Vimy Ridge Day

Back at the end of 2019 (pre-pandemic), we got this idea to travel to the continent in the springtime during Sophie’s 2-week Easter break. We could take the Chunnel or a ferry and use our own car and roadtrip across a few countries- being able to hit Vimy Ridge on 9 April for Vimy Ridge day and the Netherlands during tulip season. Well, of course the world had other plans and in early 2020 we had to scrap this springtime roadtrip idea and instead we sat in our own garden. Then we thought of it again in 2021, but Covid was still rampant and Belgium and Netherlands had very strict entry and quarantine rules.

So here we are in 2022. We held our breath. We didn’t book anything until only a couple weeks before, when finally the entry requirements for Belgium and Netherlands loosened. We would get to do the springtime roadtrip we’ve been planning for 3 years!

This blog post will just be about the first, Hauts-de-France portion of it though. It actually would have been longer, but… You’ll see.

We took the Chunnel to France from Dover. That in itself was a cool experience, driving onto the train and travelling through the tunnel. I tried hard not to think about what was overhead and then boom, 35 minutes later we were outside and in France!

We drove pretty much straight to Arras from there to check in to our hotel. We didn’t do much that night but grab a quick bite to eat and get to bed early as we had a lot planned the following day.

The next day was 9 April. Back in 2019 when we came up with this idea, 9 April 2020 was supposed to land right in the middle of Sophie’s 2-week Easter break. This time, it was the very first day, so we applied to her school to let her skip a day (Friday) so that we could use it as a travel day and be at Vimy in time.
The ceremonies actually begin in Arras on 9 April at 0630h which is the exact time that allied soldiers left the Wellington Tunnels to begin the Battle of Arras (of which Vimy was a key part). Well- we weren’t about to get up and go to that, but when we went to breakfast at our hotel, there were quite a few military personnel in full dress also at breakfast who had obviously just come from the ceremonies at the tunnels and whom we expected to see later at the Vimy ceremony.

The Vimy ceremony was to be at 1400h. We wanted to see the Visitor’s Centre there beforehand as well as the war cemeteries, so we bought some baguette sandwiches at a local bakery and packed a picnic lunch (Vimy is out in the middle of no-where). We also read that the Visitor’s Centre would be closed for a while over the lunch hour as they prepare for the ceremony so we planned to arrive around 1130h.

We left for Vimy and it’s only about a 15-minute drive from Arras, but through some small villages and some often-winding roads. Sophie was fine until we got to the parking lot at Vimy… then the waves of carsick nausea were too much for her and she got sick there on Vimy’s soil (not unlike many of her Canadian brethren 105 years before her, I’m sure). Her blood glucose was already going low when we were arriving and then she vomited up most of her breakfast, so I was immediately worried – this could quickly become a medical emergency. When a type 1 diabetic vomits, it’s always a bit difficult. They’ve thrown-up the food that they’ve already taken insulin for – so you need to replace those carbohydrates. If they feel too sick to eat or drink sugar, you’re in trouble. Like I said, she was already low so we needed to act fast. We sat her down on a bench in some fresh air and luckily she got an appetite back pretty quick. A fingerpoke showed a blood glucose of 1.5 – one of the lowest readings I’ve ever seen on her. We just shoved her full of all the carbs we could. Pack after pack of skittles and granola bars. We stopped counting. Eric ran in to the visitor’s centre to find a vending machine and buy a full-sugar can of cola. Whatever we could. But it all worked and she felt good in the end. Phewf! (This is exactly why my purse is always loaded with a ton of candy and snacks, as well as the car and house!)

Well- by the time this was all over, we walked in to the visitor’s centre to peruse it and— they were closing! Oh well. There was still a lot we could do outside before the ceremony.

We went over to the preserved trenches. They were really amazing to see, essentially the exact trenches just like they’d been encased in a thin layer of concrete (I know there was a lot more to it than that) for eternity.

It was astounding to think that the ground is still like this, 105 years later, still pockmarked and full of craters and holes. It’s still not safe to enter the cordoned-off areas.


Here is a fascinating 11-minute video about Zone Rouge, the huge area of France that is still unusable and considered a danger from WWI. It talks about how they estimate well over a billion shells landed on French soil and there are millions left still to clean up. They still find thousands every year. Apparently the biggest threat isn’t the explosions, it’s the gas. Definitely check out the video.

After going through the trenches and seeing all that, we stopped and had our picnic lunch, then we piled into the car and drove the short distance over to the Canadian CWGC cemetaries (located between the visitor’s centre and the Vimy monument).


I have visited many CWGC WWII cemetaries but this was the first time I’d walked rows of WWI gravestones. I was really taken aback by how many unknown soldiers there were, probably at least 2/3 of the cemetary were just ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.

As I walked the rows I thought of how disfigured these boys must have been, all of them, to not have been identified. Some of them were able to be identified as Canadian or British from their uniform, or if they were lucky their regiment could even be identified. We even saw one headstone that said ‘Two soldiers of the Great War’ so you knew they were unable to disentangle them and they had to share a grave. I also had to think of the people who were tasked to build these cemeteries; exhume the hastily dug battlefield mass graves and bring the corpses to the cemetery. While it was a very important job at the time, 100+ years later, it has been lost to history and one of those thankless, dirty jobs that no one thinks about but had to be done.

After paying our respects at both cemeteries, we headed on to the Vimy monument for the ceremony. Above is the view of the monument from the Givenchy Road Cemetary (the smaller of the 2 cemeteries).

Once we got to the ceremony, we settled in and waited. We got there around 1315h and it didn’t start until around 1415h.

If you’ve ever been to a Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony or special commemorative day ceremony, you know exactly what the ceremony entailed. It wasn’t any different than any others. We didn’t take photos or video because that’s just disrespectful. But we did enjoy it and it was really nice to be there for it on Vimy Day. We could have walked up to the monument any day of the year, but there was definitely a special weight to being there exactly 105 years after thousands of our Canadian soldiers fought so hard and proved so much to win it from the Germans. It was nice to be able to remember the 3000+ dead and 7000+ wounded with a couple hundred other Canadians who found it important enough to be there, as well as some French and other allies.

After the ceremony we took a few photos of the monument:

I like the above photo because so often, people want a photo of the monument with no one else in it. This photo packed full of people just shows exactly what we’re meant to do – Lest We Forget. Every WWI veteran is long gone, but we’re all still honouring the ones who died in battle and the ones who came home. Look how many people still remember and won’t forget. To remember is an active verb and I like how this photo illustrates just that at Vimy Ridge on 9 April.

After the ceremony, we finally got to go to the Visitor’s Centre. It isn’t very big, but it is a beautiful centre with some very interesting content.

It is full of info about how the soldiers lived, the trenches, who they left behind, and why they were so willing to fight. Great little museum.

After the visitor’s centre, we went back in to Arras for a siesta and dinner.

It was Sophie’s turn to choose dinner and she stuck with our patriotic theme for the day and wanted to go to the Canadian Poutine restaurant we had seen the day before.

We had a nice quick dinner of fries covered in cheese and gravy (which Eric and Sophie totally loved because they hadn’t had poutine in like 2 years) and then back out to Vimy for 2030h.
Vimy was putting on an evening ‘video mapping’ event. We weren’t told much of it (despite asking) but it was some sort of video projection about Vimy on the side of the building and only for a few nights. They were very proud of it and we thought, well we’re here and it’s only 15 minutes away.

We sat at Vimy and watched the sun go down over the shell-pocked fields.

When the video projection came on (when it was finally dark), we were actually really impressed. They had colourised the photos and even animated some of them – some of the photos showed a soldier sort of waving, or limping, or a stretcher with a soldier swaying. It was really neat. It talked about when war broke out, the boys at home in Canada signing up to fight, thinking it will be over by Christmas. It talked about the dreariness once they learned the realities of war and trenches. It showed how nursing sisters were some of the bravest heroes of the war – willing to be near all the shelling, gas attacks, see the horrific carnage– all while never brandishing their own weapon. There also were some wonderful photos of 9 April 1917, the actual assault on Vimy Ridge and just afterwards.
When we had watched the 20 minute video, it was really dark by then and we could see the Vimy monument lit up, and she looked spectacular. So we decided to drive over and see it at nighttime.


I left Vimy feeling overwhelmed and just so grateful. Grateful for my nation’s forefathers who fought for us, grateful for their victory, overwhelmed with sadness at the immense loss of the war and all the wars since…. It’s just, a lot.

The next day we were still booked in to our hotel in Arras so we had planned to see more WWI memorials such as Beaumont-Hamel, but unfortunately fate had other plans…
Around 0200h, suddenly Eric woke up sick. He was violently sick all night and into the morning. We knew then that the day’s plans were wiped. Sophie and I took our meals together in restaurants and we walked around town a little bit in the sun while Eric laid in bed, half comatose. At this point, we had no idea if this illness was food poisoning or a noro-type virus that would then attack both Sophie and me and ruin the rest of our week. We were nervous.
Well, spoiler alert— now as I write this, it is 5 days later and we know for sure that it was just Eric. The only thing that he alone ate and Sophie and I didn’t was our picnic lunch at Vimy- – – he had a baguette with chicken and egg. Sophie and I both had ham. We have to assume that was the culprit. In my almost 18 years of knowing Eric, I have been that sick at least 10-12 times, but I have never, ever seen him get that sick. It was awful. He has an iron stomach, so I am just glad that it was him who got it because it probably would have landed me in the hospital! And a vomiting illness with Sophie’s diabetes would have likely landed her in the hospital too— so I suppose we got lucky?

So this blog post ends after telling you really just about one day, Vimy Day. But wasn’t it an amazing day?
The next day, we left Arras for Belgium— I’ll leave that for the next blog post because I’ve talked your ear off enough for one post here.

The Best of Budapest

When planning a February city-break in this pandemic world, we needed to do our research on every possible location and its entry requirements. We knew we’d love to travel somewhere in Eastern Europe, but so many locations were closed off to foreigners or very difficult to get in to. One location I’ve always wanted to visit was Hungary and by January, we found out it was very easy to get into (we just had to all be vaccinated, done x3!).

So off to Budapest we went, for February half-term break!

To start, I’ll say we flew RyanAir there, our first time with them. We’d heard the horrid stories and avoided them for 2.5 years, but they were the only direct flight to Hungary from Bristol so we tried it. I just wanted to take this paragraph and say, we regretted it and they were nothing but crap service from beginning to end. It wasn’t even just about the flight or the seats, but service and kindness is free and you can tell so much about a company by how they treat their customers. We will never fly with RyanAir again.

Alas, we made it to Budapest. By the time we got in to the city and our hotel, night was falling but we soon learned that Budapest really shines at night!

The view of Buda Castle from the end of our street – the first sight we saw after checking in to our hotel


We were starving and very excited to dig in to some Hungarian food. (For some background, my mom’s family was all Hungarian and I grew up eating a lot of Hungarian food). We walked a couple blocks and found this very touristy restaurant:

And I got to have one of my favourite childhood dishes, chicken paprikas:

(It was delicious)


Once I had the paprikas, only a few hours into being in Hungary, I was satisfied and complete and ready to go home! Haha! That was really all I wanted and needed out of my trip to Hungary. Just kidding!
We then went down the street and had some classic chimney cakes for dessert (a type of warm, sweet, baked dough in a hollow cylindrical form) and walked to the large St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Basilica, like most of Budapest is more stunning lit up at night.
(note: It’s not to say these beautiful places aren’t stunning in daylight as well, but just that Budapest really knows how to light their buildings and show them off at night- they just take your breath away.)

The next day, after a good rest in our hotel (D8 Hotel Budapest, a fantastic mid-range hotel in a superb Pest location), we got out early to head over to the Great Budapest Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. Here, we learned a lot about the history, persecution, and demise of many Hungarian Jews. Did you know that 1 in 3 of the victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews? Almost 600,000 Hungarians died in the Holocaust.


The garden there had some beautiful memorials to the Hungarian Jews lost in the Holocaust. One such was a metal weeping willow that each leaf was inscribed with a name of someone who was murdered in the Holocaust. The effect was stunning and yet so somber.

It was so poignant to us to be there and listening to these horror stories of murders, mass graves, and deportations just as war was starting to break out in the country right next to us at the time, Ukraine. We promised for 80 years that we would never forget, and yet here we stood, next to it again.

After the synagogue tours, we were ready for something to fill our bellies and our backpacks! We went to the large, central market hall of Budapest.

I bought about a kilo of paprika. Every half-Hungarian girl needs multiple varieties in her kitchen for cooking, and this stuff is GOOD!


After filling our bellies with Hungarian street food and buying (what felt like) everything we saw, we went to St. Stephen’s Basilica. We saw it the night before but this time we went inside and toured. We’re used to seeing some very old cathedrals in Europe, so it was interesting to see this relatively newer one, completed in 1905.

The basilica also famously houses the “incorruptible” right hand of St. Stephen I of Hungary… to see it, you put a coin in a machine and the reliquary will light up for 2 minutes, much like a peep show- oh the irony.

Eric and I also decided to pay the little extra ticket price to take the elevator up to the top of the dome for the view. Sophie wouldn’t even consider it.
St. Stephen’s is 96m high, the exact same height as the famous parliament buildings. Wikipedia is telling me that when it was built, this was intentional as a way to symbolise that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance.
So, we went to the top. It’s mostly all by 2 small, consecutive elevators – I do not suggest you do this if there are many tourists because the elevators can only fit about 4-6 people at a time and would take forever if there was any kind of lineup. There are also about 45 mandatory stairs along with the elevators so beware that this is not a perfectly accessible attraction (they did kindly warn me ahead of time, though).
Once we were outside on the dome itself it was damn windy, I was incredibly scared of the height, but the view really was gorgeous. I still would not do it again – though Eric would without hesitation.

In my opinion, fear of heights is natural self preservation


Later on in the evening after our dinner (of more tasty Hungarian food), we decided to get sky-high yet again. Because Budapest is more beautiful all lit up at night, we wanted to take this touristy ferris wheel at night, not in the day.

This time, Sophie came with us even though she was nervous and not sure she wanted to. She didn’t like the idea of being so high up and just dangling in a little metal box. I’m not really sure I blame her.

However, once we got going, the views were beautiful and we had a nice time. Sophie eventually got comfortable in our little pod and maybe even enjoyed it by the last rotation. It actually was a fun ride and a lovely end to our day.

The view of St. Stephen’s and the dome we had just been on.


On day 2 we hopped into a cab and drove across the Danube for the first time to visit the Buda side of the river.

The Buda side of the river is much more residential, and much more hilly. Actually, pretty much one great big hill – almost a cliff, or small escarpment. The Buda Castle is built right on top of this cliff and the cab has to take some switch-back roads to get up to it. Once you’re up at the top though, we were quite impressed and pleased to find this pretty, quiet, little village. It almost reminded me of a type of removed little tourist village like Whistler Village or something. It felt entirely different to the streets of Pest only a few miles away. Like the rest of Budapest, there were hardly any tourists anywhere and no line-ups. We walked around the grounds of Buda Castle for a little while and took some photos. We didn’t want to go in because frankly, after a few years in Europe, we’ve seen a LOT of castles and it starts to get repetitive. We find when you’ve only got a few days for a city break, unless there’s something you specifically want to see in a castle or location, there’s just no point in touring it for the sake of touring it. They are start melting into each other in our minds and memories, isn’t that horrible!?

Sophie took a picture of Eric and me in front of Buda Castle


There were also great views of the Pest side of the city:

We then walked around into the small clifftop village area (it’s called Castle District). First, one needs to walk past the presidential palace and there, there are ceremonial armed guards out front who do a little ceremonial march between their posts every 15 minutes or so. It’s very kitschy and fun to watch, but they also look like 17- or 18-year-old boys who look super bored with the job of walking back and forth in front of the door, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them and hope they got paid decently enough. At least they wore warm coats.

In the village, I needed to rest my legs so we stopped for a coffee and cake in what we assumed would be a very over-the-top tourist joint (it was right on the biggest corner and the first place we saw, impossible to miss). However, we went in and it had the sweetest vibes and most delectable looking cakes. We got gourmet coffees and drinks, and artisanal cakes, for about the cheapest prices and best service we’d yet had in Budapest (we had been noticing in some places that they would seat us, give us menus, and then not come back for 20+ minutes…).

After a rest we walked onward to the Fisherman’s Bastion. It is so named because apparently it used to form the walls of a castle and underneath here was where the fishermen lived… I don’t know. Internet/Wikipedia history is sketchy and even when we were in Budapest, the history was sort of obscure. We were told some fishermen lived under it once and it used to be part of a castle. What really matters now is that it is a beautiful location and overlooking the Danube and Pest, it was sooooo Insta worthy.

Right there at Fisherman’s Bastion is the very beautiful Matthias Church, with the coloured mosaic tile rooftop. We were there on a very sunny day and it just shone wonderfully.

They bragged that we could buy some of the ceramic roof tiles in the church gift shop if we wanted to. Then we saw actual large (20-24″) individual tiles. It was so random! Like, why would I want to buy a single brown roofing tile here? Anyway, this was a gorgeous church, both inside and out.

While we were in Castle District, we wanted to go see Hospital In The Rock, a nuclear bunker museum in the cliff under Buda Castle built in WWII. We got there and tried to buy tickets – It was about 2:05pm and the next tickets weren’t until 3pm. We didn’t realise that they were only guided tours, no self-guided visits. We didn’t want to wait so we left and didn’t get to see this gem. Oh well.

Instead, we turned around and visited the next best thing in the Castle District – The Houdini Museum. The House of Houdini is also only guided tours, but they are like every 20 minutes and were due to start one soon. Here, we had a tour of their small museum and learned all about the life and times of one Erik Weisz, born in Budapest in 1874 (Houdini was his stage name).

Eric in a replica of Houdini’s escape safe


After the tour, where we not only learned a lot but got to see some original handcuffs and memorabilia, we got to see a small close-up magic show. The guy was pretty good and we were often left amazed, jaws agape.


Later that evening brought us some special plans. We had booked a Danube river cruise with dinner and traditional Hungarian singing and dancing. We decided specifically on an evening cruise to enjoy the sights all lit up.

Buda Castle


The food was really so-so (there was no kitchen on the boat, so it was just re-heated food) but we expected that from the reviews. The entertainment was great fun and excellent. But the views? They were 5 stars the whole way. The boat went up and down the same stretch of the river about 2 times each direction, so you had plenty of opportunity to get photos and views.

Sophie taking in the view of the Parliament building

The parliament in all its glory

(I don’t have any still photos of the entertainment, apparently I only took video clips to put on Instagram.)


Early on day 3 we went to what I was most looking forward to in the entire trip (next to the paprikas!)- the thermal baths!

Hungary is famous for its natural hot spring baths and there are about 67 in the entire country, and 5 in Budapest. We went to the Széchenyi thermal bath which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. The bath is 109 years old, and according to its Wikipedia page, it is supplied by two hot springs that are 77°C and 74°C (the temperature in the pool the day we visited was 28°C). The components of this specific thermal water that make it medicinal are sulfate, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, and a significant amount of metaboric acid and floride.

Visiting the baths was important and special to me because of some family history: My great-grandfather (whom I never met) used to travel back to Hungary from Canada right into the 1960s and ’70s just to visit the baths because they were the only thing that would alleviate his arthritis pain. My mother then visited the baths in 2013 when she and my dad toured Hungary – they also visited where her father was born and my great-grandmother’s hometown, etc. So I felt that Sophie and I getting to visit Hungarian thermal baths was just two more generations of our family now getting sort of a Hungarian baptism!

We loved that the air outside was 9°C and the water was so warm, it made the experience so enjoyable. If this was July and it was 30° out, we sure wouldn’t be enjoying the water much. But just like all of our trip, we were so happy to have visited in February.
(I’ll point out here too, that most all traditional Hungarian food is very rich and hearty, warm food. Think stews and such – the kind of food that feels great to come in from the cold and eat to warm up. We loved eating this in February but wouldn’t want to be devouring it in July).

We left the baths after about an hour and a half. There were big signs saying it was advised you shouldn’t stay in them over 20 minutes and I also knew that due to my MS, I shouldn’t stay in hot water too long either. I really wanted to, as I always do in hot tubs, but I knew I’d regret it later. We had arrived just after 10am and there were some people there but no lines at all and no congestion. Leaving just before noon and we could see a small line just starting, and many more people in the changing areas – still nothing I would call a real crowd (probably a tiny fraction compared to their high capacity), but just know that morning is the best time to come.

After leaving the baths we decided to head over to the parliament area in the daytime. I did take photos of the beautiful, imposing parliament building but not very good ones. The building was so large and we were just too close to it (and couldn’t get further away due to already being right on the riverbank). Nothing could compare to the photos we took the night before on the river cruise, anyway.

However, there on the bank of the Danube, is a very sad and beautiful memorial to Hungarian Jews called ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’.

These shoes are actually statues in memorial of the Jews who were lined up on the banks of the river, told to remove their shoes and were shot in the backs, to fall into the river and let the water carry the bodies away. Shoes were valuable, you see, and the murderers wanted to keep them and not waste them.
The shoes looked incredibly real, like they had been left there yesterday and are just waiting for their owners to come back and claim them. They are all the 1940s style. You can see incredible detail in them, stitching and wrinkles or cracking leather. It is a really beautiful memorial and shouldn’t be missed, if you’re in Budapest.

After this memorial, I was really physically beat. I think the hot baths combined with the activity of the past few days was catching up with me and I really needed rest. I went back to the hotel and sent Eric to the House of Terror without me. Sophie, being a 13-year-old girl, decided to come with me and be lazy in the hotel room.

The House of Terror is a museum dedicated to chronicling the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary of the 20th century. Ironically, you can’t take any photos in it…

At last, for our final evening in Budapest, we had made reservations at a tiny restaurant, Retek Bistro, just around the corner from our hotel that we had passed on our very first walkabout in the city. It looked adorable, smelled delicious, and had like 4.8-star rating on Google! It was very small and you can only get in with reservations so luckily we were able to make a reservation online.

The little restaurant had the ambience of being in a Hungarian grandmother’s kitchen. The service was really wonderful (they brought over free appetisers before our meal and pálinka [Hungarian schnapps] to end the meal) and the food was out of this world. We knew that Hungarians liked to put sour cream on absolutely everything, which we weren’t particularly enamoured with; but at this place, it was strong garlic sour cream. This was like a whole new world for us and we now wanted garlic sour cream on everything!

Our flight home was early the next morning. This was a lovely, merry way to end our city-break in Budapest. Our bellies were stuffed full of good food and we were so happy to be in and to have experienced Budapest and Hungarian culture.

Travelling as a family during the Covid-19 pandemic

This past week (the last week of October) was Sophie’s half-term break; this is usually a great time to travel. This time last year, we went to Paris. This year, due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, we were limited to staying within the UK. Not just the UK, but only had only parts of England and Scotland available to visit; as Wales, Northern Ireland, and even parts of England were under lockdown.

We ended up choosing south-eastern England. Kent, specifically, but also the site of the Battle of Hastings, which is technically in Sussex. I have some photos of the trip to share, but not a tonne. It was a short trip, and very rainy (England at the end of October- what can you do). I’ve decided instead of making this a purely ‘Kent’ blog post, I’ll share some tips on how to safely travel during the pandemic. (I’ll also share some photos along the way – but you can always check out my Instagram stories with the best pictures saved).

We’re all weary of staying home and you may be looking for a safe way to get out and see something beyond your own four walls. Now in England we have no choice but to stay home; but if you’re not under a legally-imposed lockdown, here are my tips that have so-far proved successful.

We chose our destination only about a week before we left. We needed to be flexible and base our decision on the most up-to-date coronavirus data and government guidelines. We had a few locations we’d like to go to in mind, and of all the places we’d like to visit, Kent area consistently was keeping low infection numbers (compared to the rest of the country).

From the BBC updated 31 October 2020
(these numbers are ‘per 100 000 people’, not total cases)



When you want to visit any tourist attraction now, you *must* book ahead. For both free or paid attractions, you need to visit their websites and book a time slot in which you can visit. Some places take these time slots somewhat loosely (and let you in 15 minutes early or late) and some are very strict and insist you get in exactly at your allotted time. Either way, the timed entries help to control the flow of people through the location and means that we don’t feel we’re among any crowds. It really aids social distancing and we haven’t had any issues through our Scotland trip or here in Kent with these processes.

Our stack of pre-booked tickets for various attractions



As soon as we knew we where we were going and when, we booked the must-see attractions. Especially during a school break, you need to make sure to pre-book well in advance. Every single attraction we visited had a sign out front saying ‘Sold out today’. We looked into getting next-day tickets for one or two castles that were nearby and they were all sold-out.

Sophie in the rain at Battle Abbey – an English Heritage site.



So here’s my biggest tip when trying to travel safely during the pandemic: Try to be as self-sufficient as possible. That is what makes us feel safe, at least. Use your own car to get where you’re going, bring your own food, and stay in a self-catering apartment.

We invested in a very nice AirBnB and although they followed all Covid-19 cleaning protocols and social distancing/no host check-in, the first thing I did when we got in, before touching anything, was to wipe down everything with Dettol (Lysol) wipes. Everything that we touch. Eric unloads the car to the front door while Sophie and I go around and wipe every single light switch, door knob, water tap, remote control, table surface, button, etc. Any touch surface gets disinfected, and we make this house into “our bubble”, so that we can feel safe and confident here for the next three days.

Another way of being self-sufficient took a lot of planning, but we brought all of our meals and food with us. Going to restaurants 3x a day is just exposing yourself to risk 3x a day, all over the Kent countryside (even if it is the lowest virus numbers in the country). Instead, I planned out and brought enough food for breakfasts and lunches to pack (sandwiches), and I pre-made and froze casseroles for dinners (along with some easy things like frozen pizzas). I do all the food shopping at home and bring it with us because I don’t want to be searching around a new and unfamiliar grocery store in hopes of getting everything I want. Now isn’t the time to be going store to store to pick everything up; in fact, it’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid!

A big frozen tray of enchiladas ready to head into the oven. An added bonus of frozen meals like these are they act like a giant block of ice in the cooler.
A big packed lunch we ate in the car because it was raining.
This is how we travel. Two of our suitcases/bags are in the backseat too, because we only have 1 kid back there. Our trunk looked like this (but even tighter) our whole 10 days in Scotland – and the cooler stayed cool the whole time too!



I know that a lot of the enjoyment of travelling is eating out, enjoying the local food, not having to cook – and I do greatly miss that. But it’s just something that I have to give up in order to be able to travel at all and still feel safe and secure. We can’t have it all, right now.

We’re also careful about the activities we plan. We decided on booking Battle Abbey because it was all outside, that was easy. We also decided on Dover Castle and Canterbury Cathedral because they’re huge old stone buildings with very high ceilings and lots of room for air flow and social distancing. Combine the great space with the timed entries, and we always had a tonne of room to enjoy ourselves and still explore some history. Our last booking was a private river boat tour in Canterbury. These are usually 10+ people per boat, but with Covid restrictions, they were limiting all tours to one household per boat, but still charging the same amount. We thought this was a great deal for essentially a private boat tour! However, it rained so much in the week that the river was too high for the boats. Our tour was cancelled twice and we eventually decided to take their option of a walking tour. Due to my MS, I’m not at all that good on walking tours. I made it more than 2/3 of that way though, then I insisted they leave me in the town square in front of the cathedral while they finished the last 20 minutes. We still saw a lot and learned a lot about this adorable town, and felt very safe doing it outside with a tour guide who was wearing a face mask the whole time.

Canterbury
The white cliffs of Dover- this morning may have (luckily) been the best few hours of weather we had all week and I think was one of my highlights. Definitely a good social distancing activity.

Above, you see us ticking an English bucket list item off—– eating a sandwich in Sandwich. We’ve been wanting to do this since we moved to England! But now it’s a pandemic!!! We went to this adorable little village and there really were places to get some mouth-watering sandwiches, we’d really love to buy it there and support them and felt like cads that we didn’t. But we had to stick to our guns and avoid all places, and we just ate the turkey sandwich we packed that morning.

We clean our cloth masks daily. I brought my handy salad spinner with us. One full kettle of boiling water and some dish soap or hand soap and they’re clean in 30 mins (I usually let it sit for 20 minutes, then do a few rinse cycles). Then they dry overnight. We each go through a few masks a day when travelling.



Lastly, I’ll come to what I considered the biggest risk factor of the whole trip. It’s unavoidable: rest stops. I worried about them before we left but I knew there wasn’t too much we could do about avoiding it.
When we have to stop, I aim to wear masks, use a whole tonne of hand sanitiser everywhere, avoid people everywhere I can, and be quick. Get in, pee, and get out. We don’t hang about and we don’t order food or wait in line. And when I say use a tonne of sanitiser, I mean it- use it when we walk in the building, use it when we exit the bathroom (even though we also just washed our hands, sanitise too!), use it when we exit the building, and then use it again when we get into the car and take off our masks.
Most (2/3) of the service centres were pretty good but one was just so busy and no one was following the rules, it made us all anxious and stressed. When I left it, I said ‘That right there gives me no faith in people and this is why we’ll need a national lockdown….’ and the very next day the PM announced one.

So now this is all a bit moot. We (in England) are on national lockdown for the next month and there won’t be any travelling whatsoever. But maybe you’ll be trying to go somewhere at Christmastime, or maybe you just aren’t in England! Sure, none of us can do any big, elaborate, fancy international travel right now (don’t. even. get. me. started…) but if you’re in a safe location and you’re really feeling cabin fever, it can’t hurt too much to get out and go a couple hours down the road, explore something ‘nearby’ that you just have never been to, and maybe always meant to go to.
Book a nice holiday cottage/AirBnB, buy some food at your local home grocery store where you feel safe and make sure you’ve got enough with you, fuel up the car, and hit the road for a few days. Even if you hit horrendous weather like we did for 4 straight days, you’ll end up feeling refreshed just having got out of the house and around new scenery.

(Also, I’m going to point out that I know we won’t get Covid just from going to restaurants or to grocery stores in another city, etc. All I’m trying to say is that our travelling inherently means we’re going out and seeing more people and doing way more things than we usually do. Way more. Just by travelling, we are adopting some risk that we wouldn’t have if we just stayed home. So we try to mitigate that risk with the above measures. If this isn’t for you, or you protect your family another way, that’s cool. Don’t come @ me. All I’m trying to do is give a few tips to someone who is feeling a little lost and not sure where to start.)

Keep safe, everyone.
Xx

Dover Castle

Scotland

Quite a few months ago, we had to face the realisation that our summer travel wasn’t going to look the way we had originally planned (we had a great deal on a place in Croatia for a week in August). Now with Covid, even if things were opening up and travel was going to be allowed, we just weren’t yet comfortable taking the discount airlines that fly from Bristol.
So we decided that whatever travel we were doing this summer should stay in the UK. Let’s use our own car, rent AirBnB houses so that we’re not worried about hotels with elevators and people around, and distance ourselves. As we got lost in this idea, we started thinking more and more of the word ‘distance’ and eventually came up with Scotland and mostly, the highlands. What could be more socially distant than that? Yes, we battered around the idea of Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which Eric has been to and I want to see one day, but in the end we decided to leave the cities (and crowds) for a later date.

So this was way back in May, way before the government decided to open things or knew when they would. I said to Eric, what’s the harm in booking a few places now that have full refund policies? I figured once the country opens up and people decide to staycation, properties would go fast. So we booked a few beautiful spots and sat back and waited. Since then, I reconsidered and decided we planned too long a trip and we cancelled the last 2 places— I thought 3 stops and 8 nights was enough, we might lose our minds and kill each other going any longer (as we found in Sicily, 5 stops was too much).

This trip took a lot of preplanning. We wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible for two reasons and to not need to make extra stops at stores or restaurants— 1) to limit our exposure to people, and 2) because we didn’t know how often we’d see good stores or restaurants once we got into the remote countryside!!!

I did a lot of cooking the week before we left, I made big batches of curry, mac&cheese, potato and leek soup, tetrazini, and mushroom soup– and we froze it all. I planned out every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for our 9 days (to make sure we had enough food with us, plus a planned shop in a town along the way). The bonus of the frozen meals was they acted as ice blocks for the cooler to keep everything else cold. Bonus, then we never had to do much cooking other than warming up and throwing together a bagged salad during our whole holiday! This also alleviated one of our biggest stresses when we’re travelling- where to eat. We too often head out to look for a restaurant and we’re all hungry then can’t agree on/decide on one and start fighting. This was so nice to have dinner taken care of every night. (And another bonus, because it was food we knew, we knew all the carb counts vs guesstimating at a restaurant!!!)

Well enough of me babbling, how about some pictures?!?!
Our first stop was in South-Western Scotland in a tiny town called Whithorn. I don’t know what made us choose this place other than we knew we would be able to drive to it in one day. We figured this stop will either be a diamond in the rough or a total bust.
The house we stayed in predates the 14th century! The town was tiny but very historic – apparently it’s where St. Ninian, the Saint who brought Christianity to Scotland, first made landfall. We had beautiful weather and visited the Mull of Galloway, a peninsula with a lighthouse that is the southernmost point of Scotland.

The town of Whithorn
It was about an hour’s drive along this stunning coast to the Mull of Galloway— couldn’t beat it
Scotland frequently had a lot of wind turbines all over but there were especially a lot on the Galloway Peninsula. I thought this was pretty with the sheep grazing.



We stayed in Whithorn for 2 nights and then continued north. This is where we lost the motorways and were only on A and B roads (for you North Americans- an A road is essentially a windy 2-lane road with no shoulder whatsoever where the limit would be no more than 60km/hr in Canada but is 100km/hr here, and a B road is even more narrow, with no central line, where you hold your breath every time you go around a corner hoping no car is coming the other way, and no posted speed limit- just as fast as you dare to drive, usually in the 80km/hr range). Google told us it would only be 4 or so hours until our next location but of course it was more of 6.5 hours. That’s the problem with driving in the UK, we find- you def need to add time to the Google maps plan or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Before we got to our AirBnB in Onich, we stopped at Inveraray Castle. This castle was particularly neat because it is the seat of the Campbell Clan, and if I could claim rights to any clan, it would be them, as my great, great grandmother was a Campbell (so I’m told). Also, funny enough, I grew up in Inverary Ontario so it was doubly neat to visit this beautiful castle. The castle is still lived in by the Duke of Argyll and his family for part of the year.

 

The Campbells fought for the King at the Battle of Culloden in the Jacobite rebellion and managed to keep hundreds and hundreds of the actual weapons used. They decorated this great Hall with them. (And it was best not to mention any association with the Campbells as we went further North into the highlands!)

After we toured the castle we finished onward to our BnB. It was a cute little cottage on Loch Linnhe (not actually a Loch, as many aren’t, but an ocean inlet).

The next day we finally got hit with weather you might expect of Scotland- grey skies, fog, then dousing rain and wind. In fact, it was even too much rain for Scotland! Upwards of 100mm in a day! It’s a good thing we were already where we needed to be, too, because the road we had taken just the day before right near Inveraray Castle, got washed out in a huge landslide! We just mostly hunkered down, watched movies, and were glad we could say it was only one day of our holiday.

Taken in the morning when we went out for an hour, before it got really bad…


The next day it wasn’t exactly clear, but it wasn’t actually raining, either. It worked out well because we then had pre-booked tickets on the Jacobite steam train through the Highlands. This is also known as the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter, because it is featured in the movies. It provided us with gorgeous views of lochs and mountains, if a bit misty and foggy.

Misty views


The Jacobite train actually travelled 2 hours to the town of Mallaig, gave us about 90 minutes there, then had a 2 hour ride back. The day after our train ride, we left our current BnB in Onich and actually drove to Mallaig where we caught the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We enjoyed lunch out on our first day in Mallaig and a picnic in the sun on our second day, followed by a little shopping (where I discovered and fell in love with Harris Tweed).

Mallaig from our beautiful grassy park picnic across the bay
Views from the Isle of Skye ferry


Once we got over to the Isle of Skye, we quickly made it to our sweet cottage BnB. This one turned out to be our favourite of all. It seemed so modern in such a tranquil and private area. We loved it.

While on Skye, we did a lot of driving. We went to the main town of Portree and did a little shopping (more Harris Tweed!), as well as enjoyed lunch at the pub. We drove right to the northern tip of the island which I think is the furthest north I’ve ever been (?) at 57.6°N. We also saw amazing views of waterfalls.

Eric and Sophie also enjoyed going for a few hikes in the evenings around our BnB and got some amazing shots of ancient castle ruins.


On our second full day on Skye, we went on a tour of a local croft. A croft is a type of farm – farming systems are different in the UK with tenancies and all. Croft is also a Gaelic word. We got to meet all their sheep of different breeds, like Hebrides and Cheviot, the donkeys, and the Highland coos. Then we got to try our hand at spinning wool, too!

After the croft tour, since we were already 2-hours from our BnB, we decided to go to nearby Dunvegan Castle. We knew that the castle itself was still closed to the public but there were apparently beautiful botanical gardens, and we had brought a picnic lunch. Dunvegan Castle is the traditional seat of the MacLeod Clan and the longest continually inhabited castle in all of the UK.

The next day it was time to say goodbye to Skye and move south. We had taken the ferry to the isle but decided to take the bridge off, also there was a castle we wanted to stop at, Eilean Donan, right on the other side of the bridge. Apparently, this is the most photographed castle in all of Scotland (as told to us by our BnB host, I didn’t fact check this). It is the traditional seat of the MacRae Clan (and another place you definitely cannot mention Campbell ancestry!).

We did go in and tour around and it was awesome, but of course no photos allowed.

Then we got in the car and continued on our way. We knew we wouldn’t make it all the way home from northern Scotland to Bristol in one day, so we went as far as Carlisle (right at the England/Scotland border) and crashed at a cheap hotel for the night.

But because diabetes doesn’t take holidays, we had to find a place to do a pump change in this tiny hotel room… The end of the bed it is!!


When we woke up in Carlisle, we spent a very short time looking around downtown (such a very cute city and high street!) before we got in the car and made the quick drive on a B-road out of town to Hadrian’s Wall. This is something we’ve all really wanted to see since we moved to the UK. We went to Birdoswald, the Roman fort ruins built into the wall and there’s a museum there. It’s also the largest intact section of wall left.

We did a little walkabout then of course it was time to hit the road again. Google told us we would be home by 1610h but we didn’t arrive until 1830h (even though Google supposedly takes traffic into account…. It just never works on British roads! And half the time we’re driving above the limit… No idea why)

We’ve had a pretty great holiday. We’ve seen so many vistas and gorgeous sights. The beauty of the highlands is just breathtaking. There were times I found it ironic to think that people travel from all over the world to Canada just to see beautiful natural views and here, we’ve left Canada to now be looking at beautiful natural views….. Well, in Canada you don’t get castles every hundred miles or so to break up the monotony of the views, LOL!

It wasn’t how we pictured our summer holidays to go, but I don’t think anyone in this world really had their summer go to plan, did they?




(PS- if you want more pics, follow me on Instagram, because I posted all these photos and more as they happened! If you want more now, they’re on my profile stories under ‘Scotland’)

Wells and Cheddar Gorge (and Covid-19)

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.

You can see the scissor arch in the middle, that was added afterwards to help support the sinking spire.
The Wells Cathedral clock is an astronomical clock from about 1325.
Cathedral cat hanging out at the heaters. Clearly at home here.

After touring the cathedral, we took a walk around the small, historic city. There was a Saturday market going on, too.

At the Bishop’s palace
Vicar’s Close — claimed to be the oldest purely residential street with original buildings in Europe. Dating to the 14th century.
A sweet market in the Wells town square.

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.

Cave-aged cheddar. Yum!

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.

Take care, all. Xx