We’re all going on a summer holiday! A trip to North Wales.

Years ago, when we first visited Porthmadog, I thought the place looked tired and past its best. We stayed in a caravan that was much the same. And although we had a lovely time, I didn’t think that we’d be back in a hurry. It’s approaching a decade worth of holidays spent in the same place note though, so I guess I was wrong! And I guess this little corner of North Wales has really gotten under our skins.

For the first week of the summer holidays we holidayed once more in North Wales, staying in the village of Morfa Bychan, just outside of Porthmadog. If you’ve got children and/or are a fan of beaches regardless of the weather, then I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. You’ll find miles of sand, shallow, clear (and sometimes even warm) seas and rockpools and dunes galore to explore.

We had to stay in a new cottage this year as our usual one was booked out, possible due to Covid and the idea that people were booking breaks left, right and indeed centre following such a long period of time where they couldn’t travel. However, our cottage was a street or so away from our old place, so it was hardly like we were being inconvenienced and there was very little threat to the enjoyment of our holiday.

After my traditional annual battle with the roof box and how much I can fit in it before it just refuses to close, the 4 and a half hour drive felt like child’s play. We stopped, as we always do, in Colwyn Bay for a beach picnic and a bit of a break from the road and then headed to Porthmadog Tesco for supplies, but it was still only a little after 5pm when we got to the cottage.

There’s always an element of trepidation when you open the door of new accommodation. Even more so when the British weather means you might just end up spending full days there. So I think we were all quite nervous. We needn’t have been. The place was bright and light, with the kitchen, conservatory and living area all part of an open plan set up that made it feel very modern. All we needed to do now was unpack and settle in!

Once settled, we got on with things at pace, determined as ever, to pack as much into our trip as would be possible. We had a chippy tea on our first night, just because it was so convenient. If you visit Porthmadog, you have a wealth of choices for fish and chips, but we plumped for Chippy Dre in nearby Tremadog – https://en-gb.facebook.com/ChippyDre/ – and as with past visits it was absolutely delicious.

We spent the next two days on the beach at Borth-Y-Gest which is by far our favourite spot. The weather was great – sunny and still – and so it was ideal for just lazing around on the beach. And when the beach is as picturesque as this one believe me you could just sit and stare, read, listen to music all day every day. It’s a bit of a trek along the coastal path to get there and at times, weighed down by bags, picnic blankets and various tools for beach activities, it feels like you never will but you won’t regret it.

We broke the week up with a trip down the coast to Barmouth. We did this partly because we always take a trip to Barmouth, but also because we thought that the weather was going to be rubbish and there’s plenty to do there. Well it turned into another very hot day and thus, despite the fact that we were going to spend the day in cafes, amusements and shops, we ended up spending much more time on Barmouth beach, which is another beauty. We even popped into a nearby shop to buy a new frisby just to honour the occasion. Barmouth is a popular resort with a great beach and there’s always lots to do, from taking a long walk across Barmouth bridge to spending time in the amusements or just taking advantage of the huge beach.

We stayed longer than usual in Barmouth, wandering round town, spending time on the beach and then eventually having our tea there too. This time, we chose Isis Pizzeria – https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Cafe/Isis-Pizzeria-126484180782186/ – because of its excellent gluten free options and I have to say we had some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. The staff were really friendly and couldn’t have been more help and we left there with very full bellies indeed! Again, it’s a place I would absolutely recommend a visit if you’re in Barmouth or indeed anywhere even close!

A bit of a turn in the weather – it had to come; we were holidaying in the UK after all – led to a bit of exploring. For our first grey day, we decided to stay around in the village where we were staying.

Morfa Bychan is bordered on one side by the huge Black Rock, a mountain and on the other side by Black Rock Sands, a big beach – see what they’ve done with the names there? For years my wife has fancied heading up Black Rock, but with the weather being a little grey and misty, as well as quite gusty, I managed to talk some sense into her and we decided on a stroll along the beach. Before that though, I had plans of my own.

I had decided that I was going to head out for a run during this holiday. I knew that I’d get a cooler day and was fully prepared to get up early for said run. Thus, heading out just after 7am, I had a vague route in mind. That said, a lot of the route would find me running up big, steep hills, so I just thought I’d give it a go and that if I had to walk back, having tired myself out, then that would be OK. I ended up running a 10k! I headed out of Morfa Bychan, over several big hills and then down into Borth-y-Gest, home of our favourite beach. Once there, I ran around the harbour – up another stupidly steep hill – and then back out of the village towards home. Once back in Morfa, I headed down Beach Road and onto Black Rock Sands itself, managing a few minutes of running along the sands before, with my eye on my distance on Strava, I headed home. It was fantastic to run somewhere different and every time we drove over those hills from that point on, I was able to think that I’d ran them! Suffice to say the three other people in the car got bored with that line fairly quickly!

We walked to a very quiet beach later that day. I think – if Google Maps is to be believed – it’s called Samson’s Bay and it’s right beyond one end of Black Rock Sands. We clambered up the coastal path and followed it round to the bay which sits just beyond part of Porthmadog Golf Club. We’ve explored this part of the coast before, but never really spent any time there, so today we decided we’d take some bats and balls and have a bit of fun. And apart from the odd passing walker, we had the place to ourselves for ages. Perfect!

It’s a beautiful cove, as observed by a visiting golfer the next day when we went there again and he took time out of teeing off just to stand and admire the view.

Our next day was spent at Greenwood Forest Park, a theme park voted North Wales’ best tourist attraction. It’s somewhere we’ve been before – surprise, surprise – as it’s aimed at families, so it was a place we targeted on one of our early visits to North Wales, when our children were a lot younger.

https://www.greenwoodfamilypark.co.uk/

Nowadays, our eldest is probably a little too old for the park, but she still found enough to do in order to have an enjoyable and both of our kids (12 and 15, their ages not their names by the way) had a great day. The weather was very grey and the threat of rain hovered around all day, but the wet stuff never fell, meaning we could relax and enjoy ourselves easily enough. With a roller coaster powered by people – don’t ask, I’ve no idea – a couple of climbing activities, boats, a solar powered water slide, sledges, archery and all sorts of other stuff to do, there was plenty to fill the day. If you have younger children Greenwood Forest Park is a must, but even with our older pair, we had a great day.

With the end of the holiday looming and the weather not getting any better we spent our last afternoon in Porthmadog itself. After a lazy morning and another visit to Samson’s Bay, we had wanted to play crazy golf, but it was closed – no doubt Covid related – so we headed for coffee and cake instead. A natural substitution, I’m sure you’ll agree.

There are a number of places to grab a coffee, some cake or even an ice cream in Porthmadog, but we plumped for a place called Siop Coffee TH https://www.facebook.com/siopcoffith/ and as ever, we weren’t disappointed. The range of coffees is excellent and it’s the same with the cakes. The kids had hot chocolates and a slice of Biscoff brownie, while we had a cappucino, an americano and a flapjack each, my wife’s being both gluten free and delicious. Coffee, cake and a lovely friendly atmosphere while outside the drizzle fell relentlessly; it’s safe to say we had a great afternoon.

And then, before it even really felt like we’d settled in, it was time for us to pack everything up in preparation for heading home. We had a lovely week. North Wales, and Porthmadog in particular, is pretty much rural. It’s dominated by the sea and the mountains, making it the perfect place to relax. Having finished a tough year at work and then headed down to Wales the very next day, it was the perfect place to unwind. We may not have quite got the weather we’d have hoped for, but getting the sun for 4 days of our stay was fantastic and even when it blows a gale or rains, there’s always lots to do.

As we said goodbye to Porthmadog for another year, it was fairly safe in the knowledge that we’d be back. Locals told us that life during Covid had been a real struggle, as it had for all of us, but Porthmadog and the surrounding areas don’t seem to be struggling with staying beautiful and friendly. If you’re looking for a domestic break – or as a foreign traveler you want to discover somewhere that not a lot of people know about – then you won’t go far wrong with North Wales.

Peak District Mini-Break

Covid, lockdowns, running out of telly to watch, the cancellation of live sport and music, walk after walk after walk, no contact with dads and mums, no hugs, no pubs. It’s safe to say that we’ve lived sheltered lives for the last 18 months or so.

As a family we’ve spent a lot of time hunkered down at home and not suffered that badly from it all. We even managed to squeeze in a week’s holiday in North Wales when restrictions were lifted last summer, but other than that we might as well have had a force field within a mile radius of our house because we would have very rarely troubled it.

Lately though, the boredom has been taking hold. We’ve had to venture out, although still never far. But the delights of our back garden and the limits of our estate have pretty much worn off, so we had to start making plans. We were finally being forced to travel in search of adventure…as long as it wasn’t too far away; I mean, we’re not exactly natural adventurers!

With half term fast approaching, what we needed was something that was not that far away, yet far enough away that we wouldn’t be tempted to head home at the end of a day. So, with the Yorkshire Dales on our doorstep, the Yorkshire coast around an hour away and the Lake District not a great deal further, we plumped for…The Derbyshire Peak District!

We booked to stay in a family room in the Whitton Lodge in Hardstoft near Chesterfield and decided to spend two days around the Upper Derwent Valley in the Derbyshire Peaks. To be fair, this was a slight oversight on our part as we thought that the two places were a lot closer than they were and as a result left ourselves with an hour long drive after our first day in order to get to our accommodation! But what’s an hour in a hot car on narrow, winding country roads between friends!?

So on the Wednesday of half term (2nd June) we set off midway through the morning heading for an early lunchtime arrival at the Derwent Reservoir in the Upper Derwent Valley.

It has to be said, it’s quite an amazing journey. The first part is unremarkable, unless your some kind of motorway pervert and then I’d guess your blood really will be pumping, as we spent about 20 minutes on the M1, Britain’s foremost motorway. After leaving that though you are quickly transported to the middle of nowhere and there are times when all you can see is stunning countryside. It’s a difficult journey as a driver as the roads are narrow, winding and bumpy too. But it’s undeniably fun at the same time!

So by the time we get to the Derwent Reservoir and the visitor centre it’s fair to say that we’re a bit like one of James Bond’s martinis; shaken, not stirred! We circuit the car park unsuccessfully and decide to head back up the road to look for a space. We’re rewarded by a roadside spot a couple of hundred yards away and free parking for the day. Result!

Once we get down to the Visitor Centre we get our bearings before opting to walk without a map. It’s a friendly and helpful centre where you can purchase a map and also get some advice on the best walk to suit your needs, but today we settle for taking a photo of the route from a sign outside. Other than that we’re hiking on instinct alone. We’re off road and wrestling with whatever nature can throw at us!

Of course, I’m exaggerating so that we sound far more adventurous than we really are. We’ve actually done this hike once before, but it’s not as simple as just following regular signposts, so we’re winging it to an extent.

The Peak District is well known as an area of outstanding beauty – one of many in the UK – and it doesn’t disappoint today. It’s a scorching hot day and even just walking down near the side of the reservoir is lovely. But then, after about a half a mile of trekking and continually telling ourselves we’ve gone wrong, we take a sharp left over a stile, as signposted and start to head uphill.

The higher we climb, the more amazing the view. However, having tweaked a hamstring the day before while taking a coaching session, I’m making an extra effort to remain sure-footed and struggling a little bit. If you follow in our footsteps and take this walk be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s a steep climb and for much of the way it’s a narrow path with a steep drop to your right. It’s a rocky footpath too, so you need to choose your path carefully. It isn’t particularly dangerous, but with the wind blowing a little bit things felt quite hairy at times!

As we get closer to the top we decide to scramble up the banking to our left a little way and refuel. It’s picnic time. We’re sheltered quite well from the wind and we have the best of views. It’s safe to say that while it’s a welcome break from our upward hike, it’s a wonderfully relaxing one as well. We spend a good half an hour eating, drinking, chatting, fending off flies and taking in the view before finally hauling ourselves into a standing position and heading upwards once more.

Once at the top of the hill – and Strava showed my ascent as just short of 700ft that day – the view is incredible. A 360 degree sight that just takes the breath away. Looking back down from where we’ve come there’s the reservoir stretching through the valley, to our left moorland and the peaks of the next valley, to our right the steep sides that – I think – lead towards Hope Valley and then in front of us, what awaits our feet; miles of stunning moorland. It’s days like this and views like this that make me all the more thankful for living in England.

The walk takes you for another couple of miles across the top of this stunning landscape before you make the steep descent down towards the Lady Bower reservoir. This is definitely not a walk for smaller children, especially not this bit and it can feel a little treacherous at times as you’re descending sharply down a narrow and rocky path. Watch out for stray sheep too! And if you’re lucky you may well spot the odd bird of prey swooping or hovering over the valley seeking it’s next snack!

Once we make it down to the bottom we’re all shattered. My legs are like jelly after the descent, it’s stiflingly hot and I have a rucksack on my back. Yet there’s still further to go! It’s safe to say we simply amble along the path along the side of the reservoir diving into shade as we go.

Once we make it back to the Visitor Centre we queue for ice creams and slump on a low wall to rest and cool down. But we can’t stay too long as there’s another hour long drive ahead of us before we get to our accommodation.

Whitton Lodge is situated 6 miles outside of Chesterfield, in a pleasant part of the Derbyshire countryside. When we show up there is no one around and how we actually check in is a little unclear. However, we make a quick phone call and the owner is with us within a couple of minutes, greeting us with a warm smile and showing us around, before taking us to our room. The property has nine bedrooms, a breakfast room and best of all, a lounge with TV and a pool table. Our room – a family room – is huge and there’s more than enough room for us all to feel comfortable. Despite this, two members of the family still take up residence on my side of our bed when I point out that there’s a plug socket next to it. It’s OK, my phone charging can wait!

We drive back into Chesterfield for our tea, opting for Frankie and Benny’s to suit both our children and due to the fact that the gluten free and dairy free options are good.

Next morning, after a good sleep in the peaceful Derbyshire countryside we head downstairs just before 8am to be welcomed warmly by our hosts. Breakfast is excellent and again the gluten free and dairy free options are great. Best of all though is my cooked breakfast; lots of bacon, sausages, egg, beans and hash browns with a decent supply of toast, juice and coffee too. Our hosts are friendly and chatty, as well as being brilliantly efficient and we’re left waiting for nothing. We even have a chat about their goats as we leave and I’m sure we’ll be back in the future.

We’re homeward bound today, but not until late, so we’re heading back into the Peaks and the Hope Valley to visit the beautiful village of Castleton. We’re not quite sure what we’ll do, but in the spirit of adventure, we reckon we’ll find something.

In fact, there’s lots to do in Castleton. There are caves to visit, a Norman castle – hence the name – a number of walks, a visitor centre and lots of pubs, cafes and restaurants. We consider the caves and the castle, but then, already tired, settle on what we think will be a reasonably easy walk. We opt for the Cave Dale – Peverill Castle loop and very quickly find that it’s yet another steep, rocky ascent! It’s narrow too, with steep hillsides either side of us, but popular and lots of people are out on the trail.

Even though the walk is slightly short of 3 miles, we take our time today and there are several stops on the way up. It’s lovely though, as with the rest of the day ahead of us and hearty breakfasts to try and work off, the rest stops can easily be accommodated! I have to say I’m grateful for every last one of them! As you’d expect in the Peaks, the view from the top is stunning and once again we can see for miles and miles.

It’s approaching mid afternoon when we get back into Castleton and we just take a leisurely stroll back towards the visitor centre, where another low wall beckons us to have another sit down! It’s a busy little place though, so ideal for a spot of people watching!

Although we’re still feeling fairly well fed, we’re now very thirsty so we head for the Three Roofs Cafe, where again there are enough gluten free and dairy options to keep the family happy. We’re unable to resist the snacks and so crumpets, scones, chips, a sandwich and a tea cake are ordered and promptly scoffed, while we sit and enjoy the cool inside air. It feels like the ideal time for a coffee, but I have what I call a ‘pop thirst’ and so I go for a San Pelegrino Limonata which absolutely hits the spot and is the best thing I could have drank at this moment in time!

We have a quick stroll through Castleton at the end of the day, but by this point everyone is shattered and it’s clearly time to head home. We’re back in Leeds within an hour and a quarter and the country air seems a distant memory. There’ll definitely be a next time though and I’d recommend the Peak District to anyone who fancies some serenity, fresh air and incredible views.

I hope you enjoyed the blog. As ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Lockdown Holiday!

When lockdown first took hold of our lives and the government applied stringent rules to anyone who wasn’t Dominic Cummings or at least working closely with him, we decided against booking our usual Easter break. It seemed sensible and we felt it would be a small compromise and that we’d soon be able to travel again. Well, we all know how that turned out. Later, our summer holiday was cancelled too.

Each year we head to North Wales and the Llyn Peninsula for a week long break at the start of the school holidays. Now, we were being told that the infrastructure wouldn’t be able to cope with tourists and that essentially, North Wales was being closed to visitors. It was understandable, given what we were experiencing at home in a much more built up region where the facilities and infrastructure were set up to cope with a much greater number of people. The longer that lockdown went on and the longer that we worked from home, the more we just accepted our fate. There would be no holiday this year.

And then, out of nowhere, at the start of July we received an email from the owners of the cottage that we usually stay in. Wales was opening up to tourists again and, if we still wanted it, our holiday was on. After a lot less thought than I imagined we’d have, we emailed to confirm – we were off on holiday! We decided that our mantra would be ‘four different walls’ and took the plunge. Having been stuck at home since March, even four different walls would feel like a holiday. Anything to break the monotony of the previous few months.

In terms of lockdown rules, Wales was slightly behind England, so a lot less was actually going to be open, including pubs, but we were glad of the change. One of the bonuses of Wales still being largely closed was that we could probably pack less though! No going out for meals would mean less clothes. We’d still have things for the beach and there’d probably be more books and magazines to take, but overall the car wouldn’t be fit to burst this year. Maybe the kids could sit in actual sitting positions, rather than having to tuck their legs up to accommodate extra bags! (That’s not actually true for anyone considering calling Childline.)

Before we knew it we were indeed heading down the motorway in a car that was a little lighter and also heading for the first problematic part of our trip. We’re creatures of habit in our family and so every year, on the way down to the cottage, we stop off in Colwyn Bay (as an aside, we can never remember whether it’s Colwyn Bay or Conwy, but we know it’s near LLandudno!). The problem here was that with public toilets closed we would need somewhere new to stop and while this doesn’t sound like much of a problem – motorway services anyone? – it was actually quite traumatic. and kept us busy deciding where to stop for far too long! In the end, we found a services, followed the social distancing guidelines, stuck to the one way systems, popped into the toilets, armed ourselves with coffee and ate our picnic in the car. Not quite the same as always, but then this always was going to be a slightly different holiday.

Porthmadog was noticeable quieter than usual when we arrived. It’s normally a bustling little town, but now there were far fewer people on the main street. It was hearetning to see that some of the local shops and businesses were open and relatively thriving though.

This was our third stay in this particular cottage and it felt lovely to walk through the door and find that little had changed. Things like DVDs, books and board games had been removed and there were notices re health and safety on several walls, but this was still very much our little cottage. And there was also the added bonus of the owners signing up for Netflix to alleviate the situation with DVDs and board games – more than a fair trade, I’d say! A definite plus point for the global pandemic!

One thing that definitely wouldn’t – and didn’t – change was access to beaches. The village where we stay has a huge beach and so we knew we’d be able to comfortably stay at a social distance from others down there. Getting to our favourite little beach might well be more problematic, but more on that later.

There would be no pub visits either. Unlike in England, pubs in Wales were yet to open, although it would be possible to eat outdoors. Usually we have a rota of pubs that we visit and we generally always eat out, but Covid-19 meant a change of plan. Luckily, some of our regular haunts were operating a takeaway service and so, for our first evening we ordered a Sunday roast from our favourite pub and popped down into town to collect. What we got was an absolute banquet fit for about 12, meaning that the holiday got off to a great start, even if it was quite a fat one!

This was a theme that continued throughout the week. We’d order food from one of our favourite pubs and go and collect. Despite the pandemic and the sense of paranoia, there was always a warm welcome and it was clear that those running pubs were just pleased to be getting any custom. Everything was brilliantly organised and customer and staff safety was obviously at the top of all agendas. We were still told of some visitors who’d actually complained about not being able to go into the pubs though and it seemed strange that they had missed any news whatsoever of a pandemic and the fact that practically everything had changed!

In terms of trips to the beach, we spent the first full day on the local beach, Black Rock Sands, a vast stretch of sand, where as well as people you’ll find dogs, cars and even the odd ice-cream van! Needless to say, social distancing wasn’t a problem.

It’s such a big beach that we always make space and time for some family sports. This year there was beach tennis, baseball, football and a curious game that involves a ball and two kind of big plastic half-cylinders (I’m sorry I’m not eloquent enough to explain exactly what they are!) and of course even more space than ever. We also made time to just laze around, reading and watching the world go by. Lockdown restrictions or not, this is still a holiday and there’s nothing better on holiday than just to sit and stare at nothing in particular!

Before we travelled we were reticent about visiting our favourite beach, given that the only access to it was via a long narrow coastal path. This was also the coastal path that ran along the whole coast and thus dog walkers and hikers were a common site. So, the chances of making the journey to and from our beach without bumping into people and indeed squeezing past them, were slim.

However, by the second full day, with great weather forecast, we were wiling to try. We prepared a picnic, packed the car as usual and set off for the short drive to the end of the coastal path. It was busier than we’d imagined when we arrived, but most people seemed to be hanging around the harbour having a drink or an ice cream. We did pass one or two people on the long path heading for the beach, but it was just a case of holding your breath and squeezing in a bit as there was literally nothing else for it other than throw yourself in a hedge!

On the beach, despite it being quite a small cove, people were very respectful of social distancing and there must have been 7 or 8 metres between us and the next family on the sand. Buoyed by the weather and the conditions on the beach, we had a brilliant day and even spent the next day there too.

We’re usually quite fond of a day out on our Wales holiday. It’s home to many a castle and an amazing coastline and so there are lots of choices like Harlech, Cearnarfon and Barmouth, where we’ve had some brilliant times. This year though, with some lockdown restrictions still in place we felt it was safer to stay close to home – or actually at home – and so were robbed of such trips. The weather didn’t really help either – it was pretty much miserable for the last few days and although we managed one more day on the beach, it was fairly cloudy and not particularly warm. Defintely no need to get the beach body out!

We did attempt to salvage something on the rainy days too, rather than just resorting to lazing around watching Netflix. On the first of these days, we took a picnic down to Black Rock Sands only to find that it was akin to sitting in a sandstorm. This meant that we had an express picnic in record time, huddled behind a large sand dune with no one allowed to mention the extra sandy crunch of their sandwiches! On the other day we misjudged the weather conditions, walking the length of the beach before turning round to head back…just as torrential rain started! We could have swam back and been drier! Needless to say, both kids – the pre-teen son and teenage daughter – took both days in their stride, handling them with good humour…

(Actually, both took moaning about the weather to dizzy new heights, if the truth be told. In fact, such was my daughter’s level of sulking as we ate our picnic that I spent the whole time in fits of giggles trying not to choke on my food. She took this well though. Actually…well, you get the picture!)

By the end of our holiday we’d had a lovely time. I’d totally recommend this area of North Wales to anyone, especially families. The lockdown restrictions made things a little more difficult, but people were as friendly and accommodating as always.

We usually spend our last morning having a wander down Porthmadog high street going in and out of the shops hunting down souvenirs, but given the social distancing problems we gave it a miss and were on the road in record time.

We’d had a lovely time. The beaches had their usual relaxing effect and it’s always nice to get some sea air. We hadn’t got to do our usual eating out, but had taken advantage of some brilliant take out options. In the end we’d come for four different walls and had certainly got that and then some! We’ll try to do it all again next year, fingers crossed without the looming shadow of Covid-19!

Discovering Munich.

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October in our family is fast establishing itself as another holiday time. Never before had we travelled in this month, preferring for three of us at least, to spend the time lazing about pretending to be recovering from what had been a tough first half term back at work or school. We might attempt to go and buy a few things or to have a clear-out of junk so that we could replace it with the things we’d bought, but hopping on a plane for a few days away was never even close to the agenda.

And then, last year, we booked a trip to Berlin and spent what was a revelatory few days in the German capital. Armed with a wary view of Germans, gleaned from watching too much Dad’s Army & Stan Boardman as a kid, I never imagined that I’d actually visit the place. These were a humourless race. Hadn’t they divided it up with a massive wall? Wasn’t it all imposing tower blocks and enormous sausages? Well no. And no. And no again, just for good measure.

Berlin blew my mind and in doing so opened up the possibility that Germany might just be somewhere we should explore. The family enjoyed it too and none of us were ready to leave when the time came. And so, come the half term just gone, we found ourselves on a plane heading to Munich, getting all excited about once again using the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn and for the first time, the tram. Don’t get me wrong, we loved being in Germany for a lot more than just the transport, but those trains were particularly exciting!

We land in Munich early in the afternoon and after a few wrong turns locate the desk where we can buy our Munich cards and head out to find the train. As expected we only have to wait a few minutes – our train is actually on the platform, but we have to wait so it sets off exactly on schedule – before our S-Bahn train is heading towards Munich.

Within half an hour or so we’re getting off again – did I mention Germany’s uber-effiecient railways? – and making our way into the Autumn sunshine for what proves to be a short walk to our hotel. We’ll be staying at the Novotel Munich Arnulfpark – could it sound anymore German? – which we’ve purposely chosen, partly because it means we have to get the tram into Munich; another new transport experience! It turns out though that it’s also just a lovely hotel with friendly staff and a cracking breakfast, so we’re on a winner from day one! Our room is great and the hotel itself turns out to be everything we’re going to need for our stay in the city.

We check in and then quickly unpack our gear before setting off in search of a supermarket so that we can buy in some snacks and drinks. You never know when you’ll get peckish on holiday. It’s almost immediately evident that this is a relaxed and peaceful city. We first wander through the largely business district where we’re staying, passing the Google building and a massive kids’ park along the way. People are out and about enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and the unseasonably warm weather and it makes for a lovely atmosphere about the place. Welcome to Munich!

As we get closer to the centre of Munich the atmosphere remains cool and calm and we finally locate an Aldi where we buy our traditional tube of fake Pringles, some water and a big bag of crisps for me that will, in time-honoured holiday fashion, never actually get opened and eventually just be left in the room for the maid. I know, generous tipper, right? Don’t worry, we always leave some cash as well. And what’s left of the fake Pringles, of course.

After an early tea in a local Italian restaurant we head back to the hotel and have an early night. We’ve been up since 6am and it’s been a long day. Both children are asleep extremely quickly and we’re not far behind. We’re going to need a lot of energy for exploring Munich properly tomorrow.

Next day – a Sunday – after a buffet breakfast and some time to organise a rucksack we’re out early in order to discover as much of the city as we can. We take the tram to Haltbahnhoff Nord before heading to Haltbahnhoff to catch the S-Bahn to the Alte Pinakothek, one of many art galleries in the city. The Alte Pinakothek contains over 700 artworks, with paintings by artists such as Rubens, Degas, Van Gogh, Turner, Goya, Manet and Monet. As you might expect, it is absolutely amazing. The building itself is enormous – probably around the same sort of scale as Buckingham Palace, if you’re looking for a comparison – and it was purpose built to house some of the art collected by the Bavarian royal family. So you’ll see a helluva lot of art!

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On a Sunday Munich’s galleries only charge 1 Euro for entry. Our kids went in for free. So for a lot less than the price of a decent Sunday paper we were able to see some of the most stunning works of art on the planet. Wandering round the ground floor we’re treated to room after room of stunning art. Without any fanfare or over-bearing signage you can turn a corner to be faced by a Degas or a Monet and so suddenly, without any real warning, being able to cast our collective gaze on Sunflowers by Van Gogh makes for an experience that I think I’ll treasure for the rest of my days. Even then, it’s left in the shade by Monet’s ‘Bridge over The Seine’ and ‘Woman Ironing’ by Degas, both of which light up my day.

Even our kids are interested and my daughter is particularly pleased to find some paintings by Arcimboldo, someone she’s studied at school. We’re all taken by the sheer scale of some of the work, especially the stuff by Rubens. Some of it stretches from floor to ceiling in what are vast rooms and It’s fairly humbling to imagine the amount of work that went into those paintings taking shape.

We spend a good couple of hours wandering around the Alte Pinakotech, but sensing the kids’ growing boredom after a while we head out in search of some dinner. Before we arrived we found it kind of quaint that Munich’s shops stayed shut on a Sunday, but then once you’re there and you realise that lots of the cafes are shut too, it’s not so quaint after all. Suffice to say, it’s a good hour later that we’re queuing up in a café for some food and even then there’s an unexpected setback as it turns out that because it’s Sunday, the chef’s off and so food is limited. In the end we settle for some tomato soup and it turns out to be an inspired choice.

After dinner we head out to find the Englische Garten. Now you’d imagine that given this particular park is bigger than Central Park in New York, it wouldn’t take much finding. Well think again. In looking for it we realise that, as great as we think Munich is, it seems to have a distinct lack of signposts. It’s a theme we’ll keep returning to as the trip goes on. It’s a tiny criticism, but no distinct signs to tell you where things are puts Munich at a distinct disadvantage. The streets are signposted, but the attractions are rarely given a passing thought, which would make things a lot easier to find. Both of our phones are dying and we’ve had to rule out the usually reliable Google Maps. And for some reason we just can’t seem to follow the paper map. Eventually we spot some trees in the distance and head for them and indeed it’s the Englische Garten!

We proceed to spend the next couple of hours before the sun goes down, wandering around the place. It’s enormous and we’re in no doubt that we’ll have to come back again, as we probably don’t manage to see even a quarter of it. We manage to see lots of landmarks, although the surfers can’t surf as their machine doesn’t seem to be working, but in all it’s a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. There are thousands of people here and not even a hint of trouble or ill feeling. It’s a lovely, harmonious atmosphere. Families are out strolling, groups of adults socialise, there are numerous people playing volleyball and football and lots of cyclists and runners. We end the afternoon by sitting in the enormous beer garden with a stein of cold beer and some chips, watching the sun go down. It’s all so brilliantly German. Or Bavarian, if that’s what you’d prefer.

We head out for some tea in an optimistic frame of mind. We’ve identified the place we wish to go and even have a couple of back ups in case of an emergency – thanks Trip Advisor! However, our Sunday curse pays another visit as we pitch up at not one, not two, but three of our favoured restaurants to find them all closed! This is our German adventure though and we’re determined not to head back to the hotel so we keep looking. And it’s then that we stumble upon the magnificent Hamburgerei where the endlessly enthusiastic waiter helps us make our choices and makes sure we’re perfectly comfortable. I think what we eat may be some kind of recipe for a heart attack, but boy is it good! We head back to the hotel late and tired, but with full stomachs and happy hearts. Munich is proving to be everything that we’d hoped for.

On Monday Munich resembles home. It’s cold and raining, but we wrap up and take the tram down to Sendlinger Tor and bumble our way down towards Marienplatz. On the way we stumble across an amazing building that will most likely live long in all of our memories. Asamkirche is a church that is almost hidden among a street full of designer shops. We noticed it because we looked up from underneath our umbrellas into the rain. It’s on quite a grand street and you could easily slip past without even noticing. But we’re wowed by the exterior and stop to work out what it is. Eventually, after someone pops out of the door, we decide we can go in and it’s breath-taking. It seems like every inch of the interior is decorated painstakingly and elaborately. It’s tiny inside and we only spend around ten minutes silently staring at the place, but it’s time well spent. And we so easily could have wandered past.

Next we head to St. Peter’s church – anyone sensing a theme – where there’s a tower to be climbed in order to take in stunning views of the city. I opt out as I’m not at my best at heights, and while my wife and children climb I head inside the church where as I’m looking around at more architectural splendour, an actual service breaks out. I’m not at all religious, but I hang around at the back, unaware of what’s really happening due to the language barrier, but enjoying the lovely feeling of calm that spreads throughout the church. I stay for around 15 minutes, but eventually decide to leave for fear of my children barging in and shattering the peace.

When we meet up again outside it’s almost midday and so we quickly make our way to the Marienplatz where, in time honoured fashion, the bells will chime for the hour at the town hall and the figures that decorate the clock tower perform, for want of a better expression, a bit of a dance. Very Bavarian and despite the rain, entertainment enough to keep the kids enthralled and the adults happy for the ten or so minutes that it all takes.

After lunch – a much calmer affair than Sunday’s – we head for the train in order to get to the Allianz Arena, home of the mighty Bayern Munich, where we’ve booked on the 2.45 stadium tour and museum visit. Unfortunately, but predictably where our family is concerned, we’re late meaning that we have to run from the U-Bahn station to the stadium. Even then, the Munich signpost curse strikes again and we end up climbing to Level 3 of the stadium to get to what it turns out is the wrong bar. We’re directed back down the stairs and round the stadium where a friendly guide takes us to join our tour.

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After years trying Graham still hadn’t mastered the art of the selfie.

As a football fan, this is one of the highlights of my trip. The Allianz arena is an incredible stadium – although obviously it’s no St. James’ Park! As we join the tour we’re sat in the posh seats having everything explained to us while on the pitch the LED grow lighting is helping the pitch recover on what is an increasingly dull day. It’s an impressive place and once the talking’s finished we’re given some time to take photos before we head off to the dressing room. More photos are taken and then it’s down into the tunnel where we line up in ‘teams’ ready to walk down the tunnel. The guide flicks a switch and we’re heading down the steps to the Champions’ League music. Suddenly I’m a kid again! Unfortunately though we’re not actually allowed near the pitch, which in these days of mega money pitches, is not all that surprising. It’s still a shame though.

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We end the day by watching the lights on the outside of the stadium come on. The arena is lit bright red at night and it’s a dramatic sight. We get some photographs before heading for the U-Bahn for a short trip back into town and some tea. Tonight we try out 60 Secondi Pizza and while it isn’t quite as quick as the name suggests – obviously, I know – our pizzas are on the table very quickly and having come out of a brick oven, they’re delicious. Between the fantastic waiter’s smattering of English and my wife’s long ago learned German we get everything we need and I have to see it’s a lovely meal in quite a leafy area. Certainly, if you’re ever in Munich I’d recommend it.

Tuesday is our final day and after another hearty breakfast we check out of the hotel and drop our bags and cases there to pick up later. We’re determined to make the most of our final hours and as we don’t fly out until after 10pm we’ve got plenty of time for more adventure.

We head for the Munich Residenz, which used to be the main residence of the Bavarian royal family. It’s raining quite heavily today so we’re looking forward to getting inside. But Munich, we have a problem. We can’t find the door! We walk all the way round the building and what should be obvious isn’t too obvious. Where is the door? Our problem is solved when we ask some policemen if the residence is actually open and are told not today! The presence of lots of official looking black limos in the courtyard as well as TV trucks seems to explain why. In fact, on second glance there are lots of police around the place! Something far more important than us is happening, but we never find out what.

With the residence closed we head to the NK Documentation centre, a museum that concerns the rise of the Nazis in Munich. Having visited Berlin last year we were under the impression that it was the centre of everything at that time, so it’s intriguing to find out how important Munich was. The museum is fascinating and incredibly detailed and it’s interesting and saddening to see just how swiftly Hitler rose to power.

Afterwards, we head out into the late afternoon drizzle and take in some of the nearby sights, most of which are buildings and monuments that are linked to Hitler. The scale of some of these is staggering and it’s hard not to be impressed, despite knowing exactly what they once stood for.

With our impending night flight in mind we go for some tea. Tonight we eat at Jones’s American Diner where we all chow down on huge burgers in order to keep our strength up as we near the time to leave. We won’t get back to Leeds until the early hours and so we’ll need to fill up, which is exactly what we do. Once again, the food is delicious and in true German – and sort of American – style the service is excellent, with the waiter happy to leave us be despite the fact that it’s time for them to close!

All too soon though the day is closing in on us and it’s time to catch the train and the tram back to our hotel, pick up our bags and head to the airport.

Munich has been amazing and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who asked. There’s lots to do for families and I imagine that the presence of the many bierkellers, beer gardens, bars and restaurants, as well as some pretty high-end shops, would make it a great destination for people not accompanied by their mini-humans too.

We bid Munich farewell with heavy hearts, but all safe in the knowledge that we’re sure to be back again in the near future. It’s been a fantastic few days and we’ve discovered an absolutely amazing city. Munich exceeded all of our expectations and if you’re looking for a city break, you should definitely give it a go!

 

 

Hitting the Peaks!

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For as long as we’ve had kids we’ve tried to be an adventurous family. And while we’re not exactly off hang-gliding or free climbing sheer rock faces every week, we spend a lot of time trying to create memories for our children, while of course trying to massively limit our chances of dying. A kind of safety first and second approach to adventure, if you like.

Now, we’re also not exactly the kind of family that you’d find in an Enid Blyton book, so these trips are often far from harmonious. Tired legs can lead to words out of turn and arguments will inevitably ensue. Tired legs on gobby children with tired middle-aged parents? Well let me tell you, it can be a recipe for disaster! So when we recently visited the Peak District for the first time, I was prepared for the worst. But in actual fact, the fresh air and dramatic countryside seemed to have a positive effect on all of us and we had a memorable day. So let’s take a trip down Recent Memory Lane…

It’s mid morning by the time we set off for the Peaks. This is still very much a triumph for us. As I’m sure any parent will tell you, even the act of getting kids to put on shoes can be at least a fifteen minute mission, so when you’re preparing for an entire day out, with rucksacks to pack, snacks and picnics to prepare, as well as ensuring everyone’s got appropriate clothing on, it can take a while. And it doesn’t matter that my kids are now 12 and 9, they’re still almost impossible to organise.

Take the brilliant example from my daughter just this week. She assured us that she would be in and out of the shower in 20 minutes and as such would be sure to getting on with shower related activities as soon as she got to her room. The rest of the family was sat in our dining room at the time and this lies directly beneath our bathroom, so after 5 minutes had passed and we hadn’t heard her above us, I went to hurry her along a little. After all, there were only 15 minutes of her 20 left. So what did I find her doing when I got upstairs? That’s right she was crouched in front of a mirror and when I asked what she was doing the reply was simply staggering. ‘I’m just doing my make-up.’ Let me remind you that she was about to head into the shower. In make-up. As you can probably tell, with priorities like that organising them to actually get out of the house can be decidedly difficult.

Miraculously though we’re on the road by around 10am and with only an hour or so of driving to do we’re hoping we can find the place alright. And by that I mean the National Trust visitor’s centre, not the actual Peaks. I’m sure even we couldn’t drive round them. The traffic’s not too bad though and we seem to be leaving the M1 in no time and heading across country in no time at all.

This however, comes with its own problems. We’re heading across country alright, but these aren’t the kind of roads that we’ve gotten used to in Leeds. Not only are they narrow – in some places it’s a concern when a car comes the other way – but they’re bumpy and winding too. With kids in the car commenting on every last bump it gets quite tense! In fact, add in the fact that there’s no kerb to a lot of the roads and then sometimes we’re struggling to actually stay on them. Certainly, for a good 15 minutes it feels like every bend in the road may bring about an accident and by the time we return to some kind of civilisation and roads that can comfortably fit cars on, I’m feeling quite exhausted. Welcome to rural England, folks!

It can’t be denied though, that the scenery has become quite dramatic. Hills soar above us – they could be mountains, but sadly I don’t know the definition – there’s greenery everywhere and the sky seems huge. It’s certainly a beautiful part of the country and we haven’t even got to our destination yet. Unfortunately as I’m driving I can’t really take the full majesty of the place in, but I manage the odd glance up in order to get a taste of the place. People talk up the Lake District, but from what I can see the Peaks is every bit as dramatic.

Soon it becomes clear that we’re in the Derwent Valley. The roads are bigger, normal in fact, and we’ve dropped into the valley. We’re nearly at our destination of Lady Bower Reservoir. Our kids are strangely thrilled as we cross not one, but two cattle grids; so thrilled in fact that they talk about them some more when we go over them on the way home! And then there’s an expanse of water to our right – the reservoir – and within a couple of miles we’re pulling into the car park of the National Trust Visitor Centre.

Once parked up we organise ourselves – coats, hats, gloves and rucksacks again – and then buy a map. We decide to take a reasonably difficult route that features what seems to be an acceptable level of climbing – walking uphill, not actual climbing – and set off. At first it’s simple; nice and flat with plenty of lovely scenery to keep an eye on. But then, we take a sharp turn right and we’re greeted by what seems like a huge climb. Not to be outdone we stride on up the hill, passing families with younger children as we go. As we get to about halfway up the drizzle starts. All of a sudden our hike isn’t anywhere near as much fun. Within a few minutes we’re cresting the hill but the rain is now falling heavier. The terrain flattens out, but there’s no escape from the rain. We’re walking along the side of the valley, almost hugging the walls but getting battered by the weather. Impressively though, neither of my children is complaining.

We briefly find enough shelter to take a glance at the map. It tells us that in about 500 yards we have to go over a stile and then up another hill. Looking upwards reveals another big climb, but with no tarmac to walk on, so we hang about in our shelter for a while longer before bracing ourselves and setting out again into the still driving rain.

Once off-road the terrain becomes very rugged and very steep, very quickly. We’re basically clambering up a muddy, rocky path and while the rain has eased it’s still coming down. After about 10 minutes of trekking uphill, during which I’ve lagged behind a bit, (I’m 47 don’t you know?) we decide to stop for an al fresco lunch. I say al fresco, but it’s more sort of propped up against a farmer’s wall and huddled beneath a tree. Does that count as al fresco?

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Of course this is the very time that several groups of people decide to come down the hill. No doubt they are a little taken aback at the site of us in a kind of awkward group hug eating a variety of now squashed sandwiches, but it doesn’t stop a profusion of the most Yorkshire of greetings – ‘Ow do’ – from them.

After about ten minutes we decide to press on, continuing upward as if we might actually reach the clouds. We continue to check the map, but to be fair the path is fairly obvious and at no point do I feel we’ll get lost. There’s also the odd pause to take in the view. As we climb higher the valley beneath us gets deeper and deeper and the reservoir below gets further away. This part of the Peak District is nothing short of breath-taking. But little do we know, that there’s much more to come on that front.

We climb for at least another 10 minutes before finally cresting the top of our ‘mountain’. And what a sight. Acres of countryside stretch out before us on every side and it feels like we’re on top of the world. There’s heather on either side of us with outcrops of rock punctuating it every so often. Sheep roam freely and there’s a sign that declares that there are grouse about too. Right on cue there’s a flutter of wings off to our left and almost like it’s bounced up off a trampoline – a grouse! When it lands it makes a bizarre noise and so I spend the next five minutes – with some success – replicating the noise to flush out more of them and amuse the kids. It works a few times and my youngest is definitely a little bit convinced when I announce that I am indeed, The Grouse Whisperer. Not exactly Steve Irwin, but not bad for a beginner.

With a long, flat stretch of path out in front of us we keep on walking. I can’t be sure how high up we are, but you can see for miles around. This was definitely a great choice for a day out. It’s now also quite relaxing as we’re walking on the flat and from what I can see up ahead there appears to be very little climbing left to do. Phew! Thankfully, the rain has also stopped.

We finish what’s left of our picnic behind yet another wall a little later in the walk and then set off for what appears to be the last few kilometres of our trek. Along the way we stop again to track the progress of a couple of kestrels as they hunt for some dinner. And there’s yet more time spent admiring the view. I’ve seen some beautiful places across the world and this place gives them a run for their money for sure. Certainly, someone more intelligent than me might well be quoting something like Wuthering Heights at this point. And yes, I know this isn’t where it was set.

The last part of our moorland walk sees us heading rapidly downhill and it’s more than a little bit scary. While not quite sheer, there’s a very steep drop off to our left and we’re walking down a very narrow path. While one careless step won’t see us fall to our death it will see us take quite a spectacular and painful tumble. However, we handle it like mountain goats and in fact the only time that anyone takes a tumble is when, as we’re almost at the bottom of the hill and it’s flattening out, my daughter decides dancing is the order of the day and immediately falls flat on her face. But with nothing damaged there’s time for a quick cuddle to comfort her a bit before we turn left and head back from whence we came on a much more familiar tarmac surface.

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By the time we reach the visitor centre it’s late afternoon and we’ve walked for about 6.5km. Everyone is tired now, but there’s very little complaining. This fresh air is clearly having a positive effect on my kids! We decide that a pub tea is in order so it’s back in the car and off to the town of Castleton for some food. As a modern family – and by definition one who are incapable of making any decision without consulting a cornucopia of reviews – we sit in the car reading through Trip Advisor to find a likely pub. Oh, the spontaneity!

We settle on The George and I must admit I’m more than a bit delighted to find out that they seem to specialise in sausages! I plump for pork and tomato sausages and home-made chips and we take a table by an open fire. The kids have enormous pizzas, which they inevitably won’t finish so I know I’m in for a filling tea as ‘The Dad Handbook’ states that it’s my job to finish any leftover food so as not to bring shame upon my family. Something like that anyway. Whatever it is, it’s definitely a perk of the job.

Our food is very good and by the time we’re finished everyone is ready to head home. We relax for a little while longer and then stroll back through the town and into the car. I brace myself for more rally driving on the narrow local roads and then we’re off!

The Peaks and the Derwent Valley has given us a fantastic day out. A brilliant, but quite strenuous hike, featuring dramatic scenery, quite staggering natural beauty and quite a bit of height. If you get the chance, I’d thoroughly recommend it.

 

Berlin: in search of history, fun, culture…and The Hoff.

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It’s early evening and fairly dark by the time we get to Berlin. It wasn’t meant to be this way. Not at all. We should have been here earlier, when it was still light. After all, this was going to be a big family adventure. No private transfer to the door of the hotel and no sticking to those same four walls for food. We were winging it, exploring and showing the kids how to have fun in a big city. But then, like a giant fun sponge, Ryanair intervened and presented us with a delightfully unexplained one and a half hour delay. All of a sudden the omens weren’t so good and our adventure was seeming less and less like a good idea.

Given our delay and the time of day, our excitement is now slightly tinged with a nagging apprehension. It’s late on a Sunday and we don’t even know if Tourist Information will still be open and if it’s shut, how we’ll be able to find our way to Berlin. We’ve planned to take the train, described by the inhabitants of Trip Advisor as ‘easy’, ‘excellent’ and ‘efficient’ – the kind of words you’d fully expect to find when describing German public transport. But now, it’s getting later and it’s dark. We have two children with us and we’ve been on the move since around 9am. Should we not just jump in a taxi?

Thankfully, having collected our case – more adventure, my wife usually insists on about 3 cases, all of which are my responsibility – we arrive in a well lit part of the airport and there, nestled in the corner, is the wonderful sight of the Tourist Information office. We queue up for a few minutes before we are asked to approach the desk by a friendly faced young man. And it is here that I witness something utterly amazing that will unwittingly set the tone for our adventure. Forget the pyramids and the Grand Canyon. Squeeze Radiohead at Glastonbury to the back of your mind. And leave behind the phenomenon of the Northern Lights.

There is no sign that anything miraculous is going to happen, but happen it does. My wife, who has been warning me for weeks that just because she knows a bit of German, we can’t simply rely on her, proceeds to have a full conversation in German with the assistant! As someone who still struggles with English, this is genuinely remarkable. I am chock full of admiration, but better still, we now have our Welcome Cards and directions to the train. Suddenly, everything looks brighter and we are officially off and running in our Berlin adventure!

The miracles continue with the appearance of an actual angel on the train into Berlin. We have hopped on to a train that we believe will take us to Potsdamer Platz, close to our hotel, but we’re now struggling to work out the map of the railway. I can tell that my wife is worried and frankly, map-reading is not a skill that I possess. She’s probably right to be worried! But then up steps The Angel of Berlin. A young woman has watched our very English distress from across the carriage and comes over to offer help. Now, I don’t wish to get involved in any Teutonic stereotyping, but something had me half expecting Germans to be cool and detached. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. So far on our trip everyone we’d encountered had been friendly. But now we’ve been blessed with our very own angel. Not only does she smile sweetly and explain things in perfect English, but when it turns out that the train is terminating at the next stop she comes back over to us and via the conduit of Google Maps, explains to us exactly which trains we need to take to get into Berlin safely. Short of leading us onto the train with a packed lunch and a cushion to sit on, The Angel of Berlin could not have been any more helpful or kind.

And so it is that not long later we emerge into the early evening chill of Potsdamer Platz, a busy area of central Berlin, packed with shops and restaurants. It’s a Sunday though, so it’s reasonably quiet and despite an ever present feeling that we don’t know where we’re going, we soon arrive wearily at our hotel. The Novotel staff keep up Berlin’s happy average for warm friendliness and once we’ve dropped out bags we then spend the rest of the evening wandering before stopping off at a local Italian restaurant for some of the biggest pizzas we’ve ever had. So far, so good for Berlin.

The next morning we’re up and out early. As part of our newly found adventurous spirit, we’ve decided to go off in search of breakfast rather than relying on the hotel. Now to some this may not seem overly adventurous, but with children as fussy as ours who are more used to an all inclusive buffet breakfast by the pool, this is Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Bear Grylls all rolled into one! Unlike any of the aforementioned adventurers, however, we’ve done a little Trip Advisor research and are heading for Maracay Coffee to sample for their delicious sounding breakfast.

Our cover as adventurers and international jetsetters is blown in seconds as the assistant pretty much ignores my wife’s attempts at German and sorts our order out in almost flawless English. German efficiency, again! We scramble over to the last remaining table in this clearly popular café, sinking comfortably into the sofa and talking the kids through the selection of photographs of some of Hollywood’s finest that decorate the wall. In no time at all our order number is called and we’re wolfing down wonderful toast with butter and marmalade and cradling coffee or hot chocolate in order to guard against the cold outside. By the time we’ve sat, chatted and enjoyed the atmosphere of Maracay, we’re ready for the rest of the day.

Our first day is hectic, but only because Berlin boasts so many things to see and do. Even as we walk along Wilhelmstrasse, towards our first sights, we have to keep stopping to read through the information boards that tell us about the various SS and SA buildings that used to reside here, before being demolished. Soon though we’re confronted by one of the most iconic sights in any city on the planet: the Berlin Wall. It’s not all here – obviously – and it’s clearly in a state of disrepair, but what’s there is enough to stop you in your tracks. We stand and gawp at this shabby symbol of terror and injustice, trying in vain to explain its importance to our 12 and 9 year olds. It doesn’t even look particularly solid, but when you read about the ‘no man’s land’ between East and West and imagine the guard posts dotted along it and the barbed wire it becomes particularly chilling.

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It’s now getting increasingly cold so we take the short walk over to the Topography of Terror, a museum that documents the rise and fall of the Nazi’s and their reign of terror. A sign on the way in politely asks you to behave in a respectful manner here, but really, there’s no need. Mere minutes spent looking at the photographs or reading through some of the details of what went on is enough to stun you into silence. I walk round with my 9 year old son and find myself explaining almost every photograph or exhibit and while usually going to such lengths would be a chore, this is simply a necessity. He clearly can’t understand it all – who could? – but such is the quality of the whole place that he can’t fail to have learnt a lot. I realise that my knowledge of this period of history is not what it should be and I learn a lot myself. By the time we get to the end I feel slightly emotional and overwhelmed by it all. The Topography of Terror details the kind of things that you really don’t want to read about, but there can be no other word for the place than stunning.

As we blink our way out into the sunlight and the cold, we’ve gone from excited adventurers to a kind of stunned silence. We walk a little further on before stopping to consider our next move. We’re close to Checkpoint Charlie, so explaining it as a box in the middle for the road where people would be stopped and have their documents checked by soldiers, we head off! It’s not far and we’re done in around ten minutes, having taken a few photographs and attempted another, more comprehensive explanation of what it actually was – my son genuinely expected a cardboard box in the road after the first try – we move off, grab some dinner at Back Factory, a kind of German Greggs (but nowhere near as good, because what is?), and then retreat back to our hotel in order to add more layers of clothing with which to battle the winter weather. It is genuinely freezing and as a last minute packing decision I’d put base layer tops from football for myself and my son into our bags and now they’re on!

Our changes pay off and it’s a much warmer next few hours. We stride on taking in the quietly stunning Holocaust Memorial, a vast and thought-provoking tribute, the majesty of the Brandenburg Gate and then the Reichstag building. It’s slightly disappointing not to be able to get closer to the last two, but you can’t blame Berlin for that. Outside the Holocaust Memorial police are searching underneath a suspiciously parked van, while there are cordons everywhere by the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag – this is the world we live in now, I guess. It doesn’t spoil our afternoon and in fact, it’s just a thrill to be able to stand in front of most of the things that we see on this trip and fantastically, not once do we feel afraid or intimidated. Berlin is simply a very relaxed and cool place to be. We’ve been here less than 24 hours and we’re totally at home.

As night falls we make our way to Supreme Burger Bar and Grill for a well earned tea. It feels like we’ve walked for miles, but we’re in high spirits. Berlin has undoubtedly welcomed us and we’re thoroughly enjoying it. Following a theme, our waiter in Supreme is fantastically friendly, apologising for some of the menu being in German and explaining whatever he feels might need explaining, while also recommending a few things too. Following his lead somewhat, we all go for burgers, spending the next hour or so eating delicious food, chatting and just generally enjoying the glow that Berlin seems to have given us. We take the train home, stopping off at Podtsdamer Platz and the Berlin Mall to do a little bit of shopping. We’re a day into our time in Berlin and already using the train like pros! Our kids – a little bit sheltered at home and ferried everywhere in the car – are loving the new found thrill of public transport and well they might. Venture down into the S-Bahn or U-Bahn here and not only is it clean and safe, but – get this fellow English people – there are trains! They arrive on time, set off on time and, even better, they run  every few minutes. Not once in our trip do we have to wait any more than 5 or 6 minutes for a train to arrive. In terms of being English and using public transport, Berlin is like a trip into the future! Clean, reliable and safe – what’s not to like?

We’re up bright and early the next day and ready for more adventure. It’s already clear that Berlin has far too much for us to cover in our time here and so we’re trying to narrow down adult and child Top 3s to help with our remaining days. After another delicious breakfast at Maracay, we catch the train to Hackerscher Markt and then attempt to use our new ‘adventurer instinct’ to get to the DDR Museum. The sun is shining and it’s a beautiful and unusually warm day. Unfortunately though, after around two minutes of walking we’re losing faith in our instinct and my wife is forced to ask a passer-by, again in what appears to me to be fluent German. The lady doesn’t speak English, but after enquiring as to whether we are in fact English, she is lovely enough to be very precise with her directions. We turn and head in the opposite direction to that which our instinct had us heading in and within 5 minutes are taking the short walk along the river and entering the DDR Museum.

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The museum allows visitors to experience what life was like in East Berlin under Socialism. Having grown up hearing reports from East Berlin and the horrors of life behind the Wall, I’m intrigued and ready for a culture shock. I also experienced the fall of the wall and the joy of people who found freedom and so I’m expecting an interesting few hours. I’m looking forward to the section of the museum that will inevitably be devoted to David Hasselhoff, who of course we all know was instrumental in the fall of the Wall. He went looking for freedom and when he couldn’t find any, he just made it happen. Big up the Hoff.

We’ve tried to brief the children, but at 12 and 9, we realise that this might not be their cup of tea. However, within minutes both kids are enjoying the simulated Trabant driving and have smiles plastered all over their faces. The smiles and the intrigue continue too as we look at exhibitions about public life behind the wall, its politics and even a section where we go inside the flat of a typical East German situated in a mock up of a Berlin tower block. Looking at some of the décor I’m prompted to make a mental note to ask my parents if we have any East Berlin heritage – I’m certain that we grew up with similar wallpaper and furniture in our 70s front room!

Over 2 hours later we emerge from the museum blinking into the sunlight. There was not one mention of The Hoff in the DDR Museum, but I feel sure he’ll crop up somewhere else, later in our trip. It’s an absolutely beautiful day and the buildings around the River Spree look fantastic in the sunshine. We have a few photos by the river then wander off in search of food, stopping for more photos of the TV Tower. Sadly, we decide that we haven’t got time to actually go there as we have so much more to see, but at least it gives me another reason to come back one day. We grab some food – a quirky but delicious selection of hot dogs in a wrap – and then trek off down the river in search of the Palace of Tears, a museum dedicated to the separation of families during the time of the Berlin Wall. Again, it’s quite an emotional thing to see with lots of interesting artefacts and again we run out of time. It’s hard to get your head around the fact that someone somewhere once thought that the wall was a good idea, despite the sheer heartache that it would cause. It’s also hard to get your head around the fact that, yet again, there’s no mention of Hasselhoff.

While we’re not exactly sombre as we leave we decide that we need a break and find a table in a busy café called Flamingo Fresh Food Bar. We’ve been on our feet now for a large part of the last few days so the chance to sit down without the time pressure of thinking about where we go next is very much welcomed. Myself and the kids opt for fresh juice while Louise goes for her usual coffee, hoping for the shot-in-the-arm that caffeine often brings. There are cakes on display – delicious looking things too – but we give them a miss in favour of avoiding elasticated waist trousers for at least the next few years.

As we leave Flamingo and head for the train we see our first instance of any trouble in Berlin. I say trouble but perhaps what I should refer to it as is ‘a little slice of England’. We hear him before we see him. Shouting. Sporadically bursting out and travelling across the square. It’s very definitely a lone voice so we know it’s not exactly trouble with a capital T and as I say it’s in fact, quite English. As it turns out it’s man huddled up on a bench shouting at pigeons. He’s clearly been drinking or indulging in something. I mean why else would you take offence at pigeons? But it says a lot about Berlin that this is the only uncomfortable moment that we have in our four days. And it’s hardly uncomfortable, just a little sad, really.

Having figured out the source of the shouting we head over to Friedrickstrasse station to catch the train back to Potsdamer Platz and then back to our hotel. It’s only a quick change and dropping of bags before we’re back out – spirit of adventure and all that – and on another train – have I mentioned that I love the trains in Berlin? – over to Schoneburg where we’re off for our tea. Tonight, courtesy of a Trip Advisor recommendation we head to Evin’s Pizza Pasta and again, it’s a delight. We’re seated quickly and again the staff are friendly and eager to please. The atmosphere is nice and relaxed, encouraging us to spend a little more time than necessary to eat and in truth, rest. We’ve barely stopped for the last few days and so the chance to just sit is too good to miss. Our pizzas are enormous and incredibly tasty and by the time we leave to head for the train home, we’re stuffed!

As our final day dawns we’re determine to pack as much as we can into what remains of our trip. It’s our final day in Berlin and so breakfast – hello again to Maracay – is tinged with a certain sadness. Nevertheless, no one’s feeling sorry for themselves, despite our aching leg and sore feet, and we’re ready for more exploring. We make a slightly later start as there’s packing to do, and I must admit I’m not keen on our choice of places to visit this morning. We’re off to the Game Science Centre and as a confirmed non gamer, this promises little for me. But I’m gritting my teeth and getting ready to take the plunge as the rest of the family love playing games.

The centre is tucked away in Kreuzberg in what looks like a row of shops. I’m really not expecting much at all. However, as we enter it’s clearly a bit of a tardis. The inside of the place is clearly quite large and there seem to be a lot of things to do. For the uninitiated, the Game Science Centre is an interactive attraction run by game developers. You can play various games, controlling some by gesture, some with your eyes and others just in the traditional way, with your hands.

It doesn’t take very long at all to have me absolutely hooked! Before I know it, not only am I having fun playing games, but I’m laughing randomly at the type of things that I’m doing. The family are literally running between games. We make music, shoot stuff, dance, use a touchscreen to demonstrate how much of a competitive family we are in a four player game and even stop for a massage. They even have a Space Invaders style game where you shoot the aliens using ping pong bats and balls! The technology is fantastic and the variety even better. We even take a family vote to extend our time here and cut down on something else later in the day and by the time we leave everyone has had a fantastic time and we’re all smiling. But we have to move quickly…

We head uptown and catch another train over to the Berlin Zoo, where, with time running out on our adventure we literally race around to see as many of the animals as we can. The zoo is another fantastic Berlin attraction – clean, friendly and with an absolute tonne of animals to see. As you’d expect really because after all, it’s a zoo. We’d have loved to have more time to spend here, but with a case and bags to finish packing and a plane to catch we’re sticking to strict timings. So off we go, on to another train. Our final day has flown over and sadly we’re facing up to our last few hours in Berlin.

Before we know it we’re sitting in Schonefeld airport and there’s just time for one last moment of sheer German joy as we order a Burger King. The assistant – who once again speaks faultless English – is obviously and hilariously flummoxed by our request for plain burgers, questioning us on seemingly every salad item possible before finally agreeing to our request. His face though, as he asks us, ‘Not even tomato?’ is priceless and we’re reduced to stifling giggles. But the fun’s not quite over as we receive our meals and it becomes clear that my request for a Fanta just wasn’t healthy enough for him, especially on top of having no salad. Instead, he wordlessly replaces my Fanta with not one, but two cartons of fresh orange and having asked myself what The Hoff would do, I see no need to disagree and simply accept my fate. The folk of Berlin eh? Friendly, welcoming, lovely, but most of all, very, very health conscious!

As our plane takes off and we head home I’m tired, yet a whole load better for my time in Berlin. It was somewhere I’d wanted to see for a long time and now I have I feel very sure that I’ll be back again. Maybe next year? I genuinely hope so! Berlin has been an absolute feast – of history, culture, fun, walking, relaxing, smiling, friendly hosts and of course trains. Don’t forget the trains! No Hoff though!

Go to Berlin, get a Welcome Card, take the train…and have an adventure! And let me know if you spot The Hoff.