Lago di Como, Autumno

It seems little ridiculous, sitting here looking out through the finally lifting fog to the freshly snow-dusted mountains, to be writing about our last warmish-weather hurrah. But due to a broken computer resulting in no snaps until the replacement arrived (followed by the compulsory get-to-know-the-replacement period), here we are. But, more relevantly: here is where we were.

Soph & Jake Visit - Lake Como-415This late afternoon late Autumn beauty is Lake Como (in late September, as it happens). We were there with three quarters of the Purtell siblings: Dom, Soph and Tim. As you can imagine, having two of their doting aunts around all weekend was horrible for the children and they had a dreadful time.

Of course we adults did too. Everyone hates holing up in a small village in Italy with very little to do other than check out cute towns, eat delicious food and drink too much wine. Horrible.

Soph & Jake Visit -Lake Como-006It wasn’t our first time visiting the Como region. We spent the New Year in Varenna with my sister and her family the first year we moved here. This time we stayed in a little village close to Lecco, but having loved the little hill town of Varenna we decided to head back there. The seasons are so markedly different here that visiting in Autumn, rather than winter, felt like a completely different trip.

Soph & Jake Visit -Lake Como-070The medieval ruined castle that sits above town, nestled in ancient olive groves, was this time open for visitors. Spooky visitors.

Soph & Jake Visit - Lake Como-083There was a (very odd and incongruent) sculpture exhibition throughout the grounds, with several of these plaster-caped guys chilling and taking in the view. While fairly scary, they were nowhere near as bad as they castle’s main attraction: falconry.

Soph & Jake Visit - Lake Como-121 We watched a heavily-gloved trainer manage several of the enormous birds, which would fly effortlessly off across the lake, circling high above us on their return. (Also, yes, Tim may have been lying down in the afternoon sun to get that shot. Since we had Aunty Day Care the entire weekend, there was very little reason to do much other than relax, and pose for cheesy ‘I’m an active parent’ snaps.)

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And admire the view, of course.

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The following day we went to the town of Como. We took a boat across the lake and spent the morning wandering through the town, working up an appetite by ninja leaf-throwing missions on poor unsuspecting* Uncle Jake.

* unsuspecting my butt. He totally saw them a mile away but really is the very best kind of uncle and feigned complete shock and surprise, and then counter-leaf-attacked like a champ.

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Eventually enough time had passed to justify pulling up at a sunny restaurant on the lake for a long and lovely Sunday lunch (rosé! pizza! tiramisu! i-pad!). Apparently not as delighted with lazing in the afternoon warmth as their parents, Aunty Dom took the little ones to get themselves throughly drenched before heading home. Since I remained lounging in the restaurant (there may or may not have been limoncello involved) I didn’t mind in the slightest.

The next day, Soph and Jake made their way to Berlin for the final leg of their holiday. We caught up with them the following week before they flew back to Australia, but as is common when we meet family and friends over here we start to wonder when we will see them again. The answer (invariably ‘we don’t know, but soon we hope’) is becoming something we increasingly ponder as our time here goes on.

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Rehearsing

My ears are ringing. My lips, tongue and – bizarrely – teeth  are throbbing. I reek of second hand cigarette and cigar smoke, so much so that I have been ordered to take a quarantining shower and leave the offending clothing in isolation until it is washed. I am slightly fuzzy due to a couple of hearty glasses of red wine. I am training for Fasnacht.

You might recall a few years ago Tim joined a band for Luzern’s largest and most chaotic street party. It’s an epic part of Luzern culture – a week in February where the city shakes off the shackles of winter and parties like…well, I’ve not really ever seen partying like it. Close to one hundred bands of varying quality and historical significance don their battle dress: grotesquely exaggerated masks, themed costumes, a wide range instruments (but an undeniable focus on horns and drums) to wander the alleys playing the gaudy Guggenmusik typical of the carnival. The people – visitors and locals alike – also dress up and take to the streets, holding a spot with a home made bar, or following their favourite bands around, or just wandering to see what Fasnacht brings them. Our German teacher is a member of a theatrical Fasnacht group that does performance art during the festival. When we recently lamented the transition into colder weather he almost rubbed his hands together in excitement as he gleefully said, ‘Winter is wonderful because it means the start of Fasnacht season!’.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but somehow I, too, am now a member of Fritschi and Bucheli Musig. In an even more bizarre twist of fate, I am allegedly playing an instrument that I (or, arguably, anybody) have no business to be involved with: the soprano saxophone.

Let’s backtrack a tiny bit to, say, the early to mid 1990s. It will surprise precisely nobody to learn that I was a colossal band nerd. I played in both the school and local town band, as well as going to the annual band camp for our region. I was every bit as ignorantly and happily geeky as band kids are. But I did not play saxophone. I did not even play an instrument with a reed (the little wooden thing attached to an instrument on which you blow, which also happens to be responsible for my current mouth irritation). I played the flute. And past is the only correct tense for this statement: it’s been over 20 years since I regularly touched the thing.

I was keen to take my turn in the band, however I’d been hoping to play something I could actually, well, play. But on the night we all got together to decide this year’s theme (Schlagermusik, which is kind of pop meets 60s meets German oom-pah-pah. At least, I think it is) it was also decided that a flute would be too cumbersome as we marched through the tiny cobbled alleys of Luzern, and what was really needed was another saxophone. My protestations were numerous. I’d never played one before. Ever. I didn’t even own one. Also, did I mention I can’t play one? Apparently these went unheeded as a few days later one of the band members arrived at our door, where she handed over a soprano saxophone and promptly left. My fate was apparently decided.

Rehearsals are every Tuesday night. I spend the preceding hours getting increasingly nervous. There’s my rubbish playing, but there’s also the fact that the common language is Lözarner Swiss German. I can muddle through a basic bit of high Deutsch, but this dialect is as confusing as the notes I produce from the sax. But Tim usually makes me a nerve-stiffening drink, and I grab my backpack with the sax case sticking awkwardly out of the top, rug up against the icy winter night, and jump on my bike.

It’s not even a ten minute cycle away but from the second I start moving, pushing the bike as fast as I can against the shocking cold in an effort to warm up, I feel liberated, free. It’s partly because I’m stepping firmly out of the role of hausfrau. Partly because of the challenge that lies ahead, the thrill of doing something completely new. And I suspect partly because on some level I remember the same freedom of slapping on my P-plates and driving the family Nissan van off to band practice all those years ago.

We rehearse in a bunker underneath a school, which the band has occupied since the 1970s. I arrive red cheeked and out of breath, neither of which dissipates throughout the evening. The bunker is long and narrow. One end holds a large communal table, the other a bar and kitchen. The middle is where we sit to play. I’m sandwiched between Pia (who plays alto sax) and Rita (clarinet). I’m fairly sure there have been some friendly jokes made about the three of us but I have not understood them. Everyone grabs a drink, and the melodic bouncy lilt of the Schweizerdeutsch is replaced by the melodic bouncy lilt of trumpets, trombones, clarinets and one very bad soprano sax warming up.

Our conductor, Urs, announces the name of the song we’re about to play. Some are familiar: a When The Saints medley, Ke Sera Sera, Mary Lou, The Entertainer. Most are traditional Swiss tunes, and seeing my blank face when he names them, Urs has taken to humming a few starting notes for my ignorant benefit. There’s no music – they all play by ear – and when I asked what key the tunes were played in I was met with shrugs and laughter. To be fair, knowing wouldn’t have helped me much anyway as I don’t actually know the key of the instrument I’m learning to play.

There’s a positive psychology term: the flow. It’s also known more casually as being ‘in the zone’ and refers to when you’re so engrossed in an activity that you’re not distracted by your everyday thought patterns. Time moves quickly as you step outside yourself and do something other. Some consider it one of the key factors to happiness; at the very least it adds complexity and interest to life. The two hours we rehearse in that bunker fly by. I concentrate on the music, on the not-quite-musical sounds I’m making, on recognising tunes and rhythms and language. Every now and then something clicks and it works. I’m jolted back to the present, and look around myself. I can’t quite believe where I am. Nerdy 40 year old Wendy grins happily back across the years to nerdy teenage Wendy.

When he visited last summer, my father-in-law – himself an avid musician – commented on a book he was currently reading, Sapiens. I’m about half way through the book myself. It’s an epic and fairly slow going tome that surveys the history of human kind and postulates about our future. Mike had enjoyed many parts of it but expressed a sense of flabbergasted disbelief about something he thought was blatantly absent from the book. What business, he claimed, had a book discussing the history of our race without mentioning music?

I don’t share the same passion, but I think I understand where he’s coming from. I love the sense of making something – even if, in my case it’s fairly rubbish – bigger than myself. Something purely for enjoyment with very little practical purpose. Something that’s intellectually but also emotionally challenging, and that brings with it many distant memories of my long gone youth. The camaraderie within the room, where a bunch of strangers from a different culture with a different language can share something so effortlessly, and with such generosity. I also love being part of the biggest party that this town has to offer, seeing it from a completely different angle. I even love getting back on my bike, my hands numbing during the freezing ride home on icy roads through a sleeping wintery city. Because, after all, the cold is is wonderful. It means it’s Fasnacht season.

 

 

 

 

 

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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