported – of leaving my older baby for any amount of time, the guilt that racked me, the experience of being away from her constantly undermined by obsessing about my inevitable return. If I wasn’t working so hard on catching my breath I would laugh, joyfully, my ability to properly escape now a small but life altering success.

I think about our life, our lives, transplanted here. My husband, and the pride and purpose he has in the work he does providing for us. Myself, and the equal frustrations and delights I have in the work I do, providing for us in a different way. Our little ones, and how their childhoods are so different from ours in some ways and so similar in others, their futures so intangible yet so inevitable.

I think about isolation, about the chasm that from time to time looms dark and dreadful in my mind. I don’t know how much is attributable to this small(ish) child phase of life, how much is due to our chosen locale, how much is due to my hausfrau status, or how much is attributable to the general human condition. I’m not lonely, as such: the friendships I have made here, few though they might be, are as meaningful as any I’ve had in my life. I love that our family is close knit, independent, experiencing the world – and the challenges that brings – together. But I miss something that is now intangible, forgotten, a vague memory from the past: who I used to be, or maybe what I used to be. I don’t know what this means, and then my knee starts to hurt, and I am drawn back to the reality of the thud-thud-thudding of my body, the here and now, and this is both a relief and a frustration.

I think about conversations I’ve had. The time a good friend – an impeccable, but not native, English speaker – asked me whether I thought it might be ok, that there might be an English speaking narrative she was unaware of that made it acceptable, for a husband to call his wife a stupid bitch and their son a moron. No, I said. I try to run a bit harder, but no other answers come to me.

I think about my own at times less-than-perfect dialogue.

I think about schemes, about what-ifs. What if I was a florist? How lovely would these wildflowers I’m passing look with hyacinths? But of course they’re not in season together, so that wouldn’t work. What if I studied again? Botany, maybe, based on that ridiculous wildflower-meets-hyacinth call. What if I pulled my thumb out and really, I mean really this time, tried to learn German properly? What if I actually put a German lesson podcast on right now? Actually, maybe not right now, because my earphones are pretty tangled and my pace is pretty good and I’m enjoying not listening to anything other than maybe a spot of Moana later because it’s stuck in my head again, in the way that German lessons never seem to get stuck.

I think ambitiously about runs I might do in the future, since clearly I am nailing this running lark. I think about hailing the next bus I see and catching it home.

I think about how I love the silence, the headspace, the time to myself but also that bloody Moana is really, really stuck in my head and the earphones won’t take too long to sort out and I’m kind of sick of thinking anyway.

Summer: done

We moved fairly quickly after Seville, having only one night in four different towns as we – perhaps foolishly – started moving north for the winter. The towns were chosen based on convenience for our trip (we didn’t want to drive too far each day but we also didn’t want to stay in places that we either too large to discover or too small to feel busy), and as such we embarked on something of a holiday lucky dip.

Happily for us, the first of the last stops was a surprising stunner: Salamanca.

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A university town, Salamanca is a town built in – and at times it looks like carved from – sandstone. We spied it in the distance long before we arrived; a town barely discernible from the lightly coloured rocky terrain (erm, that sandstone?!) around it other than its ornate peaks rising into the sky. As we approached, the city’s walls were visible: ancient Roman fortifications that, along with the river, have been turned into an enormous green space for the town. We made our way to the car-free old town where we wandered the streets and climbed the bell tower and soaked in the wonderful atmosphere.

As the kids were exhausted from a long day, we took them for their daily holiday ice cream in the magnificent town square (yup, we’ve become those parents) and then tucked them into bed. I stayed and held the fort while Tim hit the town and did what he does best: drink whiskey (actually, take photos. But you’d best believe he stopped for a treat for himself along the way).

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The next stop en route home: Pamplona. Another city chosen for convenience, we were again pleasantly surprised (but not wowed like Salamanca). We stayed in an attic apartment at the top of the old town, and our very helpful host directed us to local treats: the chocolate pastries from the bakery next door, a bar built into the city walls with stunning views across the nearby sprawling hills, and a pinchos bar where we ate tiny Spanish snacks to finish off the night. We were about a month later than the town’s famous bull-running, but it was easy to imagine the mayhem that would occur through the streets.

Our own running continued. Toulouse, known as the pink city due to the terracotta used to build the old town, was our next stop. The adults enjoyed a wonderful dinner and would have liked to spend more time checking the town out, but the allure of the swimming pool in our hotel was too much for the smaller people. Our final stay was in Valance – the French Valencia – which felt like it rounded out the trip nicely.

As we drove northwards it felt we were leaving the summer behind us. Temperatures began dropping, and by the time we hit Toulouse the leaves on the trees lining the pink canals had started to turn. Our final day’s drive – from Valence back to Luzern – was filled with gloomy skies and rain: autumn had arrived while we had been gone.

The last week since we’ve been home has been one of small adjustments and tweaks. Addie has started the new school year with an increase in her activities: four days of kita and playgroup, including her favourite weekly forest visit. Swimming season is definitely over although we managed an optimistic chilly dip a few days ago, conscious the entire time that it was likely our last until next year. Luscious summer fruit is long eaten and the apples and pears have arrived in force, as have the pumpkins (much to our girl’s delight. She ate four – FOUR! – bowls of Golden Soup the other night and promptly asked for it the next morning for breakfast). The mornings are grey and chilly and the afternoons have the rich glow of a tired sun. I love Autumn, and I love the indulgent melancholy of seasonal change (and I, like my daughter, love pumpkin soup) but somehow it seems hard to embrace it. We had a magnificent summer – my favourite yet – and I guess I’m not quite ready to let it go. Then again, the lake was bloody freezing, so maybe I’ll just make a hot chocolate and be done with summer after all.

Summer: Seville.

We arrived in sweltering Seville just before lunch (our lunch, not the Spanish lunch, which I have yet to properly understand. We seem to be either too early or too late, but that’s also the perfect summary of mine and Tim’s personalities, so there we are). We had about 24 hours in the city so wanted to make the most of it, which for us means wandering, eating, and looking at lizards or other small spottable creatures. Our pickle was that we were somewhat frazzled post travel and the idea of walking around town in near 40 degree heat was rather unpalatable. Enter: horse and cart.

(We opted to take this for a few reasons. The primary one was that once they saw it, the kids were super keen. The other was we were super lazy and didn’t want to confront the heat. After about two minutes I felt dreadful. The horse was managing the heat and all of us for the better part of an hour in peak siesta time. My consolation was that we stopped regularly, and I saw the driver pause and give him water on several occasions as well as a full hose down when we finished. Still: thank you, noble steed. Also, my son is now your number one fan (he waves at all the horse-and-carts now, garbage men forgotten)  my lass thinks she’s a princess.

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Walking or trotting, Seville is a treat. The fourth largest city in Spain, it has the hustle and bustle you’d expect from an urban hub, coupled with slow pace that we’re starting to appreciate from the Spanish, in one of their hottest cities. A contradiction, sure, but one you feel as you plod along the streets which seem to move just as quickly as the charming chattery Spanish language around you. We spent a lot of time wandering the shaded narrow alleys, tripping over stones and getting pleasantly lost as we searched for ice creams and parks and each other (we got separated sans technology and had to revert to old school meet up principles).

Now we’re back on the road, we’re reverted to the one place / one meal approach to travelling. In Seville, the one place was a mighty one: the Alcázar. I’d been to the beautiful palace before, but as is apparently thematic on this holiday I barely remembered any of it. The site it stands on has been occupied since 800BC: it’s been used for the military, numerous churches, as a stable and warehouses and eventually a palace. It is now an extraordinarily well preserved example of Moorish architecture, and is the oldest occupied palace in Europe as well as a UNESCO site due to its garden’s diversity.

Enough of the blurb: the Alcázar speaks for itself.

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The palace and its surrounding grounds are enormous. There is room after perfectly tiled room, hidden courtyards, cool nooks in which one can get lost, and impeccably manicured gardens. If it wasn’t for a pressing agenda and two not entirely relaxed children, we could have spent weeks exploring it. As it was, we settled for goldfish spotting in the ponds, and cheesy family snaps.

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And, of course, splashing in any available fountain.

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At one point – one loses track of time in such a place – the kids and I found ourselves in a long, cool room hung with tapestries and tiled with hand-painted folklore. Despite the fact that I might look cranky, we were actually discussing what the lion slash dragon situation was.

To the delight of our almost-over-it kids, the immense gardens featured a maze. Our Addie led the way, while I carried a less than enthusiastic Ted in her wake.

The last time I was in Seville, the oranges were at peak ripeness. I remember sitting at a bar on the river and having them plonk heavily next to me as they fell off the trees, their almost cloying scent catching us unawares. This time of year, they are just forming: bursting their glossy roundness against the green leaves, everywhere you look across the city.

We had places to be and phone conferences to call into, so our visit was shorter than we’d ideally have liked. On our way out of the sweet city, we stopped for a much anticipated treat: churros. Tim and I had regaled the children with tales of amazing straight doughnuts that could actually be dunked into – gasp – warm chocolate. Thankfully – like on every other measure – Seville delivered.

Still. more. summer.

We spent just over a week in our little Spanish hilltop town, and it proved to be an excellent base for exploring the surrounding Andalusian area. Because I am geographically ignorant, I thought this included the nearby Gibraltar. For once I was correct about proximity, but as usual there was a flaw in my thinking: Gibraltar is part of the United Kingdom and not Andalusia, a fact which apparently everyone other than me is aware of. We went with one purpose only: to go up the rock and see the shores of Africa (OK, we actually had two goals: to also buy super cheap booze).

Gibraltar is small – only 6.2 square kms – and as we approached we were surprised and a little confused by the large fence that separates it from Spain. We parked the car, grabbed our passports, and walked across the border. It was quite surreal. I can’t think of another occasion that I’ve crossed a land border on foot and had my documents inspected. The British overseas territory is not, I am sorry to report, a particularly pleasant place. Lots of high rise apartments cram the 35,000 inhabitants into the small territory limits. While there were a few ostentatious mansions on the water (adjacent to the Ludicrously Large Yacht Parking) most places were shabby and run down. There was an airstrip immediately inside the border, which commuters strolled across. Apparently online gaming is a huge industry there, and whether imagined or not we felt the place was slightly seedy. We made our way promptly to the (Swiss manufactured, naturally) cable care and ascended the rock, much to the delight of our lad who loves any form of transportation. (As a tip, if you ever go: walk up the rock instead of cable car. Even though it was hot, if we left early the walk would have been manageable and far more enjoyable than the six minute trip up. It appeared mostly shaded and would have offered a far more interesting perspective to the area.)

It was a stunningly clear day, and from the top of the rock we were able to see across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, rising out of the water (it’s on the far left below, in case all blue-grey landmasses look the same to you. They sure do to me).

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The top of the rock is also home to the only wild population of Barbary macaques in Europe. I was horrified to learn this as I am a scaredycat joyless person who hates our adorable monkey cousins. My daughter, however, is not. She was besotted with them, and when I asked her what she liked about them she replied ‘their hair. They’re so hairy!’. My revolted point precisely, Ads.

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After a stop for said cheap booze we bizarrely walked straight back over the border. The Spanish side had passport control but the two immigration officers didn’t bother opening the gates and simply waved us all through a door out the side. Hola!

Next stop: the beach. We went to Estapona for the afternoon to swim in the Mediterranean, build sandcastles, eat seafood tapas and see if the kids love the ocean as much as their papa. (Verdict: most definitely.)

The days have become a bit blurry, like all holidays should, and I’d like that to be my excuse for not exactly remembering that it was our ten year anniversary last Thursday (in my defence, I knew it was coming up but I had confused the days, a completely understandable position after a decade, no?). We spent the day in Ronda, a mountain town at the top of a very winding drive. We finally arrived and entered through the town wall…

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…and immediately indulged in ten year anniversary pastries. (At least, the two best products of our relationship did.)

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Ronda is a very famous town in the region. Built high in the hills, it straddles a ravine and the two halves of the town were long divided. In the 1700s, the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) was built to, ahem, bridge them. It’s an impressive sight. Each of the old towns is lovely in its own right, and the bridge adds a drama to the whole scene. Stunning architecture aside, there’s a waterfall at the base that gushes down into the calm river which snakes its way through the chasm. The bridge itself could be walked over, under and into: it used to be a prison, particularly during the Spanish Civil War. It was impossible to see it all in one hit – every different angle held new aspects.

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Ronda is also the city in which, 300 years ago, the official rules to bullfighting were negotiated and agreed. Many years ago, on a holiday to Seville, I went to see the traditional Spanish sport. It was not for me; I was unable to watch it and left shortly after it started. I appreciate the complexities of tradition and the arguments around the life spans of bulls (apparently fighters often live much longer than animals bred for meat), but despite being a meat eater, leather wearer and all round hypocrite, I felt it was a step too far in terms of the animal’s welfare. I was however (see: hypocrite) quite happy to check out the bullfighting arena where it all began, so to speak.

We celebrated our decade with a spectacular lunch. In a courtyard at the base of the town, with a playground within eyesight and ice-cold vermouth being refilled regularly, we toasted the years together. And then brat number two ate our dessert (flan, with almost burnt caramel, with a heavy dollop of cool yoghurt around it. So good, or so I’ve heard).

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A million years ago, on a previous trip to southern Spain, I spent a day? a few days? a week? in a beachside town that had something to do with tuna. The modern age of the internet, and a memory that is determined to connect some dots, located it as Zahara de los Atunes, a seaside fishing village on the way to Cadiz (this is relevant as it was a key part of the puzzle; on the same trip I visited the Cadiz fortress). Since we were so close, we did another day trip – this time through the nearby national park – to visit it.

Jimena is surrounded by the enormous Los Alcornocales National Park. It’s the only remaining natural cork forest in Europe, and a hugely significant ecological area both for historical reasons but also for controlled modern industry. The cork trees are still farmed – the sport the weird look of a tree undercut, as the bark at the base is removed while that on the top remains. The base bark is then left to dry in huge fields in the sun before it is used. The park is also home to many native animals – I saw a Spanish ibex while out running one morning* – and birds. As we drove to the beach, we saw an amazing flock of eagles circling, darting and dancing in a huge vortex. We stopped the car and got out to watch them, having never seen a sight like it. It was mesmerising, magical.

* disclosure: I literally ran the one morning. And I only ran a tiny bit. Those hills! That heat! Ridiculous.

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We arrived at the beach I’d stayed at and I found that the town was completely unfamiliar. Admittedly, it was 18 years ago I was there and at the time it was tiny, and it was in the opposite season (winter in southern Spain is heavenly, by the way), and I think I actually stayed at the opposite end of town. I remember a sleepy mostly-closed village, where we had to ask the local restaurant to open in advance if we wanted a meal. Now, in the height of summer, it was an unrecognisable bustling beach haven. Once we hit the beach I remembered the curve of the land – or at least I’m going to tell myself I did.

The beach was lovely. The children were maniacs, running in and out of the waves, playing ball and building sand ditches (not having quite mastered castles). Addie, who gets cold quite quickly (especially after her father dunks her head first into the ocean) ran and interrupted my sunbaking by asking for a cuddle. Happily obliging her, we sat quietly for a while and she murmured into my ear ‘Mama, your arms are as warm as the sun’. I died happy, folks.

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Our final excursion was to the southern most tip of mainland Europe: Tarifa. Or at least, it would have been had we been able find a bloody car park there. A dreadlocked mayhem that sort of reminded me of south east Asia, the town was crazy busy and we found it almost impossible to get to the tip of the country. So, four cranky people cut their losses and went to nearby Bolonia, where we pulled up near some Roman ruins (those dudes were everywhere, man) and had our last dip in the Med for a while. Unfortunately the wind was whip strong, and despite using child labour to weight all our possessions it wasn’t the most pleasant of days and we called it not long afterwards.

The rest of the week was spent pottering (me), reading (me), dipping in the pool (me), playing in cubby houses (not me…OK, sometimes me), lazily walking to lunch (me), getting up super early to take lovely snaps of the village at sunrise (are you kidding I am not insane. That was totally Tim, as evidenced below).

We all had our favourite pastimes, but the person who had the most cherished ritual of all was our Ted. Every morning around 8.30 the garbage men would drive up our street, noisily clanging and clattering. Our little man, waiting after his breakfast, would jump up, gasp, and run to the window where he would wave at them as long as they were in sight. After the first few days, they started waving at the top of the street and similarly didn’t stop until they turned the corner. This morning, he even earned himself a few toots of the horn. A happier holidayer there has never been.

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Summer, continued.

I’m sitting in a whitewashed Spanish casa, in a tiny town made of confusing and exhaustingly steep streets, perched on the side of a hill. It is about a million degrees; shade makes no difference. The male half of the family is taking a siesta (both having done a bit too much fiesta-ing last night) and Addie is off chit-chatting to herself, primarily about how long it will be before she will have another swim and whether or not she will put her whole head underwater (currently: not, but maybe tomorrow).

When planning this, our summer holiday proper, we didn’t realise how heavenly the season in Switzerland would be. It felt like we’d already had a solid summer before we even left home. Apparently it is the year of double the fun for us, as last Thursday we barrelled into the car to drive over 2000km to get here (not in one hit. We’re clearly a bit idiotic but not that crazy).

Our first stop, for convenience and to get a few miles under our belt, was Chambéry in France, not far from the Swiss border. Given the road trip was going to be intense, we decided to hold off on sightseeing until we reached our final destination. We figured we’d aim for one sight and one (hopefully decent) meal at each stop en route and not put too much pressure on ourselves to do much else. At Chambéry, this equated to a delicious Lyonnaise-style meal and a visit to the Fontaine des Éléphants. A tribute to a local military hero returning from a campaign to India, the fountain is locally know as ‘the four arseless’ as the pachyderms are lacking their rear quarters.

Unfortunately our excellently located AirBnB was also weird, hot and mozzie ridden, so we departed absurdly early the next morning. Perhaps it was for the best as it was our longest driving leg, down the coast of France and Spain to Valencia. Due to our pre-dawn departure we arrived in time to check off our Valencia activity: Turia Park. We hired bikes and cycled around the former river turned massive green space. The kids, who had done amazingly well on the ten hour drive, were indulged in their every request for parks and splashing in any available water. (Our meal here: seafood tapas. Hurrah for no longer being land locked!)

Our final day of transit – coincidentally my driving leg – was also the most spectacular scenery wise. We made our way from Valencia to the town I’m now sweltering in, Jimena de la Frontera. The route was made of wide brown expanses, hills lined with cultivated olive and orange groves, and craggy odd-shaped peaks, all spiked with the occasional peep of the Mediterranean.

We arrived late afternoon, and after meeting my friend for a drink (red wine and lemonade. When in Jimena, as they say) made our way to our digs for the next week or so. The house has been a year-long renovation project for my friend; we’re the inaugural visitors in what will be a holiday rental. It is traditional for the area: white washed and multi-leveled, with cooling tiles, exposed beams, low doorways (Tim’s noggin can attest to this) and hidden terraces. It also, to the delight of the kids and the relief of the parents, has a tiny pool which is the perfect size for sitting in with a beverage after the heat of the day has subsided.

It’s a slow moving town. Partly because it’s Spanish, partly because it’s hot, and partly because it’s steep (but probably mostly because it’s Spanish). The weekend we arrived was the annual Féria so around 9pm the town – the Purler ring-ins included – started mobilising down to the main square, which became a hot spot of cerveca, jamon and flamenco (and several far less traditional Spanish things: dodgem cars and jumping castles). I couldn’t quite bring myself to let my kids stay out fiesta-ing as long as the Spanish brats (2am!!) but they made it to a very respectable midnight.

Today, we walked up winding cobbled streets past wild blackberries, fig and avocado trees to the medieval Castillo de Jimena de la Frontera. Built by the Grenadian Moors, it was one of many points that guarded access to Gibraltar and the Bay of Algeciras. Although in ruins now (another ‘broken castle’, to Addie’s ongoing confusion. Actually, not ‘Addie’: she insisted on being called ‘Princess Anna’ for the duration of our visit. I was apparently to be called the less glamorous and far less explicable ‘Fireman’), its strategic position was obvious as it looms above not only Jimena, but all surrounding land.

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We are trying to adjust to many things – the heat, Spanish timekeeping, red wine and lemonade, the bloody hills. This is most difficult for me, as I seem to operate on two functions: rushed or even more rushed. I’m trying to relax, to not worry so much about time frames (meñana, meñana as they say here) and to embrace slow walking in the shade, long lunches, late afternoon siestas and even later dinners. I am pleased to report that it’s not going too badly thus far, but I suspect we have the red wine and lemonade to thank for that.

Summer

At the risk of being sombre, I have probably already used at least half my allotted summers. A bunch of them are long forgotten. Some of them linger as sensory memories only, revisited briefly through the scent of, say, coconut oil or steamed corn on the cob. Some were most definitely squandered (I’m looking at you, wasted university summers). A few unfortunate years I missed them altogether: moving continents and foolishly –  unintentionally – following winter. The summers since the arrival of my children have been different again. Ads was born in the peak of an Australian summer and my memories are primarily of bunkering down in our darkened terrace, hiding from the sun and hoping for sleep. The last two, spent here in Switzerland, were fleeting both in terms of weather and enjoyment. I was pregnant for the first and had a six month old skwarker for the second, so my attention was focused primarily on morning sickness and baby naps and basically keeping everyone alive.

These unfortunate summers past all feel like a rehearsal for this year. This year – unexpectedly and delightfully – the summer has been amazing. Weather wise (which isn’t everything but it certainly helps) we’ve had bonza days since May. We had a solid influx of visitors over May and June, resulting in lots of lovely lake time and the start of a holiday vibe. But most importantly, I find myself reaping the full benefits of being a hausfrau: the kids are old enough to enjoy summer actives (swimming! camping! grilling!), I’m not ruled by Nap Schedules as restrictively, and we can spend as much time as we like by the water. Tim and I have finally copped on that only one parent needs to be at home of an evening, resulting in a tag team effort of evening lake swims. For the first time in maybe forever, I feel like I’m making the most of the season.

Here, the height of summer coincides with Swiss National Day. On 1 August (or thereabouts, the history books refer to ‘early August’) in 1219, three Swiss cantons – formerly independent states – banded together to protect their trading routes and themselves from Germany in the north. In a field called Rütli, north of Lake Luzern, these three states swore the ‘Oath on Rütli’ which established the first Swiss confederacy. Over time (and several battles) other states joined, and eventually the collective became the Confederation Helvetia of today. As you can imagine, it’s a much loved celebration by the Swiss. Firework shops pop up for the week preceding it, people take extended holidays around the formal day off, grills and picnics are prepared, and everyone wishes each other well on the day.

Our third Swiss National Day – a glorious thirty-plus summer’s day – started off appropriately, by shoving a mini Swiss flag in our breakfast. (Although admittedly not terribly Swiss, i could have been worse. We could have shoved the flag into our usual breakfast: vegemite toast.)

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We were spending the day not far from the meadow of Rötli, the site of Swiss confederacy. Located in one of the three cantons that formed the original Switzerland – Canton Uri – we were hearing to the Lorelei Bathing Islands.

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The ‘islands’ are actually made from reclaimed rock and gravel excavated during the building of the Gotthard Tunnel, the largest tunnel in the world, connecting Switzerland to Italy. A five year project, the islands were made to counter the erosion occurring at the site of the Reuss Delta and provide a habitat for native birds and water life of the area. They also – very conveniently for our needs – deliver excellent swimming for both children and adults alike.

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We had excitedly prepared our grill, and I had been very enthusiastically planning what fireworks I would purchase (doing something banned in my own country remains childishly thrilling, I’m afraid) when a national fire ban was put in place. We were annoyed for a few moments, but since a fire ban is indication of a delightfully warm summer, we happily complied. (Also, fines for breaching said ban were CHF20’000 minimum, so we were happy to eat non-grilled food.) We spent the day pottering by the lake, swimming across to the islands, exploring the nearby bird sanctuary and playing chaseys around the viewing tower.

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Although definitely idyllic I will admit the day wasn’t perfect. The children ate only olives and cake for lunch, poor little Teddy has a summer cold so was quite miserable, patience was tested from time to time, and there was a revoltingly filthy marshmallow incident in the car on the way home. Still, in the summer scheme of things it was a lovely way to celebrate once again our adopted country, and since that marshmallow came in a packet bearing the Swiss flag all is forgiven.

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