Friday, 24 October 2014

Pirate Party

Ahoy there, me hearties!  All hands on deck, we have some partying to do!  Arrrr!


Now, hats on, and don't forget - no self-respecting pirate admits to having two working eyes.  Eyepatches it is, mateys!  (What scurvy dog cut the elastic too short?  They should be thrown into Davy Jones' locker.)

Hats ready for assembly.  From Yellow Moon but the elastic really was too short.
All of ye who can wield a pen, get drawing a treasure map.  We wouldn't want to mislay our loot, would we now?
Toby wrote his name backwards and Blogger uploaded this sideways, just to confuse you.
Shiver me timbers!  Where did those gems and spyglasses go?  Get hunting, me hearties, and the last one back with the swag is a scurvy dog.

Each pirate had to find these in the treasure hunt.
Now, this is a strange parcel, methinks.  Let's pass it round, and when the shanty stops, why, 'tis your turn to unwrap a layer.
One of his real presents, actually, but I love the expression.
 Climb the rigging, lads and lassies, and pin your flags to the mast!

Pin the tail on the donkey just wasn't piratical enough.
Avast there!  It be time for the GRUB.



By Davy Jones himself, this is a fine chest of treasure.  Gold doubloons for all, me beauties, and fair winds to ye!

Chocolate cake treasure chest
Gold coin biscuits for sharing at preschool

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Italy for adults

So, you don't have small children?  Well, guess what?  You should go to Italy too!

Thinking over the trip, I didn't feel like we were hugely restricted by having children in tow.  Sure, it's never so relaxed when you are constantly making sure that two small humans are adequately fed, rested, cleaned and entertained.  But there wasn't much we really missed out on.  (Except the risotto.  The Lombardy region is known more for its rice dishes than its pasta, and I did want to try a real Italian risotto.)  There were, however, a number of excursions that the boys would have preferred not to have been dragged out on.

Alps

Oh, the mountains.  The mountains were beautiful.  One day we drove north and stopped for lunch on the Passo della Presolana.  Perched above a hairpin bend on the road, we munched our focaccia surrounded by the clear cool air and the swooping, soaring peaks.

Without children (except as handy photographer)

With children: "Oi Mum, stop admiring the view and play with me!"


Afterwards we wound our way down to the valley floor and followed the river Dezzo past sheer rock walls dripping with water.  We stopped to see whether we could manage a shower in a waterfall, but couldn't quite get that close.


As an added bonus, we stumbled upon the small but gorgeous Lake Moro, at the top of another dozen hairpin bends.  Even Toby was persuaded to abandon Postman Pat in favour of paddling in that delicious water.



Verona

My one previous trip to Italy was organised by my school, when I was about 13.  We visited Venice, Rome and Verona, and one of my vivid memories is of drinking sweet, sticky pear nectar in the sunshine, at the top of the Roman Arena in Verona.  It was a place I'd always thought I'd like to return to.

The Arena is still used for concerts, particularly opera

The drive from Lovere was longer than I expected, and the navigation through Verona more confusing, but we somehow managed to find a free carpark within striking distance of the city centre.  Our first stop was the groomed greenness of the Giardino Giusti.  The sculpted trees and hedges (with a maze!) as you enter the garden give way to slopes and steps, as you climb up to sprawl in the sunlight and admire the view over the city.  We were excited to spot tiny hummingbirds on one flowering bush - so small they looked more like insects than birds.



Can you spot it?  That blur just right of the yellow flowers.

The higgledy-piggledy streets of old town Verona would be wonderful to wander through, child-free and with all the time in the world.  When you have tired, hungry children in tow and you are trying to find the quickest route to the Arena using a map which neglects to mark any street you seem able to spot the name of, they are less wonderful.  But still amazing when you get the chance to glance up.
 


And we eventually found the Arena.



And we discovered one bonus of travelling with children: in Piazza Bra afterwards, we absolutely scandalised some old Italian ladies by putting Theo on his mat on the ground to kick his legs while we ate pizza.  They couldn't take their eyes off him!  When I started a chasing game with Toby afterwards, trying to wipe tomato sauce off his face, they clearly had us marked down as complete lunatics.  I think we made their day.

Rock drawings

In the Valle Camonica, the glacial valley leading up from Lake Iseo, there is a UNESCO site containing rock drawings which date back to 6,000 BC.  And there are thousands of them!  Seriously.  Don't you think that's the kind of thing you should somehow have heard about?  Kind of up there with Pompeii and the Parthenon maybe?  Well, I had no idea they existed.  And when we drove up to see a few, we found ourselves bumping along a narrow cobbled street to reach a little village called Nadro.  Leaving the car in the deserted piazza, we entered the small museum, where the staff looked slightly surprised to encounter actual visitors.  The museum displays were in Italian, so we couldn't make much of them, but the signs by the actual engravings were multilingual.

Man with spear and shield



Flower and dancing person

The route took us along the hillside, under the shade of ancient chestnut trees, and round in a loop past huts, flowers, men with spears, crosses, footprints and much more.  A bewildering array of what?  graffiti?  religious art? important messages?  Who knows?  I wondered what we will leave behind to puzzle future generations.  What will they deduce about us, those men and women of five thousand years hence?  What will be left of our lives?

Warrior on horseback
"I'm bored," said Toby.  And we swung one of the ancestors of those future generations down the hill, over the rocks and the rustling leaves, over the evidence of lives unknown, all the way back to the car.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

How to have a holiday with small children

Go to Italy... it's only a two-hour flight*
Most of the plane journeys I have been on are in the transatlantic, super-jetlag, screw-up-two-days-of-your-life category, so it still feels like a pleasant novelty to board a flight for a mere two hours.  Especially when you have two children who require continuous attention.  This was Theo's first flight; he took to it like a pro, and even charmed some lady in the next row into cuddling him for a while.  Despite travelling "light", we somehow had nine separate items to keep track of (not even including Toby's penguin, turtle and blanket, which I lived in permanent fear of him dropping), but everything made it there and back without incident.

so. much. stuff.

*Valid for residents of UK and certain other countries only.  Your flight time may vary.

Go to Italy... and rent an apartment

Climbing medieval steps near our apartment
 Believe me - two bedrooms and a kitchen make life sooo much easier.  Graham found us a great place in the middle of Lovere, where we only had to fall down a few steps to be right in the middle of it all. Once we'd figured out how to use the stovetop espresso maker, we were sorted!  Toby enjoyed his very own bedroom, Theo happily bathed in the kitchen sink, Graham stocked the fridge with a bottle of Limoncello, and I practised my Italian at the teeny-tiny paneficio (bakery) up the street.  And if the boys hadn't woken us up by 7am, the bells did.  No lie-ins in Italy!





Go to Italy... but eat out for breakfast, not dinner



We spent most of the holiday intending to eat out in the evening, but being too exhausted to even contemplate a restaurant once dinnertime arrived.  Apart from one memorable night when we found a pizza place which not only offered about 50 different pizzas, but was also open from 7am to 11pm (whether it sold pizza at 7am, we never found out), our evening meals were mostly pasta, sauce and screaming kids in the apartment.  Italian restaurants generally don't open until 7pm or so, which is not entirely compatible with small-child bedtimes.

Who cares about bedtime when you have pizza?
However, Italian cafes generally open at 7am, which is compatible with small-child waking up times.  And they offer delicious croissants and cappuccinos for a euro apiece, which seems ridiculously cheap by British standards.  And you get to sit at a table outside and watch life go by on a picturesque medieval street.  Breakfast is the way to go.


Go to Italy... and take a boat to an island
Where small boys are involved, a novel transport option is always a hit.  One of the highlights of the trip was our boat trip to Monte Isola - the mountain island - in the centre of Lake Iseo.  The island is car-free, although the locals' scooters whizzed around at an alarming pace, so it didn't do to relax too much.  Graham walked to the top of the island and admired the view from the Madonna della Ceriola chapel.  The rest of us contented ourselves with climbing - and counting - a mere hundred and thirty steps before retreating to the lakeside for ice cream.


Go to Italy... out of season
On our first day, we followed the road which clings improbably to the rocky western shore of Lake Iseo, ducking through narrow tunnels and swinging around numerous blind bends.  Our destination was the town of Iseo, at the southern end of the lake, and a certain water park we had heard of, called Lido Belvedere.  After panini and perambulations in Iseo, we drove up to the Lido.  Nobody else was there.


"Aperto?  Open?" I asked a guy lounging on a sofa outside the cafe.  He kind of shrugged.  "Si."  The Italians, he explained, don't swim outside "in the winter".  As a description of mid-September, we thought this somewhat far-fetched, but since it meant we had the entire place to ourselves, we weren't complaining.  We hung out on the strip of beach by the lake, sipped a few beers, and braved the blue unruffled water of the outdoor pool - which was, admittedly, a little chilly.



Go to Italy... they have Peppa Pig there, too
I've never been quite sure whether a holiday, for Toby, is worth the pain of being away from his toy car collection.  There is always a joyful reunion when we arrive home.

Entertainment in the inevitable downtime can be a problem when you're away, so Toby was delighted to find an Italian TV channel that showed back-to-back Peppa Pig episodes.  In Italian, obviously, but he's probably memorised all the dialogue by now, so that didn't matter much.  I'd also downloaded some programs from BBC iplayer onto our tablet, which proved useful for long car journeys.  On the whole he and Theo did OK with the limited toy supply, as long as we got out of the apartment reasonably quickly in the mornings.  Much after 9am and tempers would start to fray.

Go to Italy... to enjoy the view from the playground
Wherever you are with children, you end up spending a significant chunk of time at the playground.  But with a view like this, who's complaining?


Lovere was just a nice place to potter around.  It has a certain verticality which makes pushchair use rather strenuous (lots of steps!), but there's lots to explore.  We mooched around the marina, wandered the narrow streets, peered into very fashionable shops, and simply watched the shifts of colour and light on the blue-grey water.

Two beautiful boys
Torre Civica in Lovere

Go to Italy... and give each other a break

The Valle Camonica from San Giovanni
After frustrating experiences on previous holidays, we decided that Graham and I would each have at least half a day to ourselves on this one.  It's never the day when the children are angels of sweetness and light, of course, but if you get over the guilt and just go, you will feel so much better.  And the one stuck with the kids will survive.  Really.

My half-day was the Sunday morning.  I walked up in the clear morning sunshine, up and up to the Santuario San Giovanni, perched high above Lovere.  By fortunate coincidence it was the annual feast day, so I was able to attend a special service in the chapel.  There was a very cheerful atmosphere. The local equivalent of the Scouts led the upbeat singing; the lady next to me absolutely shot out of her seat in order to be first in line for Mass, and at the end everyone piled outside to eat their picnics on gingham tablecloths.  I didn't hear a word of English spoken the whole time.  It was great.

Is that a pair of shorts on the altar?

The mule track leading down from the chapel.
In the afternoon Graham dropped the boys and me at another local town, Riva di Solto, so we could enjoy a change of scenery while he rented a canoe and paddled across the lake.  He came back extremely wet (no, he didn't fall in!) but happy.  He didn't take a camera, for obvious reasons, so here he is on dry land, with the impressive rock formations between Riva di Solto and Lovere.


Go to Italy... where you can eat ice cream every day!


That is not an exaggeration.  Every.  Single.  Day.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Monthly Munch: September

Once the summer vacation was over, the month was fairly evenly divided between back-to-preschool (yay!) and holiday-in-Italy (YAY!).  Both had a few ups and downs, but went well overall.  Italy was beautiful and peaceful and historical and colourful and flavourful, and you will be assaulted by many more photos of it in due course.

Toby

First day!
- struggled a little bit with saying goodbye when he started back at preschool, but is now happily settled in again (this morning he practically pushed me out of the door).

On the boat

- said his favourite parts of the holiday were the boat trips on Lake Iseo, watching a crane lift boxes in the Roman arena in Verona, .and the pizza and ice cream!

Gelato for Toby, espresso for Penguin
- has been seriously over-using the word "no".

Quotes:
When picking at a meal I'd rather over-seasoned:
Me: "OK, you can have bread and butter if you really hate it."
Toby: "I really hate it."
Graham: "Toby, that's very rude.  Say thank you to Mum for cooking dinner."
Toby: "Thanks anyway, Mum, but.... I really hate it."

To Theo, when visiting a church in Italy:
"Don't make that noise, Theo, you'll scare God."

He was carefully perusing a church newsletter, and Graham asked him, jokingly: "Are you three or thirteen?"
Toby replied, with dignity: "I'm three.  And I'm reading my newspaper."

Theo

In the Alps
- finally moved out of his Moses basket, where he was starting to resemble an elephant squashed into a shoebox, into a regular cot.

Elephant?  Moi?

- charmed the Italians like you wouldn't believe.  We got used to heads turning and cries of "Ah, bello!  Bellissimo!"

Well, I am cute.
 - quickly learned what ice cream was and made sure he got his fair share!

Mmmm, chocolate!

Thankful for:

- a surprisingly unstressful build-up to our holiday, and smooth travelling.

Lake Iseo
- Graham ably holding the fort when I got laid low by a bug the weekend after we got back.

- the life of my Uncle Ben, who passed away on the last day of September.  I never knew him well, but his death will leave a hole in the family.

Recipe of the Month: Enchiladas



Having grown accustomed to Tex-Mex during our US stay, I occasionally have a stab at trying to recreate it.  Probably better to regard this as homage to Mexican cuisine rather than the real deal, but for a first attempt it didn't come out badly at all.  It's like lasagne in that all the different components make it an exhausting prospect to tackle all at once; far easier if you can pull at least one part out of the freezer.

Meat filling
(this makes double; I used half for tacos and froze the rest to use for this recipe)
2 medium onions, chopped
1 large red pepper and 1 large yellow pepper, chopped
1 lb / 500g package minced (ground) beef
15 oz / 400g can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 recipe Taco Potion #19

Heat a little oil in a large frying pan.  Cook the onions for a few minutes, then add the peppers and beef and cook, stirring, until beef is browned.  Add the beans, seasoning mix and a splash of water and simmer for ten more minutes.  There should only be a small amount of liquid in the pan.

Enchilada sauce
15 oz can tomato sauce or 400g can tomatoes, blended till smooth
2 tbsp tomato puree
3/4 cup / 180 ml water
1/4 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp salt
pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a pan and bring to a simmer.  Cook for 10-15 minutes.

To assemble
8 soft corn tortillas
4 oz / 125g grated Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350F / 180C.  Spread a couple of spoonfuls of enchilada sauce in the base of an 8" x 13" baking dish, or something that looks about the right size (I actually stacked my tortilla rolls in two layers with some extra sauce in between, which worked fine).

Put a line of meat filling along one side of a corn tortilla and roll up to make a tube.  Place in the dish.  Repeat until all the tortillas and filling are used.  Spoon the remaining tomato sauce over the tortillas, and sprinkle the cheese over the top.  Bake for about half an hour.  Serves four.