Category Archives: Travel

Marrakech without kids – proper travelling!

Marrakech - square in old town

Sunset in Marrakech old town (medina)

I have travelled this half term. No, I don’t mean Disneyland, waterslides or eat-till-you-pop all-inclusive buffets. I mean exposing yourself to a different culture in an almost violent way – the kind of travel you can’t do with children.

My husband and I (guiltily) left our children with their grandparents at our home and skulked off in the middle of the night to Gatwick – heading for one of the most exotic places on the planet.

By the time we arrived in Marrakech – three and a half hours later – we’d (nearly) forgotten that we’d ever had a child, never mind three. From the plane, the ochre-hued city set against the parched backdrop of the sub-Saharan desert hinted at the culture shock ahead.

Maps are futile

The airport bus deposited us in the madness of every day life and we quickly realised the futility of a tourist map. We would probably still be looking for our riad (hotel) if I hadn’t accepted some local ‘guide’s’ ‘generous’ offer of showing us the way, to my husband’s dismay.

We snaked our way past locals in kaftans and headscarves crowding in doorways and around street shops and trolleys, selling anything from toiletries, sweets, spare parts for motorbikes, raw meat, jewellery and spices to the ubiquitous flatbreads, that accompany every Moroccan meal. The smell of burning meat skewered over open fires mixed with the stench of overflowing drains and bins to welcome us to what would be our home over the next few days.

Our little oasis

Hotel courtyard Marrakech

Riad El Noujoum – our oasis from the African sun and sensory overload

Silver tea pot and pastries

Mint tea and pastries at our hotel

 The Riad El Noujoum became our lovely oasis from the scorching African sun and sensory overload, located within the medina or old Arab town, which is still enclosed and separated from the modern European part of the city by high salmon-coloured walls. We had the first of many pots of fresh mint tea and Moroccan pastries at a mosaic-tiled table in the courtyard of our hotel, overlooking a tiny pool. Our room featured typical Moroccan décor and lampshades and a stunning black marble bathroom with walk-in shower.  No Disney channel, no television and Wifi only really worked from the rooftop terrace, but we didn’t care.


Jemaa square in Marrakech

The Jemaa – magical setting

Street hawker selling spice cake and tea

Ginger tea and spice cake from street hawker on the square

The pulse of the old town

The throbbing pulse of the old town is the Jemaa el Fna – a huge square, maddening at every hour, but which really comes alive after sunset when locals and tourists flood the area like swarms of locusts on their way in and out of the surrounding souks (markets) and restaurants.

It is the kind of place where you need all your wits about you. Roads become meaningless as speeding mopeds, cars, cyclists, donkey carts and horse carriages swerve through crowds of people, narrowly averting fatal accidents every few seconds. The thought of negotiating your way across this square with three children in tow is enough to make the most easygoing of mums reach for a gin and tonic.

Traditional Arabic storytellers hold their audiences spellbound – even if you don’t understand a word. Monkeys hop from shoulder to shoulder, flute players entice dancing snakes to rise from baskets and acrobats and other performers thrill the crowds. Beware the tourist who tries to take a photograph of this spectacle – as nothing is free in Marrakech!

We learned this the hard way as a street hawker offered each of us a glass of ‘free’ ginger tea and sticky mud-like spice cake before charging us a small fortune. At least we got to take a picture of him!

Arab and Western culture side-by-side

The call to prayer broadcast from mosques and traditional Arabic music contrast with booming pop music to create a background track to the madness, but the most memorable sound of the trip remain the honking of motorbikes slicing their way through the crowds.

From a rooftop terrace we watched Muslim men line their little mats for the afternoon prayer ritual in front of the square’s mosque against the backdrop of flashing tourist cameras and fast-food restaurants. The juxtaposition of traditional Arabic culture and Western ways is evident in every part of the city, but appears to co-exist in some sort of chaotic harmony.

 A never-ending Aladdin’s cave

The markets - or souks in Marrakech

Never-ending Aladdin’s cave – the souks

cosmetic stall in the souks of Marrakech

Sweet-smelling spices and cosmetics in the souks

Entering the labyrinth of souks spilling over with collection upon collection of lampshades, carpets, shoes, handbags, belts, and colourful mountains of spices, silver jewellery – is an overwhelming experience. The never-ending Aladdin’s cave is every woman’s shopping dream come true, but the aggressive hawking and necessary haggling is hard work.

By the end of our trip my husband and I had perfected a good cop, bad cop routine, whereby I would first avoid all eye contact, ignoring any advances – then once I’d identified a potential purchase I’d show some interest and my husband would take over and stomp off in disgust a few times before settling on a much reduced price.

Scrubbed clean in a hammam

My husband is not quite the spa-type and has never had a massage, so I was surprised when he agreed to experience a hammam with me.  A bit of sunstroke probably.

Two women splashed us with numerous buckets of water, covered us in a gooey plant extract and then scrubbed us down with something akin to sandpaper, before giving each of us a full-body four hand massage. As we lay sipping mint tea, covered in white robes and glowing from head to toe afterwards, my husband could not stop grinning.

Eating in Morocco

Couscous, tagine and skewered meat

Feast of tagine, skewered meat and couscous on the square

Despite the heat and slightly unsettled tummies, we enjoyed numerous rooftop meals consisting of spicy vegetarian soup (harira), tagines of chicken and stewed fruit or chicken and lemon, skewered meat, couscous topped with vegetables, a spicy tomato-based salad and homemade yoghurt or slices of orange splashed with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon for desert. All of this was washed down with litres of Fanta, freshly squeezed orange juice or mint tea – you can’t get alcohol in any restaurants or shops, which made for a sobering experience in itself as Chardonnay usually features strongly on our holidays.

Moroccan meal

Moroccan feast – skewered meat, olives, salad and vegetables

Although the children were always on our minds and we love spending time with them, we really enjoyed exposing ourselves to a different culture in a way that was out of our comfort zone. This week I returned to the school run routine revitalised and inspired, vowing to book at least one weekend away a year just for us.

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Macarons, llamas and breastfeeding in Paris

Photograph of young girl in front of Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Paula poses in front of the Arc de Triomphe, near where we used to live

This post forms part of a series about my trip to Paris with my daughter Paula. We revisited the city for her 10th birthday as we lived there during the first two years of her life. To read from the beginning, click here.

Breakfast the French way

There’s already a queue at the bustling local boulanger at 7.30am, but we persevere and leave happily clutching our rustling white paper bag with a still warm almond croissant and pain au chocolat a few minutes later.

We leave a trail of flaky crumbs in our wake on our way to the metro, eating and planning our route to Neuilly-sur-Seine, our first stop of the day.

The subdued suburb was the first area we lived in during our two-year sojourn in the City of Light and we shared our elitist address with no less than former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and a sea of grey-haired, silk-scarved aristocrats.

As an insecure, first-time mother, it was a time of having every rug under my feet pulled out with such force that a part of me prefers to blot out memories of feeling constantly out of depth in turbulent emotional waters.

But these are not thoughts I want to share with my 10-year-old daughter. I want to open a memory bank of the beautiful moments we had in-between – some unsuspected and some only fully appreciated once they were long gone.

Parisian women don’t breastfeed 

Neuilly, although rather snobbish and unwelcoming, was close to my husband’s job, as well as a tranquil and beautiful corner of the Bois de Bologne, vast parklands filled with lunchtime joggers and cyclists by day, but with an unsavoury reputation as the city’s cruising headquarters at night.

When eventually I’d recovered from the shock of giving birth and changing countries over a period of 14 days, we braved the five-minute walk to the woods most mornings. Paula giggles as I recall the many times I rushed back at breakneck speed to breastfeed a screaming, red-faced infant in the privacy of our apartment.

Parisian mums don’t breastfeed – and those who do certainly don’t do so in public. Big, veined boobs popping out of maternity tops don’t really feature on the Parisian café scene.

As I grew more adventurous, we moved further afield, crossing the deafening traffic of Charles de Gaulle high street en route to our local Monoprix. This ubiquitous supermarket is France’s answer to Tesco but with a French flair that stretches to deliciously ripe cheeses, freshly baked croissants and baguettes, stylish accessories and children’s clothes you’d be hard pressed to find on a Tesco shelf.

Picnic at our favourite hang-out

Young girl in front of llama pen in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris

Paula used to love the llamas when she was a toddler.

Today, we choose a Moroccan couscous salad, baguette, camembert, strawberries and a selection of pretty pastel macarons from the deli counter for our planned picnic in the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a wonderfully retro amusement park near our old apartment, where Paula and I spent many mornings together.

One of the city’s top family attractions in summer, the park is all but deserted on this early Spring day, apart from a few workers lazily painting the fences and a smattering of Filipino nannies with their excited charges.

We stroll around, rediscovering long forgotten favourite haunts, including la Petite Ferme with turkeys, pigs, sheep, donkeys and the llamas, which fascinated the toddler Paula to the point of near obsession.

A princess:  now and then 

Young girl in carriage on carousel in Jardin d'Acclimatation

Carousel in the Jardin d’ Acclimatation

I take a photo of my beautiful girl in a gilded carriage on the vintage carousel, to add to a collection of earlier photographs of her in the same spot.

The camera hides an unexpected onslaught of tears as the picture brings into sharp focus my memory of a tiny little princess nearly 10 years ago waving excitedly at onlookers as if she had the whole world at her feet.

Young girl with older woman in carriage on carousel in Jardin d'Acclimatation

Paula with her grandma Laurita on the carousel

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Paula in Paris – travels with my daughter

Two-year-old girl walking Parisian streets

A two-year-old Paula walking the Parisian streets

This is the second instalment of my trip to Paris with my 10-year-old daughter Paula. The first part of the story is here.

Stepping back in time

Lunch in the little French Café costs a small fortune and had he been there my penny-pinching husband would have certainly mentioned this over every forkful. In stead, I relish my Croque Monsieur and salad and my rare freedom to enjoy every delicious bite.

After our meal, Paula and I stroll down towards the historical heart of Paris around Ile de la Cité, caught up in the maelstrom of slow-moving American tourists and annoyed Parisians weaving their way purposefully through the crowds.

What promised to be a bright Spring day, had matured into the glorious sunshine and cloudless skies of mid-Summer and we strip off layer after layer, stuffing coats and jumpers into my bulging back sack. With every layer I discard some leftover anxiety about stepping back in time with my daughter.

Admiring a grand old lady
10-year-old Paula in front of Notre Dame

We admired Notre Dame from the outside

We decide not to join the endless queue to enter Notre Dame or climb the 387 stairs to the top. We mill around the busy square in front of the iconic 800-year-old cathedral, admiring the funny-faced gargoyles (stone-figures) on the facade and rose-tinted stained glass windows from outside. We try to picture Victor Hugo’s struggling Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame hiding in the towers somewhere. 

I let Paula dictate our pace as being a tourist in Paris can be exhausting, even for adults, but I needn’t have worried. She shows no sign of wanting to slow down, exhilarated by her beautiful surroundings and long-awaited quality time with mum.

Bridge covered with padlocks locked onto the bridge by lovers

A glittering testimony to romance

We stumble across the Pont de L’Archeveche, which comes as a surprise to me. Our guidebook solves the mystery. Covered in brightly decorated and engraved padlocks attached to its wrought iron railings, the bridge is a glittering testimony to romance. Apparently couples lock the padlocks onto the bridge, declaring undying love and then throwing the keys in the Seine.  For Paula this is the stuff of fairytales, but my inner cynic can’t help wondering how many of the rusty keys on the bed of the Seine now belong to broken hearts.

Next stop: Centre Pompidou -  a monstrous modern building of glass, cubes and utility pipes running on its outside. Its bold colours and sharp contours a shock to the senses after the medieval magic of the city’s gentle heart.

Girl in front of sculpture in fountain

Paula poses in front of a twisted sculpture in fountain at Centre George Pompidou

Paula and I giggle hysterically at the obscene twisted, colourful sculptures in the fountain in front of this cultural centre, taking turns to pose for photographs.

Footsore and slightly sun-burnt, but with soaring hearts we find our way back to our humble two-star hotel to take a break from five hours of uninterrupted walking.

Sacré Coeur – keeping a promise

Buoyed by our successful day, I decide to take advantage of the beautiful light and venture out a bit further to the hilly Montmartre, from which the sparkly white basilica of Sacré Coeur rises above the city like an overprotective parent.

night-time photograph of Sacré Coeur

The sparkling white dome of Sacré Coeur.

The narrow, cobblestoned streets are as always teeming with tourists shuffling from tiny shop to shop, touting the same bright fridge magnets, Eiffel Tower-emblemed T-shirts and kitsch trinkets destined to end up in forgotten drawers thousands of miles away.

We pass through the hordes, declining invitations from street artists to be immortalised with a few pencil strokes, and climb the endless stairs leading up to the brightly lit dome of the basilica like a stairway to heaven. Paula matches my every step.  We peer into windows offering enviable glimpses of bohemian Parisian life along the way, similar to the windows of opportunity which enticed a much younger me to become a part of it.

By the time we reach the top, it is dark and the city opens up in front of us in a sea of magnificent lights, just as it did 11 years before, when my husband promised me the sun, moon and stars if I moved to Paris with him.

Despite some seriously tough times, I realise I would probably agree all over again if he asked me here, with the white dome towering above us and the illuminated icons of the city at our feet.

By now the crowd had thinned out and suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by loutish, drunken youths involved in an argument on the brink of turning violent. I grab Paula’s hand and we fly down the stairs back to the safety of a touristy bistro, where we squeeze in among two tiny tables, indecently close to our neighbours, and recall the highlights of the day over chicken nuggets and Coca (Paula) and a quarter poulet and du vin rouge (me).

If you want to know what else Paula and I did in Paris – keep reading my blog, the third instalment is on its way.

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Travels with my daughter – Paris revisited


Lunch in Paris on our first day

A very special gift 

This time last year my daughter Paula and I travelled to Paris for her 10th birthday for a weekend.

It was a gift that would provide us both with an endless supply of memories – the kind that form the life support of a mother-daughter relationship.

Paris was the obvious choice for what I hope will be the first of many travels with my daughter because it was where Paula spent the first two years of her life. We moved to Paris from the UK when she was only 10 days old.

A very different journey 

As we queued excitedly to board the Eurostar with hundreds of other tourists in the early hours of the morning, I was reminded of a nerve-wrecking trip 10 years ago, when my husband and I transported our fragile, crying little bundle across the channel, guarding over her like hawks.

This time the journey was much more relaxed. Paula and I fine-tuned our itinerary over coffee and hot chocolate, chatting and giggling non-stop.

Our list of must-sees included obvious tourist sites she’d been learning about such as Arc de Triumph and Eiffel Tower, as well as the more obscure haunts of an expat mum determined to enjoy her beautiful baby girl in spite of hostile Parisians and a lack of French.

She had no idea how terrified I was

As Gare du Nord was announced over the speaker system, my stomach tensed.  Could I do this? Could I really travel alone in Paris with a young child? Everyone knew I was completely directionless and hopeless at reading maps. How would I find anything without my husband – or a man by my side? My mind seemed to be erasing every French word I ever learned, rendering me helpless.

I looked down at my little girl, who was positively beaming – loving every minute of precious time alone with the mum she usually had to share with two younger brothers. She had no idea how terrified I was.

And so, I gathered our suitcases and coats and with it my courage. We got off, negotiated our way around the Paris Metro to our hotel near Notre Dame with little effort as if this was what we did every day of our lives.

First stop – lunch

After a short stop at the modest hotel to deposit our bags and in my case refresh my face, while Paula inspected every inch of the room and arranged her giraffe soft toy on the bed, we hit the Parisian streets in search of something typically French for our dejeuner.

We took our seats among office workers on lunch and map-reading tourists on the pavement outside a café. The chairs faced the busy square allowing us to observe the noisy and animated street spectacle over our Croque Monsieur and frites.

And so our adventure began…

(To be continued)

PS. If you like what you’re reading, please consider nominating me for a BIB award (see badges alongside this post to find out more) –  I can’t afford to pay you, but you’ll make my day…

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