Five lies we tell our kids (and the ugly truths behind them)

As every parent reading this will be fully aware (as well as those who work with children), sometimes, when dealing with small people, we have to be economical with the truth. So for a change in tack from my recent run of Seville and foodie posts – and inspired by, while in no way claiming to be on the same level as, my new favourite mum blog, The Ugly Volvo – I have put together a list of scenarios when telling a porkie pie (cockney rhyming slang: look it up, or take a guess) is perfectly admissible to get you out of a deep, dark parenting hole. You know, the situation where you can see nay a glimmer of light, only the blackness of shame, despair, and an endless vista of bickering, screaming children. (Or is that just me?)
Oh, what a shame. There's none left!

Oh, what a shame. They’re all gone!

“There’s none left”
You’re on a long car journey, where carefully timed snacks are as essential to a convivial environment as separate colouring books and pens, sugar-free drinks, and The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr Seuss Classics played on loop. Then it turns out that the kids are especially partial to your favourite stupidly expensive exotically-flavoured gourmet crisps. “But what’s wrong with your Fair Trade low-salt wholegrain rice cakes?” you enquire. When they clamour for some more of those delectable honey-roasted parsnip, cardamom and curry leaf munchies*, you put on a sad expression and sigh, “Sorry darling, they’re all gone“, while tucking the remaining half-packet down the side of your seat and smiling inside in a crazed, Dawn French chocaholic way: “Ha, suckers, they’re all mine!”
Ice-cream shop - tantrum central.

Ice-cream shop – tantrum central.

“The ice-cream shop’s closed”
You’re walking round the centre of town on a day out, it’s nearly lunch time and the last thing you want is that they spoil their appetites for the meal you’re about to enjoy together on a rare visit to a proper restaurant. The ice-cream monster child (there’s always one) sees the ice-cream shop that you had noticed and surreptitiously crossed the road to avoid, quickly pointing out an interesting shop-window display of flamenco dresses with matching accessories, or toy cars and aeroplanes (excuse the gender stereotyping).
The ICMC demands an ice-cream. “Oh what a shame – it’s closed,” you say, looking sympathetically at a hopeful little face. “But I can see people in there, Mummy,” counters the ICMC. (Damn! Think fast.) “They’re the people who make the ice-cream,” you explain. (Phew!) “Can we go and watch, Mummy?” “Ah, but it’s top secret,” you reply, sounding mysterious and important. “Noone is allowed to see. We’ll come and have a look later, when they’re finished.” In other words, after lunch, by which time it doesn’t matter anyway. Crisis averted.
road, journey, trip

“Not much further now, guys!” (Where the f*** are we, anyway?)

“We’re nearly there”
You’ve been in the car for four hours, the kids are getting restless – OK, let’s be honest, World War Three is about to break out, with hostilities that would otherwise necessitate UN intervention. Everyone’s sick of Dr Seuss by this point (no I DO NOT LIKE green eggs and frigging ham), all the other CDs are scratched (note to self: must get MP3 for car), all colouring books have been exquisitely rendered, and even Eye Spy’s attractions have faded. The road you’re on and the map you’re using seem in no way related, and you have no clear idea where you are at this moment, or where you’re supposed to be going.
But you’re not going to tell them that. Oh no. With a convincing, practised air of cheery confidence you say, “Not much longer now, folks.” They break off from bashing, poking and the irritating the hell out of each other for a few precious seconds to look out of the window. “Nearly there, my arse,” you think to yourself. “If you believe that, you poor gullible fools…” A least it’s bought you a brief break from the battle – distraction is the key skill in any such drama.
The Ultimate Carrot - technology is a great motivator for children.

The Ultimate Carrot – technology is a great bribe motivator for children.

“Yes, I’ll get you an iPhone/Nintendo DS”
You have unavoidably been put in a situation where you have to take your child to a business appointment. Child has been heavily bribed to behave nicely, to the extent where you have promised him/her the ultimate prize, the current obsession – whether it be a Barbie, bike or iPhone; Nintendo DS, Wii, or PlayStation – so that they do not cause you embarrassment and ruin your meeting. Of course, you have no intention of buying child said much-desired toy or gadget yet (you’ve agreed in principle), but they don’t know that, do they? After the event, if the child kept his/her end of the bargain, the time frame of the reward fulfillment will be expanded to next birthday or Christmas. “Yes, well, I never specified exactly when I would get you it, did I?”
"If you're Not Good, you won't be geting any of these."

“If you’re Not Good, you won’t be geting any of these.”

“If you don’t do what I say, no presents”
It’s the last few weeks before a much anticipated gift-rich event – birthday, Christmas or other major festival. Your children are hyped with anticipation to the point of driving you mad – ignoring every request, command, suggestion and other attempt to control their general insanity. “Right, that’s it, if you do that one more time, there will be NO PRESENTS.” A look of horror spreads over their adorable countenances, as dreams of all those toys and games, so long desired, crumple and disappear.
You know perfectly well that you would never do such a cruel thing to your little darlings. But they don’t – and they always fall for the threat (take my word for it). However with tidying up, “Do it now, or the toys go in the bin” – as threatened with remarkable frequency in my house (by my husband) – no longer works now, as the kids are wised up to the fact that Mummy would never allow it. A Spanish friend told me about an old schoolmate  of hers, whose kids are astonishingly obedient. My friend (who has three under 6, including 3-year-old twins, and is no slouch when it comes to discipline) asked her ex-school friend how she did it. Simple: the threat had indeed been carried out, and toys disposed of. Yes, really. Harsh, not to mention wasteful (I hope they found new owners), but effective.
By contrast to these lies, damned lies, I confess that I am brutally honest with my children on some subjects and in some situations. I have ensured, for example, they are fully aware of the fact that their (maternal, British) grandparents are getting on and will not be around for ever. I have warned my daughter against her current obsession, getting a kitten, seeing that one of our dogs has a strong hunting instinct and loves pouncing on small animals and playing with them in a not-entirely-friendly manner. He could well treat a baby cat in the same way as the rodents who are sometimes foolish enough to venture into our parcela: with no mercy. Basically, I told her it would be very sad for everyone concerned, especially her and the kitty, if small feline came to a sticky end.
Right: I’ve laid bare some of my parenting inadequacies tricks. Why not let us in on yours? How do you keep mayhem at bay in your house? Or are you one of those sickening wonderful families where no one ever shouts or argues, and everyone does what they’re told first time? Do you have a radical strategy like my friend’s ex-school chum?
* Please don’t try to find this flavour, as I made it up. Although I van vouch for the general fabulousness of Tyrell’s vegetable crisps.

10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):


1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)


2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.


3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.


4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).


5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.


6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.


7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.


8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.


9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.


10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?


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My perfect day

Warm autumn days are perfect for family walks - no need for jumpers or sunhats.

Sunny, warm autumn days are perfect for family outings.

Collecting acorns with Papi.

Collecting acorns with Papi.

The other night I was at the Taller de Habilidades Sociales para Padres – a local parents’ group run by a psychologist where we vent our frustrations, fears and anxieties about raising children.

One of the recent exercises was asking your partner (another parent in the group, or your other half at home) to “interview” you about what you think your most important skills are – self-esteem is a big part of this series of sessions. I am hopeless at these things, as they always make me think more about what I want/would like/hope to do, rather than what I can/already do. “I wish I was more xxxx”, “Why can’t I be more yyyy”, and so on.

All this day-dreaming got me thinking about how my perfect day would be, and I thought it seemed like a fun idea for a spontaneous blog post – rather than the anally over-planned ones I normally produce.

My ideal day would go something like this:

Weekday: Get up when the alarm goes off (rather than hitting the snooze button seven times and getting up stupidly late); shower, wash and blow-dry hair before husband, so there’s enough hot water; get dressed and prepare fresh, delicious, healthy snacks for school rather than the standard dinosaur biscuits. Children are already awake and pleasant-tempered. They get dressed in suggested clothes (three-year-old must dress herself, to astonishment of other mothers at swim class), or choose their own, without objecting vociferously to lack of favourite pants/socks/dress/T-shirt etc, or insisting on princess/fairy outfit/bikini/sandals. They eat breakfast provided without rejecting, spilling or knocking over anything; brush teeth unassisted, find and put on coat/gloves/scarf/hat, each remembers to pick up their bag and any extra items needed for today, get in car. At no point do I get impatient, lose my temper or shout.

While they’re at school, I do the usual food shopping, house cleaning, clothes washing, work at the computer, receiving emails accepting my pitches for articles and offering well-paid, interesting work for prestigious publication(s) with reasonable deadlines, with no hours wasted faffing about on Social Media; perhaps have a coffee with a friend, who tells me about an amazing new potential client.

I'm all for artistic and sartorial self-expression, just not before school.

I’m all for artistic and sartorial self-expression, just not before school.

Collect children, take to activities, park, birthday parties. Older child does homework without need for prompting, chiding or removal of distracting toys (explaining and helping are acceptable). The two children play nicely together, doing creative, constructive play – building, drawing, dressing up. Their father takes part too (now we’re solidly into the realms of fantasy).

The Knights of Flores.

The Knights of Flores – I adore Lola’s princess/lady-knight set, complete with scabbard.

Make healthy dinner – featuring our own home-grow veg* and other local, organic ingredients – which is eaten in its entirety and praised roundly. Older child reads story (in English) fluently to younger child. They have their baths amicably, clean teeth unaided and go to bed when asked first time.

Getting dirty is entirely acceptable, to the utter bemusement of Spanish mothers.

Getting dirty is entirely acceptable, to the utter bemusement of Spanish mothers.

Weekend: Children sleep in till 10am, then get into parental bed for stories and games. Husband makes breakfast for everyone, having already been out to get the papers – scrambled eggs on toast, fresh orange juice, cereal, hot chocolate (there’s a first time for everything). We go for a long family walk in mild sunshine with dog (woods, beach, hills). Identify plants, trees, flowers, animals; learn about history, nature, animals. Father teaches children about local crafts, environment, which berries they can eat (as in the lean Franco years), how to weave esparto grass etc. Getting messy, jumping in muddly puddles and splashing in streams all to be encouraged (waterproof suits, wellington boots and change of clothes advisable). Everyone has a roaringly good time.

Walking the dog is one of Lola's favourite occupations.

Walking the dog is one of Lola’s favourite occupations.


Post-prandial rest.

Post-prandial rest.

Have picnic in bucolic spot with healthy, tasty, home-made food, which children eat in its entirety without complaining or requesting alternatives. Then everyone has a siesta in the shade. Go home (with no squabbling on the back seat), play in garden, have dinner outside (barbeque if it’s warm enough), bath and bed as above. Remember to ask them what the best bit was, what we’ve learned.

Husband and I share a bottle of wine and mull over our lives. It’s been a screen-free experience: no TV whatsoever, for anyone, at any point; and I don’t look at my beloved but dangerously addictive iPhone or computer once. An active, fun, outdoor family – finished off with a decent dash of alcohol.

What’s your perfect day like?


*Our huerta (kitchen garden) is currently a work in progress – we’re still at seedling stage. Watch this space.

Want: 9 things I’d quite like, er, please

I’m not that active in the mummy blogging sphere, although there are a few Spanish or travel-themed ones which I read regularly.

So when I saw that fellow ex-Londoner, adoptive-Andalucian Bibsey Mama had tagged me in a meme, under her section heading of “Arse Posts”, I rubbed my hands with glee – her memes are always good, clean(ish), self-indulgent fun. Like a big slice of chocolate cake.

However she’s also one of the funniest bloggers I know, if not as appreciated as she should be (in my opinion), so while I cackled with delight when reading her “Wants”, I knew I she had set the bar high, as always. Bibsey’s a hard act to follow.

Anyway, here goes with my own Wants, jotted down earlier today in the bath on my iPhone straight after I read hers – it’s either do it on the spot, or forget about it for the next month.

1. World Peace – let’s start with the little things. A safe future for our children, etc.

2. Patience, especially with my children. By 8.30pm I’m usually at breaking point, especially if my angelic-looking-diabolical-personality three-year-old has yet again refused to eat her dinner. Gah. I’ve signed up for a parenting course (in Spanish) in our local town, so that’ll be interesting. If I can understand it.

3. An iPad. I coveted an iPhone for some years, before finally being offered a free one. If I do ever get one of these beauties (I had a taste with my Mum’s over the summer), prizing it out of the diabolical one’s iron grip while she’s watching Peppa Pig for the 89th time will be fun. I can’t count the number of times my son’s asked me to buy him an iPad. “I’m getting one before you, mate.” is my usual response. Also, I’ve spent the last few months writing about iPad cases and stands made of eco-gorgeous leather offcuts, reclaimed wood and recycled wetsuits, all the while drooling helplessly over the damn things.

4. Green fingers. We’re finally planting our huerta - vegetable patch – and I’ve never had much luck with plants, so I’m hoping that will change and we’ll have rows and rows of lovely organic carrots which the kids dig up themselves. I’ll be looking to Andalucian kitchen garden expert Chica Andaluza for tips.

5. Housepride. I’m not one of those people whose house looks like something from the pages of an interiors magazine. At all. To give you an idea, one friend who came to visit said, looking aghast at my bedroom with its heaps of children’s clothes on every surface, “But how can you live like this?”. I’m not remotely bothered about paint colours or fabrics either, but I can’t help feeling I should be. My house looks like a cross between a student pad and a garage sale where a gang of out-of-control children has been running rampage, scattering toys in their wake. (Er, the last bit’s true.)

6. A magic wand to tidy up all my unfiled, but terribly important, piles of paper which will be essential research material for an article one day, and cannot possibly be thrown away (as I tell me husband when he brandishes the bin in a threatening fashion, again). But getting around to sorting them out myself, well…

7. More controllable hair – curly hair is a curse – unstyleable, an impossible challenge for Spanish hairdressers, and please don’t mention straighteners. I’ve tried a couple of times and my son is still traumatized. “Mum, you’re never going to have straight hair again, are you?” he asks me, with trepidation, nearly a year later.

8.  Home-delivery sushi I love raw fish nearly as much as I love my own children, but as we live down a dirt track, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be nipping along on their moped with some nigiri in a chiller bag from the hippest Japanese restaurant in town. Arse.

9. A brilliant business plan/money-making idea – I’m sure there are loads out there, just waiting to be grabbed. Still waiting for my lightbulb moment. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m going to be somewhat unoriginal with my tags for this meme – my much-tagged Sevillana friend, who will hopefully have some truly weird desires (please don’t let me down, Em!) Digamama, and Quiero Milk, a Seville-based Anglo-Spanish blog (it means “I want milk” – that’s the first one sorted, then). Go guys!

A design delight in Portugal

When I travel with kids, which is most of the time  except for the odd work freebie in a super-lujo, I stay at self-catering apartments or cottages. We often go to the Algarve, as the beaches there are less built-up and the resorts less commercialised and with much more character.

But when I read about a new rural boutique hotel, Fazenda Nova, being opened by an English couple in the eastern Algarve – designer chic, gourmet food, and all with a Portuguese ambiente – my curiosity was piqued. Reading a (glowing) review in the Guardian which mentioned that the owner’s dad and co-investor was the founder of seminal 1980s and 90s style mag, The Face (which launched Kate Moss’s career when it featured her, aged 16, on the cover), the hugely influential men’s glossy Arena, and music rag Smash Hits, I was intrigued.

Our travel plans are always last-minute, due to my husband’s problems with getting time off work. So, luckily for us, with minimal warning Hallie said we could stay in one of the hotel’s two apartments (bedroom plus sitting room with sofabed and kitchenette) on their opening night.

Naturally, I started getting in a panic about children running about, screaming, bothering other hotel guests and me dying of embarrassment as Hallie looked on disapprovingly. In fact, Hallie was joyously tolerant, and there was only one other couple, who didn’t seem to mind the whirlwinds rushing past them – it was a taste of things to come, as the lady was heavily pregnant.

As we were arriving in the car, we missed the entrance, in the village of Estiramantens – so low-key and discreet we drove straight past – and arrived a little hot and bothered (map-reading couple rows not helping). Tim, Hallie’s husband, immediately charmed my fractious children by professing an interest in dinosaurs to my paleontologically-obsessed son.

In the middle of the day, when we first arrived, the light is blindingly bright, bouncing off all pale surfaces, so we hurried inside – as fast as feasible when weighed down by 18 bags of clothes, swimwear, toys etc. Inside, the cool, grey bar was like a capsule planted in this dry but cultivated landscape (I later realised there are hundreds of trees in their grounds). The windows all face north, avoiding the glare from the sun.

We stumbled into our apartment, a few steps from the main house, and marvelled at the enormous bathroom with a shower big enough to have a party in, and little bottles of REN goodies which smelled divine. After a picnic lunch – fabulous pongy Portuguese cheese and heavenly fresh crispy bread – the husband was soon snoring on the bed, and children enjoying the hanging pod seat in our garden.

Yes, our garden – our own space outside the apartment (whose door stayed open the whole time we were there, so the kids could come and go as they pleased – such is the feeling of security) which had colourful wooden chairs made from old boat timbers (husband’s smoking spot), a shady carob tree (pudding – read on) and the swinging pod, which is a child’s dream (and the WIFI works outside, so they can watch Peppa Pig on the iPhone). Each garden is fenced off by a neat row of eucalyptus stakes in the ground, and the view is of their olive trees and the countryside beyond.

The next logical step was to test the infinity pool, which was just next to our apartment – the sound of running water was as lulling as a babbling brook. By now it was later in the day, and the sun had lost some of its strength. With no other guests to disturb, splash or jump on, I didn’t have to worry and my two had a wonderful time. The soft breeze, gentle warmth and rustling olive trees made for a supremely relaxing setting.

The pool is perfect for mooching – it has a shallow part with wide steps, and then tapers into the deep end. My three-year-old swam happily without flotation devices while I perched on the edge or watched them from my ergonomic wooden sunlounger, complete with pillow. A high point – happy children expending energy without bothering anyone, while I chilled out.

When the sleeping beast arose from its lair, it expressed a desire to go into town (in other words, have the essential post-siesta coffee to avoid biting everyone’s heads off). So we piled back into the car, and managed to get to Fuzeta, the nearest coastal village, without getting lost. One of the Algarve’s small, delightfully unspoiled fishing ports (take note, Costa del Sol – this is where you went wrong), its beach has a couple of little cafes, so parents can dose up on caffeine and hot chocolate, while kids play metres away in the sand. We were lucky enough to catch the start of a capoeira party, led by a charismatic Brazilian master – more of that, and the beaches we visited, in my next post, but here’s a taster.

Back at the ranch, a pre-dinner drink was sacrificed for a sand-removing shower and we arrived late and red-faced to the dining room. I only wish I could have fully appreciated the food, but an exhausted/bolshy/whinging/sleepy child in my lap tends to distract me from the finest of gastronomy. I can tell you that the hors d’oeuvres were exqusitely tasty – two were sundried tomato, and soft white cheese with coriander and parsley – while my salad starter was a symphony of flavours: orange, carrot and sweet potato, with onion and black olive – sweet and tangy (note to self: be more adventurous with salad ingredients). The hotel’s chef is Portuguese, but has worked in Morocco and likes to experiment with Asian flavours; guests are encouraged to go into the kitchen (I didn’t – next time).

I had been looking forward to the main course since the day before, having emailed my order while we sat on another beach (they always take orders after breakfast, so the chef knows exactly what to buy at the market). Mine was tuna, red in the middle, with fine ribbons of carrot, pepper and courgette. Melt-in-the-mouth and perfectly cooked.

The beast had shoulder of black pork with clams, which he declared was fabulous. Our wine (dry white) was Portuguese, from the Alentejo, and the olive oil which came with our starters hailed  from the next town, Moncarapacho (I bought some to take home). Pudding was carob tart –  a healthier, less sweet version of chocolate, which is the one of the many fruits (pod pictured below, tree above) cultivated at the Fazenda. (Blurred food photos=well-lubricated-mother-whose-kids-are-asleep. And has had a few glasses of celebratory cava.)

Throughout the meal I fired an endless stream of questions at Tim about the hotel’s design, history and the building project, and his memory for detail was amazing – he knew exactly where and when everything was acquired or found. He and Hallie like to move the furniture and objects around – a red African feathered headdress above the fireplace (top photo) was a recent replacement for a similar white number.

So how did they get here? There’s always a story, and this is theirs: Hallie was a high-powered London PR, and Tim had his own logistics company. Eight years ago, they had the idea to open a hotel. But it wasn’t until a life-changing moment a few years later, when Tim suffered a heart attack, that they acted on their desires. Hallie already knew the Algarve well, having spent family holidays there with her ex-magazine editor father, who has a house nearby.

They found the house, fighting off other interested parties – it’s a big piece of land, but not too big: 10 hectares, or 24 acres; and perfectly located: close to a motorway exit (25 minutes from Faro airport) and only 15 minutes from the beach, while being private and peaceful. Fazenda Nova is a well-known estate locally, having played an important role in Portugal’s history, especially in founding the Republic. While Tim and Hallie wanted to convert the buildings, keeping their traditional architecture, this proved impossible and they had to start again from scratch, rebuilding the facade using old photos, with a modern interior of polished concrete and glass.

Our apartment is where the olive press was, while other rooms replaced the stables (there are 10 rooms in total); the bread oven, however, remains, and is still in use. The hotel’s furniture is a combination of Balinese teak (made to order and shipped over); salvage/recycling – old doors have become tables, packing crates are now wall panels, bricks rescued from a field were used as a floor; and pieces they’ve collected from all over the world – South Africa, the US, Spain and Morocco. Hallie is also a flea market buff, and has many quirky delights picked up locally and further afield.

The fazenda has an extraordinary range of fruit trees – 550 in total; almond, carob and olive were already part of the estate, and Tim has added apple, pear, lemon, plum, quince, pomegranate (below), nectarine, passion fruit, mango, fig, grape; even raspberry and blackberry. All are used in the cooking, as well as to make jams.

The garden is planted with soft, swaying grasses and mostly “dry” plants, which don’t need much water but provide colour – oleander, rosemary and lavender, as well as jasmine; these work to soften the hard edges of the concrete. They’ve also planted a herb garden, which is near the firepit – designed to be sat around on a winter’s evening with a glass of full-bodied red. Hot water is heated by solar panels, and their own 250-metre bore hole is used to water the garden; there are plans for a natural swimming lake.

Of all the impressions I came away with from our brief stay at this stylish Anglo-Portuguese retreat, these were the main two: the sense of peace and tranquility; and the kindness of our hosts. Tim was unfailingingly generous with his time, and patient with the kids (and two of his played happily with mine, giving a few minutes’ precious free time). Hallie proved a life-saver: when my exhausted children requested fruit juice (the available orange was not to their liking), she went and made them some fresh apple juice. And brought it in colour-coded mugs – pink for the girl, blue for the boy, complete with straws. It was such a thoughtful gesture, I nearly hugged her. That’s my idea of a good hotel.

Fazenda Nova is a wonderful place to be pampered and recharge your batteries – chic but with plenty of personality, with delicious food, and numerous spots to chill out and flick through an old copy of The Face (I haven’t even mentioned the library!). And if you don’t have kids, don’t worry; being a PR, Hallie is an expert at planning and managing, and is careful to keep families and couples apart in separate weeks. Luckily, we managed to co-exist happily with our fellow first official guests. My worst fears weren’t realised, and it was a blissful pre-return-to-school-and-work break (from reality). We’ll be back.