Sunday, 29 April 2012


My little one is nine!
She is such a big, grown-girl. She's handled some tricky stuff this year and come out smiling. She rises to a challenge and overcomes her fears. She's responsible, careful, compassionate and passionate. Fiery, fiesty: she'll make a great lawyer.
And she's just a little girl. She worries about it raining next week for her horse-riding lessons 'cos it spooks the horses and she's frightened. There are lots of words still too big for her to read. When I go in to kiss her good night, she is baby-like in her beauty.
She's nine: still young enough to be my baby.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Paris and Thiepval

Another lesuirely start with time to paint, paddle and put varnish on toenails, another pretty town and its boulangerie, and we arrived at St Cyr de Morin. Once again we were parked right by a playground and this time the boulangerie was less than a minute away!
The next day was our trip to Paris. After fresh croissants and brioche, we were very excited to board our train and head for the big city. It was cold, cold, cold and our first port of call was a cafe. Actions and a friendly manner enabled me to procure a straw for my little girl to drink her lemonade with, and the correct word for next time. My eldest opted for the very English Earl Grey.
In a whistle-stop tour we saw Notre Dame,

the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens, the Arc de Triomphe from a distance, picnicked by the Eiffel Tower and climbed the steps of Monmatre. After a quick stop for crepes we headed back to the Aire.
Next day we travelled through the heart of World War I territory. We visited the memorial to the lost of the Somme at Thiepval. The exhibition was just right for us as a family: plenty of information boards in English, displays and maps and a film for those of us who didn't want to read too much. There was a huge picture board of the faces of some of the men who disappeared in the Battle of the Somme and a computer data base with information about each man.My daughter used this to find soldiers with the same surname as her and then to find their photos. I grasped a whole new understanding of the nature of this war, played out in such a small area of the world. The place where this exhibition stood had  been in the centre of the action for the entire four years, passing back and forth and entirely devastated in the process.
We reached our last Aire, not far from Calais, where we were reunited with my best friend's brother and family and from where we departed for our ferry home. After a total of 1300 miles we delivered the motor-home to the hire company, marvelled at the tiny size and quiet engine of our car, and headed home!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Taking our time

So far, we had travelled quite a considerable distance each day, but by now we were deep in France and ready to take things a little slower and visit places along the way.
We stopped in Autun, which had amazing pastries but lousy coffee and gave us the opportunity to buy some Dijon mustard. We visited the church and admired the paintings and sculpture, had a look at Napoleon's school and went to the Roman Amphitheatre. We took it in turns to stand in the centre and address the crowd. The acoustics were astonishing!
We stopped again in a medieval fortified town and watched lizards in the sunshine for a while and then carried on to Flavingy, the walled village where "Chocolat" was filmed. Famous for it's aniseed balls and my son was very happy to purchase some.
From there it wasn't far to Laignes where pulled up in a grassy area by a river. The children paddled, lost- and found - their shoes in the mud and we settled down to our nightly game of "Angry Birds". This had  become one of the highlights of our trip: each night, after the children had washed up, we made tea, ate chocolate and played cards. "Angry Birds" was simple enough for all ages to enjoy, skillful enough to engage in, competitive enough to make us laugh and quick enough to enjoy a couple of rounds each night. It can be hard for young children (and grown-ups!) to lose a game and I was moved and impressed as my three showed increasing maturing, grace and humour in winning, losing and all the near misses. In particular, this was were my eldest shone, pursuing victory with passion, accepting set-back with aplomb and keeping us amused with his perfectly placed personality. Ten days and five people in a space no larger than my lounge could have been difficult and explosive but this holiday brought us all much closer together and Angry Birds made small contribution!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Nantua was one of the places where we were able to stroll into the town and buy croissants for breakfast. We were holidaying on a tight budget and there were a number of times I felt that maybe the children were missing out as we didn't pay for entrance anywhere. Perhaps we should have gone into the Uffizi?
But I began to realise that the whole experienceof the trip was of enormous value. I had many holidays abroad when I was young and it is the Boulangeries and Pattisieries which I remember: the exquisite cakes, pastries and cream buns.
As a child, I didn't like croissants or the crusty French baguettes but now I love them and it was a daily treat to have a pastry for breakfast and bread and cheese for lunch. We visted boulangeries across France, either where we were staying or as our first stop of the day. They won't have seen The Birth of Venus of Leonardo's Adoration of the Maji, but the children have experienced the beauty, fragrance and taste of French pastries, had the delight of choosing from the array on offer and many an opportunity to practice their "Bonjour" and "Merci". Now, as as adult, I would love to have more time to spend soaking up the art galleries and museums but the children were far happier that we arrived at our Aires in time for them to play in the playground. We chose our next overnight stop largely because of the description of an adventure playground in the woods. We found ourselves parked outside a closed Theme Park outside a small industrial town, the rides eerie and still, with woodland hiding a slide which the three children enjoyed for an hour, giving the adults time to read a few pages of a book over a beer.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


We left Annecy after lunch and drove not too far to Nantua. The huge scale of my map of France began to be apparent now. We had been lent a road atlas of France but had left it at home, confident that our van came equipped with maps. It did:one atlas of the whole of Europe. Some of the smaller roads weren't shown, some of the larger roads weren't numbered, quite a few villages were just not there. Even the lake at Nantua didn't make the cut! But it was there, and we found our Aire, and above is the view from the cab. I haven't really captured the huge height of the mountains beyond, they were in cloud when I started painting and the sun came out as I watched.
 Nanuta seemed like a town which had been left behind, once beautiful it has been forgotten as the "Autoroute of the Titans" skims through the mountains above.
It was faded and sad, but it did have a Lidl and we were able to fill our cupboards for the rest of the holiday for 16 Euros!
There was also a monument to those who had been deported in the Second World War; the area was stronghold of the French Resistance movement and the town had suffered harshly at the hands of the Nazis. A plaque recorded the names of around fifty Jewish children and their teachers who had also been taken away, I think to Auschwitz. A group of three siblings were the same age as my three children and we spent a few sober moments contemplating the devastating effects of the politics of a neighbouring country on this tucked away little town seventy years ago.

Monday, 16 April 2012


When we left Lake Maggiore, I was beginning to feel a little bit under the weather. By the time we reached our night's stop in France I felt terrible. It was a long day, a long - and expensive - drive, including the Mont Blanc tunnel. We arrived in Annecy in gathering gloom and spent nearly an hour trying to find our way through in the rush hour. We eventually found our Aire, to which the guide has warned us to arrive early, and found it to be a small car park with 8 marked bays and 8 motor homes. Actually, 9. And us. We pulled up in the middle, alongside the other extra, and hoped for the best. Before long there was a knock at the door and a friendly, bi-lingual conversation resulted in us setting our alarm for 7am so that we could move out of the way for the man to set off for work. We decided to chance a walk by the lake, the rain having stopped. Just as we decided to turn around and head back, and it started again. Having to shelter in a doorway, sprint back to the motorhome and deal with five soaking people was more than I felt able to cope with. I was overwhelmed with tiredness and the prospect of drying out our only warm clothes and awash with a cold.
But, as is so often the case, life is better in a team. And while I lay down and felt rotten, my best friend soon had the children in their pyjamas, hot drinks made, a bag of wet clothes and a plan to visit the laundrette.
Next morning saw us buying gifts, following the map from the man in the wine shop to wash and dry our clothes and eating French pastries from our first boulangerie of the trip.
I won't remember Annecy for its sunny lakeside shore, but we had fun
and life is always full of colour!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Northern Italy

We had planned to go to Milan next, but after a day in Florence, felt that we had had the city experience. We headed north, guided only by our guide to the Italian Aires, and found a beautiful car park. The continent embraces camper vans and dotted around the countryside are Aires, not just picnic spots or service stations, but places where mobile homes are welcome to stay overnight, and most have facilities to fill up with clean water and get rid of the used water from the sink and to empty what is politely known as the "black water". We were parked by a fresh water tap, in front of a children's playground and across the road from this abbey.
In the morning we set out to the village in search of bread. We asked a villager who impressed on us the need to go to Angelo's, but our lack of Italian and his lack of English meant that we had no idea how to achieve this. We found a high-class delicatessan selling mostly dried meat whose proprietor also did not speak much English but had some visiting clients who did. From her we learned a little of the local area and the produce of the abbey and, more importantly, obtained directions to Angelo's.
Before leaving we explored the Abbey. The cloisters were a concert hall of bird-song and there was a small exhibition about the work of the monks. We had not entered Il Duomo on Sunday as there was a huge queue; we were the only visitors to this church and were touched by the emptiness and sense rare and private experience.
Angelo's took a little bit of finding (not surprising that my limited Italian had not stretched to understanding the directions) but was more than worth it. A little bakery tucked around the back of a farmhouse we left with fresh, hand-made foccacia and it felt a true Italian experience.
The Autostrada conducted us north to Lake Maggiore, where we chose to stay in a campsite in Bareno and were rewarded by a lakeside pitch no more than five metres from the lapping waves. Undetered by the grey skies and chill temperature, the rest of the party opted to paddle and even to brave swimming, if only long enough to win a 10 second bet! I chose to sit quietly by and paint.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Florence. Il Duomo. The size and grandeur of this enormous building took me by surprise. I've seen photos of it and I've spoken to people who have been to Florence but I had no concept of the sheer hugeness of the cathedral.
We got back on Tuesday evening from a fabulous road trip driving a campervan from Florence to Calais.Our first night was in a hotel just outside Luton airport, 5 of us in one room, and we have spent 10 nights in a space smaller than my living room and yet we have come home closer and more loving than we left.

The idea for this trip had come from my best friend's brother and we flew out with him, his wife and two children, went to the Italian supermarket with them and decided to stay on the same campsite as them for the first night. The two girls have a delightful and blossoming friendship, the just-about teenage boys are a little more wary of each other and are wildly different in character but are developing a relationship. My eleven year old is content to talk cars and football to both dad and son, and anyone else who'll join in! The children got muddy scrambling up the grass bank and the adults chatted over red wine and Tiramisu.
I took my art teacher's advice and tried a quick-sketch painting rather than a photograph. For me it captures not just the view but the feel of sitting on the grass, the sounds of the chidlren playing and the sense of the moment.
We spent Palm Sunday in Florence. We ambled around, ate ice-cream, crossed Ponte Vecchio, marveled at the living statues outside the Uffizi (our incomprehension of the English leaflet proffered us by Leonardo Da Vinci caused him to rummage deeper and offer us a German translation!), and admire the Cathedral. We paid 5 Euros to use the beautiful public toilets beside the Baptistry and were able to admire the model of the crane used to hoist the marble blocks to the top of the dome, ate our bread and cheese in the Piazza del Duomo and headed back on the bus to our mobile home begin the drive north.