Monday afternoon between noon and 2pm is the best time to sit in the shade by the mermaid sat on her fish by the lake in El Retiro park. The monument to Alfonso XII provides a suitable backdrop to watch people messing about on boats in the lake next to the monument. It is funny to watch them trying to row their boats as there are the occasional crashes between boats. Don't forget to smack the mermaid's bottom for good luck before you reluctantly leave the lakeside!
The most famous cycling race in Spain which easily rivals the more famous Tour de France. The 9th September is usually when the race finishes in Madrid. It is free to stand behind the barriers by the road and cheer the cyclists on as they race past you at an alarming pace (be quick to rein in your camera after taking your photo otherwise it will be shot out of your hand and broken by passing cyclists). I managed to get some brilliant photos of the riders and of the prize giving ceremony after the race. Don't be discouraged if the police move you on from some of the barriers by the finish line as they actually did me a favour as I got to be right next to the barrier and could practically touch the cylists. It was one of the best experiences of my life as it was exciting to actually be there in Madrid instead of watching it on the TV. Top tip - find a barrier on the right side of the track (where you will get the best photos) at 12.00pm and keep your spot. Arrive later than 12.00pm and you will loose your spot!
The atmopshere is fantastic and exhilirating. It is not intimidating at all even for children so it is perfect for families. There are police everywhere to protect spectators and cyclists so don't worry about safety but do as I did and keep your rucksack on your front and NOT on your back to avoid things being stolen from it without you noticing. There will be lots of people around you but unlike the Tour de France you wont be jostled about and knocked all over the place - everybody looks after each other (even if your not supporting the same rider!)
The Vuelta de España follows this route into Madrid city centre: c/Princesa,
Plaza de España, Gran Vía, c/Alcalá,
Plaza de Cibeles, then passing the Thyssen museum, Fuente de Neptuno, Paseo de Prado, Gta de Emperador Carlos V and back up to Plaza de Cibeles then down again to
Gta de Emperador Carlos V (10 times) before the cyclists cross the finishing line
(la meta) for the final time near Plaza de Cibeles. The exact route is usually announced on the website of the
Vuelta de España and in the local and national newspapers every year
Google map: bit.ly/Ph2plP
Try the fortified medieval town of Provins 1h25 by train (from Gare de l'Est) to the south-east of Paris. Away from the usual foreign tourist route. You tend only to find French visitors. Great with kids as there's a donjon, ramparts, underground passages. In summer there are lots of events such as jousting knights, etc. Plenty of restaurants from the good and cheap crepe (Le Fleur du Sel in the old town) to the fancier place with lovely outdoor dining areas.
If you are looking for a small, truly family run authentic German hotel with fabulous food in an unspoilt town in the Bavarian Mountains with loads to do for families and great public transport links which remove the need for a car - this is the place for you.
We stayed for 10 nights in August 2012. We flew London Heathrow to Munich and then took the train from Munich to Ruhpolding with a change at Traunstein. The hotel collected us from the railway station for the short drive to the hotel which is in a peaceful location a few minutes walk from the town centre.
We had an en-suite room - which would be best described as a suite with a lounge area and a connected bedroom for our five year-old son. We had a terrace with furniture which lead onto the hotel garden and children's outdoor play area. There was also a children's playroom. We enjoyed delicious breakfasts and fabulous dinners every night at the hotel after days packed with activities aided by the Ruhpolding Extra Card included in our hotel package - which provided us with free access to numerous activities in and around Ruhpolding including outdoor and indoor swimming pools, cable cars and chair lifts, family parks and free local bus services - even as far as Berchtesgaden! It is also easy to take the train from Ruhpolding for day trips to Salzburg, Munich and the beautiful lake Chiemsee. We also hired bikes locally to cycle the wonderful cycle routes around Ruhpolding.
On a recent visit to Keswick, I discovered a delicious solution to the often difficult problem of dining out while traveling with children. I found a courtyard tucked behind a pub (Kings Arms), a sports bar (Casa's Bar) and a pizzeria (LB's Pizza House) that was perfect for family dining. With the courtyard setting, we could dine outdoors, catch a favorite sport on TV, and enjoy a mix of food and beverage from any or all of these three establishments. Our goal that evening was to watch the gold medal Women's football match of the summer Olympics, and the bar tender from Casa's accommodated us by finding the game on the television set near our table. Along with pints of ale and cider carried out from the bar for refreshment, we ate some of the best pizza I've ever had, a thin and crispy, spicy hot Diavolo that had been stonebaked in a wood fired oven (with margherita pizza for the kids, of course.) The meal was so delicious we ordered another pizza and had a second round of drinks to take us through the second half of the football match. My only regret at the end of the evening was that we were far too full to finish the feast with a sticky toffee pudding.
23 Main Street Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5BL
+44(0)800 840 1241
Google map: bit.ly/OIytx8
The hillwalking in the Cantal is blissful. You are unlikely to see many people on your way up or down through wooded hillsides on waymarked paths, until you break out on spectacular ridges rising to 1700m.
Sheffield Park gardens are my favourite as they are always changing with the seasons, so there’s always something different to see. There is wheelchair access and you can hire powered buggys so everyone is thought of. There is also now a lovely cafe and restaurant to stop in at. My best tip for visiting any of our wonderful gardens is, if you see a plant you like, take a picture of it, immediately followed by a picture of the plant label so you will know what to look for if you want one for your own space.
Sheffield Park, TN22 3QX
Google map: bit.ly/NHT6ak
Hestercombe Gardens offers a magical day going through three centuries of garden design. There is a seventeenth century mill, now restored, plus an eighteenth century picturesque hillside garden with several follies, and a stream running into a large pool. There is a Victorian terrace from which, looking down, one catches one's breath at 'The Great Plat', looking like a Moorish cushion. This is part of the design : the best of Hestercombe: made in the early twentieth century by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. It is their garden masterpiece with its many levels, rills, water spouts, pergola and glorious planting. Hestercombe has a gallery, a super shop with plants as well, plus cafe. There are events throughout the year for both the family and garden history scholars. Most of the garden is accessible for wheeled users; a lift takes you to the ticket office and onto the path past the hillside, stream and pool – but you have to retrace your wheels to get into the Jekyll garden.
Perched above the Dee Estuary, with stunning views across to Wales, Ness Gardens nestle, a haven of tranquillity. Created by Cotton Merchant, Arthur Kilpin Bulley in 1898, who was responsible for introducing thousands of new plants into Britain, they are now maintained by Liverpool University and are still a major botanical centre involved in plant conservation. The gardens provide an extensive area of wonderfully varied planting, with south facing terraces and many water features. Finding a lovely picnic spot is easy, choosing is difficult.
Sissinghurst comprises 10 gardens created on derelict land by two writers Vita Sackville-West (she planted) and her husband Harold Nicolson (he planned), around romantic, mellow pink brick Tudor buildings high on the Kent Weald. What she called “rooms open to the sky” are intimate gardens, each with its own character, enclosed by old walls and hedges, each planted differently by colour or theme. Long, linking walks make for a satisfying unity.
These stunning Baroque gardens (justly described as world famous) provide a powerful, and rare, evocation of the Italian Renaissance. Constructed in 1685 they fall away behind the majestic mediaeval structure of Powis Castle, home to the Earls of Powis (and once to Clive of India).
The steep terracing, ornamented with mighty urns, lead statuary and clipped yew, and planted to resemble hanging gardens, drops to a valley floor of formal flower gardens and lawns.
On the opposite side of the castle, the entrance to the charming, rolling parkland, full of crafty vistas, and populated by deer, can be found on Welshpool High Street. A walk through the park costs nothing but the castle and gardens are now owned and maintained by the National Trust which offers the usual visitor facilities.
These most rare and beautiful gardens, which are still undergoing rediscovery and restoration at Aberglasney House. Langathen, Camarthenshire, date back at least to Elizabethan times and possibly to the thirteenth century. They are set in the fabulous Tywi valley just off the A40 near the little town of Llandeilo (itself well worth visiting.)
The ten acres at Aberglasney include an Elizabethan/ Jacobean cloister garden, a pool garden, walled gardens, woodlands, an unusual parapet walk, a yew tunnel and, in a pleasing nod to the gardens at Ninfa near Rome, the Ninfarium, an inner garden built within the central ruins of the house.
We went in March 2011, just before the rush of spring growth, but even so early in the season the plants were wonderful and the finely drawn structure of this lovely garden was apparent.
Delicious cakes in the cafe and an appealing gift shop complete the visit.
As a bonus for the energetic, you are not far from the National Gardens of Wales.
Best to begin by watching the eight minute film screened in the bright cafe at the entrance.
You learn that these Grade 1 listed Edwardian gardens, filled in in the 1940s, remained lost, even in local memory, until 2000 when a new owner began excavating.
Then wander through the gardens, finding lakes, fountains, a bog garden, horticultural surprises at every turn, even a croquet lawn. Most amazing are the subterranean grottoes, ferny and mossy, with tiny streams and little niches.
Though smaller in scale, these gardens have everything offered by historical garden sites. The plant sale is good, parking is free, the welcome is great. What more could you ask?
With the help of John Willis, Tim Smit discovered this idiosyncratic English landscaped garden long before he started the Eden Project. Although restorations and discoveries are still being made, it took me two days to see it all. More like an adventure playground for garden lovers, the 200 year-old site includes a boardwalk through a jungle, an enormous wilderness (look out for figures made from plants and rocks like the Giant’s Head and Grey Lady), a pineapple pit, lakes and formal gardens. I stumbled across some charcoal making, and other events include regular bee walks and bug sweeping.
Pentewan, St.Austell, Cornwall PL26 6EN
Google map: bit.ly/Nv93SJ
Open all year (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day)
Main Season (1st April to 30th September) 10.00am – 6.00pm
Winter (1st October to 31st March) 10:00am – 5:00pm
Adults -- £10
Seniors -- £9
Children from 5 to 16 -- £6
Childen under five go free
Family ticket (2 adults + 3 children) -- £27
The gardens of Chatsworth House must be ranked among the most magnificent in Britain. It's worth a visit just to see the water features (though there is much more): the Cascade has been voted the best water feature in any garden in Britain; the Emperor Fountain was the highest in the world when it was constructed; on a smaller scale, the Willow Tree Fountain can't fail to amuse (it reputedly amused the young Princess Victoria). There is a choice of free, downloadable guides or you can join a guided tour.
You can't beat a garden and tea room combo to blow away the cobwebs at any time of year and Mount Stewart House in Co. Down delivers. From semi-formal Spanish and Italianate gardens, and the funky shamrock garden and dodo terrace to 80 gloriously rambling acres of secluded woodland with romantic neo-classical monuments and the chance to see red squirrels, plus seals and nesting sea birds on nearby Strangford Lough. And the tearoom? They make their own brand icecream, a well earned treat after all that healthy fresh air and walking.
A unique and exquisite 17th century Dutch water garden whose canals and ponds full of water lilies and lawns bordered by attractive topiary are best seen from the first floor of the summer house at the far end. A walk around takes you to a variety of herb and vegetable plots and a stunning display of very old espaliers. There are no cafe facilities on site but picnics on the lawns are encouraged.
In the 90s I used to walk Yogi, a joyful Bouvier des Flandres, in these gardens every day. Yogi has long gone, but the gardens are in better shape than ever after a £12.1m facelift courtesy of National Lottery funding. An artificial lake, classic bridge, cascade of waterfalls and even an Inigo Jones gateway are just some of the treasures hidden among the specimen trees and latticework of pathways in this early example of English landscape gardening. Dogs still roam free in the wild woods and fields, but must be leashed in the more formal areas.
This south London park, its landscaped gardens formerly part of the Kelsey Estate, has been kept secret by the locals for the past 99 years. It has been our family favourite since Grandma pushed Mum around in her pram before the Second World War. When I was a little girl, Mum and I fed the ducks together every Sunday. As Kelsey Park heads towards its centenary, and since I have no daughter of my own to pass it on to, the time has come to share Beckenham's hidden treasure with the rest of the world. I hope Grandma isn't turning in her grave.
"... Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as ... Parklife!" Blur, 1994
How about this for a perfect day out with three children: we rented Assunta Maria, accommodation with a delightful mix of old meets new, with a very modern lamia and traditionally restored Trulli - which keeps cool in the sun so it is brilliant for when the children need shade from the pool.
Head early to ZooSafari in Fasano and make sure your first stop is the Monkey Train. You sit in cages(!) as passengers on a train and you head into the monkey reserve. The monkey's then crawl all over the cages, right above your head and squawk at you until you feed them monkey nuts! The kids are either roaring with laughter or stunned into silence with fear.
Chill out in the afternoon by joining the old men in Ceglie Messapica town square, walking up and down, repeatedly, until those stomach's start rumbling and Aldo's Pizza is just round the corner - the best Pizza in Italy (says my 5 year old nephew Huey - and he is always right!)
Assunta Maria is just outside of Ceglie Messapica:
+44 (0)1386 710630
ZooSafari is in Fasano:
Via dello Zoosafari, 72015 Fasano Brindisi, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/RGxaAu
Aldo's Pizza is just outside Ceglie Messapica's town square
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