Today Ingrid took a few shaky steps on her own. Very shaky. For some reason she chose to do this experiment in the bath. I remember that she also started pulling herself up to standing in the bath first. I wonder why… is it because the whole atmosphere is so full of splashy joy there? Or because it hurts less to fall on her bottom when the fall is cushioned by water? But her bottom is quite well padded in cloth nappies during daytime as well… Maybe it was just a coincidence.

Last weekend we went to Windsor castle. It’s one of those sights you almost have to visit when you’re in London, and despite living here for over 6 years we never have.

It turned out we hadn’t missed much. Big castle, yes. Lots of fancy old furniture, yes. Lots of paintings and tapestries and porcelain, yes. But ultimately it was just a castle like most others, with nothing particularly interesting to say about itself – all gilded surface and little else.

The first room you see with fine furniture and paintings is impressive. The second and third ones are nice. But after a while it’s difficult to feel impressed about it, especially because most of the interior was fairly… boring. Expensive and kind of beautiful but utterly conventional. Nothing stood out because of its innovative design or striking individuality.

Instead it made me think about what an immense waste of resources it all was. I guess it becomes a habit, an agglomeration of wealth that feeds itself. Imagine you’re an ambassador or something like that, two hundred years ago, and you want the king to be favourably inclined towards your projects. You have an audience with the king, and of course you bring a gift. You probably bring something expensive but relatively conventional – some example of fine craftsmanship. So the stuff piles up whether the king wants it or not.

I also thought of what could have been done to make the visit more interesting. One way would have been to offer themed tours. Instead of a one-size-fits-all audio tour that necessarily presumes that you know nothing about castles and that you are interested in hearing a welcome talk by Prince Charles, how about a talk about the handicraft (masonry and carpentry and metalworks) that has gone into the building of the castle? Or about the logistics of running a castle, or the castle from the point of view of the staff, or the castle and international relations, or the castle in times of war, or meals and feasts at the castle? Any of these would have been better than the generic presentation. And it shouldn’t be that expensive to produce an hour’s worth of talk, or even just half an hour.

Westminster Abbey is another one of those must-see places we haven’t visited. Now I’m not so sure we will… Is it worth visiting, do you think?

A selection of photos from our vacation is now online. The general vacation pics are on Flickr (in Flickr’s usual reverse chronological order – it may make more sense to view them from last to first), and the pictures of Ingrid are in my gallery.

This Saturday Ingrid had an epiphany: she discovered that she can stand without holding on to anything. And oh how proud and happy she was! She would stand up again and again, beaming happy, clapping her hands and laughing.

Today, just two days later, it’s already becoming routine for her. She stands up in the bath and lets go of the edge in order to play with the bottles, without thinking twice about it. I guess her body was all ready – leg muscles, balance etc. She just needed to switch on the feature and get used to it.

This whole vacation felt like an experiment. We hadn’t been on any particularly adventurous trips with Ingrid – only visiting friends and relatives, and that’s quite different from a week of hiking. We weren’t exactly nervous, but quite unsure about how it would work.

It worked out perfectly all right. Ingrid was OK with sleeping in a strange house and a strange bed. She was OK with being carried on someone’s back most of the day, and spending anything from 1 to 3 hours in a car every day. She was OK with eating strange food at somewhat unpredictable times. She was even OK with two 4-hour flights.

I suspect that she was quite bored much of the time, because she slept more than usual. Or it may just have been due to all the new impressions. But she accepted the boredom quite well.

The only slight complication was that she wouldn’t drink enough water (and did not produce enough wet nappies). Of course breast milk was as popular as ever, but I don’t think the amount she gets nowadays is anywhere near enough to keep her hydrated. We resorted to giving her diluted peach juice instead of water, and that went down very well.

Speaking of nappies, that tends to be our main logistical concern when travelling. Cloth nappies are OK if we’re going somewhere for a day or two, but for a longer trip it has to be disposables because we usually don’t have anywhere to wash and dry the nappies. If we buy them at home then they take up a lot of space in our luggage, especially because it’s hard to know exactly how many we’ll need. If we buy at the destination then we usually get lots left over (they’re usually sold in packs of 60 or more) and then either have to give them away to someone, or take them home with us, which raises the issue of luggage space again. I wish nappies were sold loose, by the pound.

All in all a great success. It was certainly helpful that we were lucky with the weather, and travelled with a very helpful company. And I think we hit the sweet spot in her age: old enough to not be too “fragile” and sensitive to changes, young enough to accept days of boredom. We’ll see how the next vacation goes.

One of the more interesting aspects of our vacation in Gran Canaria was the house we stayed in. It was a cave house. It turns out that cave houses are widespread in Gran Canaria and in some other parts of Spain as well. We saw many caves while we were walking and driving around. A few were prehistorical caves dug by the Guanche, the stone age people living on the islands before the Spanish arrived, but most were more recent. Some were being lived in, others were used for storage, and quite a number had been abandoned.

“Everybody knows” cave men lived in caves, but I’ve always wondered how they could find enough suitable caves. It turns out they didn’t – they made their own. That wouldn’t work in the hard rocks of Scandinavia, but in the light porous volcanic rock of Gran Canaria it’s quite doable, probably even with prehistoric tools.

The cave house didn’t feel much different from a normal house, really. There were no windows except in the front of the house, of course, so the night could get very dark. During daytime, the front garden compensated for the lack of windows – we had breakfast outside every morning. All the walls and floors were made of stone, which kept the temperature very even throughout the day and night. But there was no feeling of being in a dark dank cave – it was quite cosy.

We were told that the interiors of most cave houses are whitewashed to look like ordinary houses, but in ours the walls were raw rock, which I thought looked very nice, and brought out the cave-ness of the house.

The builders had also used the original rock for furniture and interior features. You want side tables? Right, let’s carve out two side tables. You need somewhere to put a fire extinguisher? OK, let’s carve a fire-extinguisher-shaped niche here. Shelves in the bathroom? Can do. But once the side tables and niches and shelves are in place, that’s where they’re going to stay!

Cave wall Niche for fire extinguisher
Side table Bathroom shelves

Want to build your own cave house?

As I said, Darren, our local Upland Escapes manager, was out of action when it came to walking. But he did provide us with excellent food. The Upland Escapes package included breakfasts and packed lunches. The breakfasts were self-catering, and our kitchen was stocked with all we could possibly want: fresh bread and cheese and fruit, fresh eggs and juices, and excellent jams, including a lovely quince marmalade. The fruit bowl was based on local fruit, including things whose identity we could only guess at (which later turned out to be guavas, and a very large papaya).

The lunches were even better. I was most impressed that UE had managed to find staff who were both good guides and such good cooks! The words “packed lunch” had led me to expect sandwiches, or maybe an occasional quiche slice. Admittedly we have been conditioned by past holidays to have quite low expectations when it comes to food. (The low point was reached in Pyrenean mountain refuges, where breakfast consisted of dry biscuits.) And Spain isn’t exactly known for its vegetarian cooking.

Instead we got wonderfully varied meals: there was a quiche slice, yes, but also a pizza sandwich, roasted vegetable kebabs, potato salads, cous cous, and so on. Each lunch was juicy and flavourful, and always topped off by a scrumptious cake. And all of this was made from great quality ingredients and beautifully presented – which must have been extra challenging given that it all arrived in plastic containers and was made to last at least half a day before it was eaten.

In fact Darren’s lunches were so much better than anything we could find in the local restaurants that we kept them for dinner, and took bread and fruit for lunch, or made do with what the restaurants had to offer. The restaurant fare may have been OK for meat-eaters but wasn’t particularly exciting for vegetarians, whereas Darren’s was created with vegetarians in mind. We did our best to praise his cooking each time we saw him but I’m still not sure whether we managed to properly convey just how pleased we were with the food. This was the first holiday ever where the food will be one of our most positive memories. (You can probably tell that from how much I’ve talked about it here.)

(In fact we had one good restaurant meal on our last day, in Las Palmas, at La Chascona. It was the first and only restaurant we saw that offered something other than the standard menu full of grilled meat, and had good food, so I feel it deserves a mention here.)

(To be continued.)

We had quite specific requirements for our vacation, mostly because of Ingrid. This was our first walking holiday with her, and we didn’t know how she would react. So we didn’t want to commit in advance to walking a certain amount each day, or following someone else’s pace. We certainly wanted self-guided walking rather than groups, and no full-day hotel-to-hotel walks. At the same time we wanted the whole thing to be as easy and convenient as possible. I didn’t want to have to think and plan too much, so putting together our own itinerary armed with just maps and books (which is what we’d normally) was not ideal either.

It turned out that there is a company offering holidays of exactly that kind. Upland Escapes, a small travel operator, offers flexible walking holidays in several locations in Europe. (Do the Canary Islands count as Europe?) Their packages include accommodation, a hire car, and a set of maps and instructions for local walks. The walks range in length from one hour to a full day (8 hours or so). Just what we wanted!

Near Roque Faneque, taking in the view and Ed’s biscuits

We were very happy with Upland Escapes, and would absolutely recommend them if you’re looking for a walking holiday. I really only have good things to say about them – there wasn’t a single case where we thought they could have done better.

Normally all guests are cared for by their local manager, who also doubles (triples) as walking guide, translator, and cook. But because we happened to be their only guests in Gran Canaria at the moment, and because Darren, the local manager, had hurt his leg and couldn’t guide any walks, we got the personal attention of Ed, one of the founders and managers of the company. Ed helped us choose our walks, and accompanied us for walks on some of the days. He also answered all our questions about the islands’ nature, culture and history. And how many guides surprise you with home-made biscuits when you reach the peak of your walk?

In addition, because Ed had been personally involved in scouting out the walks, he knew all of them well and could advise on details like which walks would have most shade, and propose a selection of walks that would be as varied as possible. There were walks through and between the neighbouring villages, walks on exposed ridges, on wooded slopes and in quiet valleys, and in (extinct) volcanic craters.

The walking handbook was not quite as good company as Ed, but the descriptions were all very clear and we had no trouble finding our way on our self-guided walks, either.

(To be continued.)

Eric and I have turned into quite keen walkers over the last couple of years. We haven’t been doing much of it since Ingrid’s birth, but when we started feeling that a holiday would sit well before Christmas, we thought we’d try again. (Our other favourite holiday activity, diving, seemed much less suited to a toddler.) I rather fancied some sun so we aimed for some place warm rather than a wintery location. We ended up going to Gran Canaria because it’s really the closest place to Europe where you can get good walking and reliable good weather this time of the year. (Madeira, our #2 option, failed the second condition.)

Indeed we got a week of consistent sunshine (except for a few slightly cloudy afternoons, and a slight misting of rain one morning before we set out). The temperature was a pleasant 20+ degrees in the sun, dropping, I think, to around 15 in the shade higher up in the mountains. Warm enough to walk in t-shirt, but not so warm that the heat becomes a burden. (The evenings and mornings felt distinctly chillier and we were happy to have our fleeces and warm socks then.)

Pine forest and shrubs

I had previously pictured the Canary Islands as quite a beachy place, not really as a destination for a walking holiday, but it turned out that the interior of Gran Canaria is full of eminently walkable mountains, ridges and valleys. The landscape is very volcanic, with much exposed rock and steep slopes, and quite arid. The general feel is sort of a mixture of African desert and Mediterranean hills: cactuses, various shrubs and large aloe plants on the lower slopes, and pine forests higher up. The pine forests seemed familiar at first, but a closer look showed them to be quite different from Northern European ones. Not only were the pines strange, with very long needles and very large cones – the forest was very uniform, and almost a complete monoculture. The pines were all the same shape and size and bright green in colour and the undergrowth was limited to just a few shrubs. It almost looked artificial.

While the landscape in Gran Canaria isn’t as breathtaking as, say, the Dolomites, there was still enough variety and striking landscapes to make every day’s walking interesting. Eric and I concluded that the missing ingredient that would have taken the whole thing closer to breathtaking was colour. This was the end of the dry season, so the colour scheme was brown / beige / green across the board. A bit of snow would have helped – or some flowering plants. I imagine that the islands would look better in February–March when things are in bloom.

The other missing part was animal life. There were butterflies and a few birds, but most of the time everything was very quiet around us.

It was also quiet because there were not many people around. Since the Canary Islands are mostly known for their sun and beaches, the interior gets very few tourists, most of them day trippers from one of the coastal towns. Because tourism is so important for the islands’ economy, and the mountains really aren’t good for many other productive uses, the government is focusing on getting more people to spend more time in the mountains. (The only other possible activity in the mountains is small-scale agriculture. But the slopes are so steep that they have to be terraced for farming, which excludes most farm machinery, so the plots are all tended by hand.) So there were well-maintained paths in many places, and the information centres were up-to-date and in good shape. Nevertheless even the most popular spots (like Roque Nublo) were far from crowded, and on some walks we didn’t see a single other walker. We liked that.

(To be continued.)

I was hoping to post about our vacation today, but the post has been taking more time and space than expected (as they usually do) so it won’t be done until tomorrow at the earliest. However I can say that we went walking in Gran Canaria, and post this picture at least. The rock perched on top of the ridge at the left is Roque Nublo (“Cloudy Rock”), one of the best known landmarks in Gran Canaria.