How to visit the European Parliament in Brussels and the EU Quarter

With it being the day of Brexit, it seems as fitting a day as any to share with you our trip to the EU Parliament in Brussels. This year for Miss 11’s birthday, she had the choice of a trip or a party- the little traveller chose a trip, so thanks to cheap flights we headed off to Brussels, home of chocolate, waffles, beer, fries and the European Union headquarters. You can read our full itinerary here. We did have a sneaky day off school, but in the words of Miss 11, by lunch time, she surmised that she had likely learnt more than if she had been at School. I’m not allowed to tell her teacher her thoughts though! 

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Outside the EU Parliament

We stayed very near the EU Quarter in Brussels, as when there is nothing on in the Parliament, the hotels are very good value. It is a fascinating and attractive area of Brussels to see, and when researching a little confusing on how to pay a visit to the key buildings and locations so here is how we did it. 

The EU or European Quarter, is also known as the Leopold Quarter. It is a compact area to the south-west of Brussels city centre, about 1.5 miles (2km) from the Grand-Place. In the 1800s the Leopold Quarter was one of Brussels’ most prestigious neighbourhoods, and there are lots of beautiful old buildings left over from those days. During the early 20th century, the wealthy residents of the Leopold Quarter moved further outside the city centre to the new suburbs. Office buildings replaced many of the mansions, and in the late 1950s, new European institutions moved in.

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The Future is Europe – street art in Brussels

Today the area is dominated by politics predominately and business but it’s still surprisingly green and attractive, with many beautiful parks and squares to enjoy a stroll around. It is a nice area to be based in, plenty to see and do, and a little more removed from the central more tourist filled areas. The metro and bus routes are easily accessible, around a 30 minute walk will take you in centrally without any difficulties.  

The European Parliament 

The most significant attraction in the EU quarter is the European Parliament. To visit the European Parliament and the famous hemicycle debating chamber as an individual, you’ll need to take one of the self-guided tours, which run at set times, Monday to Friday. Do check the website here for the opening hours and timings.

 

To join a tour, go to the rear entrance of the European Parliament building, just off Rue Wiertz. There are clear signs  and arrows to get you to the right place from the front of Espace Léopold and Place du Luxembourg (follow the signs for the Hemicyle), but once at the door there’s not a lot to indicate that it’s ok to go in. Don’t worry; if you’re there at the right time just push open the door.

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European Union

You cannot pre book (unless you are a bigger party), and must queue and show your  passport/ ID before going through airport style security checks. There’s no photographs allowed at Security, but once you are inside you can take as many as you want. The whole process was straight forward, and much quicker and simpler than our visit to the United Nations in NYC.  There is a self-guided tour with a headset rather than a fully guided tour. It is available in all EU languages, you can even download it as an app on to your mobile phone if you would prefer. There are free printed guide books to pick up too. 

First stop, a photo op with all the flags of the member states of the European Union, then a model building of the EU and some history about it all.

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Onwards, up in a lift and into an atrium full of artistic gifts given from the different member states including this large sculpture, everything on the theme of peace and cooperation. 

After you leave the atrium, the next stop is the Hemicycle – the main debating chamber of the European Parliament in Brussels. Each EU member country elects representatives in the same way as they would for a national parliament. These Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) meet here and in Strasbourg. Miss 11 was particularly taken with all the translation boxes and learning all about the role of the translators – it is quite the task ensuring that all 24 languages can hear continually. 

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Parliamentarium 

A great stop for a few hours with children. Miss 11 really enjoyed the informative and interactive style in the Parliamentarium. It is very accessible and free entry. You can collect an information leaflet (in whichever EU approved language you speak) at the entry. You go through security, and are given a free interactive audio tour, which was very good.

The exhibition is made up of several floors (lifts are available) of interactive displays about the work of the EU, and a wonderful 360 degree cinema where you can experience being at the heart of the European Parliament. You might even spot some familiar faces virtually around you.  We enjoyed sitting on living room styled sofas and chairs and hearing more about the importance of EU projects from all areas including a few miles down the road for the Peace money given to Belfast to support community work in the Shankill and Falls areas.

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There are many displays about the history of the EU, and the numerous projects it has been involved with. 

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We particularly enjoyed the map room where you could wheel a TV unit over a different place in Europe to find out more about the EU and its impact. We visited quite a few countries.  Recommended for a few hours in this part of the city. 

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Station Europe 

The original station buildings of the Brussels-Luxembourg train station now house a welcome centre for the European Quarter. Here you can get your bearings here, pick up a map and plan your visit to the area. There’s also a branch of the official Visit Brussels tourist information centre which is a good place for some more information. There’s a nice public square with chairs set up in circles perhaps facilitating discussions?

Berlaymont Building 

While you can’t go inside the Berlaymont Building, it’s an impressive sight and is probably the most iconic building of the European Quarter. The Berlaymont Building is the home of the European Commission, where the day-to-day work of the EU is carried out. We stayed right beside it in the NH Brussels Berlaymont Hotel, which made it very easy to get around the area. 

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House of European History  

For an exploration of Europe’s turbulent history, and the events that led up to the formation of the European Union, visit the House of European History in Léopold Park. It aims not to tell the story of each individual country in Europe, but to draw together the themes that European nations have in common. The permanent exhibition covers Europe as a global force in the 19th century and the two World Wars that shattered the continent, before examining the political divisions of the second half of the 20th century. The exhibitions are free to visit, and a multimedia tour is available in all the EU languages.

Outside you can spend some time in Léopold Park05584B21-E70C-4E56-B5A5-7D3FF76A89DF.jpeg

We especially enjoyed reading all about the history of the zoo in the area and ostrich sculptures marking the spot. It is green, beautiful, and even houses bits of the Berlin Wall with the accompanying historical information. 

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All the European Union visitor areas are free, which makes for a very budget friendly day spent in the European area of Brussels. It is interesting and informative and gives you good insight into the development of the EU. 

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Other things to see and do nearby

I’ve also noted some of the other sights and museums in the nearby area that you might want to visit when you are nearby: 

Parc du Cinquantenaire – an enormous triumphal arch, reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The arch itself is slightly more recent but the buildings either side were built for the 1880 National Exhibition which celebrated the Belgian nation’s 50th birthday. The park itself is a very pleasant place for a walk, with lots of flowers, trees and lawns, and it’s a popular place for tourists and Brussels residents alike to relax.

Royal Military Museum – occupies the left-hand side of the Cinquantenaire buildings., holding an impressive collection of arms, armour, vehicles and aircraft. There are also two galleries dedicated to the First World War which devastated much of Belgium. For an incredible view of the European Quarter and the surrounding area, take the stairs inside the Military Museum up to the viewing gallery on top of the arches.

Autoworld – On the right-hand side of the Cinquantenaire arch houses a fantastic museum dedicated to cars and driving. Among the gleaming permanent exhibits and fascinating temporary exhibitions you’ll find information about Belgium’s contribution to automotive history.

Arts and History Museum -also on the right hand side of the complex. More informative than an art gallery, more inspiring than a history museum, the unique collection eventually wants to be as well known as the British Museum or the Louvre.

Cauchie House – If you’re interested in architecture, and especially if you’re a lover of Art Nouveau, you can’t miss the Cauchie House. Artist couple Paul and Carolina Cauchie built the house in 1905 and decorated the front as an advertisement for their businesses; graphic design for him, art lessons for her. In the centre of the facade you can read the words “Par Nous, Pour Nous” – “By Us, For Us”. The house is at the top of Rue des Francs, just across the road from Parc du Cinquantenaire. 

The Museum of Natural Sciences is also nearby, but you can read more about that in our post over here. 

The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music – a few of my favourite things.

Salzburg was one of my favourite things on this adventure. Exploring the streets and landscape made me feel like I am sixteen, going on seventeen. Rising out into the scenery beyond the town made us want to climb every mountain, ford every stream… You may even find a lonely goatherd.  I have confidence that you will want to come and visit the beautiful Salzburg.  Ok, before I make you say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night I will stop with the lyrics. I hope you sang along!

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We are big musical fans in our house, one of Miss 11 greatest loves is Sound of Music. No better place than to head on a Sound of Music tour. There are a number of companies offering it, but after some research we settled on Panorama tour. I’m glad we did, it was spectacular.

The Sound of Music Story 

First it’s a true story, like actually fully real and learning the extra bits made it even more wonderful. If you have been living under a rock, and don’t know the movie, it is based on the unusual and exciting story of Baron Georg von Trapp, an Austrian aristocrat who married his governess in 1927.  Maria the governess ( a former Nun), came to look after the 7 children following the death of their mother. Untold in the film, the von Trapps went on to have another 3 children, bringing the total to 10. A priest (not Uncle Max) gave the family music lessons, and they went on to win first place in a choir contest during the famous Salzburg Festival and subsequent contests became their financial rescue.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 the family immigrated to the USA, unable to reconcile their principles with those of the Nazis. Rather than climb over the mountains to Switzerland they took a train to Italy, then travelled to France, England and then the USA. They went on to build a Salzburg- inspired chalet in Vermont USA in 1941 and have lived there ever since. They went on to continue to tour as singers.

The Tour

The tour lasts around 4 hours and covers many of the main sights from the film.  You are bused from location to location. During the travelling time, the guide will fill you in on all the fascinating history of the story, the time period and of course there is some opportunities to watch clips from the movie and sing along.  We visited:

Mirabell Gardens – Best known as the location where Do-Re-Mi’ is sung with Maria and the children. This is a luscious garden with statues and fountains throughout, it is a wonderful place to spend some time. You’ll remember the scene where Maria and the children are singing “Do-Rei-Mi” on the steps. You’ll also see the vine-covered tunnel and the fortress that appears in the scene in the background.

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The Gazebo – The place where Rolf and Liesl sung ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, one of Miss 11’s favourite songs. No longer can you enter inside as the local mayor closed it following an 82 year old fan getting too excited and as she jumped off the benches. She went first head first through the glass. She recovered, but apparently when the Mayor considered the madness of Sound of Music fans he decided it was safer that they watched from the outside only!

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Frohnburg Palace – You drive past this palace which provided the facade, courtyard and garden gate of the von Trapp villa in the film.

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Palace of Leopoldskron – this lake was frozen when we were there, but it is the place where the kids and Maris fall from the boat into the lake. The outside of the palace was used as the back of the house. Incredible Austrian views from here! It would be beautiful in any season.

Nonnberg Abbey and the Fortress – This is where Maria was a nun in the movie, but it’s also where the real wedding in 1927 between Maria and the Baron was held.  The fortress  is the real backdrop of the abbey, not the rolling hills from the movie.

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St Gilden/Lake Wolfgang – This spectacular vista is seen in the opening credits of the film. It’s even more impressive in real life!

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Church of Mondsee – The location of the movie wedding of Maria and the Baron.  There was time to enjoy this picturesque little village, for a walk around their Christmas market and the important apple strudel (which was delicious).

The disappointing reality bit – shockingly the Sound of Music is not a well known movie in Austria, there is no hills alive with music ready to burst into song, nor eating Schnitzel with noddles! The tourism industry however of course are experts. Our tour guide told us he rarely has locals on the tour, just if they are bringing America, British or Chinese friends – all these countries love a bit of Sound of Music.

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It was a highlight to our European Christmas adventure, especially if you enjoy the Sound of Music movie. There are incredible views all around the Austrian countryside, and the guides were full of interesting factors. We would strongly recommend it!

Christmas Markets in Vienna

Europe’s Christmas Markets are a wonderful treat for all the senses – especially the taste ones! Miss 11 and I headed off in early December for an Austrian and German adventure to check out as many of the markets that we could manage. First stop was Vienna, the exquisite capital of Austria, home to Imperial history and Baroque architecture, with the musical accompaniment from Mozart and Strauss, and home to Sigmund Freud. Plenty to see and explore. It is importantly also home to over 20 Christmas Markets.

E34BF27D-2F24-48BA-8444-10EBC041DBE6Set in the spectacular backdrops of Vienna, they are an exquisite way to explore the city and feel truly festive. They are an age old tradition, with the forerunner to present day markets from the Middle Ages. The first record of Vienna’s December Market was in 1298, when citizens were grated permission to hold a Krippenmarkt (December Market) during Advent. Early markets started by only selling meat, but evolved to provide other everyday purchases, then eventually seasonal decorations, crafts and treats accompanied with entertainment such as singing and dancing.

Christmas markets received a significant boost in the 16th-century, when the teachings of the German protestant reformer Martin Luther suggested that the birth of Christ was a more appropriate gift-giving day than other saints’ days. This was the beginning of the practice of Christmas gift- buying and festive markets have been popular across Europe and beyond ever since.

 

Christkindlmarkt Rathausplatz

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One of the biggest and most well known Christmas Markets in Vienna, you cannot avoid being in a Christmas mood after this. Here you will find dozens of booths filled with contemporary and traditional Christmas decorations and gifts. Full of live music, it is also full of traditional and classic Viennese cuisine with incredible aromas abounding. There is plenty to do for children, including some amusements and the big wheel. A big hit for Miss 11 was getting to ice skate. The ice rink is fun, with some gradients that allow you to gain some speed which was great fun! It is situated right in front of the City Hall and with a picture perfect backdrop it is a wonderful sight! You can go inside the City Hall where children can make Christmas cookies or candles. As Vienna’s most popular Christmas markets it is also the most crowded, so prepare for that.

Christmas Market, Schloss Schönbrunn

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For an elegant Christmas market Schloss Schönbrunn is a perfect setting with the Schönbrunn Palace as it’s background, it presents the most beautiful and magical scenery. There is a spectacular  towering Christmas tree that will completely mesmerise you. The market offers the perfect Christmas touch, with handmade Christmas decorations, and gifts that are made using natural materials.  Of course, there is a complete food and drinks range including warm Christmas cookies, snacks, and mulled wine. Combined with  visit to the Palace and the nearby Children’s Museum there is plenty of things to do in the area. We also met St Nicholas here.

Weihnachtsmarkt Am Hof

Situated a few streets away from the main tourist zones of Graben and Kaertner Stree. This is a smaller but quality artisan gift market, with ceramics, jewellery, glassware, leather items and hats. The Christmas decorations were splendid. It is also well known for its variety of sausages and ham, along with hot baked potatoes, waffles, and gingerbread.

 

Weihnachtsmarkt Karlsplatz

8EB8B894-D6F1-4F01-89AD-7A5AE3F8D9C7Another large scale market with more than 70 booths from local craftspeople and artisans. Situated  in front of the baroque Church of Saint Charles Borromeo. It is also a popular area for many live concerts on regular basis.  In addition, the Christmas market features many live concerts on a regular basis. It is the place to go for hand made items.

 

Christmas Market on Stephansplatz

Next to the iconic St. Stephen’s cathedral there is a small Christmas market. It is quite small and overcrowded, but worth a walk around if you are in the area.

 

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One of our highlights was the mugs that they used, you could buy your own mug for around €4, and then when you are finished with your drink, you could keep the mug as a souvenir or return it and get your money back. This meant that there is not wasteful disposable couples. Each market has their own design, and I imagine could turn into fun collectibles for the different markets you visit.

 

Did you know? Snow globes were invented accidentally in Vienna . Mr Perzy, a surgical instruments mechanic created one in 1900 as the result of an experiment to try and improve the brightness of the newly vented and not very bright electric light bulb. Inspired by the shoemakers of the time, who utilised a glass globe filled with water in front of a flame to get more light from a candle, Perzy tried to re-create this in front of a light bulb. It didn’t work that well. One day he used a white powder, semolina, used for baby food and poured it into the glass globe. It got soaked up by the water and floated very slowly to the base of the globe- the effect reminded him of snowfall. The beginning of snow globe invention. For the first 40 years of production, a church was always added. Following the Second World War, his son added different designs, such as Christmas trees, Father Christmas and snowmen figurines.  The company continues, and exports the snow globes around the world. You can visit the Snow globe museum there too, and buy many in the Christmas markets.

Top tips for visiting a Vienna Christmas Market 

Pick your favourite market – there are so many to see, so do your research about the ones you want to see. All have stalls with food, Glühwein and cooked chestnuts, but each one has their own distinct style. For kids the to ones are Karlsplatz or Christkindlmarkt Rathausplatz. For excellent photos, Schloss Schönbrunn is superb.
Visit at the right time – they get very busy in the evening, so choose a little before then and be ready to leave when it becomes dark if you struggle with the crowds. It worked for us not to be visiting on a weekend as it was much quieter.

Bring cash – especially small notes. Some stands will accept credit cards but many were cash only, or there were difficulties getting the card reader to connect. Easier and quicker to have cash.

Make sure you try these foods – Maroni (Cooked chestnuts), Kaisekrainer (Sausage with cheese in the middle), the famous Bratwurst (hot dogs), Soup in a Bread Bowl, Pretzels, Waffeln (Waffles), Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Heisse Bauernkrapfen (doughnuts), Glühwein (mulled wine) and Punsch (Alcoholic Punch, if you don’t want to go with the alcoholic version choose Kinder Punsch).

Go to as many as you can –  I’ve only been able to cover a few in this blog, but there are many around the city. Check them out as you sightsee and explore, and of course enjoy! Have a Glühwein for me!

Dress warmly – the Markets are mainly outside, and it can be cold, especially with the wind chill from the River so wrap up. Layers, gloves, and hats are important! The hut punsh and Glühwein help too!

Packing for Lapland – the ultimate family DIY adventure to visit Santa and know what to bring

Two years ago, in the midst of a horrible flu, we picked three little explorers up from school and whisked them off on a surprise adventure, to Lapland. It was an incredible, magical adventure, that planning and booking by ourselves was a fraction of the price compared to the tour companies. We spent a week in the North of Finland for the same price as a day trip from Belfast! You can read all about how we did it here. Since writing the blog all about it, and chatting to others, it  has been amazing how many people have started to take it into their own hands and get an affordable option of a Lapland experience (some it has become an annual event rather than a once in a lifetime trip!)

One thing we get asked frequently is about what to bring and what to wear so we’ve made a magical winter wonderland guide if you are heading off to Lapland this year. 

Consider travelling light (it also saves on the needing to pay for baggage items). Most accommodations (do check it out before you go though) have drying cupboards, which dried the outerwear incredibly quickly. Means you can give base layers a quick wash in the sink and dry if you think you need to. 

CLOTHES 

It is freezing (the coldest temperature we saw was -28 degrees centigrade), you are in the Artic region after all, so it is important to dress appropriately. Many of the tour companies include rental of a snow suit, so check out the prices and think whether you are best to rent or buy.  You  may be able to borrow from friends, or if you plan to go skiing over the next few years it might be worth purchasing. We bought ours in the summer sales and got them at a good price, the children wore their coats at home that winter, and we sold them on when they grew out, so it worked for us. 

Layers are the important bit when it comes to surviving an artic winter, temperatures can vary quite a bit day to day and there’s only a few hours of daylight per day so being prepared to layer up or strip off is a must. You will also be going in and out of warm buildings, so need to be able to strip off quickly if necessary. 

 Many people also worry about bringing very young children. As long as you are prepared you will have no problems (there are local babies in Lapland after all). 

BASE LAYERS 

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Mr 4 modelling his base layers and warm socks

These are basically your thermals layer – leggings and long sleeved tops. Unless you ski and therefore sweat, in the coldness you are unlikely to sweat so they will last a couple of days. We brought 3 or 4 pairs, if I went back we would bring 2 each, one to wear, and one to wash/dry if necessary. 

Tips 

  • Do not buy cotton ones, these hold the cold and feel damp, something synthetic, or merino wool (these are pricey, I would only purchase these if you plan to ski/ use them regularly). 
  • We bought ours in summer sale from Sports Direct and they were really cheap (like £1-2 per top/leggings).  Lidl, Decathlon, Aldi all have good options at times, so check them out.

 

MID LAYERS

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Miss 9 wearing her fleece mid layer – perfect for striping down to in a restaurant

This is the in-between layer – a good fleece top or jacket is a worthwhile investment and something you will likely wear at home throughout the winter. Most days we didn’t need a mid layer on the legs, Miss 11 is always cold and she may have worn this a few times, but the others did not. For our late night northern lights hunting all the layers were required- mainly as we were standing still on a frozen lake. 

Tips

        • Two of these is more than plenty for a week long trip. 
      • Fleece lined leggings or joggers work as a mid layer.
      • For kids fleece pyjamas are a great idea, cheap and they don’t wick in the moisture.

OUTERLAYER 

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Ski jackets and salopettes

Outerlayers need to be warm, padded and crucially waterproof and snow proof. A decent ski jacket and salopettes are essential.  These are bulky items, again, we wore the jackets travelling and rolled up the trousers. You could also use one of the space saver clothes bags and suck out the air with a vacuum,  that would make them go much smaller for packaging. 

Tips 

  • If buying cheaper versions they seem a bit thin, you can always add more mid layers so you don’t need to worry about having the best gear 
  • Keep an eye on second hand options, especially for kids, as they grow quickly. 
  • You may also find a friend has their ski wear in the attic and is more than happy to lend you some! 
  • TkMaxx, Sports Direct, Trespass, and other outdoor stores can do great clearance deals in the summer. My children did wonder why they were trying on Snow suits in July – but with parents who met studying a Geography degree the line it is going to be an exceptionally cold winter worked well! 

 

EXTREMITIES 

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As you can see waterproof is important!

Snow boots – you will need a decent grip. We bought our in Trespass sale, (although i’ve seen good options in Lidl this year) and they worked perfectly. We all wore them travelling which saved space in the suitcases- and gave us toasty toes on the journey. We did pack trainers, but barely used them – if you are staying in a hotel you will, but in an apartment or cottage probably not. 

 

 

Buying tips

  • Focus on grips over style
  • Buy a size bigger to facilitate a few layers of socks
  • Wear them travelling rather than pack and save space 
  • Break them in before you go, they can be rigid and heavy on little feet so let them try them out a few times (we had some puddle jumping to try and not spoil the surprise before we went) 

Socks – along the line of the layering above, it is important to layer socks. A thin base layer – merino wool is the top end, but cheaper ones work well too, and a thicker pair on top. You don’t need a lot, you can rinse them and dry them in the drying cupboard. Lidl, Aldi, and sports stores can have them for a few pounds. It is worth adding a couple of extra layers, as you can be standing about a bit and little toes can get cold. 

Tips 

  • Wool keeps you the warmest, but make sure they are stretchy as you are layering them. 
  • Useful purchase as they can keep you warm at home too around the house! 

 

Gloves – similar principle to socks, layers is important. The kids had thin magic gloves with waterproof ski ones on top. Little people and gloves tend to be an on off on off experience. It was good to have a few extra of the magic gloves and they did manage to get them soaked/ chew on them and then they froze a few times.

 

Hats, scarves, neck gaiters, snoods  – a warm hat is essential, and a snood worked well for the children, more difficult to pull off and less things to loose if you don’t have scarves and other items. I finally understood what a wonderful intervention a neck gaiter was, it saves your face, lips and lungs from suffering from the cold. It helps reduce your lips getting chapped if you keep your mouth covered, makes your neck warm and reduces the cold air getting into your chest.

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These snood hat things were perfect for the younger two

Tips

  • If you’re going to do some skiing, pack a bobble-free hat so your helmet will fit better.
  • If you’re travelling with kids, pack distinctively coloured hats for them, lots of little people sledding up and down slopes can make it hard to spot which one you own. Even more important if you rent the outerwear in resort as all the children then look the same!

 

You don’t need any fancy/ meal out type clothing. You will need to wear your outerwear to go anywhere and then everyone is stripping off inside.

 

Some people asked me about asthma, Mr 5 was an asthmatic baby and we had frequent hospital visits due to his chest in the first years. He turned 4 when we were in Lapland and had no problems, in fact the air was super clean. 

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Other things to pack: 

Swimsuit –  Finland is sauna country and it’s very likely that your cabin or hotel will have a sauna you can use. It is the best thing ever, coming in from the cold into the hold sauna. There’s lots of naked sauna use in Finland, but if you are not up for that you will need a swimsuit. There’s some nice hot tubs and pools at different resorts that you can go to, even if you are not staying there. Levi had a wonderful pool in the Levi Spa Hotel that we enjoyed spending some time in.

Small back pack – with the three little adventurers , I need a constant supply of snacks and water so I rarely leave the house (or cabin) without a backpack. As well as snacks and water, I also packed tissues, lip balm, travel-size hand cream and an extra layer just in case. It is worth making sure it is waterproof for this trip due to the amount of snow.

Snacks – plenty of snacks as always is a good idea with small people. It can be tiring playing in the snow- so pack those high energy snacks. You also can’t have enough hot chocolate to warm up in your room/ cabin after a few chilly hours outdoors.

Battery packs – phone and camera batteries drain incredibly quickly in the cold- like from nearly fully charged to empty in a few minutes sometimes. I found keeping phone in warm of inside pockets helped but sometimes it needed a boost to get turned on again. 

Hand warmers – we didn’t use that frequently as the layers did their job but if someone is likely to get cold, they are a handy option, especially for little toes or little fingers. 

Marshmallows – nothing beats marshmallows over an open fire for some festive fun! We enjoyed roasting ours over the fire in the chalet and in the little huts in kidsland were you also got free hot berry juice – delicious. 

Moisturiser and lip balms – Faces and lips can get sore in the cold- moisturiser and lip balm were essential items for us. Everything freezes- including inside your nose. That’s a weird feeling! I didn’t bother with any makeup but I’m not exactly a make up every day person anyway. 

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Warming up after a successful Northern Lights hunting trip

Packing list 

  • 2x base layers per person 
  • 1-2x mid layers per person
  • 1 ski jacket and salopettes per person
  • Snowboots (plus one pair of other shoes for indoors)
  • 1x hat per person
  • 1x snood/ scarf per person
  • 2x magic gloves / thin layered gloves
  • 1x ski gloves
  • Hand warmers
  • Snacks (you can buy some over there but food can be pricey and you may not get the items you want)
  • Hot chocolate
  • Marshmallows and something to toast them on
  • Normal pyjamas- buildings are very warm, you won’t need really warm pyjamas.
  • Toiletries – normal items but make sure to pack the lip balm and moisturiser
  • Cameras, electronics, battery packs  – we used phones mainly, whatever your electronic device of choice, there is a high chance of battery drain so pack those battery packs.

 

I hope that has been useful to help you think about what you might need for a snowy trip to Lapland. If you have any questions comment below, and most importantly enjoy, it is such a magical adventure.

Giant balls of steel, and a European Odyssey – review of the Atomium and Mini Europe in Brussels

 

As we prepared for our Brussels visit I kept coming across images of this massive strange looking giant atom structure. At 102m tall, this atom is magnified to 165 billion times the size of an iron crystal. Constructed out of 24,000 tonnes of steel, the nine spheres house a range of different functions. The Atomium is an imposing and intriguing structure on the outskirts of Brussels. 

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Atomium in Brussels

Not quite as high as our summer visit to the Burj Khalifa,  but with specular views nonetheless across the city of Brussels and wider Belgian countryside. We took the lift (once the fastest lift in Europe) straight to the top to see the 360 degree view. Hard to believe that this time last year Miss 11 was pretty terrified of heights. The ‘exposure therapy’ at the top of the Empire State Building last Halloween has worked its magic, as without a blink she looked out at the beautiful views across the area. It felt surreal to gaze below at these balls of steel with the sun reflecting off them. 

A number of the spheres house an interactive museum on the history of the creation. Initially built for the 1958 World Expo, the first one after the World War,  but so loved by the Belgian people that it has become a permanent feature in the Brussels landscape the Atomium feels a bit like a national treasure.

Connecting each sphere is a total of twenty tubes, some with light filled elevators that make you feel you are blasting off to the moon on a futuristic space trip.

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Other spheres host temporary art galleries and we were invited to the opening weekend of the Bruegel- a poetic experience. This immersive and interactive exhibition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel, the famous Renaissance painter.  We enjoyed exploring his paintings feeling like we were part of the oversized images. The temporary exhibition is open until September 2020, check it out if you are in the area. 

 

Miss 11’s favourite ball was the mini spheres within a sphere that allow school groups to come and stay for a night in the little sleeping pods.  She loved that idea, and thought it a good one for a school trip.

 

An unusual afternoon, but one that is worth a visit if you are visiting Brussels, it is incredible to see the scale and size of the Atomium. 

 

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Next door, is Mini Europe, an opportunity to travel around all of Europe in a few hours.  What more could a wanderlust like me and Miss 11 want? Spending our time reflecting on the adventures we have taken, and where next to explore in Europe. 

Mini Europe is a miniature homage to the 27 countries that make up the European Union at a scale of 1/25 the size of buildings. We loved it, if you like the miniland in Legoland this will be a perfect location.  It is educational as well as entertaining, and the adults seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, sometimes more so with the miniature trains, planes, and automobiles. A family attraction in many ways. 

It opened in 1989, and has been added to over the years as the EU has expanded, now with 350 models. There is something to represent every country, no matter how small. We travelled through Belgium, explored the Brussels we had seen in our walking tour the day previous in miniature form, visited Denmark, Sweden, and checked out where we had recently been in Amsterdam.

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Crossing over water, we arrived at the United Kingdom, visiting the Houses of Parliament complete with placard waving Brexiters, both for and against!

A brief visit to Ireland, and we continued on through France, Spain and Portugal. As we wandered through Italy, Miss 11 began to plan future holidays, before experiencing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on a vibrating platform. We made our way to Eastern Europe, and I remembered that Athens is high on my bucket list! 

 

At the end of the visit, the indoor ‘Spirit of Europe’ exhibition provides interactive quizzes where you can test your European knowledge (vastly growing in this trip with our visit to the EU headquarters),  learn more about the history of the European Union and take part in the big screen movement game. It is an educational and fun visit for all the family.

Both locations are situated right beside each other at the Bruparck area of Brussels,  just beside line 6 on the metro at Heysel/ Heizel, our Brussels card (kindly gifted) took us right there. We were invited by Atomium, but paid for tickets with Mini Europe ourselves. There are options to buy a combined ticket for both locations and save yourself a few Euro. There’s a nice park right beside, a waterpark, and cinemas – a perfect location to spend a day. 

 

We were kindly hosted by the Atomium to visit, and were gifted a Brussels Card for museum and transport access during our weekend trip. 

A Chocolate Trail – walking tour of Brussels

The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the praline was invented here over 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people, that’s a good ratio in my mind. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world, but they will be the first to tell you it is about quality not quantity.

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Over recent years, I’ve become a big fan of the city walking tour experience, especially if we only have a small window of time in a city. It’s a great way to get your bearings, and make markers of the places you want to spend more time. Gaining insight from a local is priceless too and I feel we get some great tips and suggestions so try to do them quickly after we arrive. I do however have not so pleasant memories when I was marched around Prague with my family in my teenage years for about 5 hours without a break, with my sugar levels dropping I was a shaky mess. (A situation the lovely siblings reminded me of for many a year). The promise of chocolate meant that no such a disaster would befall us. Home to fantastic beer, waffles, fries and famously chocolate you are never more than a few steps from some wonderful sustenance within Brussels. 

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Ready for some serious chocolate tasting

The Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tours promised great things to me and Miss 11 who was celebrating her birthday with a weekend furlong to the Belgian city. Up early and ready to walk, we meet our charming guide, Karla, in the UNESCO protected square, the stunning Grand Place, or Grote Markt. Outside the world’s first Godiva chocolate store we were ready for a taste, sight and sound adventure across the city gaining great insights into Brussels life. 

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Brussels Town Hall

We didn’t linger long — there was chocolate to be eaten, after all. As the only two guests on this morning adventure we were ready to go. 

Some history of the Grand Place to begin, we saw all the stallholders setting hope for the Festival of Folklore that would run all weekend. It was a busy hive of activity. We learnt the legend that the architect of the magnificent town hall was so disturbed when it was pointed out to him that the left and right side were not equal that he threw himself from the top. Legends abounding, under the eye, of St Michael with the slain dragon at his feet we headed off to explore Brussels chocolately goodness. 

Our first stop was at Corné, a pastissier turned chocolatier in one of Brussels’ grandest shopping arcades, of Royal standard nonetheless. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is an exquisite shopping mall, full of cafes, chocolate shops and much more, with many windows to peruse. Eyeing up the range of chocolates, we were told of the differences between white, milk and dark and begin to learn about the amazing cocoa bean. We commenced with a delectable white chocolate Manon blanc- packed full of vanilla cream and hazelnut on top. Delicious, apparently we were starting at the lower end and the quality would rise as the tour went on. Hard to believe! 

A few more steps down the exquisite shopping gallery, we came to Neuhaus, a pharmacist turned chocolatier. Apparently, Jean Neuhaus covered his medicines with a fine layer of chocolate, the early design of a praline . We learnt how pharmacies all have something sweet still across the city. I guess it helps the medicine go down – Mary Poppins had it right after all. 

Feeling a bit like Willy Wonka, we perused the range of chocolates in a variety of shops, tasting a range of samples as we went. Chocopolis, didn’t quite have the grand names of many other shops, but it was home to delicious mango flavoured chocolate. Here began our education into the production of chocolate, seeing the cocoa beans in action, and watching a short video on the production process- a world wide affair, with beans picked in South America, making there way to Amsterdam for roasting before coming to Belgium.

Another spike in the sugar levels, and on we walked, past a few bouncer manned doors, with the beats still pumping people were going to the party at 10am! I don’t think I would have ever managed that in my more youthful days. As we walked there was plenty of time to ask Karla all about the history of Belgium, we learnt about the two main languages – Flemish Dutch and French and the development and history of these. We learnt all about the painting and art on walls, and a range of museums as we went (some notes made for our further plans over the days ahead). 

 

Miss 11’s legs were starting to tire slightly, but we were ready for a pause of the choco-botique browsing for a immersive hands on chocolate making workshop. We arrived at the tour headquarters, took our seats at a long table covered in many goodies – chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices, and more, ready to be given a lesson in chocolate making. Welcoming the coffee, and the delicious hot chocolate , we listened intently as Karla began to introduce us to a range of different chocolates.

Next was over to us, we began to craft our own chocolate buttons and decorate them with a range of toppings. We met Mia, a chocolate expert, who demonstrated how to make pralines, and then we were able to create some wonders too. It was tricker than the experts made it look.

Mia created a spectacular chocolate birthday surprise (and didn’t forget the other two little adventurers back in Ireland who were delighted with the bags of chocolate!) and Miss 11 followed the Belgian custom of standing on a chair to have happy birthday sang to her. A birthday to remember indeed! 

 

And soon we were back on the streets, pounding the pavement in search of the most irresistible chocolate Belgium has to offer. I found it hard to believe that we were likely to top the morning so far, but onwards we continued. Unsurprisingly, we passed the Manneken Pis, and he was clothed in a Spanish number to celebrate the Folkore festival ongoing in the centre.

The next location really was a wonder, home to naturally pink chocolate. Yes, you’ve read that right, not artificially induced, but a product of the pink cocoa bean- ruby chocolate. A lighter taste, slightly berry like, ruby chocolate tasted sweet yet sour. The new fourth chocolate type apparently after dark, white and chocolate. Also home to delicious macaroons, our sugar high was certainly high as we continued on from BS40 on Butter Street (even the street names are food related!)

Onward exploring the streets of central Brussels, gaining many a recommendation for museum, restaurant and bar visits. We had a brief stop at an old bar and learn about the Monks beers (more of that in a separate post!) We arrived at Elisabeths, a flower covered  boutique shop full of more delectable chocolates (some even in the questionable style of our friend Manneken Pis). Priding themselves in promoting the artisan chocolates, Elisabeth will have chocolatiers featured every week, we enjoyed some rose and raspberry infused delicacies.

All too soon, we ended back were we started in the Grand Place at Mary’s. Mary’s is a delectable high end shop, home of the Royal Belgian chocolates. These pralines are made daily, so you are getting the freshest of the freshest. I feasted on a champagne filled wonder , while Miss 11 enjoyed the chocolate truffle.

Delicious and a perfect end to our morning with the wonderful Karla. Not only had my taste buds been on a sensory journey, our minds and bodies too as we took in the sights, sounds and learnt the history of Brussels and wider Belgium. Karla and I found some commonality in our study and work areas which provided wonderful conversation. I’d strongly recommend a Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tour. It’s the perfect way to experience all Brussels has to offer, and leaves you equipped for how to spend the rest of your time there, along with tasting and learning about the chocolate history.  They also offer a range of other tours  including  beer and food, culinarily, myths and legends, and sightseeing. If the chocolate one is anything to go by, they will be a wonderful, unique and special occasion. Go for it!

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Thank you to Brussels Walking Tour for the complimentary tour. We had a wonderful time, a perfect birthday treat for little miss. 

Harry Potter in Scotland – the Ultimate Muggles Guide

Harry Potter’s Scotland

While many parts of the United Kingdom try to claim that they have influenced the writing of Harry Potter, there is no doubt that Scotland holds an important influence, and indeed homes the actual cafes were pen was put to paper by JK Rowling . As you probably know if you have seen any of our blog, we are big Potterheads. Miss 10 leads the current charge, but her mother is more than happy to follow suit, still being a big fan and remembering her first readings of each book. This year has been a Harry Potter filled year, we saw the exhibition of JK Rowling writing in New York Historical Museum, and we have stayed in London in a Harry Potter themed hotel, and watched the Cursed Child in our Magical weekend. We’ve also previously adventured to Studio Tour outside London, and last year been to Universal Studies for some Harry Potter wonderment! Phew, it has been magical indeed. 

Anyway, Scotland holds some wonders in Harry Potter themed adventures that you can take. Here are the highlights for us!

Glencoe and the Scottish Highlands

Exploring the dreamy Scottish Highlands it feels like you could be anywhere in a Harry Potter Movie. Glencoe is just that, Harry Potter’s Scotland. Not only the filming location for Hagrid’s Hut, you may also recognise it as the place where Hermione punches Malfoy and the moment when Xenophilius Lovegood calls the Death Eaters on Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Deathly Hallows Pt. 2. Spellboundingly magical. 

Harry Potter Walking Tour Edinburgh

We joined Jonny in the free Harry Potter walking tour around the sights. You book the tickets online for free, then at the end give  a donation on what you feel it was worth. All 5 of us enjoyed a hot (for Scotland) afternoon, exploring and listening to Jonny tell us all the magical tales.  Starting  on the Royal Mile, you can see JK Rowlings handprints in the ground at City Chambers!  

Victoria Street 

Victoria St in Edinburgh is what inspired Rowling to create Diagon Alley. A claim quite a few streets of the UK have made, including in London and in York. As we stood on the diagonally (get it?) set street up a hill, the rainbow of colours stand out amongst the older traditional Edinburgh landscape. There’s plenty of coffee shops, magic shops and Harry Potter souvenir shops. We enjoyed seeing the joke shop nestled at the end of the street-just like going into the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Some happy purchasers enjoyed their shopping adventure. 

The Elephant House 

We finished our walking tour nearby the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’ and rested the weary legs with a bun and coffee afterwards.  It is claimed that JK Rowling spent most of her time writing her first Harry Potter books in this location and therefore is an essential rite of passage for any Potterhead. It is a bright cafe, full of elephants statues in all shapes and sizes. The food went down well, but the highlight is the bathrooms. Covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti crafted by other Harry Potter fans. Apparently at the start they used to paint over the graffiti, but finally gave it and let it stay. So many quotes and jokes inscribed over every inch of the bathroom, hopefully we’ve not inspired a graffiti phase for these three! 

When Rowling needed some peace to finish off the final Harry Potter book,  she checked into the Balmoral Hotel, apparently the afternoon tea is worth a trip! 

Find Tom Riddle’s grave

Located in the eerie Greyfriars’ Kirkyard is the real grave to Thomas Riddle Esquire. Apparently, JK Rowling used to stroll through the graveyard and gated inspiration for some of her characters from the gravestones. Along with Tom Riddle’s grave, you can find graves of Elizabeth Moodie, William McGonagall, James Potter and the tomb of Peeves the Poltergeist. Happy grave hunting!   You can also peek through the gates at George Heriot’s School – a prestigious primary school, that has a certain Hogwarts feel around it? 

Now for the big excitement and a bucket list trip for me……..

The Hogwarts Express, otherwise known as the Jacobite Steam Train

Miss 10 (and me too if I’m being honest) have dreamt of getting our Hogwarts letter, running through Platform 9 3/4 and taking off on the Hogwarts Express this is the closest any muggle will get. Commencing in the gateway to the Highlands, Fort William, we  boarded the Jacobite Steam Train and spent 2 hours through the scenic countryside to Hogwarts, or actually the fishing town of Mallaig. From Mallaig we headed on our wonderful Isle of Skye adventure. The magic of this steam train is that it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct – from the actual Harry Potter movies. Amazing. On board, when asked if you want anything from the trolley, resist the urge to scream ‘we’ll take the lot’ and content yourself with a Butterbeer Hot Chocolate or chocolate frog. These tickets sell out fast – so book  months in advance at West Coast Railways. It was such an adventure. Sad faces to arrive in Mallaig and not Hogwarts , but Haggard’s Alley Shop cheered everyone up once again.

Another recommendation is to see the train cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
In our case, we sent the husband on to be our official photographer of us crossing! It’s about a 10 minute hike from the viewing station to get the perfect view, and there’s quite the crowd so get there in good time to get your picture perfect stop! 

There you have it, our guide to a wonderful Scottish Harry Potter Adventure. Enjoy! 

Isle of Skye – Top things to do with kids (or without them)

Isle of Skye is the land of magic, nature and wonder. It has sparked the little imaginations, and we’ve enjoyed learning to hike and explore the countryside more. To the extent, they all want the proper gear, and are ready for their next walking adventure, Irish mountainside here we come. It takes its name from the old Norse sky-a, meaning ‘cloud island’, a reference from the Vikings due to the oft mist covered Cuillin Hills. It’s the second largest of the Scottish Islands, 50 miles in length. Since we met doing Geography degrees, it was the perfect adventure – the children are much preferring the folklore stories regarding the landscape formation than their parents tales!


We enjoyed a 2 night trip to the Island in the Easter Holidays. We were totally spoilt with the weather, it was warm, no need for a coat and we all got a tan! However, be more cautious I do think it is more common to experience some (a lot) rain and wind. These are our top suggestions for an adventure with kids (or indeed without but in that case I’d add some distillery experiences for sure!

You can arrive in Skye by Ferry or by bridge, we did one each way, which brought with it adventure and exploration. Book the ferry in advance from Mallaig with CalMac.

The Fairy Pools 

Nestled in the Cuillin Mountain range, and down a long single track windy road, past the numerous breath taking views, and two waterfalls,  is the hike to the magical Fairy Pools.  It’s about a 30 minute hike (well at our pace) from car park, to the pools, and up some  hills. Little legs were tired along the route but as Miss 6 said herself, it was more than worth the hike at the destination. It’s not a difficult at hike, but we saw someone carrying a pram back – not to be recommended at all. Through stream crossings, and over bumpy terrain it was perfect adventuring. 

At your destination, there’s crystal clear pools, with some waterfalls and it’s easy to imagine the magic of fairies playing around them all. All three enjoyed dipping their toes in to the freezing cold water and splashing a little. With the sun beating down, the water sparkled blue, and we relaxed taking in the incredible scenery around us.  When they were finally plucked away, they running through the gorse back to the valley, before the steepest climb back up to the car. Little tired bunnies by the end, and glad to rest for the drive to our accommodation. 

Note there’s no visitor centres, or toilets. It is a very popular spot and you can swim so bring a towel, your swimsuit and water/ snacks that you need for a couple of hours. Enjoy it is pure magic. 

Sligachan Bridge

This is a famous bridge with the Cuillin Hills in the backdrop. The Cuillin Hills are Britain’s most spectacular mountain range. There’s an alpine nature in the landscape, with steep knife edged ridges, naked rocks and scree-filled gullies. It is very picturesque and there’s many an instagram photo from the area. We enjoyed exploring through the rocks, and climbing over the stream. It’s a good starting point for more adventurous trip up the mountains , not for us, we are a bit wee yet for such adventures. There’s a hotel right beside it, with a wonderful pub and traditional Scottish restaurant called Seumas Bar – I enjoyed my vegetarian haggis!

The Fairy Glen – near Uig

Exploring the magical Fairy Glen

Nearby where we were staying was the Magical Fairy Glen. It is situated on the Trotternish Peninsula, but for some reason not that many people venture there. I’m really not sure why, as I think this ranks as one of my top things to do in Skye. There’s lots of fun hills, and valleys to explore, and lots of little stone circles – the kids were enthralled. I was mightily impressed by the just married couple, who where up the top of the rock in full wedding dress (plus hiking boots) getting their photos taken. It was a lovely day, they are going to get some great footage from the drone they had flying overhead!


Quiraing – is situated close by on the way across to the Staffin area. It is a fascinating basalt formation. There’s a 4.5 mile hike to get up close to the cliffs, that is recommended – unfortunately it was a bit much for us this time with all the other things we were doing. Something for next time!

Portree

The main town of Isle of Skye – with the postcard picture along the seafront, we visited for a few hours to get some supplies in the shops, enjoy a fish and chips on the shore, and purchase some lovely artwork for our house! As we enjoyed our fish and chips, a man pointed out the Golden Eagle circling above our heads- amazing!


Old Man of Storr

A short drive from Portree is the picture postcard iconic view of the Isle of Skye, with the spiky pinnacles of rock set up against rolling green hills. We didn’t get to hike up to it, but it is a strong recommendation for a visit if you can manage it.


Kilt Rock, Mealt Falls and Brother’s Point

On further from Old Man of Storr towards Staffin there’s some spectacular coastal scenery. From the viewpoint, if you look north to see Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock, then look south, the scenery is almost as beautiful and you can see Rubha nam Brathairean (Brother’s Point) off in the distance – there’s another interesting easy hike to Brother’s Point.

Staffin Dinosaur Museum

Nearly by Staffin, there’s a really interesting little museum- Staffin Dinosaur Museum. The kids were fascinated with the fossils and history of the dinosaurs of old in Skye. They even have tours to find the often difficult to find dinosaur footprints in Staffin Bay. It is an excellent collection well worth a stop.


Claigan Coral Beach 

This beach is another contender for my favourite location on Skye. A short hike (of around 1 mile) and through the now typical Skye coastline and you come across this beauty. It’s not really coral being in Scotland after all, it just looks like it! Fascinatingly it is made from crushed bleached skeletons of Red Coraline seaweed. It makes the water look tropical blue when the sun shines and has a finely crushed white beach. Full of wonderful shells and on a low tide day you can cross over to Lampay island on a causeway! Pure magic!

Dunvegan Castle

On the way to the coral beach you can find Dunvegan Castle and Gardens. There are good reviews about it, due to the gorse fire, we didn’t have enough time to spend to justify the cost! However, would be a good rainy day activity if you need inside for a while.

Also in this general direct is Neist Point – thanks to the fire we didn’t make it this far, but it is recommended as a nice place to visit if you are in the area.

Accommodation in Skye 

We stayed near Uig in the wonderful Clouds B&B which has a perfect space for a family room. The details were incredible, it was comfortable, with a delicious simple start breakfast of cereal, yoghurt, breads, cheese, fruits, juice and coffee, and spectacular views especially  of the epic sunsets. The little details like toys in the bedrooms, a record player, outside swing and slide set, and comfy blankets made us feel perfectly at home. The family were welcoming and informative. An excellent find – do check it out. 

In terms of planning your route, coming from the boat from Mallaig, towards Uig, Sligachan Bridge, and the Fairy Pools are close by each other, and the Fairy Glen is nearby Uig. Dunvegan Caste, Claigan Coral Beach, and Neist Point are the same side of the Island. From Portree the Old Man of Storr is en route to the Staffin area which has Mealt Falls, Brothers Point, Kilt Rock and the Dinosaur Museum. Out of the whole Skye trip, we didn’t pay anything other than £5 for the Staffin Dinosaur Museum.

We ended up with an unscheduled change in our plans when we came across a road closed due to an ongoing gorse fire! It was significant, and there was considerable smoke in the area. Some panic from some nameless little people, the adults were very interested in the whole situation. The next day you could see vast areas scorched. A common problem in summer but apparently this was early on in the season for one!

We had a magical stay, and would really recommend it for those with kids (and indeed anyone!) We will be back! Thank you Isle of Skye.

Oregon Girl Around the World

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – fly away with a wonderful Mary Poppins themed afternoon tea at the Shard

Much like Mary herself, we flew into London on a blustery day (with a rather bumpy plane landing). Smart shirts on, and even smarter manners ready, off we headed  to a story book afternoon tea extravaganza at The Shard, Mary Poppins style. A mirrored menu was shared with us all, any special dietary requirements consulted. 

We began with a choice of fruity teas, coffee or proper hot chocolate. Adults could choose from some medicine bottles full of champagne. Solo in charge of these 3 for the afternoon I didn’t partake, tea it was.

Napkins tucked in, the first course arrived. Miss 6 was delighted with the delectable crumpets and smoked salmon, Mary’s choice of course. A selection of classic English sandwiches- cheese and pickle, crab and cucumber, ham salad and egg mayonnaise served on a range of breads. 

Mary Poppin’s bag itself arrived, and from it fresh hot scones appeared. We all smothered them in fresh jam and clotted cream. Delicious! 

Then, a wonderful cake stand floated in to the table, standing on Mary’s boots and topped by a wonderful umbrella, three layers of delicious sweet treats. We enjoyed a ‘strike me pink’ sponge, Mrs Corey’s gingerbread star, a ‘back to front zoo’ golden syrup tart and Mary’s cherry filled chocolate mousse hat with an edible flower on top. Practically perfect! 

Finally, when it was nearly time to descend from the epic citywide view from the 32nd floor of the Shard in the AquaShard restaurant, freshly spun raspberry candy floss. Our ever smart waiter offered everyone who wanted a second candy floss stick. 

The children made a good go of the full range, I was beat! So a little doggy bag came away with us. The views from the aqua shard across London are fabulous. Miss 6 was taken with the bathrooms and the fancy sofa. The attention to detail was fabulous. A pricey but special treat enjoyed by my 3 who had strangely impeccable manners throughout!! 

Mary Poppins Afternoon Tea

A Wizarding Weekend – a Harry Potter magical filled 3 day London itinerary

We’ve just returned from the most magical weekend in London, perfect for the biggest wizarding world fans. Miss 10 is a big fan of everything J.K Rowling has created, and in essence of our continued gifting of experiences not stuff, she received some tickets for Christmas this year. Together we’ve designed a magical other worldly itinerary for any wannabe witches or wizards in London Town!

Day 1

Start the day with a wonderful walking tour exploring all the actual and inspirational places for the Harry Potter movies. We toured with Tours for Muggles accompanied by Ellie Lovegood (Luna’s cousin of course). We went around many of the key sites from the movies- learnt about the challenges in filming in central London with all the crazy potterhead fans. Starting around the Tower Bridge area we saw the Borough markets (a good spot for lunch even if the Leaky Cauldron doesn’t quite look the same) we explored the area. Now experts on the range of bridges and the inspiration for Azkaban (well the English inspiration in Clink prison anyway), we took a tube to Westminister and retraced Mr Weasley and Harry’s footsteps on the way to the Ministry of Magic. A dander (walk for all you non Northern Irish) through Trafalgar Square to the inspirations for Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley before ending near Leicester Square. Ellie was able to answer all questions, and full of great wizarding knowledge.

An afternoon well spent is at the Potion Room in Soho’s Cutter and Squidge. A magical interactive afternoon tea- with potion brewing (I make a mean galaxy drink), a crackling cauldron to blow your head off, and a full spread of very English magical inspired savoury and sweet delicacies. Dressed in robes, in the beautifully adored basement, seated at school desks, our potion making class was delivered by a fabulous in character wizard. Full to the brim, we ended with a lovely treat from the sweet trolley! Great fun, immersive and delicious- a great afternoon out.

 

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Reading Harry Potter in the Wizard Chambers at the Georgian House Hotel

Then to retire to the Wizard Chambers in the Georgian House Hotel. Situated near Victoria station, the hotel has dedicated a number of rooms to detailed wizarding theming. Through a secret bookcase, we came up to our magical room, with potions, brews, old style furniture and lighting we were transported to a different time. There was even a secret passageway to the Ministry of Magic down the toilet if you dared! A comfy 4 poster bed meant for a good night’s sleep after walking all those steps! Sweet magical dreams.

 

 

 

Day 2

Next morning, following a delicious wizarding breakfast (included in the stay) head for the Palace Theatre in the West end for the enthralling Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It is split in two parts – we did them both in the same day, some people choose two consecutive nights. Tickets must be bought well in advance, but there’s also the weekly Friday Forty when 40 tickets are released for the next week’s shows for the total price of £40.

E0C1F759-22C0-449E-80C8-4FA4C055E9FCThe play is absolutely mind blowing, a full day in the theatre went in a flash! Keeping to the #keepthesecrets we won’t say too much. Other than go go go go!!! A little scary in places perfect for Potterheads aged around 8 plus! Miss 10 did jump out of her skin a few times but was totally spell bound! The end leaves you ready for the next part instantaneously!

There’s a few hours gap between the two performances- we grabbed a pizza and had time for a visit to the House of MinaLima. A wonderful exhibition of the graphic artwork of two of the main designers on the Harry Potter movies has been curated in a 3 story building in Greek street just around the corner from the theatre. Free to enter, and lots of wonderful prints to purchase should you desire. It covered all the movies including the more recent Fantastic Beasts. Lovely way to pass a little time.

Back to the theatre, for the second splendid part. Gripped throughout, the magical performances, wizardy set design, spell binding music, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child lives up to the high expectations. A new production, that my theatre loving one now has in her eye for future treading the boards! In our case, a short wait at stagedoor resulted in some lovely chats, magical memories and the important signed merch for the theatre wall at home! What a day- time to rest those weary legs (a different type of weary from all the sitting today).

 

Day 3
(Caveat we didn’t do this part this time, but did go 2 summers ago, but would make a perfect part to a 3 day magical weekend).

Up early and off to the famous Warner Brothers’ studios to see The Making of Harry Potter. We caught a train to Watford Junction (about 1 hour outside of Central London but easy on public transport), then we jumped on the themed double decker bus and in no time we were transported to the magical studios.