Country Mouse in the Big City

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Everyone needs a fishbowl G and T!

Hot on the heels of our French adventure, we have ventured away from the relative calm of Mayfield and treated ourselves to a 3 day city break. After much umming and ahing, we settled on Manchester. My only experience of the city to date has been a fleeting visit to Primark and a Take That concert at the City Stadium. There has to be more to see!

Travelling without children (I had almost forgotten what that felt like!) meant that it was less McDonalds and more Margaritas. Neither of us can remember when we last went out to eat alone, never mind stayed away for 2 whole nights, due to the constraints of 3 children, a teaching job and a pub. What would we have to talk about? Well, actually, we largely talked about 3 children, the lack of a teaching job (this is currently a good thing!) and the pub.

As I’m sure all hoteliers do, we spent most of the time comparing our experiences with our own offer. We have come back with all sorts of exciting ideas to try out and to implement. Whilst I’m sure the Rose and Crown will never compete with Manchester’s cocktail bars I am just as sure that I will have fun devising a few cocktails even if they will never make it on the menu! The copious amount consumed was purely in the name of market research, you understand.

We ate out in a variety of restaurants. San Carlo in Spinningfields is a fabulous award-winning Italian restaurant that serves great food in a chic, contemporary setting. The staff were attentive yet not overbearing and the service was impeccable. You may see some new Italian influences on our specials board in the coming weeks! Breakfast the next morning was, coincidentally, in another San Carlo venue. They appear to have taken over Manchester! This time we ate in the San Carlo Gran Cafe at Selfridges. Good coffee and a tasty breakfast set us up perfectly.

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Poached eggs and avocado on toast

Whilst we loved San Carlo, our hands-down favourite was a small, unassuming Vietnamese restaurant we discovered purely by chance in Chinatown called I Am Pho. Walking down a small staircase we reached a modest room with long tables, simply decorated with a few plastic flowers adorning a ‘tree’ created from a steel pillar. What this place lacked in decor it made up for with the quality of food. We arrived at 6:45 and were the 2nd table in there. By 7pm the place was buzzing, packed with South-East Asians who clearly knew a good restaurant!

Continuing the international theme, our final meal was at another inconspicuous but lovely restaurant just around the corner from the Museum of Science and Industry (we visited, it was great!). Dimitri’s Taverna is a Greek tapas bar – just my sort of thing as I can try lots of dishes without feeling too greedy! We were enchanted – you may see more of these Greek influences on the menu here soon!

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Tapas at Dimitris Taverna

Having fallen in love with Ile de Re last month our fickle hearts are changing allegiances. We spent the journey home discussing the Great Escape (retirement plan). Perhaps rather than settle in a whitewashed idyll in a sleepy French village we should experiment with the excitement and bustle of a city apartment?

Two hours later, Danny is in his whites, I am fending phone calls from breweries, sales reps and suppliers all the while buried beneath an excited but clingy four year old, checking homework has been completed by the older boys and ensuring the euphonium (at what point was that a good idea?) is in the car along with swimming kit and other requisite gubbins for school in the morning. Family life has resumed. Retirement – whether in the country or the city – seems a long way off. Right now, all I need is the gum shield for school tomorrow. Although a fishbowl of gin wouldn’t go amiss!

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Hoteliers on Holiday

So, this was it – our first proper family holiday in 13 years. It wasn’t without some degree of trepidation that we set off in the early hours of a Sunday morning in August for our much longed for holiday. It wasn’t quite the holiday of a lifetime – a tent on an island somewhere off the west coast of France and a few days with the children’s grandparents – but it was our holiday, at last.  

People often ask us what it’s like to be looking after holidaymakers rather than being the holidaymakers ourselves. I tell the children that we don’t need to go on holiday: “Other families actually pay to stay in your house and you get to live here for free!” They don’t buy it. So, on holiday, did we eat out? Did Danny still do the cooking? Did we compare and contrast other places to our own? The answer to all of the above is, unsurprisingly, yes! 

We started our break in the culinary gem that is McDonalds. Oh yes, we live the high life! Full up on syrup and sausage pancakes (yes, together!), a rocky crossing across the channel ensued and we soon arrived in Dieppe. Heading towards La Rochelle and knowing that Danny would have been working all day Saturday, driving through the night and then continuing our journey with no sleep in France, I had (after a considerable amount of nagging) managed to persuade him that we ought to book a hotel room to break the driving and get some rest. This turned out to be not quite what we expected. Using booking.com, I had booked a room for 5 in a hotel just outside Le Mans. What we actually got was a small wooden lodge on a campsite in deepest, darkest France down the narrowest, windiest lanes which could compete successfully with some of the local single track roads. If ever there was a reason for having SatNav, this was it! I haven’t yet had my phone bill showing my international date usage but I suspect the hour spent navigating on google maps will have dented the bank balance significantly. That said, the lodge was actually very well-equipped and suited us perfectly for a one-night stopover. I would love to be able to tell you that we had our first meal in France sitting outside, overlooking a beautiful valley, drinking a cold crisp white whilst the children played happily… Actually, we had warm beer and a couple of tins of Heinz soup with a few handfuls of rice thrown in to fill it out whilst the children squabbled about who had the most juice in their glasses. Family bliss!

Our lodge in Mezieres sous Lavardin

After an early start the next morning, we set off towards Ile de Re. We didn’t really know what to expect but as soon as we crossed the arching road bridge from the mainland to the island we were blown away. This little Atlantic-coast island of dunes and pine forest has won our hearts! The leafy squares and vibrant villages are best accessed by bike – the island has 100km of dedicated cycle paths linking the villages with their narrow streets of green-shuttered, whitewashed houses. 

The secret streets of St Martin de Re

Every village, park and beach has neat banks of bike racks, allowing you to park up and enjoy a coffee whilst soaking up the sunshine before continuing your ride, exploring backstreets lined with hollyhocks and winding through fields, salt marshes and oyster farms, all set against a fabulous Atlantic horizon. 

                             Rose and Crown on tour!

The village we stayed in, Ars-en-Re, was chosen by Danny purely because of the comedy value he thought the name would provide for 3 young boys. As you can imagine, the joke wore thin! Our campsite was ideally placed with private access to the beach, a pool and most importantly for the boys, free wifi. We decided that having been outdoors and on their bikes all day they had earned their iPad time as much as we needed our grown-up wine time! After the first day’s stresses of erecting a tent in 38 degree heat whilst trying to contain 3 boys with cabin fever, having been cooped up for the best part of 36 hours, we learnt quickly. I’m sure we weren’t the only family on the site who tried to instil discipline in stage whispers for fear of being overheard by others who might question their unruly children! 

The end of the first week saw us taking down the tent and moving on to my parents’ house near Bordeaux. This half of the holiday was slower-paced – less cycling and sightseeing and more swimming, sunbathing and snoozing. 

Poolside loveliness 

We celebrated my mother’s birthday whilst we were there with a bottle of Bollinger and Lobster Thermidore – I recommend that everyone takes their own chef with them on holiday! 


Lobsters ready for the pot

Four days, four adults and 21 bottles later we returned home. This may have been our first summer holiday but it isn’t the last. We will be back on Ile de Re in August next year. Will we return to Bordeaux? Well, that depends upon the contents of my parents’ wine cellar!

Where we stayed:

http://www.campingsmileetbraudieres.com 

http://www.campingessi.com/

The best place for crepes in Ars (yes, the boys liked that one): http://augouterbreton.fr/