It is February, which for many of us still feels like the middle of winter. Everyone is longing for sunshine and springtime and dreaming of the summer vacation. This month is the ideal time to start planning ahead and grab some good deals for your next holiday. A friend of mine asked me recently whether I could recommend somewhere to go as a young family. I remembered the resort we booked ourselves two years in a row on Tenerife and for good reason. As a mum of two active small boys I know what it’s like to be in need of a well deserved break, and this place ticked a lot of boxes. It has an outdoor soft play….and a spa!
We never ever thought we would enjoy an all-inclusive holiday, travel snobs as we are, but when we caved in one year, we booked again the next. And to the same resort, what were we like! Be Live Family Costa Los Gigantes, on Tenerife. The first time we went, we had a toddler and a baby in tow and we were quite frankly, exhausted! If you have ever traveled with small children, you know that you often wonder why on earth you even make the effort. To just stay in one place and not having to think about logistics, money, meals and laundry for a week was amazing.
It’s a big resort, with hundreds of rooms. The room we booked was a large family room with a lounge (sofa bed) and separate bedroom. The buffets were very good quality, and all fresh, despite having to serve hundreds of people and such a large hotel. It had something for everyone and enough choice for picky eater too. In between the mealtimes you were able to get snacks and drinks from the poolside bars as well as small meals, fruit and yogurts for hungry kids.
Other things it has are free wifi, a laundry service, a few shops and theatre (with some cheesy shows, but hey, the kids loved it). As in many resorts, there are also many daily activities, such as yoga, tennis and other fitness classes. And a high rope and zip wire for the older children.
eat, play, swim, nap, repeat
The swimming pools were great for all ages, including a nice bit for babies and the resort was big enough to go for a wander around. The main pool was a a bit lively at times with music and entertainers doing their bit, but there were plenty of other spots you could spend the day. There is a quiet pool on the other end for those wanting to enjoy a bit of zen.
At the resort, we just ended up doing the same boring round each day: breakfast, then down to the outdoor soft play area (where we often met other nice parents from various places around Europe – all in the same phase of life). Then we’d have a splash in the pool, go for lunch, have more pool time or just a nap, and then if we made it, dinner. It may sound like a nightmare for people with no kids, but for it was exactly what we needed!
I used to be a backpacking adventurer and we probably will be in the future, but in this phase of our life it was just bliss to be looked after and have a proper rest. I would recommend this place for any of you with children, and especially young children.
“Do you know how many times the Spanish eat per day?” I always ask tourists when I guide them around the city. “No? Five times.” “Five times?!” they answer standard in disbelief. Yep, and isn’t it wonderful? One of the great things about living in Spain is the food. And they take meal times very seriously.
I admire the Spanish for their sacred keeping of meal times. Ever got stared at in Spain while munching on a sandwich on the go? Exactly. Nobody does that. The amount of boxed ready made sandwiches full of additives I have eaten from Marks & Spencers in Scotland in my lifetime, is incredible. There I was at 1pm, queuing up to pay for my “meal deal”: a cold soggy sandwich from the fridge, a bottled drink and a bag of crisps or bar of chocolate. Eaten on a bench in the park, or more often back at my desk. Scoffed in about 10 minutes. Plastic waste in the bin. Every day.
Enjoy a beer with your almuerzo
So how do the Spanish do it? What are those sacred five Spanish meal times? They start with a small desayuno, a cup of coffee and a croissant or bit of toast for breakfast, mostly at home. For the kids some ‘galletas‘, thin biscuits dipped in a glass of milk. Then at 10.30 it gets more serious. Almuerzo. Terraces fill up, workers gather at the bar of a cafetaria. Bring it on. Tortilla, chorizo, ensalada rusa, bocadillos with cheese and jamon, ‘tostada con tomate’, croquetas…lots of dishes you can choose from mid morning, all freshly prepared on site. Fresh bread from the bakers. And hey, let’s just wash it all down with a glass of beer or wine. Yes, you read that right.
Menu del dia, the best thing since sliced bread
A few hours later, somewhere between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon it is time for lacomida. Lunch. Restaurants open, but shops close, and it is siesta time until about 5 for shop keepers and banks. Most office workers go back earlier. Yes, people do work in this country, believe it or not, a lot of people don’t finish work until 7 or 8 o’clock. And no, they don’t go to sleep during siesta. Maybe when you’re 80. People either go home to cook their lunch or meet with colleagues outside on the terrace of a restaurant. For three courses, usually. On week days you can eat a 3-course home cooked Menu del dia for around €10, which includes a starter, main course, coffee/dessert and a drink. Apparently a leftover from the time general Franco was in power, who in the sixties and seventies ruled that each restaurant should provide an affordable meal for people on work days. He may have been an awful dictator, but at least he got one thing right.
Carbs are for Comida
After a few more hours of work or school (kids also enjoy that 3-course meal at lunchtime! I drool when I read their menu each week…), it is time for number four on the list of Spanish meal times. This little meal, or rather snack, is still taken quite seriously, and happens at around 5pm when the schools are out. Merienda. “Quieres merender?” You often hear mothers ask their kids when they tumble out of the classroom, tired and hungry. No kid ever refuses, as merienda involves bread, biscuits, chocolate milk, fruit or other items children could practically live on. Most parents will just have a cup of coffee. And I suppose this bit of snacking is needed, because most kids are ferried off to football, piano or tennis lessons and they will have to sit it out until at least 9pm when the final meal of the day is served: lacena. Dinner. “Wow” the impressed tourists usually gasp by now, when I get to meal number five. But cena is not usually a very big meal. Not like our evening dinner. No plates full of pasta or otherwise carb heavy recipes. After all, you already have that 3-course meal in your belly, right? Exactly. And a tip from the tour guide: paella is never eaten at night. Remember that next time you visit Spain 😉
You either eat or you talk about eating
As I am learning more Spanish by the day I am starting to understand random conversations in the street between people. It is always about food. “We either talk about food, or we eat,” a Spanish mum from school explained to me with passion the other day, while were out for a walk in the hills. “The whole objective of going out somewhere is eating together. It is the most important thing. Got something to celebrate? You go out for a meal. Meeting up with friends? It has to be centered around a mealtime and finding a nice place to eat.” I asked her why Spanish people are not all morbidly obese with all that eating. “It’s not about the quantities”, she said, “I never have huge plate fulls, but I love eating. It’s about tasting different things and appreciating the flavours. And about the social aspect.” I remember being told by a Scottish colleague once years ago that “eatin’ is cheatin’“, when I suggested we should go for something to eat before hitting the bar. I never got into that pint drinking on an empty stomach habit. I love a beer, but give me some croquetas, por favor.
An all day activity and no one knows where the kids are
Needless to say that the Saturday morning hill walk was heavily interspersed with almuerzo (and cans of beer at 11am), followed by a leasurely lunch on the village square….and my new favourite thing: the ‘sobremesa‘, which basically means you all stay at the table after the meal, talk, laugh and keep bringing out drinks and snacks. For hours. The kids were playing somewhere, stole food off the table every so often and nobody really cared. Everyone had a great time. We went home at 6pm, all happy and tired.
I was wondering about what makes Spain such a pleasant and laid back country to live in. Ignore politics and bureaucracy, as these things will make you angry no matter how much vitamin D you’re soaking up, but Spanish people really know how to enjoy life. The climate helps for sure. Sunshine year round brings everybody out of their houses and together in the street. No staying indoors or in cars all day. Being outdoors, chatting and eating. Did I mention food? Spanish meal times take a bit of getting used to, your old schedule gets thrown out of the window. But it’s pleasant, as long as you go with it. “No pasa nada” is a great expression and used all the time in Spanish. “It’s OK”, relax, don’t take it all too seriously, here, have some olives.
We emigrated at the start of 2018 from Scotland to Spain. A big transition in many ways. The climate, the language, the settling in, the school searching, the paperwork. It is a lot to tackle when you first set foot in your new foreign country. An eternal holiday? Yeah right. Someone mentioned to me the other day: the first year of moving here? Forget it, it’s a write off, don’t try and get anything done for yourself. I wish I had heard this when we first landed. Being energetic but impatient and keen to get everything and everyone organised within 5 minutes, I was exhausted by the end of year one. A learning curve.
Moving house is always stressful, especially when you have young children who have to adjust and settle into their new environment and potentially a new school. It takes time for everyone to be happy and calm. Moving to Valencia, Spain is of course a whole different ball game. Not only do you leave friends and family behind, you are dealing with a completely new culture. The sunshine made us happy, but the language barrier was huge when we arrived and we felt very unsettled – and still often do after now 20 months of living here. For the children this was no different.
A bumpy ride on the Spanish school roller coaster
The school search in Valencia was stressful. After we had made our decision on one school, it turned out it was full. We had already moved into the right postcode area, but alas – in the end there were no spaces. We were handed two spots in a local Catholic ‘concertado’ (semi-private) school nearby and we just had to accept. I remember feeling very anxious about it at the time, making last minute visits to highly expensive private schools because I wanted the best for my children and thought I was ruining their lives. In the end, after being put off by monthly fees, the traditional school atmosphere and too many Porsches parked outside, my husband and I opted for the local concertado and hoped for the best.
Our youngest went to the 4-year old infantil class (Spanish nursery has three stages – for 3, 4 and 5 year olds) and our 6-year old to 1st year of Spanish primary school. They enrolled in March and while the little one adjusted fairly quickly after a few weeks of tears and meltdowns, the big boy cried till summer. The school wasn’t bad, the teachers were lovely and trying their best, it was just too overwhelming for him. Nobody spoke any English. Imagine needing to go to the bathroom and being unable to ask for directions. Exactly. He was lost, lonely and scared. And Spanish school days are long: from 9am to 5pm. Being the only foreign child, he was also a celebrity and he soon got annoyed with all the unwanted attention. He sat timidly next to the teacher at every break time, overlooking the gigantic typical Spanish concrete playground, where the boys play football and the girls stand on the sideline. The classroom was chaotic, as not only my son was new, his teacher was a maternity cover and didn’t have a clue either. It is fair to say, my son picked up some Spanish and worked a lot on his life skills, but did not do any school work between March and the end of June. Followed by 2.5 months of summer vacation.
I thought I had left the rat race
Our eldest got a space in our school of choice in September last year and thank god, he liked it. His little brother joined him the following school year after we had been tackling two different schools for a full school year, about 2 kilometres away from each other, but with similar drop off and pickup times. Every morning and afternoon we were stuck in rush hour, trying to deliver and collect them on time, at two different locations and nowhere to park. It was like being in the rat race all over again.
Fast forward, Autumn 2019. My now 7-year old is repeating the second year of primary – a careful decision made by us after advice from his teacher – and I am so grateful we have done this. Sure, I felt it was all our fault when we had to consider it, because we ‘dragged’ him to Spain and ‘dumped’ him into the Spanish education system with zero Spanish. But it wasn’t just because of the language, being the youngest pupil in his class he was always going to be more immature and potentially behind in Spanish, but also in other subjects. He is much happier now.
From anxiety ticks to the dust settling
Up to then he was demonstrating signs of anxiety (constant need for reassurance, strange OCD type ticks, being annoyed about his clothes, labels, and having a persistant cough), which were clearly caused by stress, as during the summer holidays they disappeared. My youngest, having been fully immersed in Spanish from the start, is taking like a fish to water in his new school. He is learning to read and write just like his Spanish classmates. The dust has settled. At last.
I was so impatient that first year after moving to Valencia. I always want to have everything sorted in no time, rather than breathe and observe. Roll up the sleeves and get going. I suppose it was somehow due to the irrational feeling of being judged from afar by friends and family. “Will they make it? What will they be doing? Have they found work yet?” This pressure, whether true or just in my head, forced me to do too many things in a short amount of time. I set myself up as self employed, frantically looked for work, networked like mad, was anxious about building a social life from scratch and I even joined a new band so I could continue singing. God forbid I would take a break. I had to create the perfect life and prove I could do it all. But seeing the kids struggle, my husband trying to find his feet (he hated me for putting so much pressure on myself and the family), having to deal with stuff in a foreign language, it was no wonder that just before we reached our one year milestone of living in Valencia – I collapsed.
When words fail and you fall to pieces
I have been a singer in a band for more than twenty years and never have I walked off stage during a gig. It was December, ten months after we moved, when I had a panic attack in the middle of a concert. Both my parents, my sister, husband and children were visiting Valencia, and were watching me. The people who mean most to me in life and love me unconditionally. I lost my lines, blood rushed to my head, I felt I was going to faint, I wanted to dig a hole and disappear. I walked off stage and cried in the bathroom of the venue, comforted by my sister. The mean machine had finally broken down. Smoke coming from the bonnet. I managed to pull myself together and finish the performance, but hell, was it awful. I do remember singing my autobiographic song ‘Nothing’s gonna bring her down‘ from the bottom of my heart with tears in my eyes that night, but feeling so loved by all of my family right there supporting me.
The first year of living in Spain with children is a write off. It is true. Forget about continuing life as you knew it. In our case, having a young family and no 9-to-5 jobs to go to, we literally jumped in the deep end. You need time to figure it all out. To be with your children, to guard their only safe place they know right now: the family. We were totally out of balance. I ran myself to the ground, carrying it all, and expecting my family to run at the same pace, and “just get on with it”. I couldn’t see straight, it was all a blur. But while I pretended I had it all under control, I was slowly losing grip. I guess sometimes you need to fall on your face to finally see what’s going on. I didn’t come to Valencia to feel stressed out, but then I did.
I reached out to a psychologist for the first time in my life at the start of this year and it was so good to talk. To release. To be heard. I went on an all women yoga retreat, which was pure bliss. I promised myself not to be so hard on myself, to practice self-care. I kept a journal, set intentions. Things shifted. Positive things happened since this Summer, including the school changes. We also moved into a different house which we all love. Most of all, I have accepted that I don’t have to do a million things at once and I don’t have to please anyone. I am getting better at setting boundaries for myself and expressing my own needs, something very hard for a person who has always taken pride in being strong. It is OK to be vulnerable. Creating more time and space in my weekly schedule allows me to breathe and observe. Something I should have done much earlier. But hey, nobody is perfect. Onwards and upwards. Little, by little. Poco a poco.
Do you enjoy traveling solo? I have just spent two weeks in and around Singapore this month. Never been to South-east Asia before, plus I hadn’t traveled solo for longer than a few days, for many, many years. I was so excited! No kids, alone, peace and quiet. Adventure! What a gift. Off I went, to the other side of the world. It was amazing, but I also learnt a thing or two about myself. Things just ain’t the same, two kids later at the age of 40.
I backpacked solo around Latin America in 2002 for three months, at the tender age of 23. Just graduated from university I had been working hard to save money for the big trip. I booked my flights, organised my first hostel, found a Spanish school in Quito to brush up on the much needed lingo. And then I went. Ten days later I ended up with a drip in my arm in hospital in Ecuador, after contracting an e.coli infection, probably by drinking a smoothie made with tap water. Not a great start. Good god, was I ill. My mother was worried sick and suggested I’d come home. No way! I was young, free and fearless and after four days in hospital and being discharged with a large pack of antibiotics in my pocket, I continued my journey. Got sick, now I’m better. I felt immortal! But I understand my mother, now I have children of my own.
I ended up having three unforgettable months, teaching me common sense, resilience, resourcefulness and flexibility. The experiences, the sights, the people, the smells, the colours, the tastes, everything was incredibly intense. Those three months have had a huge impact on my life and gave me lasting memories. I never felt so free, alive and strong as back then. If you’ve been in my shoes, you know the feeling.
Hair pin roads and views to die for
Looking back, some memories now make me both shiver with fear and smile with delight. Being on a tight budget, I often traveled through the night for 12 hours on very old buses in Peru and Bolivia. Buses full of locals in their colourful attire, preaching evangelists and sometimes a chicken. Picture narrow bumpy hair pin roads through the Andes mountains, a struggling engine and steep drops. Some wrecks of cars down below in the ravine. No toilet on board. Brief stops on the way where you could quickly pee in a dirty makeshift toilet with a bucket to flush. I felt like a true explorer, a cool solo female traveler, a tough cookie who dealt with it all. I would share dormitories with fellow backpackers, heard the craziest stories, smoked pot once at high altitude, saw landscapes that were out of this world. Absolute freedom and no responsibilities.
The thought of traveling on my own seventeen years later filled me with excitement to say the least. OK, I wasn’t going for three months nor was I going to be backpacking on a tight budget, but hey, I was going VERY. FAR. AWAY. Alone. Without kids. 12 hours on a plane? Whoah! Films, books, glass of wine. Peace. Couldn’t wait.
A good friend of mine was living in Singapore for a few years and I decided to take the opportunity to visit her, before she would move back to Europe. I knew it wasn’t going to be quite the same as backpacking in Bolivia, but maybe I could just get a tiny bit of that ‘cool female explorer’ freedom sensation back. Or could I?
Being in Singapore is comfortable, modern and safe (oh, and a bit pricey). Staying at my friend’s house of course was also rather nice. Seeing a new city, country and culture is fabulous and Singapore is such a melting pot of skyscrapers and colourful neighbourshoods. But don’t you think everything is more intense when you are in your early twenties and experience it all for the first time? I had a fantastic holiday, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Still, I kept looking for that same thrill I felt at 23, but it was hard to find.
from host to hostel
After a week of Singapore city life and catching up with my friend, I decided to go somewhere else for a few days, truly traveling solo. I took the ferry to nearby Indonesian island Bintan. Indonesia, that surely would be different! And yes, it was indeed, even though it was only a stone throw’s away from Singapore. Whereas nobody even looks at you in Singapore, you get stared at, called and approached as soon as you set foot on the shores of Bintan. I had booked a hostel and luckily got picked up by one of the hostel owners so didn’t have to make my own way. The hostel looked very nice online. It was cheap and basic, but the pictures looked idyllic in a very laid-back, surf shack kind of way and it had very good reviews. I was hoping to meet fellow travelers, hang out with them in the evening, visit some places on the island. Just like the good ol’ days.
It was funny. As soon as I sat in that taxi, no airconditioning and a driver who didn’t really take the traffic rules very seriously (were there any?), I felt nervous. What was I doing here? Wooden huts and jungle lined the road, poverty all around. Scooters and mopeds like flies crossing and passing. The heat was suffocating. I told myself to get a grip and relax. After all, I wanted a bit of adventure and real experiences, right? I was looking forward arriving at the hostel, with its palm trees and lovely terrace, chat to some people and make the most of my time on the island.
Breakfast and ants included
Then the taxi slowed down and turned left into a dirt road. Wait, what? The hostel was right there, I could see it, but it didn’t quite look like the pictures. We got out and the hostel guy guided me into the reception area. Well, let’s call it the front room of a wooden shed. It was like a sauna. There was a water tank, a kettle and a bread bin with a few white slices in it “for breakfast”. There were ants marching across the table. Did I mention it was hot? There was a shared bathroom, with no actual shower nor a bath. There was one toilet that had to be flushed with a cup of water. I got shown the one dormitory in the hostel, with six bunks and noticed only one bed was taken. But she was out for the day. It was 2pm. There was nobody there but me and the hostel guy. “It was low season.”
heat and panic
I panicked. Sitting down on my bunk bed I frantically started to think. I was going to faint. What if I fainted? Was there a hospital? Would I get rescued? What if I got sick. I got sick before in a hot place like this. Could I get dengue fever? I was on my period. How would I wash? I could see a stripe of daylight in the wall of the dormitory. Were there cockroaches here? There must be cockroaches. Only one guest? What would I do? Was this hostel safe? Where would I eat? What would I eat? I am so hot. I can’t breathe. My heart was racing. I needed to calm down. What if I die? I have two kids. I want to go home. What was I thinking? I started crying. I’m 40 years of age, I have responsibilities. I can’t stay here. I need to stay alive. Am I being silly? I probably am, but I hate this place.
“It’s not you – it’s me”
Unlike in 2002, even this basic hostel had wi-fi. Thank god for wi-fi. I decided I wasn’t going to stay in that hostel. I felt like a cheat and a wimp but I needed to get myself to somewhere more comfortable. “Throw some money at the problem” my husband used to say, whenever you would find yourself in a situation that needed solved immediately. He hadn’t liked the idea of me traveling solo to this island and hostel in the first place. I swallowed my pride, found a resort 3 miles up the road and booked myself a room. The hostel guy was so apologetic and scared I would give him bad reviews, but I just told him it wasn’t him – it was me. “Oh my boy, I am naive, I am 40, I thought I could still do this but I can’t, I have changed. I have lost it.” was how I felt. Instead I said:”I need a shower and there is no shower.”
The resort was bliss. I felt like a spoiled lady of leasure. Slightly ashamed but so happy. A fabulous clean private room with a fan and working airconditioning. A view over the tropical white sandy beach, waving palm trees and blue waters. This was more like it. Just wow. I opened the mini bar, took out a cold Tiger beer and scoffed the two bags of complimentary crisps out of pure relief. Bloomin’ heck. Thank god for that. I might not be that adventurous explorer anymore, but you know what, that is OK. Been there, done that. Got the pictures. Got the stories. I’m still traveling solo, alright – just in a bit more comfort. Tomorrow I go snorkeling.
Whether you have just moved house, staying somewhere temporarily or you are a digital nomad traveling the globe, it is pleasant to feel at home somewhere straight away. Especially if you are on your own. What are items to make you feel right at home? Things that are comforting and add a sense of familiarity? Here are four items you could try for yourself while on the move, or to welcome your guests while staying at your home.
Home fragrances and natural candles
I don’t know about you, but I like a room to smell nice. So candles or room fragrances can really help with that. If you have guests arriving, it can be very welcoming to have a fragranced candle flickering in the bathroom for example to add a bit of a ‘spa’ feel. Or how about a candle that smells of freshly ground coffee filling the space?
You could pop your favourite candle in your hold luggage too if you travel somewhere, to make your hotel room smell beautiful. (Be careful putting it in hand luggage or it may get taken at security, you never know what is seen as a potential ‘liquid’!)
Adding softness and comfort to your interior is another important factor to make you feel more at home. Drape some chunky knitted throws over your sofa and add plenty of cosy layers to your bed. No space will feel cold and unfriendly when dressed up with beautiful blankets. Not got much space in your suitcase while traveling? Invest in a super soft cashmere throw which could double up as a cosy blanket on a long haul flight.
Familiar photos or prints on the wall
When you move into a new house or flat, the space can feel very alien for a while. Everything is unfamiliar. One of the first things you could do to make your home feel like yours, is to put up some pictures. Create a gallery wall full of family photos or hang your favourite artwork in a prominent place. Add a few large plants and look how you have already transformed the place. If you are traveling or living somewhere for a short period of time, carrying picture frames around with you is probably not an option. Try using other items, such as postcards or smaller pictures, which you could hang with pegs on a piece of string pinned onto the wall.
Your favourite coffee mug to make you feel at home
Nothing beats the feeling of being at ‘home’, or at ease, like a hot cup of tea or coffee in your own special mug. Sitting back, enjoying the view out of your new window and taking it all in. I know it was one of the first things I unpacked after moving last year. If you can pack your favourite mug and bring it with you when away from home for along period of time, it sure soothes any homesick feelings you may have. Choose something sturdy that won’t break easily in transit. Good old Denby mugs are a good bet when it comes to resilience. Oh, and don’t forget to pack your favourite tea either. Enjoy your cuppa!
Are you dreaming about your next holiday? Or maybe you’ve already booked it? Going on an exotic trip around the world? Whatever you are going to do, it’s always handy to download the right apps on your mobile or tablet, so you’re well prepared on the go. Here are ten handy free apps for traveling.
Rome2rio: best free travel app for itineraries
This is seriously one of the most amazing free app for traveling. Download Rome2rio for finding transport links, even in the most remote places. Type in where you are and where you are going and you get a list of options for bus, train, flight and self-driving.
Prey: free app to track your devices when stolen
With Prey you can secure your smartphone, tablet or laptop. This allows you to track multiple devices if they are stolen or lost. GPS and camera images can be used to restore a lost device. You can even erase your devices remotely.
Google Drive: back up your holiday photos
Speaking of data security, make sure you back up your files. No more excuses that you have lost all your photos. One of the most essential free apps for traveling. Make sure you set up your phone to sync with Apple iCloud or with Google Drive (or with a competitive service such as Dropbox or Microsoft Onedrive). You get 15 GB for free with Google Drive.
Google Translate: your pocket translator
This translation app has been my go-to app since moving to Spain. Perfect for helping you out in a foreign language when words fail. You can not only translate text by entering it manually, the app can also translate a conversation or display a translated text from a text in an image. Google recently switched to translations based on machine learning, making the results much better, especially for difficult translations like Japanese to English. Do not forget to download the dictionaries for languages that you need during your trip, for offline use!
XE Currency: handy free app for traveling
The best way to avoid paying too much abroad (or just making expensive mistakes) is to always have the latest exchange rates at hand. XE Currency works without connecting to the internet to work.
Hostelworld: find the best budget hostels
Hostelworld is the largest hostel booking site, so if you are a budget traveler, chances are you will use this app a lot. One of the must have free apps for traveling if you are backpacking around the world or looking for a cheap place for the night.
Duolingo: learn a foreign language while traveling
What is a better time to learn a language than when you are completely submerged in that language during a trip? Duolingo is one of the travel apps that makes language learning fun by adding game-like scores and progression systems. It is free and it is excellent for learning the basics.
Anti Mosquito: handy free app for traveling
Nobody likes mosquitoes, right? They can make your life miserable at home and on holiday and some of the more exotic ones are also quite dangerous (think malaria and dengue fever). With Anti Mosquito you supposedly chase away mosquitoes by transmitting sound frequencies of 19 kHz and higher. Whether it works perfectly? I can’t tell yet, I’ll get back to you on that! In any case, it is one of the more unusual apps for traveling to try out. I do recommend you keep using your usual sprays too though!
Split Bill: no more arguments over money
Anyone who has ever traveled with a group of friends knows that splitting the bill can cause a bit of a headache. Fiddling with notes and coins and quibbles between the one who only had soft drinks and the one who ordered six gin and tonics. To avoid that in the future, the Split Bill app is a great free app for traveling. Discussions, paying too much or too little: it’s all a thing of the past. Everyone happy!
MAPS.me: best free travel app for offline maps
MAPS.me is another one of those great free apps for traveling. This mobile app allows you to download map data for a country or region, so you can also use it if you do not have 4G or Wi-Fi.
We moved to Valencia in February 2018 and have now been here almost a year. Valencia is becoming quite popular with foreigners moving to this wonderful city and I think we are all struggling with the same questions. Moving to Valencia with kids means questions around schools, family friendly neighbourhoods, healthcare and other issues. Where to live, which schools to choose and where to start with your paperwork.
So how do you organise an international move like this? Where do you start when moving to Valencia with kids? When still living in Scotland, where we came from before settling in Valencia, we were already planning our move for about a year beforehand. Once we picked our destination, I did a lot of research online, printed out info about neighbourhoods and schools and I joined a number of online forums and facebook groups. Some useful groups to join beforehand are:
Internations is an international forum for expats all around the world.There are free and paid for memberships and I chose to pay for a basic membership for six months, to get access to the forums and being able to ask questions to other members. It was worth it, as I ended up making a few great contacts and even friendships, before we even moved. To already know a few people in Valencia who had made the move before us, felt comforting and reassuring in the run up to our actual move.
Facebook groups for expats in Valencia
This is a bit of a hit and miss in my opinion, because there are all kinds of people in these groups, from all walks of life and each with their own very personal opinion. Ask a question about schools – or anything really – and you are often none the wiser. Still, you may get the odd gem of information or end up making a few contacts who you are on the same wavelength with.
Type in ‘Expats in Valencia’ in the search bar and you’ll get a number of groups you can join. If you are a mum with children under the age of 14, the (private) group Bumps and Babies has been the best source of support, information and friendship in my opinion. If you are a ‘digital nomad’ or you run your own business, the groups Valencia Coffees and Co-working and Expats and Business in Valencia have been useful for me to make contacts and even find some freelance work.
Handy maps to buy: know your whereabouts
I love maps and I am very happy we bought some before we moved. We stuck them on our wall in the study and used them to circle our favourite neighbourhoods, school locations and potential places to move to. It really helped to narrow down places to look for accommodation, as well as to understand the city and surroundings, distances and the whole region better. These maps were very good in my opinion:
Moving to Valencia with kids means you have to find schools. Many parents worry about this as of course we all want to do the best thing for our children. Most of us expats are worried about the kids struggling with the Spanish language and school system and maybe not thriving. Most kids do perfectly fine though and pick up the language in no time, especially when they are young. It is good to prepare yourself for an initial adaptation period which requires a bit of extra love and support from the parents (we had this too! Read my post about that here).
International, bilingual or Spanish?
There are a LOT of schools in Valencia. I don’t think there are many other cities where there is such a vast choice in public, semi-private and private schools; Spanish schools, bilingual schools, American schools, French schools and British schools; and then there is the choice of curriculum. My advice? Write down your criteria for a school and don’t let yourself get caught up in the heated online discussions about which school is best. It is VERY personal and what works for someone else may not work for you.
My other bit of advice? Visit a number of schools beforehand so you get a good idea of the different facilities, atmospheres, etc. Many expats end up choosing one of the big private American or British schools, but your children may actually be just as happy in a public Spanish school (which could save you a ton of money and your kids may end up speaking Spanish a lot quicker). It all depends on what you want for your family.
One thing to remember is that to get into a public or semi-private school (called a ‘concertado’), you will need to live in the catchment area as the local municipality will decide whether your children get a space or not, if they have availability. The private schools do not have this criterium. Alhough you can try and get into a school all year round, the general enrollment time is one week in May, where you can apply for a spot in the schools of your choice. Your local municipality, wherever you end up, will have the dates on their website around that time.
As an expat arriving in Spain you will not be able to join the free public healthcare system unless you have a Spanish work contract and are an employee. If you are registered as an autonomo (self employed) person and are paying into the social security system you also have access.
So what most do, is get private health insurance which then gives you access to the private hospitals. We have done this for our family. To give you an example, for our family of four we are currently paying about 200 euro per month with Adeslas, one of the main insurance providers. We have been happy so far as you get very quick appointments with any specialist in hospital and good care overall. The public system however is also very good in general, but of course, waiting lists are a little longer than with private healthcare.
Accommodation in Valencia
Now, where to find a house! Again, a bit of research beforehand is useful, so you can narrow down the areas you would like to focus on when house hunting. Most expats start renting first, which is a good idea as you just don’t know how you’ll feel until you’ve lived somewhere for a while. With that in mind, it should take the pressure off a little bit about whether a flat or house is perfect or not. As more people are moving here, great rental homes are becoming a little more in demand, so prepare for having to be a bit more flexible with your preferred location, budget or space criteria.
Renting an AirBnB to buy time
For us, the main criterium was location, because we wanted to have our children in a certain semi-private school, so we had to live nearby. We were lucky to secure a rental agreement on a house before we actually moved, but many expats rent an AirBnB for a month or longer when they arrive after which they take their time to figure out where to rent or buy.
Property websites for homes in valencia
The main websites to look on for houses are Idealista and Fotocasa, although there are others too. These two have the largest amounts of property advertised. Most estate agents will ask for one month of administration fee. They will also ask for at least one month deposit. Some landlords require a few or more months rent up front if you can not yet provide enough proof of income or have only just arrived here. Private landlords will not ask for the administration fee, but a deposit and some rent up front is usually standard.
Hiring help: a relocation agency
It can be useful to hire someone to help you with all the paperwork. It can take a lot of headaches out of the process and you will save a lot of time. We hired an agency and it was worth every euro. They helped us set up a bank account, arranged all house viewings, organised rental agreement and liaised on our behalf, set up the internet and accompanied us to acquire our NIE number (tax number) and Empadronamiento (registration with the local council). These last two things are essential papers to get as soon as possible as you’ll need them often.
Moving to Valencia was the company we hired. We still hire them for help sometimes when we need that extra bit of reassurance when tackling the Spanish bureaucracy. They have a lot of information on their website about how to organise paperwork like NIE, how to find accommodation, articles on neighbourhoods and more. So even if you decide to do it yourself, it’s a helpful site.
Have you ever thought of doing a home exchange during the vacations with a total stranger in a totally different country? The first thought that pops into people’s head is often “oh, I don’t fancy having strangers going through my drawers and what if they wreck the place?” But we have now done home swaps on a number of occasions and we absolutely LOVE it. Here’s why.
new toys and a home from home
The first time we swapped was with a family in Edinburgh during the October holidays and it was amazing. All we needed to do was drive for a couple of hours and we didn’t spend much more money that week than entries to the zoo, a few meals out and normal food shopping. We enjoyed experiencing life in a city neighbourhood, in a gorgeous Victorian house. The kids had the best time, discovering millions of ‘new’ toys. Since then we have done it a number of times, nationally and internationally and it is positive every time.
Risky? Stranger-danger? Sure, there is always a little bit of risk doing something informal like this, but from experience I can say that most house swappers are kind, caring, helpful, generous and welcoming people. They are willing to give you the keys to their house after all. It is a matter of trust. And, by the way, we have always found our house ten times cleaner than we left it and our cat spoiled rotten.
The pros of home swapping for the holidays
Well, I could make an endless list, because I am such a fan of the concept, but here are my main reasons for opening my house to people from around the world in return for a stay in theirs.
You cut out the accommodation costs
Let’s be fair, home swapping is not just fun, it also saves you a heck of a lot of money. Imagine having to fork out nightly hotel costs or the rental of a holiday home for a couple of weeks. Even doing AirBnB adds up for a week, no matter how low the price per night is. Home swapping can drastically bring down the cost of your holiday, especially if you are already paying for flights.
It is a home from home
No swanky hotels during a home swap but the comforts of a home. You literally move into someone’s house, so you find their fully kitted out kitchen, comfy sofa’s, a beautiful terrace or garden, shelves full of books and – if you swap with a young family – plenty of ‘new’ toys for your own children to get excited about. You move into a whole new neighbourhood for a bit, get a feel for what it’s like to actually live here. In fact, we once felt so at home during our home swap with a family in Valencia that we ended up moving here permanently, haha!
You get to stay in incredible houses around the world. For free.
You can keep it local and swap with someone in your own country. We have just agreed an exchange to stay a week in a beautiful house in the mountains near Alicante, Spain, which for us is just a short car journey away right now. You may find surprising locations just on your doorstep.
Someone with a quiet cottage in the wilderness may love to come and stay in your inner city apartment. But likewise, someone with a beach house in a hot climate may just be dying to come to the misty west coast of Scotland. Also, if you have always wanted to visit Canada, Australia or the Far East, you can try and swap with someone over there. The flights will be the only pricey aspect, but you’ll be saving a LOT on accommodation. And what better way to travel and get to know a different culture, than by living like a local?
You get insider tips from the home owner
Most home swappers, including myself, find real joy in preparing a welcome pack full of insider tips, hidden gems, maps, brochures and itineraries for lovely days out. It is a great way to get to know a new city or area through the eyes of someone who lives there.
You have pet care sorted
Got cats (or goldfish or chickens…) that need looking after during the holidays? Many home exchangers are happy to look after your pets as well as your home while you are away. Saves additional expenses on catteries and they can stay in their own environment. Of course check with the people you invite whether they are happy to do this kind of thing.
You can even swap cars
If you are not too precious about your vehicle, this is another great saving you can make during a home swap. In the UK you will need to put an additional driver on your car insurance, which won’t be much more than 60 pounds usually and most home swappers are happy to pay this as it is way cheaper than hiring a car. In Europe the car itself is insured, hence you won’t need to pay for additional drivers on your insurance. Not everyone will want to swap cars, but it is especially great when you are unable to bring your own because you are traveling by plane, so worth asking!
Are there any cons at all? Not many in my opinion, but of course there can be issues which would make you not want to do a home swap.
You will have to tidy up and clean your house beforehand
We underestimated this the first time we swapped, haha! But yes, before you leave your house to your visitors, it is only good manners to clean the house top to bottom and put the clutter and stray clothes and toys away. This can take longer than you think, so good to start early. On a plus note: you will probably come home to your house in an even cleaner and tidier state than you left it. After which my home returns to its usually happy, messy state within half a day.
Things may break
Got a Ming Dynasty vase from your great grandmother on the sideboard? A beautiful, delicate set of glasses you don’t want anyone to touch? Your kids got some new or expensive toys they don’t want to break or get lost? While 9 out of 10 times nothing will go wrong, we are all human and things can break. Guests broke one of our plates, we broke one of their toys. People are mostly honest and tell you immediately, offer to replace the item or leave a bit of money as a ‘sorry’ gift. Still, if you have stuff you definitely don’t want anything to happen to, put it away safely.
If you have a spare room that doesn’t need to be used during the swap, put all your private or fragile stuff in here and ask your guests kindly to respect this room and keep it closed. If you have a key, lock it. We usually let friends of neighbours look after our computer and financial documents for the time we’re away. Not because you expect the guests to rummage through your files and steal your money, but since you haven’t known them for very long, it is only common sense to keep your valuables safe. The rest? Just stuff.
Home swap tips and home swap websites
home exchange websites
Want to give it a go yourself? There are a number of websites you can advertise your house on. You usually pay an annual subscription fee and then you can swap as often as you like. We are currently members of Guardian Home Exchange, which is a UK based website part of the Guardian (newspaper) but it has many international houses on it – including our own one in Valencia. We pay 59 pounds a year membership, which really is not much if you think what you would spend on one night in a B&B alone. There are many others you can try of course, including Home Love Swap, which is the biggest of them all.
find Pet sitters
Another website, which is a slightly different concept, is TrustedHouseSitters.com, a site which doesn’t offer home exchanges (although you can swap in some cases), but on here you’ll find people who offer pet sitting services for free, in return for a stay in your home while you are away. You can also offer yourself as a pet sitter, to find somewhere ‘free’ to stay during the holidays. Again, a huge saving because you don’t have to fork out money for a kennel or a cattery, plus your house is looked after during your vacation. And vice versa, you get to stay in someone’s house for free in return for walking a doggie.
We invited a couple into our home over the Christmas holidays as we were unable to find anyone to look after our cat Buster. I must admit I was slightly apprehensive at first, as it wasn’t a straight swap…Total strangers would pick up our keys from the neighbours and move in…without us having the keys to their property. But I needn’t have worried, because the retired Belgian couple who came were the sweetest cat sitters we could have wished for and when we returned they welcomed us back in our own home with tapas and cava. It seems that it is a certain type of person who is attracted to this kind of holiday. Open-minded, caring, curious, kind and interested in other people, other customs and exploring new locations.
How to prepare your home for listing
Take good photos
A tidy house gives better pictures and better pictures attract more home swap requests. make the beds, clear the clutter, put some fresh flowers on the table, etc. You can shove all the clutter into one room just for the time being until you got your photos done, it doesn’t matter, but make sure that that first impression of your house is good. It’s a bit like getting your house ready for selling. Make it look fab!
describe your house
Place yourself in the shoes of someone who is looking for a house to exchange with. They will want to know how many bedrooms you have, bathrooms, sofabeds etc. Also what kitchen equipment perhaps or things like baby cots and high chairs if you own them. Each exchanger is different, but it is good to describe how your house is suitable for different types of people. Not want tiny sticky fingers on your wall? Make this clear in your listing that you rather want older families or couples only.
Describe your location and area
You may not think of your street or neighbourhood as much, but your guests are excited, it is all new to them and they want to explore. Describe the highlights of your village or town, maybe there is a fine bakery around the corner or some splendid woodland walks. Describe how far larger towns, cities and other attractions such as beaches or mountains are. Tell them about castles, museums, swimming pools or zoos in the area. Anything that will persuade them to get in touch with you for a swap. The nice thing about a home exchange is that you often end up in places you would never normally have gone to, but they turn out to be real hidden gems.
Respond to your messages
If you own a fabulous house in an even more spectacular location, be prepared for lots of messages. We certainly received a few more now we are in Spain than we did when we still lived in Aberdeenshire! Just make sure to respond. You decided to list your house on the site so be polite and reply to people who are interested in coming to stay in your house. Of course you don’t have to sit and wait for an email, you can also fire off requests yourself. Most people are lovely and will tell you straight away if they are happy to arrange an exchange.
Make a welcome pack
A welcome pack can be as simple as an A4 with the workings of your TV, oven and heating system. However, it’s nice to include some ideas for excursions, directions to the nearest bank, shop and public transport, etc. I usually include tourist brochures that I pick up from around town, cultural agendas and business cards of my favourite restaurants. People are very grateful if you take the guessing out of their visit. Provide them with some tried and tested tips for visits you enjoy yourself. Also include some emergency numbers, names of neighbours that may be able to help out in case of anything happening and other info you may think is useful during their stay. I usually also leave a bottle of wine or a yummy delicacy from the local area on the table for the guests on arrival. It is nice to make people feel welcome, and you will likely find similar kindness on the other end.
I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to scoot away on my brand new ‘patinete’ or adult scooter, when I bought it in Valencia this spring. I felt like a kid again! Living in a city where you use public transport a lot and distances are sometimes a little bit far to walk (and arrive on time), it is extremely handy to have a portable vehicle to get yourself from A to B just that little bit faster. Adult scooters are perfect for short journeys, the school run or your daily commute with public transport.
My little boys have scooters and yes, they are usually associated with children’s activities, but believe me, the adult version is just as much fun. Wind in your hair, stepping away, gliding with ease, passing pedestrians and saving time. What’s not to like?
Scooters or patinetes (for the Spanish people among us) come in all shapes and sizes, with or without hand brakes. I bought an Oxelo adult scooter from Decathlon recently, for 119 euro. No hand brakes (instead you have a foot brake – you slow down by pushing the mud guard down on the back wheel with your foot), but it is foldable with a strap for easy carrying. Even the handle bars fold inwards so you basically carry a scooter over your shoulder the size of a large bag. And not too heavy. Very useful when getting on public transport! You can get actual carrier bags too if you want to take your scooter with you on longer journeys.
There are also electric scooter available these days, which I must admit, look very attractive, especially at times when I am trying to push my non-electric scooter uphill, in 32 degrees heat. They are quite a lot more expensive, but would be a good option if you have difficulty walking long distances or need something a bit faster but still portable and easy to manoeuvre.
Which surfaces are best for adult scooters
Non electric scooters are particularly great on the flat or downhill, on smooth surfaces. Unless your scooter has big rubber tyres, don’t ride with them on old cobbled streets or very uneven roads. You get the idea, bumpetybump. Not great. Tiled paths are fine, although the bigger the tiles the better. In quiet residential streets I sometimes ride on the tarmac, as this surface is obviously ideal. Just make sure you watch the traffic and get back onto the pavement when it gets busy (yes, mum).
Wearing a helmet is always a good safety measure. If you live on a hill, it is a must. These scooters gain speed fast when going downhill, especially with a 75kg/150lbs adult on it. You really don’t want to hit a rock or curb and go flying without being protected.
Scoot to the gate: your micro scooter with built-in case
For the geeks among us, or rather the commuters who are traveling a lot, there is the Micro Luggage Scooter. No more running to the gate at the airport pulling your trolley case on wheels or clutching your cabin bag. And killing time waiting for your flight will never be the same again. Imagine the smooth surfaces in that departure lounge…
Valencia is a city where you can walk around aimlessly for days and still not get bored of the abundance and vibrancy of colours, street art, cafe’s, parks and many different little shops. Of course, with such a great vibe, there’s bound to be some real vintage treasures to be found. Do you love vintage shopping and finding a unique vintage souvenir when visiting a different city? Here is my Top 10 of vintage shops in Valencia.
1. Madame Mim
Calle Puerto Rico 30, Russafa, Valencia 46006 Hours 11:00 AM – 2:30 PM, 5:30 PM – 9:30 PM Facebook page
Dimly lit as if entering the costume department of a 1920s theatre, you will find a weird and wonderful cabinet of curiosities. Glamourous sequined evening wear from bygone eras, retro telephones, a wall full of shoes, sparkly jewellery and racks of wearable vintage fashion, all reasonably priced. They call themselves a ‘second hand freak shop‘, but this is certainly one of the best vintage shops in Valencia.
Packed with fashion from mainly the 1980s and 90s, this shop is a great place to stock up on vintage jeans, dungarees, crop tops, maxi skirts and floral dresses. Also the perfect place for guys to get kitted out with a cool hawaiian shirt and denim jacket.
Probably the one with the best shop front of any of the vintage shops in Valencia, there is no way you will walk past this one. Aiecle Vintage Store is located just around the corner from Flamingos Vintage Kilo in Russafa. The shop stock is similar, with plenty of colourful 1980s and 90s vintage to choose from. Wearable outfits for OK prices.
Calle Pinzón 1, Old town, Valencia 46003 Hours 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM Facebook page
Used is a popular shop, online and offline and sells quality vintage, ranging from 1980s sports wear to vintage Levi’s denims. The hipster in you will drool over its collection. Find Used in the old town in the centre of Valencia.
5. Needles & Pins Vintage
Calle En Bou 3, Old town, Valencia 46001 Hours 10:30 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM Facebook Page
A gem of a vintage shop right in the middle of the historic city centre of Valencia. Here you will find a colourful collection of vintage and handmade clothing and accessories. Plenty to choose from, whether you are on the hunt for a special summer dress or a cute top.
6. Ruzafa Vintage
Calle Puerto Rico 33, Russafa, 46006 Valencia Hours 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 8:30 PM Facebook Page
Vintage for the home has not really caught on here in Valencia yet, but there are some great little shops if you look for them. For midcentury furniture and retro accessories, try Ruzafa Vintage in Calle Puerto Rico. A mix of chairs, storage, lots of lighting and smaller items. And a lovely purple shop front.
7. Second Chance
Gran Vía Germanías 41, Valencia 46006 map Hours 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:30 PM – 9:00 PM Facebook Page
Now don’t be put off by its unattractive shop front, because inside it is a treasure trove. Find anything from Atari computers to 100 year old oil paintings, and from vintage trunks to second-hand bikes. Prices can be a bit steep for some things, but nothing says you can’t try and do a bit of haggling. Worth a browse, for sure. Find it on the edge of Russafa, along the busy Gran Via near Estación del Norte .
8 Studio vintage
Calle Purisima 8 bajo, Old town, Valencia 46001 Hours 10:30 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:30 PM – 8:00 PM. Closed on weekends. Facebook page
A lot more upmarket than the previous shop and particularly interesting if you actually live in Valencia and want to invest in some gorgeous midcentury pieces for your home. But we can look, right? This shop sells vintage design from Spain, France, Britain and Scandinavia. Go here for a good sideboard, some funky lighting or a comfy teak Danish armchair.
9. El Monstruo
Carrer de Calatrava 11, Old town, 46001 València Hours: 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM Facebook Page
El Monstruo is one of the vintage shops in Valencia offering a fabulous eclectic mix of vintage, customised and handmade. There is in fact an in-house taylor. You can choose a vintage fabric and get your own shirt made. If you want to browse ready-made clothes, there is plenty on the racks, ranging from 1950s petticoats to cute sixties blouses and much more.
Calle Purísima 5, Old town, Valencia 46001 Hours 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM, 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM Facebook Page
This concept store and gallery, across from Studio Design in the old town of Valencia, has a wonderful mix of art, prints, handmade and vintage finds. Some amazing framed artwork as well as screen printed bags and other handmade items by local artists. Well worth a look.
More tips on Valencia
Lonely Planet Pocket Valencia is a handy pocket size guide to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. price 12,30 euro