We decided to go on a wee adventure today; before we’re entirely stuck in the house for who-knows-how-long.
No doubt about it, Covid-19 is going to mess up our spring plans; just how much remains to be seen. We had a busy spring planned ahead of us — a weekend trip to London for the Harry Potter show, a trip to Canada for Easter, a weekend trip to Isle of Wight, grandparents visiting, diabetes camp, the Queen’s Garden Party, a trip to Ireland, and Sophie’s school residential trip the first week of June. We know some of these will be cancelled. Maybe even all of them, if the current predictions and timelines are right. That will suck, but what can you do. We are among billions of people being inconvenienced and it’s no one’s fault that this happened. All we can do is follow precautions, hope, and wait.
That being said, we’re currently in a country that has effectively kept business as usual… Just stay home if you’re sick. Kids are still in school and people still going to work. Yet the Canadian Forces has essentially been told to stand down, if you can. Go home, stay there, and stay healthy. So… There’s a lot of confusion still and a lot left to be seen. However we do know that we’re not allowed to travel/leave the country that we’re currently in (for now, for the next 3 weeks).
So with all the uncertainty and knowing there is a lot more coming (anticipating UK closures in the next few days or week) we decided to get out just one last time- choosing a place that is not crowded, open air, practice social distancing, lots of hand hygiene, and no restaurants (I personally believe restaurants to be one of the biggest vectors for airborne/droplet disease in this world and I won’t go near them right now).
So off to Wells we went. Wells is the smallest city in England.
That moniker comes about because any location with a cathedral is a city and Wells has a truly spectacular cathedral; however, the city is quite small. There are villages around that are larger than Wells, but they don’t have a cathedral so don’t get to call themselves a city. It’s all so specific!
The Wells Cathedral is a stunner. Dating back to the twelfth century, with a large choral wing, Bishop’s palace, and more.
After touring the cathedral, we took a walk around the small, historic city. There was a Saturday market going on, too.
After a toodle around Wells, seeing the cathedral, Bishop’s palace, market, and all, we drove off again. Cheddar Gorge isn’t far so we went there next. We had packed a picnic lunch in order to not have to go to a restaurant and practice social distancing. This also turned out to be super helpful because Sophie started going very low on the drive to Cheddar. It was nice that we were able to eat right away vs. waiting in a restaurant while she is feeling miserable.
Cheddar Gorge is England’s largest gorge. It has caves deep within the rock that they’ve been making cheddar cheese and aging it in for centuries. You can buy tickets to do things like climb stairs up the edge of this gorge, absail down, or tour the caves, but we wanted to do none of those.
We walked the main street of the gorge, popped into a few stores, sampled and purchased some cheddar, and then left.
And that was our day – our morning, really. Just a little nip out to see some historic and beautiful sites and home by 2pm. No interacting with anybody in the public, kept to our personal bubbles, and hopefully didn’t inadvertently bring Covid-19 home. But if we did, we’re ready to quarantine.
I hope everyone is ready and prepared but more so I hope everyone stays healthy and safe. Please stop the thinking that ‘if you’re healthy and young, it will be okay’ because some of us aren’t healthy and might not be okay through this. Every time you say that, it feels like you invalidate the life of the sick and elderly who are most at risk.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but life has been both boring and hectic at the same time. I took a trip back to Canada to see my folks while Eric and Sophie stayed in Bristol. Then Eric went to Scotland for a work trip… There’s just always something!
But we’re back at it with our family adventures. And sticking with our criteria of ‘go where it’s cheap and easy to fly to’ (and warm in February), we came up with Spain as our next holiday for half-term break.
We decided to fly in to Barcelona, stay a few days, take a train to Madrid, stay a couple more days, then fly home.
So, Barcelona. Wow! First off, the weather in February is fantastic. No, we can’t go swimming or anything, but it’s 18-21°C, sunny, and comfortable. Such a nice break from the cold rain storms hammering the UK lately.
We got to our hotel and while I won’t normally give hotel reviews here, I will definitely name-drop this one. The Hostel Fernando far exceeded our expectations. Yes, it says it is a hostel, but you can book family rooms. We had a room with a queen bed and two bunk beds, and a private ensuite bathroom. The beds are so comfortable and the pillows were my favourite- memory foam! It is impeccably clean, amazingly located, and such an amazing price. Sure, we’re here in the off season, but paying only CAD 125/night (taxes in) and that includes a breakfast buffet!!
So enough about that. Once we checked into our room, we went out to explore. We walked along the pedestrian street of Las Ramblas, ambled through La Boqueria (the large public market), and made it down to the waterfront (not the beach but the harbour).
Also, it was Eric’s birthday the day we travelled, so we let him choose the restaurants and food. All he wanted a good authentic paella for lunch. Happy birthday honey!
In the evening after a long siesta, we walked through the gothic quarter, explored the Barcelona cathedral, and then stopped at a tapa bar for dinner.
There are tapa bars were you can order off the menu and then the more touristy ones where they have it all made up and you fill your plate with what looks good. This ended up being a great choice for us because when travelling with a kid, she could choose what she wanted to/knew she would eat and then we could also get what we wanted.
On our second day in Spain (first full day) we had booked tickets to the big tourist locations- Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family Church) and Park Guell. Both are major Antonio Gaudi architectural gems. First up, Sagrada Familia.
We decided to splurge the 1€/person extra that it was to get a guided tour (more than an audio tour). I know, big spenders, but sometimes we just gotta go for broke and live a little!
Well the church just blew us away. Eric had visited back in 2012, so wasn’t as surprised and stunned as Sophie and me, but they’re working so hard and fast in order to reach their goal of finishing by 2026 that they’ve even done a lot since he’s last visited. The outside is one strange oddity but then the inside and the stained glass just takes your breath away.
Gaudi loved taking his inspiration from nature, and he built all the columns of the church to look like trees… When you look up, they branch off and it looks like a treetop canopy above you. The stained glass was great, but this was my favourite part.
So we spent most of our morning here at this amazing church. We learned a lot about Gaudi from our knowledgeable and lovely guide, and why he did some things the way he did.
After appreciating his biggest work, we headed to Park Guell, an area on the hill above the city that Gaudi was architect of that was supposed to originally be a housing development and residential area. In the end, only two houses were built, but there is a large park and many beautiful architectural features. The mosaics here are so beautiful. It’s like, it was already outside so he couldn’t make stained glass windows, so he just made beautiful, colourful mosaics that shone and sparkled in the Spanish sunshine.
After Park Guell and lunch we made one more stop before siesta to see another couple Gaudis from the outside. These buildings can cost quite a bit to get into to tour and frankly, we’d had enough. We just can’t do it all in only a couple days, but enjoyed seeing them from the outside.
In the evening, we went to the Museum of Barcelona History, where you take an elevator down below the city and view the excavated ruins of a Roman city! I expected just a few ruins here or there but it was really quite extensive and large!
Also I’ll take this moment to note- a lot of tourist sites in Barcelona offer discounts for disabled people. Some are quite obvious about it and offer the option online when booking, but some you need to ask. This museum had no notation of a disabled ticket on their pricing board but I thought I’d ask. I carry my handicap pass with me in my bag if they want proof further than my cane (I’ve never been asked). They ended up giving me a discount, because I asked. He never would have offered. So don’t be afraid to speak up and ask!
On our last morning in Barcelona, we went to the Pablo Picasso museum. This was another museum that didn’t advertise disabled pricing but I put myself out there to ask and voila, my ticket was free. (Between the history museum the night before and this Picasso museum, I saved us €20!).
When entering the museum, they were rather strict about bags, and you must leave all bags in a locker. Eric and I both had small backpacks and Sophie had her diabetic bumbag. I told them that mine and Sophie’s bags were medical bags and they were fine letting us keep them. My bag carries a lot of extra rescue sugars for her and a glucagon injection kit, too.
However, about 15 minutes into the museum, we hear Sophie’s low alarm go off (so loud in the middle of a quite museum!). We had had a breakfast buffet at the hostel and obviously over-guessed the carbs… She had way too much insulin on board. We had her suspend all insulin in her pump and clandestinely eat a roll of candies. But 15 minutes later, she was still low! This lasted over half an hour, giving her candies and granola bars, getting her to fingerpoke to test. Sometimes a sugar treatment just won’t work because she has so much insulin in her from her last bolus that it’s just going through the glucose as we give it to her and we can’t get her up.
Fortunately, she eventually got up to 6.2 mmol/L and started feeling better and we could all breathe a lot better too. Of course, we were almost done the museum by then!
So that was our time in Barcelona! After the museum, we grabbed our bags from the hotel and headed for the train station to catch our bullet train (300km/hr) to Madrid. In fact, that’s where I’m writing this right now, on the train, with views of the Spanish countryside whizzing past me.
The train was actually about £30/person MORE than a flight from Barcelona to Madrid, but this way we can travel right from downtown–>downtown, no need to make the treks to and from airports, and waste half our day sitting in the airport waiting for our flight.
Now, we’re excited to see Madrid for the next two and a half days and I’ll update you afterwards! If you don’t already, go follow me on Instagram (click the photos below for links) for up-to-date photos as we take them!!!
To pick up where I left off in part 1, we were just leaving Taormina (the world’s prettiest town).
We had a long drive from Taormina right across Sicily to our next stop in Palermo (3+ hours), so we decided to break it up with a small side trip to the Canadian War Cemetery in Agira.
While back in Catania, we had a visit to the Sicilian WWII museum. It concentrated on the Allies’ Operation Husky (the invasion and taking of Sicily) and the bombing of Sicilian towns. It was a great museum but less than one-third of the exhibits and displays had English translations. We got the gist and it was very humbling to see it from the Sicilians’ point-of-view: they appreciated the Allies helping them break their ties with Hitler, but they took heavy bombing and casualties, too. For a few weeks, we Canadians were ‘the bad guys’.
However, once the Allies won the island, the Sicilians were then glad to see the Nazis gone and didn’t mind having the Allies around for the next couple years of the war.
So now while we were driving across the island, we took the bumpy and windy 15km detour to the beautifully situated Agira War Cemetery. Agira was the Canadians’ largest battle and where they took the heaviest casualties. There are 490 men buried here, on a hill overlooking valleys, a lake, and with the mountain town of Agira on the horizon. We took our time to pay our respects.
We then continued on to Palermo but now sort of wish we hadn’t. Every trip has a low point, and Palermo was ours. Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and the one that tour guides like Rick Steves say not to miss… But there were little redeeming qualities in the city for us. It didn’t help that it was raining and cold; a Sunday, so a lot was closed or inaccessible; and we had just come from the world’s prettiest town, so our standards were set high.
Palermo was full of garbage, everywhere in the streets, litter. And shit, literally. Excuse my language, but there’s no way to delicately describe the heaps of smelly dog shit on the side of the road. I’m not talking about the little piles here and there like you encounter in Paris and most other European cities; but we passed one unpaved part of the sidewalk where a tree was growing, about 2m x 1m of no pavement (dirt, or ‘grassy’ area) and it was overflowing with dog poop. If someone tried to scoop it all, it would be 3 big black Hefty bags full, and the stench was utterly overwhelming.
We were down to our last pairs of socks and underwear but couldn’t get our clothes washed because laundromats don’t open on Sundays and our hotel didn’t accept laundry on a Sunday. We were going to do a bus tour but they barely ran on Sundays (only 2 times, not all day) and wouldn’t be worth the cost, we took cabs instead (and one cabbie ripped us off). Restaurants were hard to find that served food, not just drinks; and in the end when we got in the car to leave, our gas seemed awfully low- we think it was siphoned off!
So we didn’t love Palermo, but we got around and saw some of the bigger sites, even if just from the outside. The one place that was open and we could actually go in was the Capuchin Catacombs that Sophie read about in her kids’ Atlas Obscura (a great book for any kid interested in geography and/or seeing the world!) and wanted to see. It certainly was interesting to see but of course we couldn’t take any photos inside and we respected this rule (though again, it seems like we’re the only tourists who know how to respect things like religion and the dead).
However, please enjoy some other photos of Palermo landmarks from the outside.
Those 3 photos are about the only redeeming sights and parts of Palermo I can show. We left by 9am on our check-out day and didn’t look back. The drive south-east was perilous, hilly, and full of switch-back, winding bends; but we knew we were going in the right direction to leave Palermo in our rear-view when a rainbow came out in the Sicilian countryside.
Our next stop was the tourist destination, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. These are Greek temple ruins built in 400-200BC on a high mountain ridge with expansive views of the valley below and the sea beyond.
It’s a long walk along the ridge and you spend a few hours there. When we started it was windy but the sun was warm. About 2/3 through, it clouded over and started to rain and just became miserable. I didn’t care then how ancient or special it all was, I couldn’t feel my feet, I could hardly walk, I just wanted to get to an exit and get out!!!
After our time in Agrigento we got back on the windy road and headed to Modica, where our agriturismo B&B (farm-stay) was just outside of.
We stayed at the Nacalino Agriturismo which simply blew us away. It is a beautiful little olive oil farm, they also grow their own vegetables and fruit (there’s a lemon tree in the courtyard) organically. Our host made us a 4-course Sicilian dinner every night with fresh, local produce. Things that didn’t come from their farm came from the neighbouring farms (there were a lot of cows around, and the next farm over looked to specialise in ricotta and mozzarella). Everything was so fresh, so authentic, and so tasty.
The grounds were so lovely as well. There were friendly cats and an old golden labrador that Sophie and I liked to cuddle. We liked to walk around and explore. We had full use of the common rooms with fireplace, and we could finally get our laundry done (in fact, Tina, the proprietor, did it all for us, for free!!). I’m sure the place would be really stunning to use in the summer with the outdoor pool under the palm trees. However, being there when the pool is closed also means we get the off-season pricing.
Breakfast was a buffet just as impressive as our dinners. Fresh-made cappuccinos, oodles of home-made pastries, freshly squeezed juice, local meats and cheeses, and everything else one gets at breakfast buffets.
The food is delicious, however breakfast buffets are a ridiculous amount of work for a type-1 diabetic. The breakfast she has pictured above looks great, then we calculated it to be about 120g of carbs. Her first bolus was 17 units of insulin (at home on a regular day she usually doesn’t go over 35 units for her entire daily dose!). This was only her first pass of the buffet. I think she went over 200-250g of carbs by the time she was done breakfast. And why not, she’s in Italy, enjoy! (Just bring extra insulin!)
On New Year’s Eve day, we headed in to the old town of Modica, a UNESCO world heritage site. It was full of Baroque architecture built into the cliffsides of a gorge down to a valley. The churches were like the others we’ve seen in Sicily, so beautiful from the outside then white, painted, and overdone inside.
We stayed at Nacalino Agriturismo for 3 nights, our longest stay in Sicily. We knew there wouldn’t be much open on New Year’s Day and we’d been tired, so we happily took a day to rest and stay around our room and the estate. We took walks, we read, played games, watched TV, and Sophie and I did a little photo shoot. Here’s one photo but you can see a carousel of 7 in my Instagram links below this post:
We were sad to leave the agriturismo, we so enjoyed our stay, but it was time to move on east to Siracusa, which I’ll outline in Part 3.
For those of you who don’t know, Remembrance Day is 11 November in Canada. It is Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of WWI and the day we remember the men and women who died in the wars to keep us free. In the UK, they commemorate this day on the second Sunday in November, and it is called Remembrance Sunday. Not in Canada, in Canada, the day is too important to be swept off to the weekend, and to work through 11 November. So, I applied to Sophie’s school for special consideration to pull her from school so we could commemorate this solemn day.
Remembrance Day was on a Monday this year. It will be on a Wednesday next year and a Thursday our last year in the UK. So if we ever wanted to pilgrimage to a Canadian war memorial like Juno Beach for Remembrance Day, we figured this would be the best year for it so as to miss the least amount of school and work.
We took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth on Friday night. We landed in Normandy at 7am on Saturday morning. It was still dark, nothing was open, it was cold, and we were hungry. We eventually found a bakery open to grab a few pains au chocolate.
Then we headed east and the first thing we encountered, as the sun was rising, was Pegasus Bridge.
Pegasus Bridge is important to me and my family because my grandfather was in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which was a part of the British 6th Airborne Division, who liberated this bridge. (However, my papa wasn’t a part of D-Day, he came a couple weeks later as reinforcements, so he himself wasn’t a part of the liberation of this bridge, it is just emblematic of his time in the war).
There is a picture of my grandparents at this bridge in 1974 when they came to Normandy for the 30th anniversary of D-Day. I love that we have a matching photo.
My Papa died only 8 months ago, at the age of 96. So this entire trip is very moving, and I feel he is with me.
After our little stop at Pegasus Bridge, we continued on east. There is a memorial museum to the Airborne at Pegasus Bridge, but it wouldn’t be open for hours. We planned to return.
We went to Honfleur, a beautiful little port famous for its artists. It turns out, that because it was Saturday morning, there is a huge farmer’s market spanning blocks and blocks amongst the medieval buildings. We had so much fun going up and down these stalls, sampling the wares, and buying a few treats.
After an hour or two or walking around here, we hear the familiar alarm of Sophie’s Dexcom telling us she’s going low. I was about to reach into my bag for some of the candy I have there but she remembered about 2 stalls back they were selling homemade caramels. We figured why not, shouldn’t that be a perk of a travelling diabetic? Eric quickly ran back and bought a few pieces of freshly-made caramels. We had no idea how well a caramel treats a low (or not) — it is mostly sugar but it is also a high fat content, which slows the absorption of sugar. But we weren’t too worried, as we were about to head to lunch.
After our beautiful morning in Honfleur we headed back to the Pegasus Memorial Museum. Here, we learned a lot about the 6th Airborne Division and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. In case you’re curious as to the exact relation:
After lots of learning, and crying, we left the museum. Our hotel was in Bayeux and seeing as we’d only slept a few hours on the ferry, we were ready to turn in. Of course, it was hard to find a place for supper, but eventually we got some pizzas and called it a night.
Sunday morning brought sleeping in then a visit to the Bayeux Cathedral.
The cathedral is a remarkable building, mostly spared by WWII. We went in, but it was Sunday Mass. Unlike some tourists, we actually respect other peoples’ religious ceremonies. There were tourists walking around in their hats, taking photos of Holy Communion… I mean come on people!!!! Whenever you walk into a church, even if it’s not your denomination, remove your hats out of respect. And don’t take photos of the clergy or anyone performing religious ceremony. Be respectful. I should not have to say this out loud- yet here we are…
We didn’t manage to get photos but we did manage to light one of the special votives they had for Remembrance in the cathedral. (The candle had a poppy on it).
So then we headed back north to the beaches. We decided to go see Omaha Beach and Point du Hoc, American landing beaches that Eric and I hadn’t seen before. The Americans treat their beaches much differently, but we’ve tried and can’t find a way to put this into words. Touristy? The French are certainly aware of the way the Americans are and they are trying to capitalise on it- much more roadside tourist traps (mini-museums for high entry fee and low reward, in some farmer’s barn). However, the beach itself is impressive. Point du Hoc is even more impressive- it is the cliff the commandos/rangers scaled and claimed at the beginning of the movie Saving Private Ryan.
The American cemetery was huge and beautiful. Crosses row upon row. However, it was all roped off. We couldn’t walk up and down the aisles and read the names on the crosses. I found this upsetting, especially this weekend. To me, part of ‘Lest We Forget’ is saying the names of the dead. In Canadian war cemeteries, there is always a large monument at the front that says ‘Their Name Liveth Forevermore’. So, I suppose that is what I’ve been taught and I value, so it was disappointing to me to not be able to read and say the names of the War Dead. Though, in classic ‘American’ fashion, the grass was just perfect and that was clearly the look they were going for. I would have much preferred a muddy path up and down the aisles between the crosses showing that people have visited the graves and shown their respects.
We then decided to visit a newer looking museum we had passed called the ‘Operation Overlord’ museum. We thought it would be very American-centric and a possible tourist trap like some of the roadside museums, but we thought we’d take a chance on this bigger-looking one.
It turned out great. It was a museum about all of D-Day and spoke readily and heartedly about other Allied countries’ involvements. Then it was a large collection of things found in the area since the war by farmers and locals; everything from Jeeps and motorcycles to bomb shells and helmets, papers and uniforms. There was a lot of Nazi things too, simply from being found in the area.
Lastly, after the Overlord museum, we went to Arromanches-les-Bains, where Gold Beach is, a British landing beach and the location of the floating harbour (named Mulberry Harbour or Churchill Harbour in some places). This floating harbour was just huge, and built in mere days by the Allies after landing on D-Day so that larger Navy ships could tie up and unload supplies for the troops who were still quite busy in battle. Much of the floating harbour is still there.
I was so physically exhausted from the day, my legs would not carry me further and I could not go down on the beach. I sat on a bench near the beach while Sophie and Eric explored a bit.
Well that was 2 of our 3 days in Normandy. Our last day was Remembrance Day and Canadian-centric. It turns out that this is already quite long, and I have a lot to reflect on the most amazing Remembrance Day ever, so I’m going to do-so in a second post (probably still today, as I have 3 hours still before our ferry to England leaves). I just want to keep my feelings and thoughts of this day contained all in one.
But that doesn’t make the earlier part of our weekend any less amazing. Pegasus Bridge will always be such a memory, but the towns of Normandy and American beaches have made an imprint as well.
Once upon a time, before cars were around and it took three days to travel from one side to the other of modern-day Bristol, Redcliffe was its own thriving port town next to the busy city of Bristol. History notes that there was a lot of rivalry between these two cities (for age-old reasons too numerous and odd to recite here). However, in 2019 Redcliffe is just a part of Bristol, sort of a neighbourhood area marginated on the edge of the river. We’ve driven through and around the area countless times.
One building Redcliffe is famous for is St. Mary’s Church. Its spire is the tallest building in Bristol (at 90m). While we’ve driven past and admired it many times, we’ve never gone in. I was at a charity shop a few weeks ago and found this awesome ink sketch dated 1940 and picked it up. It now hangs in our front hall.
So now it was on our ‘to-do’ list of places to get to, things to explore.
We learned a lot. St. Mary’s was the church where merchant sailors would began and end their journeys, praying at the shrine of Our Lady of Redcliffe.
John Cabot came to St. Mary’s upon his return from his renowned sail to America where he discovered Newfoundland. (There’s a big main road here called Newfoundland Rd, too). He presented St Mary Redcliffe with a whale bone from his journey. It still hangs there today, 500+ years later.
The whale bone is to the right, directly above Sophie’s head.
Beside Sophie is a statue of Queen Elizabeth I, who visited St Mary’s Redcliffe and described it as “the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England”.
In 1997, five-hundred years after Cabot first set sail Eastward, a replica of his ship The Matthew sailed from Bristol on the same journey to commemorate it. The crew of the second Matthew gathered at St Mary’s Redcliffe right before they set sail to pray for a safe journey and receive blessing.
Here’s some photos of this gorgeous gothic church:
Then we stumbled upon a neat science experiment, right there in the Church, The Chaotic Pendulum.
There were a lot of notes about the building through history since it was built, about various wars and conflicts that threatened the entire structure. Most notable was the Bristol Blitz in WWII. Because Bristol was a hub for both aviation and shipping, it was a prime target for the Nazis and was the 5th most heavily bombed British city in the war. St. Mary’s Redcliffe was right on the flight path of the German Luftwaffe and suffered some minor damage.
During one large raid on Good Friday, April 11, 1941, a huge bomb hit only a block away, and a large chunk of tramline was thrown from the blast over the rooftops of nearby houses and landed in the churchyard. It’s been left there since, as a reminder of how close a call the church had and of how senseless war is.
We enjoyed touring St. Mary’s, exploring a little part of our new hometown, and are happy that we’ve now seen the building behind our lovely hallway picture.
PS- Happy Thanksgiving to all those back home in Canada celebrating this weekend! We miss you! We’re doing a roast chicken and all the trimmings this weekend, and I made Nanaimo bars for dessert and to share with the neighbours. Have a fab turkey day!!!