Croatia

Week 20 & 21

The train from Slovenia to Croatia means you are leaving the Schengen Zone. (I have another post dedicated to Visa’s and zones etc). For this reason it is a patrolled border and when the train stops just prior to the border it quickly fills with heavily armed Slovenian police who are escorting Croatian immigration officials.

Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, the atmosphere in the train cabin changes, palpably. However we needn’t have worried about this exchange if Sam’s experience is anything to go by. He was sitting alone after being banished from the family for appalling behaviour. As the men with guns entered his cabin he glanced at them, cursorily, and went back to listening to his music. They made him take his headphones off (obviously ๐Ÿ™„) and demanded to know where he had come from and where he was going. After thinking hard on this for several seconds he looked up and replied “Actually, I have no idea”. This response both annoyed and stunned the officials enough to cause them to angrily stamp his passport and leave๐Ÿ˜‚

A single night in Zagreb as a transit stop was probably a short sighted move because it’s a very cool city. To make the most of it we decided on a several hour bike tour. These and the walking tours give you such a great overview of a new city. There’s often so much to see in these places you just don’t know where to start and when you’re travelling long term you lose the impetus to carefully research every place you’re visiting before you arrive. Plus, we are largely go with the flow travel types ๐Ÿค˜

We were in Zagreb in the week leading up to Easter and it was adorable to see the trouble they go to for, what is, their largest Catholic celebration. We met a lovely Canadian girl who has been living and working in Croatia for years and she had some really illuminating things to say about political corruption and levels of general unhappiness with the state of social affairs in Croatia. Sounded tough and made us grateful to live where we do. Tourism over the last 20 years has saved their economy from collapse, but they are still losing all their best and brightest to central Europe and further afield. On the upside, she served some awesome poutine among all that depressing talk!

For me, the main reason I came to Croatia was to see Plitvice lakes. I don’t have a bucket list as such, but if I did, this would make it. We drove into Rastoke/Slunj and had our minds blown by the bizarre sight below. A tiny village built ON and OVER water and waterfalls. It was incredible and about the ONLY thing worth seeing in Rastoke ๐Ÿ˜‚

Making our way to the lakes early the following day we picked up 7x hot chocolates at the dinky little local place for the bargain basement price of 20c each! We’d read lots of nightmare info about the lakes being worse than Disneyland in the summertime (the photos prove it), however, on arrival we knew it was going to be ok. The day was perfect and although there were people around, they didn’t detract from what I can only say was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.

You can’t swim at the lakes anymore – but you can swim in the same river if you stay in Rastoke or Slunj and TBH the lakes are so incredible you kind of don’t want to. Long day, but very, very rewarding. We missed Barb and Neil who were initially planning to join us, but ultimately couldn’t.

Onto Zadar which was a great little coastal town on a small island. We spent Easter long weekend here listening to church bells for about 24hrs solid. The joy of the bells in Europe haven’t worn off yet ๐Ÿ˜† I can imagine they might over time.

It’s a brilliant fortified Adriatic town that required a little boat ride by the ‘Boatmen of Zadar’ to get to the old town. There’s a cool monument to the sun and an interestingly designed set of concrete stairs that allow the waves to lap up underneath them producing tones like an organ.

Incredibly, long term travel does very little to relieve a lot of the dross aspects of family life, like deciding what to have for dinner. Although perhaps it provides more time and opportunity to come up with some novel solutions to mundane problems!! We try to eat in as often as we can in an attempt to keep costs down….here’s our attempt to engage the children in dinner decisions!!!

The what do you want for dinner online survey!

Lots of things are more difficult whilst travelling. I have washed clothes in all permeations of what could be considered ‘a laundry’. From hand washing them in a river to using laundromats to the dark basements of apartment buildings to even having an old Italian nonna do it for us. We’ve shopped in 9 different countries supermarkets hunting for items in 6 different languages…..and you thought the weekly Countdown shop was time consuming. Additionally all the domestic ‘lifemin’ you accumulate at home doesn’t go anywhere either. In fact we still deal with all the usual stuff from home PLUS all the trip planning admin. Sigh, this long term travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!!!!!

From Zadar we packed up the van AGAIN and after a quick look around the stunning Togir we arrived in Split. A bit of standard arguing over the bedding arrangements and we bunkered down in anticipation of our Croatian Island boating adventure!

Essentially cruising the islands on a chartered boat is hella popular and expensive. I had given up on the idea altogether until a chance online meeting with an American lady who put us in touch with a more affordable charter company. There’s something like 1000+ islands off the Adriatic coast. There are fast ferries that start running between the popular islands from end of April, or you can head out and stay on a few islands – there’s plenty of accommodation. But we are treating this whole trip as a tasting plate of sorts. So we want to ‘drop into’ as many places as possible, sleeping on the boat and essentially use it as a circuitous mode of transport between Spilt and Dubrovnik.

We were able to afford a 45ft motor yacht which once onboard appeared a little like the set up we have when we go camping, but with less room and MUCH smaller beds. We were introduced to our skipper ‘Eddie’, a 21yo chain smoking Croat who spoke not a lick of English and was of zero persuasion to try.

We were reassured he was one of Croatia’s imminent young sailors and certainly, apart from a little scrape here and there, he seemed to know what he was doing.

The weather was atrocious and despite being forewarned that the itinerary was far too ambitious for the timeframe even in good weather, we forged ahead! She’ll be right eh!!!! The next four nights passed in a blur of continual nausea, windy, choppy weather (interspersed with some sun), defrosting food, long walks to shower blocks and hot, stuffy sleepless nights – essentially camping, on the sea. Jordy was largely happy as she camps on the sea every summer and thought that the sleeping arrangements on this boat were better than what she was used to!!!!

Eddie turned out to be like all 21yo mumma’s boys. His expectation was that I would cook and clean for him. The islands were cool, but much like what we had already seen along that coast from Slovenia to Split.

All that said, looking back on it all now we laugh long and hard about some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Like the time Eddie insisted he knew how to play UNO. Then it transpired that he had absolutely no idea once the game got going but was too embarrassed to communicate. Or the time Andrew woke the girls up by screaming like a drill sergeant at the head of their bed only to have Jordyn bolt upright and almost knock herself unconscious on the bulkhead (one in a long line of Andrew’s cruel and unusual attempts at waking the girls. #dadlife)

We called into Brac, Hvar, Korcula and Mljet which was a nice little tasting plate of the famous islands now so popular with tourists. They each had their own charm and reminded us very much of the islands in and around Auckland.

We sailed into Dubrovnik Marina on a particularly rough day at sea and it was a welcome sight! The Marina was absolutely packed and watching the skippers “park” is entertainment in and of itself. The island season was just starting and there were throngs of backpacker-esque young people loading up supermarket trolleys with random food items and alcohol, ready to squeeze aboard all the chartered boats.

We thanked Eddie, who I think was happy to see the back of us too, and filled with the joy and confidence of dry land underfoot tried to get into town. Easier said than done it turned out. Dubrovnik was running it’s annual “Fun run marathon” and the marina was locked down. Nothing in or out. To pass the time while we tried to negotiate with some local drivers Sam decided to fracture his thumb!! Sam is consistent in his likeness to a dog. He has an uncanny ability to make good times better and bad times far worse.

We eventually got a good price to get into town via a very circuitous route which actually provided some amazing views of the old town from the South coast.

I had booked a few nights in a flash hotel anticipating our post boating moods. So we settled in there and paid crack cocaine prices for an extremely average lunch on a lovely terrace watching boats that looked like they’d come directly from the Iron islands of GOT.

The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was peppered with ups and downs. We found the old town and surrounds entirely overrun with tourists and kitsch tourist crap now that cruise season has started. It made our time there a struggle. We had a good chat with a couple of locals, both of whom benefit financially from the enormous influx of Croatian tourists over the last 20 years. They talked about how life has changed enormously for the little town, making it largely unlivable for many. Lots of families have had to relocate their spouses and children to Zagreb or elsewhere while one of them stays for the seasonal work.

I met a lovely Australian couple, both retired with adult children for whom travel is now a priority. We shared an impromptu lunch date and exchanged contact details. Turns out they live not far from my Mum on the NSW South Coast! With some luck we’ll call in on them at the end of the year.

Our ED hospital experience with Sam was insanely different to the environment I work in at home. They have cut all the corners to deliver a fast paced service that gets the basics right in the shortest amount of time possible for the least cost. I ended up having to ask a family friend and some colleagues at home for advice about how to manage the thumb and we sorted it that way (the joys of accidents while travelling).

Overall the food was average, the environment lovely but feeling the pinch of too many people. We enjoyed our walk around the wall, spending a little time with locals and our fancy hotel breakfasts.

I’d definitely return to Croatia, but only to hit up the areas not being advertised on every travel site in the universe. It didn’t have quite the same appeal for us as Slovenia…..but I think the gap between expectations and reality is starting to emerge on this trip. The psychology is interesting.

Weekly Stats
Items lost/broken/confiscated: (to the tune of 12 days of xmas) : “12 types of hairband, 11 single socks, 10 water bottles, 9 cremes and lotions, 8 USB sticks, 7 hats and beanies, 6 aftershaves, 5 ADAPTERS, 4 headphones, 3 mobile phones, 2 laptop chargers and a puffer jacket that was Nealieeee’s”.
Border control strong disapproval = 1
NEW favourite Mis-sung Lyrics:
Taylor Swift. “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers” = “I’ve got a long list of starbucks lovers”
Most Common argument Combinations:
1. Sam v Eve
2. Sam v Lily
3. Sam v Zac
4. Sam v Mum
Languages loosely learnt and forgotten = 5

My axe fell into the honey

Week 18 & 19

The train from Hungary to Ljubljana was largely without incident. The trains are those cool, old world carriages with the plush seats and curtains. We met a guy from small town, western NSW – the only other person in our carriage. He was a sweetheart – trying to escape the inevitability of taking over his father’s mechanic repair business.

Immediately on arrival into the tiny little country of Slovenia we were struck by how friendly the people were. Nothing was too much trouble for the taxi drivers who chatted all the way to our accommodation and made Andy show him our newly established internet presence ๐Ÿคฃ

Ljubljana, the capital, is well known for its compact, picturesque center all overlooked by the Ljubljana Castle with funicular up the hill. We spent several days exploring on foot. Lots of food places, markets and little knik knack stores. The kids were feeling all ‘historied out’ (a common problem with long term travel in Europe) so we kept things light and just lived like the locals.

We wandered a bit further out of town to see Metelkova which is a little commune of artists. It’s considered an autonomous social and cultural centre and was previously the military headquarters of the Army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eventually becoming the Slovenian headquarter of the Yugoslav National Army. It was cool to see what a bunch of creatives could turn a military site into!

We picked up another enormously ugly rental van and headed into the countryside. Slovenia is more ‘well put together’ than Czech, however once out of the big centres, life appears to have remained very, very simple.

We stayed in an Airbnb that, while located in the middle of nowhere, was strategic with regards to its position to the big Lakes. The lady hosting us had left us some homemade ouzo (as is the custom in most of Eastern Europe). We managed to fool Zac into thinking it was just water in a very small glass and he put it back in one gulp after which he rolled around complaining of imminent death ๐Ÿ˜‚

We can confirm Lake Bled & Bohinj are as beautiful as everyone says. Hardly any tourists while we were there also, bonus! I got a phone call from the Airbnb Global VP while we were tucking into the famous Lake Bled Cream Cake. She was as slick as you would imagine someone in her position is and as hard as I tried to be irritated by the whole affair, I couldn’t help but like her! Goddamnit (she reminded me of my friend Desiree, who I miss and so it felt like I was catching up with a friend ๐Ÿ™„).

Airbnb were good to us in the face of media pressure, but ultimately have poor adherence to policy around guest safety and host vetting. When an issue does arrive it is dealt with very poorly indeed until or unless you get some media traction. It raises lots of questions about the regulation of the sharing economy, generally. Anyhooo, that’s all behind us now. On request, Andy wrote a little blog article about finding hidden cameras that got about 80,000 hits (approx 79, 950 more than these trip posts). We discovered that if you want to monetise a blog you need to be getting about 100,000 hits a day!!!!!! Nuts. Turns out blogging is not entirely the ‘easy way out’ ๐Ÿ˜‚

From the central Lakes we headed to Bovec in Triglav national park. It’s a gorgeous little town perched on the edge of the Soca River. We had a fun morning rafting the River with an English rafting guide whose job was made more enjoyable (for him) by humiliating me. He used me as the dummy for a demonstration on how to pull someone who falls out of the boat into the river. My face ended up in his crotch, much to the entire family’s delight. He later decided to push me off the boat for no particular reason (no, I wasn’t talking). Andy swung into action so my face ended up in HIS crotch rather than the instructors – I’ve never been more relieved to have my face between Andy’s legs! ๐Ÿคฃ

After the beautiful national park it was hard to see how Slovenia could be any prettier, then we got to the coast. Piran is a sleepy little fishing village come resort town on the Adriatic Coast. It is one of the three major towns ofย Slovenian Istria and you can see the Italian Coast stretching away in a big horseshoe from its pier. It was our first introduction to the Adriatic Coast and the weather was JUST warm enough to enjoy it. Next door is a more established town, Portaroz. Both were just stunning and we enjoyed them more than any of the Croatian coastal towns to come. I swam, of course, and a bunch of locals lingered to check out the crazy lady.

We headed back to Ljubjana via Predjama (or as we like to call it Pyjama) castle for a final night before getting the train (which was hours delayed) to Zagreb.

Managed to sneak Jords into the hotel for freee, always something to celebrate. Not many down days in Slovenia and so not much school work or life-min or blogging getting done. The food in Slovenia was decent with some variety as well as some good local fare. Andy & I went out for a degustation at Atelje (our first nice meal out without the kids this trip). Incredible and clever local food and a real education re Slovenia’s wine growing regions. The wine is so different to home and really enjoyable. The sommelier was super interested in our industry in NZ, so it was fun being able to talk about home with someone!

All in all Slovenia was one of our favourite destinations so far. It is geographically beautiful and varied. The people are super dooper friendly and everyone speaks English to a useful degree. It’s not over touristed yet, is well priced with good food choices. Easy driving. Definitely pop it on your list of European destinations.

“This means nothing to me….Ohhhhhh Vienna”

Week 16 & 17

Jordy has not allowed any of us a days rest from Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ since we pulled up at Hauptbahnhof station Vienna, from Prague. To give you some context, her school drama teacher once encouraged her to speak, rather than sing her way through a lead role in the school’s annual musical ๐Ÿ™„ย 

She is our calamity Jane and travelling through Austria with her has provided us enough entertainment that we needn’t have left home at all! She is a busy bee and is always doing something – loudly and clumsily. Every day something is temporarily lost or dropped or broken or leaked. Lily has famously been referred to as Grumpy Bear over the years, so it felt fitting that Jordy became Oopsy Bear!

If she’s not looking for said lost items, she’s wandering through shopping malls with meters of toilet paper hanging from her waistband like a tail or falling onto the ground off seemingly innocuous structures in public or starting up conversations with absolute strangers thinking they are one of us or touching priceless works of contemporary art and getting told off! Needless to say we love her and the constant comic relief she provides.

Vienna was a shock to the system after rural Czech. To say it is grand or posh really just doesn’t do it justice. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a beautifully appointed city. It appears that every building is the life work of a notable architect and constructed to commemorate some great battle victory. The Austrians have a very long history of rule over much of Eastern Europe and that wealthy history shows.

We stayed in a gorgeous Venetian style apartment (no hallways) right in the center of town which was going swimmingly until the evening when the entire overhead kitchen cabinet fell on mine and Sam’s heads for no particular reason. We were already a bit weary after our Irish Airbnb disaster, however the owner dealt with this problem swiftly and fairly. So apart from a few minor injuries I guess you could say, no harm no foul.

We hit most of the big tourist spots including Schronbrunnen Palace which is an incredible building and grounds and the location of Mozart’s first ever performance to the Empress at the age of six! What the hell have I been doing with my kids!!!

We also got out to the amusement park which has a permanent home in one of Vienna’s large parks. There we braved one of the worlds tallest swinging chair rides. As expected the adults fared far worse than the kids! We made good use of the lime scooters cruising down by the Danube Canal. Andy & I visited one of the cities oldest coffee houses and paid a kings ransom for an average cup of coffee and pastry. We would have loved to have attended an orchestra evening or the ballet but alas neither were playing over our time there. We did have a lovely lunch up on one of Viennas rooftop restaurants with a beautiful skyline view on a perfect spring day – a highlight! The city also heralded the start of our gelato obsession. I’ll put that in the “pro column” for now.

What hit us hard once we got to Austria was the preponderance of smokers and cigarette smoke. It’s EVERYWHERE. All the apartment buildings stink of it! Such a shock if you’re from countries with long standing smoke free laws. We didn’t know it at the time, but things were about to get worse on that front! All in all, a stunningly, dazzling city that lends itself to mooching around, lots of attractions, buildings, museums and gastronomy opportunities. Totally “fancy europe”.

From there Andy drove us along the country to cute as a button, little Salzburg. Probably best known for its Sound Of Music filming locations we loved it’s compact little alleyways riverside setting and historical significance. We had a good laugh by mistaking the imposing and mean looking fortress perched menacingly up Festungsberg hill for the charming Mirabell Palace. Those gardens were mighty hard to find until we started listening to the audio tour and it all became clear!!! Dumbest tourists EVER! My brother helped us turn that mistake into a win by recommending the best schnitzel restaurant in the city just nearby!

We did find the palace eventually and spent an hour or so as the cast of Andy’s debut directing film “Barkers Recreate Sound of Music Magic”.

On the way out of town we paid a visit to one of the big salt mines (no longer in operation) but a fascinating history of how the area prospered through the mining and exportation of salt! Was really interesting to see how it’s actually mined and processed (such a little thing we all take for granted).

Innsbruck turned out to be the little surprise of Austria for us. Set against the Kerwendel Alps and close to the border of Germany, Italy and Switzerland it’s the capital of the region Tyrol (the horseshoe end of Austria). It is famous as a winter sports destination and has hosted the winter olympics a couple of times. We were there at the end of the skiing season, but still benefited from the beautiful snow capped mountains. The little town itself is a stunner and led Andy to come up with his winning formula for European cities: 1. A central river or coastal location 2. An old town for pedestrians only 3. Visible mountains (at least 1) 4. Beautiful re-purposing of old buildings to make modern spaces. Innsbruck is moving toward 100% bike transport in the next 10 years and already has a huge uptake. Everyone cycles. So to hire bikes for a day was an obvious thing to do. We got to see most of the city (some of it several times over as we got lost trying to navigate and ride). We also took the cool funicular (which starts in town as an underground train then heads almost vertically up the mountain) for a birds-eye view of the area (oh, and a coffee).

A great little base for those wanting a very central position for day trips to areas like the Dolomites and Bavaria and for those who like the idea of a European Queenstown!

On the way to the Dolomites we came across some of the most expensive private motorways we’d encountered so far as well as some of the most terrifying toll booth cashiers. Screaming in Austrian does not allow for better translation of Austrian to English (a good lesson for us all when dealing with tourists). Andy repaid him in kind though so we drove on in hysterics rather than affronted.

The Dolomites is one of the most striking landscapes we have come across so far. It looks like a cardboard cut out of an american western set. Dolomite is a bit like limestone, but harder and darker. It’s definitely a place you need to see at least once in your life.

We stayed in a self contained chalet owned and run by a lovely inter-generational Southern Tyrol family. It was really nice to spend some time with locals and get to know a bit more about the area. Similar to Innsbruck it’s most well known for its skiing, mountain biking and hiking. Andy and Jords headed up the slopes one day and were gone for about 10 hours. When they got back they both looked absolutely knackered! So much so that a group of locals cheered them off the slopes!!!

They told us that once they got up over the initial mountain face an entire tableland of mountain tops opened up to them. There were 53 ski lifts and 140kms of runs. They found whole towns up there with night clubs and supermarkets etc. The whole area has regions that are particularly good for particular types of skiing so there is something for everyone and to top it off they have 300 days of sunshine a year on account of the geography. We suspect it is also cheaper than some of the more popular skiing regions in central Europe.

But even if you don’t ski it’s still entirely worth a visit. Andy and I hiked through knee deep snow one day to find a waterfall. The fact that it was entirely frozen confirmed our suspicions that we were here at a weird in-between season time. So when we arrived at one of Lily’s bucket list lake destinations to find it looking nothing like her Instagram photos we weren’t overly surprised! We did all manage to get sunburnt though and this was the first time since Autumn 2018 we got to wander around in T shirts!

Back to Innsbruck where we got the all day train to Budapest and were introduced to the wonderful world of the Hungarian Rail System. The three defining features of which are: 1. Two trains often leave from the same platform at the same time in different directions. You can’t easily tell when you arrive on the platform there is two trains there because they back up to each other. By the time we realised (which in our defense was relatively quickly) we found ourselves running down the same platform we had just arrived at to a train that looked identical to the one we had gotten off, pulling away in the other direction! 2. The toilets consist of a directly open chute to the tracks. You get a nice little breeze while you go and you get to watch your produce hit the tracks below. 3. The train will often travel both ways on the track during the same journey. It is quite literally a case of one step forward, two steps back and as a friend pointed out, provides an opportunity for hitting the same toilet target twice!

By the time we arrived in Budapest our international media careers were in full swing. The Irish Airbnb story was sent to Stuff NZ by a friend- which is where we thought it would die. However the photo of us all waving at the camera must have caught the media’s imagination and before we knew it we were fielding emails, texts and messenger messages from every large and small media outlet, first in NZ and Australia, then the UK, then the rest of Europe. Just when we thought it was going to go away, it hit the States and we got slammed all over again. The news cycle is the weirdest thing. The quality of journalism that goes with it a real shame (for the most part). That said it wasn’t long before Airbnb started to back pedal and we were refunded for our stay, alternative accommodation and given some compensation + the host is currently under investigation by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. So a good outcome.

My favourite part of this story however, is that several weeks later, a friend who teaches English to adults sent me the link to an English lesson based around our news story!

The final little chapter here was our 4 nights in Budapest. It was essentially a return to a country with a far less privileged history than Austria and these different histories make a tangible difference in the look and feel of the current cities. Walking from the train station to our accommodation was the first time on this trip that we all felt like we could be mugged at any moment. Turns out, it is well known as one of the most dodgy parts of the city. The sidewalk was littered with dog poo and the smell coming up from the drains could put hair on your chest. At this point we weren’t sure what to expect. HOWEVER Budapest did what it does best and enchanted us all with its quirky charm and gruff Hungarians.

We spent a lovely day exploring the beautiful old Buda side of the river with it’s Castle, church, caves and Fisherman’s Bastion. We made fun of all the hardcore selfie action and the girls toyed with the idea of starting an Insta account aimed at ruining selfies in a spectacular fashion in every city we visit. We also spent a day mooching the streets of Pest with all its restaurants and markets. Our final day was spent in a Slovenly fashion at the turkish baths which had just reopened the day before. The Hungarian men proved weak to the charms of the girls and waiters were quite literally falling over themselves and dropping plates in their enthusiasm to impress!

A great long weekend in a city that is a great mix of grunge and fancy with tonnes of character, cheap food and drink and easy to get around. We decided to leave the rest of Hungary for another trip and would certainly go back to explore further afield.

Weekly Stats
Leaving home attempts and threatening to send children home: Previous total 7. We’ve stopped doing this now. We’re settling into the new normal. Miracles of miracles. Only took 4 months!

Airbnb concealed cameras discovered = steady at 1

Airbnb near death/maiming incidents = 1

International news media interviews = 26

Money generated from aforementioned media interviews = $0

Average time logged on home schooling programmes per child per WEEK = 40minutes ๐Ÿ™„ (no rhodes scholars here)

Vomiting & Diarrhoea episodes = 1 – this coinciding with open chute train toilets = 1

Number of connecting trains pulling away from platform as the 7 of us run with outstretched arms, yelling = 1

Number of laughing Viennese train conductors = 1

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Week 15 & 16

That little Czech proverb is a fitting one. Like everyone, I’ve had a few places that I have always wanted to visit. The Czech Republic is one of them. I’m not entirely sure where this idea came from originally, however it has been buoyed over the years by reading different writers accounts of the place. There really is no time like the present and as we’ve explored this fantastic little country over the last week and a half, we’ve felt so pleased that we decided to take this trip NOW. I think as you get older (for many people) your assessment of risk changes and your tolerance toward inconvenience and change lessens. As Andy and I drove/navigated our way out of central Prague earlier this week in a left sided 9 seater commercial van on the right side of the road for the first time this trip, I wondered how keen we’d be to attempt this in 20 years time???? I don’t want to sell us short, but you know.

Dancing House – Prague

Backtracking for a minute, we took a cheap Ryanair flight from Dublin to Prague. Ryanair carry more passengers around Europe than any other airline. The planes are literally hard plastic seats in a barely lined fuselage. There is no behind seat pocket, there are no head rests, the arm rests are fixed. The company tried to order their latest batch of aircraft with no window shades and only 1 toilet but were banned by aviation authority standards. They are currently pushing to get rid of seats altogether on their shorter routes!!! Class. They actually have a pretty checkered ethical reputation, however it’s hard to say no to flights for 17euro!

For such a geographically small country, The Czech Republic has one of the most convoluted histories of any in Europe (skip this paragraph if you aint here for a history lesson). Originally settled by the Celts, then the Germanic tribes, and later the Slavic people, the Kingdom of Bohemia (part of the Roman Empire) emerged as an important power in the 9th Century. Roman rule lasted right up until the 1800’s (seeing a mix of great and less great rulers) after which the Austrians and the Habsburg Empire took control. Czechoslovakia was formed from the Czech and Slovak lands of the Austrian Empire after WWI. However at the start of World War II, Czechoslovakia quickly became a part of Germany. Badness ensued for many minority ethnicities (including Czech Jews). If all this switching and swapping of ruling countries wasn’t enough, after the war, the country came under the dominion of the Soviet Union and the communist party. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, Czechoslovakia’s freedom was restored. The Czechs and the Slovaks decided they would part ways and split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia (a country I didn’t know existed until Jordyn told me ๐Ÿ˜ฑ ). In 2004 the Czech Republic became a member of the EU (& the schengen zone, thus starts our ticking visa clock). BIG BREATH…..annnnnnd that brings us up to date. Don’t say you’re not learning anything here!

ลฝiลพkov Television Tower

There is an awful lot to love in Prague. It is physically beautiful, easy to navigate, it’s people are super friendly and polite, it has a cracking coffee scene, is reasonably priced and is home to plenty of unexpected and interesting tidbits.

Things were still reasonably quiet from a tourist perspective in March and we were staying well out of any of the tourist areas. As such, our experience was a pretty authentic one. It was a case of learn some basic Czech phrases and watch carefully for the way things are done or don’t get what you need. The kids did a really great job of this – some more so than others, but it was cool to watch. I took myself off for some downtime to a little cafe one morning while the boys were busy. I confidently placed my order in Czech and boasted about it to a friend online until the entirely wrong breakfast showed up and I could do nothing but smile and say “Dekuji” (thank you)
๐Ÿค”

The boys took the opportunity to join their new Czech police force buddies at a gun firing range out of town and acquaint themselves with the latest and greatest in the world of semi-automatic guns – (all a bit topical now) as well as some old favourites. (still not sure what to make of this as Sam woke this morning singing ” I wake up in the morning I got murder on my mind
๐Ÿ™„ )

Home on the Range
Sam with his 16 Gauge Pump Action Shotgun – god help us

In the art gallery just down the road from our apartment you could pop in to check out some original Picasso, Renoir, van Gogh and Klimt’s – you know, just casually. We used the trams and trains (all cheap as chips) to see many of the ginormous buildings – both old and modern, we lime scootered through the parks, we hung out in the square waiting for the astronomical clock to chime, Zac tried to smuggle a bunch of bullets through the castle security checkpoint and we tried some amazing pastries.

Astronomical Clock
Mmmmmmm

There’s plenty of quirky installation art and sculpture for public enjoyment in Prague. I just love the sense of humour – which can be sorely lacking in some art scenes.

Crawling Baby installation

From Prague we drove most of the way across the country to Olomouc, stopping in Kutna Hora to admire the Sedlec Ossuary – a little church decorated with the bones of 30,000 dead residents (most from the plague, some from religious wars – all wanting to be buried here because of some soil brought to the site from Israel). It was both eerie and also really beautiful. Bones buried in the ground almost seem like a waste after seeing this, although I’m not sure how to feel about the consent issue??

Sedlec Ossuary

Olomouc was a bit of a strange stop. We arrived late and our apartments, while comfortable, were in a light industrial area where an announcement in Czech kept coming on over loud speakers in the streets? Double dutch to us! We came here for: 1. The OG astonomical clock – but it was under scaffold (like most of Europe in Dec – March) 2. The six baroque fountains (which weren’t working like most of Europe’s fountains in Dec – March) and 3. What I had been told was the stinkiest cheese in the world.



Syreฤky cheese -which is aged under hunks of meat-is famous to the region and apparently gives you the worst halitosis you can imagine for days (despite teeth brushing). Frankly, it proved to be a little underwhelming. It was stinky and it did stink out the van AND our apartment but it didn’t EAT like the stinkiest cheese in the world. Jordy and I gobbled it down and agreed we’d had far worst at home (both accidentally and intentionally).

Olomouc – looking for cheese.

From here we headed to a sunny little place called Pavlov “where the beer flows like wine and the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano” ๐Ÿคฃ . Ah, no, we wish! Andy reckons I chose this place because it sounds like Pavlova and I have to say once there, that would’ve been as good a reason as any. I don’t like calling places ‘shitholes’, but if I did, this would likely meet criteria. It looked like an abandoned town on the Mexican border. To make matters worse, on arrival we were told the accommodation we had booked had been crashed into by a semi trailer and was no longer suitable. Because I am an optimist by nature I WILL say that while we chucked a big u-ey and headed hastily outta town (with Andy happily driving on the wrong side of the road until Jordy dryly pointed it out from the backseat), Pavlov did deliver two pretty freakin awesome things. The first was the only underground house I’ve seen on the trip so far. (For those that know me well, you’ll appreciate how fed up the kids became waiting for me in the car while I crawled all over the place trying to work out what water membranes and irrigation systems they’d used ๐Ÿ™„ ).

Underground house, Pavlov.

It also delivered the town next door, Mikulov – such a little gem, set against an incredibly unusual rocky landscape.

Little Mikulov

We re-routed to Brno, the second largest city in the country where we found some much better accommodation options, celebrated St Paddy’s Day and our 17th wedding anniversary in a old Czech nuclear bunker & cave system occupied by the Germans in WWII and found another cool astronomical clock. Yes, it looks like a big, black dick and yes, it’s still a sore point in the minds of the locals. BUT, what it does do, is spit out a large glass marble at 11am every day through one of the random holes in the structure. People gather, pick a hole to shove their hand in and wait. We considered wrestling the lucky little winner for the ball to keep as a momento, but look at him!!!

The Black Dick
A young Harry Potter with his glass marble
Brno
Brno

After a final night in Bruno watching teenagers shooting up heroin on the street from our hotel window, the last stop on our whirlwind Czech tour was to the very gorgeous Cesky Krumlov. We were definitely back on the tourist trail at this point, with good reason. The whole town is a designated UNESCO heritage site and is based around a brilliantly impressive castle set high upon a rocky hill.

Cesky Krumlov
Cesky Krumlov

Most castle moats in Europe are filled with water, this one is filled with brown bears – as in, actual bears. This seems in keeping with the Czech’s sense of humour – they have 20ft steel babies crawling up towers in Prague!

Bear in a moat

The Vltava River snakes its way around the region and so the town is built on a series of little islands linked by bridges. During summer the river attracts both Czech’s and visitors for its canoe and rafting adventures. Essentially everyone fills barrels with as much grog as possible (I haven’t even mentioned all the grog in this place – incredible – salami and vodka for breakfast are reasonably standard), they get totally shitfaced and float down the river for days at a time yelling and laughing with one another and other strangers, making friends and stopping along the way at specially designed pubs and eateries and camps ๐Ÿคญ .

Anyhoo, we were all pretty excited about the rafting until we were told that the river is currently the most flooded it’s been in 100 years and a guy died rafting in it last week. We’re pretty well insured, but you have to draw the line somewhere – although on reflection, we may have been able to divest of a couple of children had we gone ahead and insisted on no life jackets – kidding, kidding…kinda. Instead we played it safe and wandered around town. With the temp hovering around zero and a really good dump of snow that day, we were, in retrospect, pleased we weren’t out battling the rapids. Perhaps an activity best served warm.

So for those of you more interested in travel stuff – come to The Czech Republic! It’s reasonably priced, easy to self drive, super friendly locals, hardly any tourists if you’re not in Prague or Cesky Krumlov and an interesting change of culture and look at history. Great family destination we thought ๐Ÿ‘

How to increase your chances of finding a hidden camera

Take note of the title of this blog.  What you read below will give you some additional knowledge that may help you identify a hidden camera but it certainly wonโ€™t guarantee that.

We got lucky (if you can say that), the host had the hidden camera on the same network as the wifi that he allowed us access to and the stream was not protected (required authentication to access).

If a camera is hidden well and is not on the network (i.e. records to an internal memory card) or is on a network that you donโ€™t have access to it may be very difficult to identify.

Below are the steps we are now taking when booking/staying at an Airbnb (or similar).

Step 1: Read the house listing in detail and view all photos

Before you book a house make sure you aren’t setting yourself up to fail.

  • It is Airbnb policy that any cameras be detailed in the listing.  Scroll through all the details as there doesnโ€™t seem to be a defined place for the host to list these details.  Details could be in the description, the amenities section, the safety features or the house rules.
  • If a camera can be seen in a photo of the house listing then Airbnb deems that you have been notified of the cameras.

So, in summary if you want to avoid a house with cameras ensure that when you book it you have not been notified that there are cameras.

Step 2: Do a physical check of the house

  • First, understand what you are looking for.  Non-hidden cameras are pretty obvious and are readily identifiable as cameras.  Hidden cameras unfortunately come in all shapes and sizes and are hidden in numerous objects.

Here are some examples:

http://www.brickhousesecurity.com
Fan http://www.brickhousesecurity.com
Clock – http://www.brickhousesecurity.com
Yes, they even come disguised as screws.
This was the one we found. The hidden camera is in the enclosure on the left (the one on the right is a real smoke detector). If you zoom in on the picture you can see that I have stuffed tissue paper in the hole where the camera lens was so that we could work out what to do without the host watching us.

A camera has to “see” to take an image so it needs a hole (although that can be as small as a pinhole) or a clear substrate to see through.

  • Look for anything unusual in the rooms e.g. 2 smoke detectors in the same room, an alarm sensor but no alarm pad.
  • A hidden camera will typically be placed so it has a field of view of what the person wants to see. So usually on a ceiling, bedside table, bathrooms, corners of rooms etc. Remember that these cameras typically have a wide field of view.
  • Have a close look at any devices you find and see if you can see any lens. You can take photos using your phone up close with the flash or shine lights on them in the dark – the lens will usually reflect light.

Step 3: Scan the house network to identify potential cameras

Before we start you should note that a camera will not be discoverable on the network in the following circumstances:

  1. The camera is not on the same network as the network you have connected to.  That is, if a host wants to hide a camera they can connect it to a network that you may not have access to.
  2. If the camera records to an internal memory card then it doesnโ€™t need to be connected to a network and therefore wont show up on one.
  • Connect to host accommodation network. Typically all host houses provide wireless access with a password. Once you are connected to the hosts wireless network you can then access the network to discover what is on it.
  • Launch network scanning app and scan for devices connected to the network.

In my case I used an Android app called โ€œNetwork Scanner – First Rowโ€. There are many alternatives for Windows, Mac, iOS etc.

This app automatically scans the network you are connected to and displays the IP address of the device and the Manufacturer.  See example output below.

As you can see the scan has identified a number of devices on the network including the Gateway (wireless access point / router), my laptop and several phones (Huawei and LG).

At this stage you should be looking for any giveaway signs that one of the devices is a camera. For example, the manufacturer could be IPCAMERA. (That was the case in the one I discovered ๐Ÿ˜‚)

In this example the device at the bottom has raised my suspicions as it is not one of my devices (tick off your devices and see whats left) and the manufacturer is not a well known brand. For example we found it common to find the likes of Nest heating devices on the network.

I then use a port scanning app to see what ports (different options to connect to a device) are open on the device. This typically helps me identify the device.

I used the Android “Network Mapper” app.


Once you run the app you need to enter in the IP address of the device you want to port scan. In this case it is 192.168.0.116

The output of that port scan is below:

The details you are interested in are the Open ports detailed at the bottom of the scan.

In this example there are 4 ports open: 81, 554, 1935 and 8080 and the port scanner notes the typical service used on these ports.

You can Google the services and for this one you would discover that RTSP and RTMP services are used to stream video. Any ports that appear with the service HTTP or HTTPS can be attempted to be connected to with your web browser.

For example here is the output below when I connect to Port 8080 with my web browser:

The important thing to note from the output of the above is the mention of ONVIF. ONVIF is a standardised way of connecting to IP security cameras.

So, we can be fairly certain that this is a camera. In this instance this is a external camera that we were made aware of.

In our case finding and accessing the hidden camera was easy because:

  • it was on the same nework as the wifi we were given access to
  • it was named in the network scan as an “IPCAMERA”
  • it had a live stream running on port 80 which could be connect to without requiring authentication (login and password)

In many cases accessing a hidden camera video stream may require more “invasive” techniques (e.g. password bruteforcing, vulnerability exploitation etc). Essentially hacking the devices to get access. Be aware that this may be illegal.

So, I hope that has provided some guidance. Just be careful sometimes a little knowledge can get you all paranoid without there actually being an issue.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go…”

WEEK 13-15

My grandpa used to sing many a British/Scottish/Irish jig. I’ve driven the children wild with them since we arrived. I remember one for every place we visit. In York it was the ‘Grand old Duke of York’, in Scotland it was many including ‘You take the high road and I’ll take the low road’, in Ireland things have really ramped up and as we approached Tipperary recently you couldn’t hear yourself think in the car over my jubilant rendition. My travel companions are, as always, thrilled, to have me around ๐Ÿ˜

Keem Bay – Achill Island

We arrived in Belfast, a destination we decided on after the recommendation of a colleague – thanks Aidan (no bias at all ๐Ÿ˜‰) plus I was fortunate to work with another pretty incredible Irish doc who provided further encouragement (the lovely Hannah).

Northern Ireland in general, is not a place many people I know have included in their UK itineraries. I think previously it was likely seen as kinda scary. More recently, as the political situation has become less volatile with the peace treaties of 1994 & 1998 I think tourist interest is getting traction. That said, we didn’t see many other tourists cruising around Belfast in February ๐Ÿ˜‚ .

I was fascinated by Belfast. I’ve never been to a city with an enormous dividing wall let alone an OECD city that has seen the kind of struggle and strife Belfast has. It shows. Design and art and forward planning and beautiful spaces are reserved for those people and places who have nothing else to worry about. But in places where there are bigger fish to fry we often see a delay in the development of their urban spaces. In this way, Belfast is a city of contrasts. There are many many go ahead areas from the city centre, spreading outwards. There’s lots of new, fun, colour and clever design. These areas sit alongside depressed, drawn blocks – where it looks like life is still pretty tough.

Lunch at a Belfast Pub

The enormous wall that used to divide the Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighbourhoods from predominantly Loyalist and Unionist Protestant neighbourhoods is still erect in parts (probably still serving a useful purpose) and we went out of the city to take a look.

Peace Wall

One of the striking things about Belfast is the street art. It’s complex, it’s clever and it’s EVERYWHERE. Art is such an important tool for human expression and it’s dominating presence here brings life and hope, I thought. The people in Belfast were really friendly and we found ourselves engaging a fair bit.

Belfast

From here we headed to Derry, via the north coast. We hit up three big tourist attractions on the way – The Giants Causeway – an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge – a famous rope bridge near Ballintoy which links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede AND for all the GOT fans we visited the dark hedges. Safe to say they were looking less dark with no leaves in the middle of winter, but still, we came, we saw, we conquered.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Dark Hedges
One of my awful photos

Arriving into Derry late, it is the second largest city in Northern Ireland and made infamous, sadly, as the location of the Bloody Sunday massacre where in 1972, 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers during a civil rights march. It is a really quaint, walled city with some incredible old pubs (where they serve free soup or stew when you buy beer – turns out they do this all over both NI and the ROI). The girls decided to check out the social scene in Derry which they described as akin to attending your second cousins wedding. We had our first minor Airbnb issue in Derry that resulted in me making a cup of tea for an advanced dementia patient in his own kitchen that he let me into, bless.

The day we left Derry we, almost immediately, crossed the border into the Republic of Ireland. The only tell was the petrol prices had changed and now displayed both pounds and euro. It was so unexciting it is difficult to believe that this is the border causing a good deal of the Brexit angst!

Onto Ballina, County Mayo to find my ancestors. I’m not going to go into much detail here other than to say when you google “things to do in Ballina” the piano in the hotel lobby where we were staying pops up (it’s also the capital of salmon farming in Ireland, has a lovely little fairy walk in the forest and has a pretty cool castle on private property that we broke into). In Ballina I didn’t find my ancestors and I also realised I’d lost another precious family member…..foofie. Yes I am a 42yo with a blankey but I’ve given up caring what other adults make of this. In any case, those that know me know what a drama this must have been, made all the worse for the fact that I’d just left a reasonably ‘honest’ review of the property I’d left it at! Needless to say, after some negotiating and pretending foofie belonged to Eve to save my last shred of dignity, he was returned in the holey, falling apart condition in which I’d left him & had his own adventure across Ireland.

Ballina Fairy Walk
Fairy Bridge

On the way to Galway we decided to point the car toward the coast and see where the day took us. We ended up running into ocean (funny that) on an amazing little island in County Mayo called Achill. During the Neolithic period this place had a population of about 1000, things have really taken off in the last 1600 years and it’s inhabitants numbers have DOUBLED ; busy, busy ๐Ÿ˜‚ Ended up shooing the sheep off the road to get around to the gorgeous Keem Bay – beautiful way to pass the morning.

Flushed with this success we decided to try our luck with Kylemore Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle, in Connemara. It’s super famous, appearing in lots of movies. We were too cheap to pay the price of admission so just enjoyed some (amazing) quiche in the cafe and took some snaps.

Kylemore Abbey

Galway was a firm family favourite. It is walled (which we love), it is colourful, it is happy, it’s on the sea and the sun shone everyday we were there. (Please note, if planning a visit, it rains solidly for 200 days a year -I dont want to give you the wrong impression). We took a great walking tour and learned all about not only Galway history but also Irish history more generally (not happy listening I have to say, those Bloody English!). We all now better understand why I (& my gorgeous friend Pat) have never let the truth get in the way of good story – it is literally IN my Irish oral story telling genes. Anyhow – this is a great family holiday spot with the friendliest Irish folk we met in ROI and the girls can vouch for the nightlife!

Galway Strolling

Eve’s 10th birthday dawned a miserable day and our final in Galway. We packed up (again, gah) and all agreed Moher Cliffs were a ‘must do’ despite the inclement weather. So on we trudged. It was pretty yuck, but I have to say, the cliffs have a certain appeal in any weather!

Happy Birthday Eve
Cliffs of Moher

Arriving into Dingle and trying to find our house late that evening is something I don’t think any of us will forget in a hurry. The house was as far flung down the Dingle peninsula as geographically possible. It was absolutely pitch black, the wind was howling, the fog thick. The skinny road clung to the cliffs edge and the GPS stopped working. Initial fear quickly turned to raucous laughter with everyone offering suggestions for solving this dilemma. In the end, a lovely old lady pointed us in the right direction and we found our wonderful house on the hill staring right into the face of the cranky Atlantic ocean. I probably don’t need to tell you how incredible the Dingle peninsula is and being able to stay out there looking out at the sea was really special. One evening all the kids and us had our heads out the fully open skylight in our bedroom to marvel at a sky so choc full of stars it hardly looked black! The locals are currently earning a buck by charging visitors to check out their Star Wars-esque stone beehives. Some are even more enterprising than that!

Dingle Peninsula

Because we had overstayed in Galway we ran out of time to do the whole of the ‘Ring of Kerry’ drive. However on the way out of the peninsula we stopped in at some of the rings well known attractions. The cute town of Killarney proved a great lunch stop and quick explore as the snow we hadnt seen for a while begun to fall. The Torc Waterfall was well worth the down and up hike while the Gap of Dunloe proved to be one of those magic travel moments you don’t forget…..notwithstanding all the normal shaninigans like almost slipping right off the tiny, icy road in the van or certain family members insisting on making urine coloured snow cones in the otherwise pristine environment.

Torc
Gap of Dunloe

In Cork we had a spectacular Airbnb fail when the resident security consultant (sporting his new beard) scanned the network and found a concealed CCTV camera in the lounge/dining/kitchen area of the house. I’ll save you the details, but let’s just say after Andy hacked the live-feed and called the owner to ask what the fudge sticks was going on, it all blew up and we ended up leaving the house and having to find emergency accommodation. We got our money back and the guy is currently under investigation with his Airbnb listing removed.

Watching ourselves on the hidden camera

We cruised into Dublin after a quick, but interesting stop at the Rock of Cashell (another fortified castle/place of worship with a murderous history).

Cashell

Dublin jostles with Galway for first place in our winning cities of Ireland competition. It’s everything you read about Ireland all rolled into one delightful, characterful little city. With so much to see and do we were a little overwhelmed. So overwhelmed infact, that one day, we just gave up and went to the movies!

Temple Bar
Sam finally meets that girl that haunted his childhood – Molly Malone

Other than that we wandered around town including the fun Temple Bar area and explored the campus at Trinity College, including the pretty incredible Book of Kells exhibit and library (stunning).

Trinity College
Book of Kells Library

We explored the enormous Phoenix Park and drove out to Poolbeg lighthouse. We all would have liked longer in Dublin, but we’re keeping a cracking pace at the moment and so we’ll just have to consider this an Irish tasting plate! Lastly, the girls went on an organised pub crawl in Dublin that kept Andy and I awake and worried until 3:30am. In their defense, they got up bright and early the following morning for our trip to Prague.

Dublin

I’m going to make a controversial closing commentary based solely on OUR experience of Ireland. We came with very high expectations of amazingly friendly people, incredible landscapes and great food. We got the landscape, in parts. It is not dramatic like Scotland or the South Island, NZ. It’s a more agricultural vibe with some outstanding areas. The more well known attractions are absolutely overrun with tourists – even in March.

The food is, on the whole, very average. We found 99% of the hospitality workers incredibly UNfriendly. The locals are better, but the big centres are like any big centre – it’s difficult to engage people as visitors. The overall cost of everything here is on par with London or even more expensive; much more than everywhere we’ve been so far. I think if we were to return we would stay in one place and try to hang out with family friends etc to get a real feel for the famous Irish hospitality everyone talks about.

Weekly Stats
Leaving home attempts end Week 15: (including mum and dad) had another one this week (bringing the total to 7) that included me saying something like “they absolutely do not pay teachers enough for this shit” and “the industrial revolution saved first fathers and then mothers from having to live with their children 24/7 – we all forgot to praise it for that.”

Threatening to send children home end Week 14: has to be at least 3 more outbursts (coinciding with the incident above) which brings us to 20.

Airbnb concealed cameras discovered = 1

Embarrassing adult blankey admissions = 1

Negative Airbnb reviews OF US = 2

Road Trip sleepers
Gap of Dunloe
Keem Bay – Achill Island
Ballina
Graffiti Sheep protesting on road
Fairy Bridge

You take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland before ye….

WEEK 11-13

OK, ok, so we’ve starting to receive written complaints regarding the tardiness of these newest updates (turns out this is a small, but committed readership ๐Ÿ˜†) . I’m not sure what to tell you other than being on full time holiday is bloody time consuming!!!!!! ๐Ÿ˜œ

There’s been a distinct feeling of routine falling away over the last month or so. You know when the chain comes off your bike before you realise and you give the pedal one last big push only to have it spin wildly and come full circle back round to give you a monster shin bruise. Yeah, this feels kinda like that…..we’re just waiting for the smack and the inevitable bruise. The regular exercise has stopped, the home schooling has become sporadic. Even meals have started to happen at strange times and are composed of odd things. I have a bachelor friend who regularly eats popcorn for dinner. I generally scoff at him for his complete lack of regard for custom and propriety. But the other night as I casually threw my third packet of the stuff onto the lounge room floor along with a banana skin, I blushed inwardly. None of us have any idea whether to be thrilled or terrified about this kind of freedom – perhaps both? ๐Ÿ˜

Scotland is a reasonably unconventional place, so I’m blaming her!

In Edinburgh we wandered cobbled streets and got our first taste of the complicated history of these “United Kingdoms” – something you don’t necessarily consider when in England – funny that ๐Ÿ™„. I’m still amazed at how unchanged humanity is and how thousands of years of history merely reflect the same crap we argue about today. It also served as a really useful context for considering the history of other indigenous people such as the Maori and Australian Aboriginals and their experience of colonization. I was so incredibly struck at how similar Scotland and New Zealand are. The land typography is similar, the ‘country cousin’ syndrome is similar, the ‘number 8 wire, she’ll be right, hardy’ thinking is similar as is the people’s tendency toward ingenuity. We visited the castle and the golden mile. Marveled at all the tweed and whiskey on offer. Braved Arthur’s Seat in 90km/hr winds and rain to be rewarded with a double rainbow – so intense ๐ŸŒˆ and I spent a wonderful morning in the Museum of Surgery – an incredibly well curated history of surgery and medicine.

Arthurs Seat

We couldn’t help but think how awesome attending university would be in this vibrant, characterful city. We also collected some precious cargo in the form of our newest family member – the kids cousin Jordy. She is the same age as Lily and has lived with us, briefly, before. We all enjoyed that experience so much we thought we’d like to repeat it! She is fun, warm and boisterous and loves to cook and to eat (right up my alley) and to try new experiences. She reminds me a lot of myself at the same age and we are all loving being able to share this time with her.

Jordyn

From Edingburgh we headed North past Loch Leven where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned (pretty unremarkable I have to say) and after a brief stop over in Perth for valentines day (caught a cool little festival celebrating love where some poor bastards had to dress up in head to toe white lycra and pretend to be riding white, chinese lantern style horses all night) we continued along part of the North East 250 drive to Aberdeen. The scenery along that coastline is stunning. Turns out there’s so much of this in Scotland. You spend the first few days pulling over and taking photos and oohing and aahing. Then you realise it’s just the entire place.

Aberdeen was one of our favourite stays. Friendly locals, charming streets and lots to learn about oil drilling of the North Sea which bases out of this busy seaside port. We caught up with the seals on the way out and arrived in Inverness under the cover of darkness. Another little city perched on a deep harbour on one side; next stop Norway and the famous Loch Ness to the south – the largest body of fresh water in the UK (holding close to double that of all the Lakes of England and Wales combined). We really loved the natural beauty of this whole area and we had a bit of fun in the little Nessie Museum which debunks the idea of a Loch monster over the course of a half hour documentary, much to the kids dismay. We went a bit off course in this area, circumnavigating the entire loch and, naturally, stumbled upon some gorgeous scenery.

Loch Ness – no sign of Nessie unfortunately…

We celebrated Jordyn’s 18th birthday and the girls discovered that parcel delivery in Scotland entails the courier delivering your parcel to anyone in the street that happens to be home and will accept it. He then leaves you a little note to tell you which neighbour has your mail for collection! I enjoyed the efficiency of this, of course ๐Ÿ˜‰

Old Man of Storr

The drive between Inverness and the Isle of Skye cuts right through the heart of the highlands. At this point you are hoping, deeply, that you have some Scottish ancestry you know nothing of that would enable you to hold dual citizenship. Never more than when you’re standing at the window of the Eilean Donan castle overlooking the convergence of three large lochs with the mist rolling in.

Eilean Donan Castle
Mealt Falls

The Isle of Skye was a mixed bag. It reminded us a little of Waiheke Island, but freezing and much more dramatic. I imagine in summer they would be quite similar. It is the furthest north we will travel until next winter and our trip to Lapland. We stayed in the largest town – Portree, which was two little main streets wide. Most of the shops and eating places were closed as we were well out of season. We hiked to the top of the Old Man of Storr , a really interesting rock formation and learnt that Scottish walking guides should be interpreted with a grain of salt! Every walk is advertised as :
Level: Easy
Time: approx 1 hr.

Old Man of Storr

2.5hrs, 2x sprained ankles and a lost glove later we arrived back at the car. Was another great walk though – something we have decided we all really enjoy. I furthered my cold water swimming career with a dip in the beautiful Fairy Pools on what could only be considered one of the worst weather days of our trip – naturally ๐Ÿ™„ 

Fairy Pools

From here we headed south through Loch Lomond, past the looming Ben Nevis and on to a little town just outside of Glasgow. We didn’t think Glasgow had quite the same appeal as Edinburgh however there’s really very little NOT to like about most everywhere in Scotland and we did stumble upon a really wonderful combined natural history and art museum there.

A short, but picturesque trip led us to the port in Cairnryan where we caught a pimping ferry (more like a cruise ship) with the car across to Belfast.

To summarise, Scotland is a fantastic destination worth exploring in any season. Ironically this winter has been one of the warmest on record and it felt as though the further north we travelled the warmer it became. The roads are easy to navigate, the landscapes heart achingly beautiful and the people like to keep it real! The eastern side of the country offers Edinburgh and some kick ass coastal settings as well as the wonderful Aberdeen, a busy working port town perched on the edge of the North Sea. The central areas showcase the stunning effects of moving fault lines with their deep, clear lochs and of course in the west you have the same fault lines causing the opposite effect and resulting in the incredible highlands. None of this even touches on the history, the whiskey, the tweed, the music and the dry sense of humour that will greet you should you decide to come for an explore in this part of the world.

Weekly Statistics Update

Leaving home attempts end Week 14: (including mum and dad) 6

Threatening to send children home end Week 14: steady at 17 – we’ve stopped doing this….. for now….

Mis-sung lyrics in the car: at least 12. Our favourite so far is to ‘Rosanna’ by Toto.
“Not quite a year since you went away, OH SANTA, yeah”. Very cute.

The runner up is probably to ‘Take me to Church by Hozier’.
“Take me to church
I’ll howl like a dog on a Saturday night”