Isn’t the point of holidaying with kids to make memories for them?
Conor Pope on three trips abroad with his three children, in his youngest’s first year
Swim baby: Conor Pope takes the littlest Pope into the pool at the Playa Montroig campsite just south of Barcelona for the very first time
“When my daddy eats ice-cream he gets diarrhoea,” a three-year-old girl shouts from the mobile home next to mine. Clueless as to how to respond to this unexpected and unwelcome news, I retreat into my little house. Seconds later she’s hauled out of sight by a displeased father and I can return to my deck, Corneto in hand.
As I eat, I think that if there’s a sweet spot for camping with children, it’s probably not when they’re over-sharing three-year-olds and you’re living in the pocket of strangers. Such living while on holidays isn’t for everyone, but I like the communality of the experience and I like peeking into the world of those around me, even if the little girl’s news put me right off my ice-cream.
There are two sweet spots when camping, and I hit both last summer with an 11- and a nine-year-old able to roam freely outside our mobile home, and an infant celebrating her first half birthday, able to crawl in relative safety and travel free on planes.
Two days earlier I’d felt like the queen of England as the first of three short Pope family visits overseas with a very small person and her bigger sisters got underway. Everyone I passed in Dublin Airport was full of smiles. They weren’t for me but for the infant child strapped to my chest.
At first sight, the World’s littlest Pope decided the buggy bought specially to ferry her through airports and across foreign lands was plain stupid, and having made her feelings clear in the airport car park, was put into her harness where she was happy out waving and smiling at the world.
The smitten looks she was getting were in contrast to the horror-filled ones I got when telling friends, colleagues and a stranger on the Luas that we were going camping in the Spanish woods with three little girls, including an infant.
“You’re taking a baby camping? Jaysus, that’s hardcore,” was the typical response. And every time I nodded impassively like, I imagined, Bear Grylls would.
I never told the whole truth. We were camping – but I was slightly exaggerating the outdoorsiness of the experience. And by slightly I mean massively. We were travelling with Eurocamp and staying in one of its fancy three-bedroom Aspect mobile homes, at Playa Montroig on the Costa Brava, south of Barcelona.
The site’s new addition also came with a ginormous bucket filled with chilly water, which tipped onto me multiple times as I stood underneath it like a gombeen
Their mobile homes are better-proportioned and better-equipped than many flats – sorry, apartments – built by Irish developers during boomy times past, and come with dishwashers, tellies, microwaves, air-conditioning and large decks with sun loungers. They are also sparsely furnished leaving fewer ways for a just-crawling infant to come to harm.
Accommodation aside, there were two other reasons I found myself in Playa Montroig with a babe in arms in the woods. First, I wanted familiarity and had been to the campsite before so knew what to expect and how to find emergency doctors if needed.
The other reason was memories. Some holiday makers crave new experiences or exotic locations or solitude or nature or culinary excellence or kids’ clubs or night clubs or pools, but what I value most is making happy memories for my little girls. By going to the same place repeatedly, I figure I’ve the best chance of creating ones that stick.
Having camped more than a dozen times in the last decade, I also knew such holidays allow children, even tiny ones, to spend their days outside, in pools, on beaches and decks and because of that, they eat better and sleep better. And so do their parents.
While Playa Montroig was familiar last summer, it had added a child-centric knee-deep pool complex which was perfect for the World’s littlest Pope, even if she did drink her body weight in water daily. The site’s new addition also came with slides, sprays, sprinkling devices and a ginormous bucket filled with chilly water, which tipped onto me multiple times as I stood underneath it like a gombeen.
We wandered Notting Hill and Portobello, marvelling at how cosmopolitan and friendly London remains despite the endless Brexit and sovereignty chatter (innit)
The campsite also has a lovely beach, perfect for daytime snorkels and nighttime paddles, and a trampoline which my better half broke her foot on on our second-last day. My advance knowledge of local medical centres came in handy, as did the Eurocamp staff who helped us hobble off to Reus airport some 20 km away.
Fast forward six weeks and we were back in Dublin Airport, again wrestling with an infant with an aversion to buggies as we headed to London. As before, the World’s littlest Pope travelled through the airport strapped to my chest, waving like a queen.
London is a great tourist city, but horrendously expensive, so finding cheap accommodation close to a Tube was key. We nailed it with a dinky Airbnb off the Edgeware Road, which cost €600 for five nights, leaving us more cash to blow on attractions I’d never stepped foot in, despite countless trips to the British capital.
First up was mental Madame Tussaud’s. The queue outside was ridiculous and I smugly congratulated myself for booking tickets in advance. There was no getting away from the queues inside however, with people almost coming to blows as they jostled to be snapped with Waxy Megan and Harry, while poor fake Kate and Will stood unnoticed by the maddening crowd.
The queues outside Granger & Co in Notting Hill – which had been recommended as London’s top brunch spot – were as mad when we arrived on a sunny Sunday. It was posh – and pricey – but brilliant and worth the 45 minute wait for a table. It was also very baby friendly, something we didn’t appreciate until after changing a nappy in a heavily trafficked corridor to the bemusement of restaurant staff who gently pointed out that they did, in fact, have a changing station.
After Granger & Co we wandered Notting Hill and Portobello and Camden, marvelling at how cosmopolitan and friendly London remains despite the endless Brexit and sovereignty chatter (innit). Then the Popes climbed Trafalgar Square’s lions, took a crawling open-top bus tour through rush-hour traffic, and a pleasant cruise up the Thames before a bankruptcy-inducing stop at Hamley’s Toy Shop on Regent Street. There were also endless Tube trips with the World’s littlest Pope in the harness, and an empty buggy by her side.
While Londoners are endlessly critical of their public transport, it is, for anyone reared in Ireland, a wonder, and was made even more so by being attached to a gurgling baby. Not even the grumpiest of passengers appeared able to scowl at such a thing, and a memory I’ll cherish was watching a stressed out, sweaty man in a cheap shiny suit – the type you’d normally avoid making eye contact with – stumble into our carriage and slump miserably beside me. Unfamiliar with the no-eye-contact rule, the World’s littlest Pope made it clear she wanted to play peak-a-boo with him, and to his eternal credit he played along and left the Tube three stops later with a big smile on his face.
In one restaurant, a waiter offered us a normal chair with a small one tied to the back, so the World’s littlest Pope sat on my lap that day. I was days getting the pasta out of my ears
There were fewer smiles on the faces of the folk at Platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross. Now there’s a money-making racket if ever I saw one. People queue out the station door to have their picture taken at the wall Harry Potter jumps through – many try and jump through the wall themselves. That’s only hilarious. The merchandise shop next door is no laughing matter. It’s permanently wedged with tourists who can’t spend their money fast enough. I was among them, and left the shop €150 lighter.
After London it was Rome in early September. The Italian capital is one of the best cities in the world to visit with a baby, and I lost count of the number of times I heard “ciao bella” or “bellisima” over a five-day trip.
While Romans are ridiculously baby-friendly, their restaurants are not, and changing stations were virtually non-existent and high chairs frequently terrifying. In one restaurant in the rambling Monti district close to the Colosseum, a well-meaning waiter offered us a normal chair with a small plastic one tied to the back with napkins. There was absolute no way to secure a child, so the World’s littlest Pope sat on my lap that day. I was days getting the pasta out of my ears.
To make Rome easier we used Angel Tours, an Irish-owned company someone pointed me towards on Twitter. It offers private tours of landmarks and was a great way to skip queues. On the first tour, we took a golf cart from the Villa Borghese gardens through the city’s mental traffic, stopping off at Piazza Navona, the wedding cake known as the Victory Monument, the gate into the HQ of the Order of Malta – where a peak through a keyhole reveals a stunning view of the city – the Pantheon, and more besides.
The tour of the other Pope’s house was long and tiring, although changes made by the Vatican’s current incumbent meant the World’s littlest Pope could have a booby snack without incurring the wrath of God. Until Francis got the keys breastfeeding was frowned upon on the Roman hill.
The guide books I read told me that knees were still frowned upon mind you. So I arrived in the Vatican in the dead heat of early autumn in jeans. I was apparently the only man who’d read about the dress code, and was surrounded by infinitely more appropriately dressed tourists in shorts. Rage.
We stayed in an Airbnb in Testaccio, a 10-minute cab ride from the centre of Rome which, despite its proximity to the big tourist attractions, was largely devoid of tourists.
Testaccio’s restaurants were full of locals paying local prices for amazing food. The market was awesome, as was the surprising pyramid right next to the Protestant cemetery where the graves of Shelly and Keats are to be found. I insisted we went for a gander and realised that I’d become my parents as I tried – with limited success – to make the Pope children see that a visit to a cemetery to look at the graves of dead poets was worth doing. They weren’t convinced, but hopefully some day they will remember it with fondness. And isn’t that the whole point?