Packing it in from Amsterdam to Bristol

Travel

It’s been a busy few weeks! A few weeks ago I attended Booking.com’s annual partner conference in Amsterdam, held on a grander and flashier scale than last year and – most excitingly – included an appearance from 2014 Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst at their big party on Wednesday night. I think I actually missed Eurovision that year, so I’m glad I finally got to see her perform, although it was her cover of the instantly recognisable Everyway That I Can (Turkey, 2003) which was the biggest crowd-pleaser of all.

Amsterdam itself was as lovely as ever, even in drizzly March. Public service announcement: the trains accept contactless card payment now, so the “standing confused beside the ticket machine” phase of your trip is now a thing of the past. Hurray!

Our private Conchita Wurst concert!
Our private Conchita Wurst concert!
A proper party
A proper party

After getting back home on Thursday night, Randi and I finally made it to Tash and Cormac’s new flat for a wonderful ‘London Supper Club’ Friday night with my mum and Cormac’s dad Brendan. Alongside a true feast of Indian cooking we enjoyed a riotous night of poetry, songs and one interpretative tin whistle performance (you’re welcome) which really buoyed us up into a cheerful mood for the whole weekend. It also inspired me and Randi to read The Importance of Being Earnest aloud together one evening a few weeks later. Who needs Netflix, really?

Talking of readings – a few days later, at the stone setting service in memory of my great uncle Leonard, many of our family dug deep into our email archives to perform some of Leonard’s famous emails from years gone by. For most people this would probably be pretty dull, but Leonard’s emails were certainly flights of storytelling… even if the story he was telling was normally a tale of trial and tribulation. Thanks to my friend Simon for inspiring us with his Charles Dance-esque interpretation of Leonard’s writing a few years back.

For some professional entertainment, Randi and I also saw Sleepova that Saturday at the Bush Theatre, a play about the enduring power of teenage friendship as four girls go through life’s ups and downs during their GCSE years. Everything about this play just worked for us: serious themes, but always funny, warm-spirited and life-affirming at the same time. I’d never been to the Bush Theatre before but it’s as close to perfect a venue you can get, with strong vibes of the Tricycle in its glory days. All four characters felt real and relatable, albeit with some subtly different attitudes to the generation I remember (because I’m old now) but always played with warmth and humanity which kept you rooting for them all. You really know a play is working when one of the characters tells her parents something that she shouldn’t, and the audience all instinctively sighs together with frustration. Highly recommended. (I mean, the run is over now, but in theory at least: highly recommended.)

Even more culture: a week earlier Randi and I had a very rare movie night in and watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, the Oscar-winning universe-hopping surrealist sci-fi comedy centered on a Chinese American immigrant family and their quest to save the multiverse and/or save their laundromat from an IRS tax audit. Unlike Sleepova, you’ve probably seen this already and don’t need me to describe it to you. But it’s very good, and a real delight to see a film so brimming with creativity and imagination. Also, I should note that we finally finished Our Friends in the North after I (falsely) promised to Randi that the final episode must be more uplifting than those couple leading up to it. It was a promise made with the best of intentions, but sadly proved inaccurate.

This isn't Disneyland in California - you still have to wring out the water rides
This isn’t Disneyland in California – you still have to wring out the water rides

Recently, while having brunch with Josh, Anna and Cora, we learnt that Josh and Anna were planning a romantic couple’s getaway together to Thorpe Park. Unfortunately I didn’t mask my excitement at the idea, nor the fact that I still had a day of annual leave to burn before the end of March, and that’s how I ended up inviting myself along to Josh and Anna’s rollercoastery day out. Of course, it was totally worth it, especially as it included a sleepover of our own the night before so I got to spend even more time with Cora (who now talks all the time!).

The next morning the three of us set out for a day of rides and ride analysis, of which my main conclusions are (a) Saw is probably Thorpe Park’s best all-round rollercoaster now, but (b) I’m really glad I went off to ride Stealth again because – although Josh and Anna aren’t fans – it’s up there as one of my favourite rides of all time. It’s been years since I was last at Thorpe Park and investment (along with visitor numbers) has fallen away since I was a teenager, but they are now finally working on a new rollercoaster so I guess we’ll just have to go back again once it opens…

The best type of sleepover
The best type of sleepover
Back at Thorpe Park after many years
Back at Thorpe Park after many years
Anna, Josh, me and this happy stranger on Saw
Anna, Josh, me and this happy stranger on Saw
Riding Stealth (with another blissful stranger)
Riding Stealth (with another blissful stranger)

Finally, in exciting and still slightly surreal news, I’m very happy that my friend and colleague Kira has just successfully made the move to the UK. By a weird twist of fate she’s spending her first few weeks in Willesden Green, so on Friday night we celebrated her arrival at the excellent Beer + Burger. But by Sunday the wheels were already in motion for Randi’s South East London sales pitch, and together with our colleague Patricia we enjoyed a great shakshuka and challah brunch at ours before playing some energetic rounds of Cobra Paw and a good game of Citadels. Then, since we’re all still excited by the novelty of it being light and sunny outside, we walked over to Crystal Palace together for ice creams and dinosaurs. More South East London at its best! And all part of Randi’s plan.

Randi and I already had plans to to visit Bristol this Easter weekend, since – although I’ve heard many good things about the city – my only actual experience of it was a brief (and very odd) day trip for work back in my Groupon UK days, and that was to an offensively ugly office building which I hoped wasn’t representative of the whole place. Happily, once we knew Kira would be in the country by then, we managed to persuade her to join us and so the three of us took the train up on Friday and stayed in an Airbnb loft in the fancy Clifton area. (Yes, as in the Clifton Suspension Bridge – which is indeed very cool to look at and walk over.)

I really, really liked Bristol from what I saw. Because it’s so hilly and green, and because so many of the buildings are built from Georgian stone (and on roads which refuse to form straight lines but instead criss-crossing crescents at different levels) there’s just a lot to look at and admire as you walk around, without mentioning the colourful houses, beautiful artwork and harbour area. We basically did a lot of walking – including through the expansive Leigh Woods – interspersed with a lot of eating, from authentic Cuban food to a proper pub roast on Easter Sunday itself, plus a very healthy number of Easter eggs. We also enjoyed Victoria Park and the M Shed museum, rewatched Free Solo together and played a couple of big-money games of Dominion Prosperity.

All limbered up after playing Cobra Paw
All limbered up after playing Cobra Paw
Welcome to Bristol!
Welcome to Bristol!
Before one of our many delicious meals
Before one of our many delicious meals
The Clifton Suspension Bridge
Kira's Dominion victory
Kira’s Dominion victory

When humanity really comes together to solve a problem, don’t bet against us. For decades, we’ve struggled against the idea that the only way to attend a 1977 ABBA concert in-person was either (a) to be alive in 1977, or (b) to travel back to 1977 using a time machine. Option A is, of course, deeply exclusionary to anyone born after 1977. Option B, on the other hand, is fraught with risk. What if your time machine breaks down and you become stuck in the late 70s? What if you accidentally kill your grandfather? What if you’re so focused on trying to keep your grandfather alive that you fail to live in the moment and don’t properly enjoy the moment?

Preparing for ABBA
Preparing for ABBA

Fortunately, technology has solved this highly specific problem with ABBA Voyage, a ‘virtual concert residency’ held in a purpose-built stadium next to Pudding Mill Lane DLR. (I can’t stress how incongruous this station is. There seems so little reason for it to exist other than ABBA Voyage that the merchandise store is built into the entrance.) After Randi’s parents bought themselves tickets to the show ahead of their upcoming London visit, we might have made our envy a little too obvious because they then generously gifted us a pair of our own – thank you! – which is how Randi and I ended up rocking up to experience this marvel for ourselves.

I loved it on three levels:

  1. Because who wouldn’t enjoy an ABBA concert?
  2. Because some people in the audience are more exuberant and/or wearing fancy dress, and from our seats we had a perfect view for people watching. Special love to the four friends sitting in front of us in matching outfits.
  3. Because the technology is very impressive. There’s a lot of well choreographed light and video, and while the enlarged versions of the ABBA avatars (‘ABBAtars’) on the giant screens just look like a decent video game, the actual-size ‘holograms’ themselves are utterly indistinguishable on stage from the real thing. By the end I was starting to fall into wild conspiracy theories that they were actually animatronic or projections onto real people or some other ruse.

Pedants’ corner: no, they aren’t actually holograms; it’s an updated version of the Victorian Pepper’s ghost theatre trick from 1862 involving laser projections, mirrors and mylar. Weirdly, when I got home and started hunting through YouTube for a satisfying explanation of how this works, most people seemed more interested in explaining “how do you recreate 1977 ABBA with computers in the first place?” rather than “how do you take your recreation and make it look real on a stage?”. If you’re wondering, the way you recreate 1977 ABBA is by making 2021 ABBA wear motion capture suits and dance for five weeks. But that bit seemed obvious.

I won!
I won!

Back in 2023, Randi and I also received a mysterious box from Toggolyn which turned out to contain – amongst other things – EL: The Chicago Transit Adventure board game. Thank you two, too! We also journeyed up the Bakerloo line for brunch with my mum and then Austin’s 2nd birthday party, which was lots of fun. Last weekend, though, we escaped London entirely for a trip to Oswestry…

At least, that was the plan, until we woke up on Friday to discover that the taxi companies of Oswestry had pulled their cars off the road thanks to all the snow and ice. Not to be defeated, we decided to take the train as far as Wolverhampton and stay overnight in (another) emergency Premier Inn before making the final connection to Gobowen station the next morning and walking the final few miles to Oswestry once the temperatures had risen and the sun was out.

(Yes, it is stupid that Gobowen – population: 3270 – has a railway station while Oswestry – population: 17,105 – does not. Of course, as is usually the case, Oswestry did once have a station of its own but this was closed in 1966 as part of the “let’s be wrong about basically every aspect of town planning” trend which was in vogue at the time. Once I get my time machine up and running, I will attempt to address this once I make sure my grandfather is out of harm’s way.)

You're not fooling anyone, 'Gobowen for Oswestry'
You’re not fooling anyone, ‘Gobowen for Oswestry’
Almost there!
Almost there!

After checking in to our amazing B&B we met up with Lucy, whom – it was frightening to realise – I haven’t seen in person for nine whole years. But putting this scary thought aside, it was really lovely to catch-up while she led us on a beautifully snowy trek along the Shropshire Way. Later that evening, suitably warmed-up again, we all had dinner together in a cosy village pub (you know, the type with a fireplace) and argued about whether London really needed a purpose-built venue for virtual ABBA concerts. (I still vote yes.)

Back on the blog
Back on the blog!
Our really beautiful path
Our really beautiful path
In the snow :)
In the snow 🙂

On the way home we passed on seeing any more of Wolverhampton (sorry, Wolverhampton) in favour of getting the tram to Birmingham and hanging out there for a few hours before our final train home. (If the closure of Oswestry’s railway station upset you earlier, take some comfort that the modern West Midlands Metro mostly runs over the old path of another closed line, so there’s always hope.) The past may be a foreign country, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit.

We’re back! And in the style of previous travels we’ve brought back from our honeymoon plenty of stories, photos and bug bites 😀

MedellĂ­n

Although MedellĂ­n is only Colombia’s second-largest city, after BogotĂĄ, it manages to one-up the capital by being the only Colombian city with a metro system. Given this, there are two distinct areas which tourists tend to stay – El Poblado and Laureles – which are both easily accessible via metro but otherwise pretty self-contained. Fortunately, Randi’s colleague Daniela had already steered us towards Laureles which is the more residential and quieter option, although reading beforehand that it was ‘less touristy’ didn’t quite capture the vibe. Laureles has everything a tourist might want – the main strip is filled with bars, restaurants and pandebono – it’s just beautifully green, too, with trees and plants lining every street. The nearest station (Estadio) is more conveniently located than its equivalent in Poblado, being built to serve a large sports complex which hosted the 2010 South American Games. Point being: if you’re trying to decide between staying in Poblado vs. Laureles for a first-time visit to MedellĂ­n, we’re officially #teamLaureles.

Wherever you stay, the taxi from the airport will take you through the TĂșnel de Oriente which is worth calling out in its own right. It’s an 8km road tunnel dug through the mountains, which only opened in 2019, and if you grew up playing the “try to hold your breath until the car leaves the tunnel” game as a child you’re going to be sorely challenged by this one.

After checking-in and doing some light exploring/relaxing we decided to rouse ourselves for an evening trip to Poblado for dinner. This turned out to be an excellent decision – partly because of Randi’s tasty pisco sour with red wine, but also because it helped to shift us onto the right timezone and make the most of our limited nights in MedellĂ­n. And the metro itself, you ask? Why, the metro is excellent. It’s easy to use, fast and frequent… but my favourite feature is its impatient opening of the doors to the train before it has fully come to a stop at the station. It’s very efficient!

Our first meal in Colombia!
Our first meal in Colombia!
The green, green streets of Laureles
The green, green streets of Laureles
Tada: the MedellĂ­n Metro
Tada: the MedellĂ­n Metro
The sports complex and mountains beyond
The sports complex and mountains beyond

The next day we rode the other direction for a walking tour of ‘comuna 13’ to the west of the city. Whenever a tour is themed around street art you can be sure it belongs to the “this area used to be very poor and dangerous” genre, although this is a relatively extreme case given that the neighbourhood, also known as San Javier, was one of the most violent areas in Colombia during the 80s and 90s thanks to its unenviable position at the centre of the narcotics trade. The turning point came in 2002 with a massive government military operation (Operation Orion) against the guerrilla groups, although the narrative gets a little murky here since the armed helicopters, troops and paramilitary-backed ‘disappearances’ also resulted in hundreds of casualties for local people.

For our tour guide Lara, who was born and raised in the district, you could sense some tension between her intense pride in the area’s subsequent transformation with the ongoing lack of truth and reconciliation following the conflict. There’s a reason why civil wars are the worst. And so, the spirit of hope and optimism is channeled into street art and – quite wonderfully – escalators. As it turns out, one of the major regeneration projects in this (very hilly!) neighbourhood has been the installation of six outdoor escalators, and people absolutely love them. We did too.

Our walking tour through comuna 13
Our walking tour through comuna 13
Riding the very popular outdoor escalators
Riding the very popular outdoor escalators

Although we didn’t have time for MedellĂ­n’s largest park, we did also visit the smaller Cerro Nutibara Pueblito Paisa (complete with a replica Antioquian village at the top) and make a very brief journey into the historic centre to see Plaza Botero (the one with the cheerful statues). We also really enjoyed walking around the sports complex by Estadio – places really do feel different when the climate doesn’t require buildings to have walls – and, on a more prosaic note, walking about our local supermarket thanks to the high-energy Colombian dance music playing in the background. I am not sure this would work in Forest Hill Sainsbury’s, but it’s worth a try.

I did attempt to assemble the necessary ingredients to make tea here, but with all the elements against me – unpleasant tea bags, liquid milk only sold in bags – I just gave up and switched to delicious Colombian coffee instead. At least, I thought it was delicious. Apparently a common tourist complaint is that the coffee in Colombia is not actually that good since all the best stuff is grown for export, but since I’m not normally a coffee drinker I didn’t have much basis for comparison and I enjoyed it.

One of the Botero statues outside the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture
One of the Botero statues outside the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture
One of our many morning coffees
One of our many morning coffees

Hiking & Rafting

At the waterfall!
At the waterfall!

The next few days were the most active and energetic part of our trip, starting with a two day there-and-back hike through the countryside around MedellĂ­n with Expedition Colombia. Our guide, Juan, was fantastic and very tolerant when we became obsessed with trying to take photos of ant trails in an Attenborough style. The walking was satisfying but not especially demanding, alternating between jungle sections and hilly fields where the trees had been cleared for small-scale subsistence farming. We also passed plenty of gold mining in the river (allegedly not the most poisonous kind) and had a couple of breaks each day for swimming, delicious lunches which came wrapped in banana leaves and a trip to the base of a waterfall.

Hiking team (not pictured: most critical member of hiking team who knew where we were going)
Hiking team (not pictured: most critical member of hiking team who knew where we were going)
Through the jungle
Through the jungle
Apparently lost in the foliage
Apparently lost in the foliage
One of our swimming breaks
One of our swimming breaks
Ant photo 1/500 (limited edition artwork)
Ant photo 1/500 (limited edition artwork)

On the journey back we were also joined by a Canadian traveller, Shane, whose enthusiasm for a dead snake was commendable. The previous night we had all debated politics over dinner at our homestay – genuinely one of the tastiest dinners we had over our entire trip, by the way, and that’s a high bar – but amusingly the thud of the rain hitting the metal roof during the thunderstorm meant that we were all effectively shouting at each other despite the discussion not actually being that contentious. Shane’s guide also accompanied us back, together with his latest mule. Having grown up in the same hills we were walking through (he pointed us to his childhood home in the distance) with very little money, it was a truly great day when he earned enough to afford his family’s first mule and no longer had to carry everything through the mountains on foot.

Hike complete!
Hike complete!

Our next night’s stay was in a truly breathtaking lodge nestled right in the hills and overlooking the river, which also came with its very own pet cat. Again, living in a climate where you don’t have to bother with walls completely changes the type of spaces which become possible, and it was a magical place to sit and read until the sun went down. For the onslaught of winged creatures which made their appearance after the sun went down, the bed also came equipped with a decent mosquito net.

Our amazing jungle cabin
Our amazing jungle cabin
Everything very open to the outdoors
Everything very open to the outdoors

The final day of the action-adventure phase of our honeymoon was rafting down the river rapids, which was incredibly fun. I’m glad that we’ve done rafting before, and hence Randi’s translation of the Spanish safety briefing wasn’t the first time anyone had ever told me what to do if I fell out of a raft. Especially since, later on, I did indeed manage to fall out of the raft! Fortunately Randi impressed everyone else on the boat with her quick reflexes to pull me out again.

To be honest, the experience of being swept along the river was equally enjoyable as rafting down it and during some quieter moments many of us chose to jump in and float anyway. At one point we also stopped to explore a waterfall tucked alongside the riverbank. Our fellow rafters were lovely, including the guys from Aruba who taught us about their home country. I also want to thank Francisco’s relative who gifted me with a waterproof bag a couple of years ago during our Secret Santa in Santiago which proved incredibly useful to hold the hiking boots we needed for the very steep, hour-long descent to the starting point in the first place. During this hike someone else managed to drop their helmet over the cliff which is actually worse than falling out of a raft, right?

Our rafting companions!
Our rafting companions!

Guatapé

After the rafting, we were driven back to the Expedition Colombia offices – where we briefly became impromptu guests at an English lesson for staff and local teenagers – before a further two-hour drive to our next destination, GuatapĂ©. Although our driver was great, Randi’s baseline assumption when being driven along mountain roads at night is that we’re all going to die, so when we successfully arrived at Bosko both (a) alive and (b) just in time to order dinner before the kitchen closed, it was in a mood of wild exhilaration.

Celebratory welcome drink after arriving at Bosko in time for dinner
Celebratory welcome drink after arriving at Bosko in time for dinner
Yes, they do provide marshmallows for that firepit
Yes, they do provide marshmallows for that firepit
Walking to Guatapé did involve crossing this bridge, which Randi insisted we tackle separately
Walking to Guatapé did involve crossing this bridge, which Randi insisted we tackle separately

Bosko describes itself as a “luxury glamping hotel” and, for someone who was really looking forward to several days of uninterrupted holiday reading, the set-up was absolutely perfect. Everyone has their own private dome located off a little private path. (Our dome was a crystal dome, giving us amazing views from our heated bed plus a very confused bird who arrived every morning to peck at the glass.) There were also Sky Pools (great for reading), an outdoor seating area where truly exceptional meals are served (also great for reading) and private terraces if you prefer room service instead (even more reading). The centre of GuatapĂ© is easily within reach – just a 20 minute stroll – without impinging on the luxury of Bosko’s aura of calm. I loved this place. A fair chunk of my 2023 annual review of books will be thanks to Bosko.

Our crystal dome in the incredible surroundings of Bosko and beyond
Our crystal dome in the incredible surroundings of Bosko and beyond
Breakfast
Breakfast
Waking up to a misty view
Waking up to a misty view
On the staircase
On the staircase

GuatapĂ© itself is a very pretty town and major tourist destination thanks in part to its colourful street art and decorated buildings. We enjoyed some excellent lunches here! The other thing you’re meant to do is climb the steps of El Peñón de GuatapĂ© which we tackled earlyish one morning before it got hot. I have to say, this is probably the best-run “climb to the top of something tall” tourist attraction I’ve ever seen in my life. There are first aid stations at the top, bottom and halfway up – with defibrillators! – plus segregated up and down routes so you don’t have to negotiate a crowd in both directions. Waiting at the top is not merely a nice view but also multiple shops, stalls and seats. It all tricked me into thinking that this must be more of a challenge than it actually is, but we’re actually only talking about 659 steps here. Good job, whoever is in charge.

We made it without any need for a defibrillator, but nice to know it was there
We made it without any need for a defibrillator, but nice to know it was there
The Rock from a distance
The Rock from a distance
One of the streets of Guatapé itself
One of the streets of Guatapé itself
More Botero-inspired artwork
More Botero-inspired artwork

Finally, a stay at Bosko also comes with use of their kayak, so Randi and I took this for a spin one morning and ended up challenging each other to a couple of timed buoy-to-buoy races. So, for posterity, here is where I will record that Randi won the first slalom 1:36.42 to 2:13.72 (that’s what happens if you keep overshooting the final buoy) but I clawed back a victory 44.90 to 52.40 on the second sprint. And we left it at that, because “best of three” is not a good approach for a honeymoon. (Very happy to go back for another stay and rematch, though.)

Celebrating my kayaking win (and staying in the boat this time)
Celebrating my kayaking win (and staying in the boat this time)
Relaxing in the heated pools over sunset
Relaxing in the heated pools over sunset

Cartagena

For the next stage of our holiday we flew to Cartagena, a walled city on the Caribbean coast with a very different vibe to the other parts of Colombia we’d seen. I roll my eyes when tourists start critiquing areas for being “too touristy” (as if their own tourism doesn’t count) but the the tourism in Cartagena certainly has a very different feel to MedellĂ­n or GuatapĂ©. In part, that’s just because there’s significantly more English-speaking as opposed to Spanish. Elsewhere we got the sense that most people were coming from other parts of Colombia or South America, whereas Cartagena is – in part – catering for cruise ships of (predominantly American) visitors. As such, there’s also more pushy street selling of drinks, hats or horse-drawn carriage rides – those rides often being accompanied by groups of men running alongside and offering their services to rap at you.

I did really like the style of our apartment building
I did really like the style of our apartment building

It’s not the worst place for this stuff by a long way – it was just noticeably less chill, and I was frankly relieved to discover that the hats were a front for drugs because I was finding it difficult to believe that there were any uncovered heads left in the city to market to. All in all, I’m glad we went here – and the colonial-era streets are indeed lovely to walk around! – but I’m also glad this wasn’t our introduction to Colombia.

The best part about our visit to Cartagena was the discovery that Randi’s family friends Brianna and Drew happened to be in town at the very same time. We joined forces on a walking tour (appreciating our guide’s patriotic support for Miss Colombia – apparently not a niche thing, as we also found a photo of each year’s winner on careful display in one of the central plazas) and later reunited for dinner together that evening which was super fun. The second best thing in Cartagena was the pandebono shop just down the street from our wonderfully located Airbnb. Here we found not just savoury but sweet pastry options, with ‘pastel chocolate’ and ‘pastel arequipe’ (dulche de leche) quickly becoming my favourite things.

Great views of the historic centre from our Airbnb
Great views of the historic centre from our Airbnb
Pretty colonial-era streets
Pretty colonial-era streets
Meeting up with Brianna and Drew (with a sculpture of Gabriel GarcĂ­a MĂĄrquez's head just out of shot!)
Meeting up with Brianna and Drew (with a sculpture of Gabriel GarcĂ­a MĂĄrquez’s head just out of shot!)
Our very happy place
Our very happy place

But rather than spending the rest of our trip within the walled city, we decided to pack our small backpacks and take a holiday-within-a-holiday for two nights on the largest of Colombia’s Rosario Islands, Isla Grande…

Isla Grande

The boat ride to the island takes about an hour, and we stepped straight off the dock into our home for the next few days: Hotel Isla del Sol. This is a totally self-contained little world with its own beach area and swimming pool, catering to day-trippers as well as those staying overnight, and we really enjoyed the daily rhythm by which a new crowd of people would arrive mid-morning, fill up the place with activity for a few hours and then depart on the afternoon boat back to Cartagena, leaving the relatively small number of us with overnight rooms to enjoy a peaceful, “summer camp after summer is over” vibe. We swam, lounged in our hammocks and enjoyed our all-inclusive dinners sheltered from the evening winds.

Oh, and Randi and I also got an hour-long massage. This is only the second professional massage I’ve ever had, and the first which didn’t turn out to be the rather more brutal Thai variety. So, at the risk of sounding too obvious, it was incredibly relaxing and wonderful and I did not want it to end.

We finally made it to a beach!
We finally made it to a beach!
Enjoying breakfast at our hotel
Enjoying breakfast at our hotel

Talking of Thailand: for no particularly good reason we expected Isla Grande itself to be similar to the island of Koh Lipe, but there’s actually a lot less development. We did wander out from our resort a few times to explore (and find a larger beach) but aside from the other hotels scattered along the seafront the rest of the island seemed to be pretty rural, with homes and villages connected by quiet, sandy paths and routes through the forest which we hoped were largely snake-free. This isn’t a complaint – in fact, some quiet beach time was the whole attraction of Isla Grande over Cartagena. Just picture it as a simple place within a National Park, not a resort with bars and restaurants.

And bonus points for our boat ride home, which detoured through more of the archipelago so we could see some of the mangrove forests before speeding back to Cartagena!

Quiet, calming trails across the island (assuming no snakes)
Quiet, calming trails across the island (assuming no snakes)
Even much of the seafront is not over-developed
Even much of the seafront is not over-developed
We took so many failed selfies looking into the sun that a woman took pity on us
We took so many failed selfies looking into the sun that a woman took pity on us
On the boat back to Cartagena
On the boat back to Cartagena
Entering a river on the start of our very welcome speedboat detour
Entering a river on the start of our very welcome speedboat detour

Summing Up

One last meal
One last meal

Why did we pick Colombia for our honeymoon in the first place? Partly it was inspired by our previous travels elsewhere in South America. It’s a continent we both love and is particularly special to Randi as a place where she can practise Spanish. But we also wanted to explore somewhere new, and Colombia seemed to have a little bit of everything we collectively wanted: cool cities, hiking trails, mountains for Randi and beaches for me. After booking our flights we mostly forgot about doing much planning in the hectic pre-wedding phase, but everyone who’d already been to Colombia was so positive about the country (“the best place I’ve ever visited”) and helped us out with a ton of great recommendations and suggestions. Thank you!

Basically, I’m just here to tell you that people are right about Colombia. We had such a wonderful time and – as you can hopefully see from the abundance of photos – a decent variety of exploration and relaxation. I am curious to see BogotĂĄ, although I’m holding out for their own metro system to open (projected date at time of writing: 2028).

For our final night back in Cartagena we did go out for a moderately-expensive fancy meal, which had cool vibes and decor but food-wise was actually nowhere near as enjoyable as our final lunch in town the next day at a small Peruvian place. (“When ordering this drink, comment that you want to live your sensory experience” it noted on the English-side of the menu beneath the chicha morada. I have no idea what this means. But the sensory experience of our lunch was top notch.) And then we reluctantly flew home, with the disappointment at being back in the real world leavened a little by being able to take the Elizabeth Line home from Heathrow. We will miss you, Colombia.

Postscript

I love my laptop. I deliberately splashed out on something expensive back in 2018 and it has served me well ever since, even travelling all over South America and South East Asia with us so that I could blog as we went. The only compromise I made at the time was not paying for as much storage as I could, which finally came to a head when I got back from Colombia with a bunch more photos and videos plus – very excitingly! – the professional video footage from our wedding ready to download. So I was very proud of myself when I realised that for less than ÂŁ100 I could acquire both a bigger SSD and the right size of fiddly screwdriver to upgrade it myself. Thank you, instructional YouTube videos! Now my trusty companion has space for many, many more adventures to come…

Like many others this month I’ve enjoyed playing with ChatGPT, burning vast computational resources in order to simulate an argument between my sisters over the last roast potato (pretty good), write poetry about the long-standing family in-joke The Curse of the Blue Farmer (very bad) and have weird self-referential arguments where it tried to lie about its own word count. Despite all this, I am still hopeful that this friendly chat bot could soon take over my job, so here’s a first step:

ChatGPT's blog intro
ChatGPT’s blog intro

In terms of tone and style I’d say it’s basically there.

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

Content-wise, however, this human still has a bit to add, starting with the extraordinarily generous wedding present we received of an overnight stay (and seven-course dinner!) at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. A surprising number of people seem to be familiar with this luxury boutique hotel, and even I had heard of Raymond Blanc. Suffice to say, it’s not the sort of place that Randi or I would ever dream of eating or sleeping at, so having received this gift we decided to make the most of the weekend by travelling up to Oxford on Friday night and exploring a little more of the city first before our check-in to Le Manoir on Saturday afternoon.

Ducks navigating a frozen lake in University Parks
Ducks navigating a frozen lake in University Parks
The gate leading to our room on Saturday night
The gate leading to our room on Saturday night

I’ve been to Oxford a few times on short visits, but this time we roamed slightly further than the “picturesque streets” and “historical landmarks” (thanks, GPT3) of the city centre. In particular, we loved the picturesque winter vibes of University Parks, which were further enhanced by staying within the expansive grounds of St Hugh’s College, which Randi discovered offers its student accommodation as a relatively cheap bed for the night (at least during the holidays) and also throws in a hot breakfast in the dining hall the next morning. Would recommend.

The mulled wine tent
The mulled wine tent
One of the many lovely statues around the gardens
One of the many lovely statues around the gardens

Anyway – if you have infinite money, I’d also recommend Le Manoir because it was rather nice. The dinner itself was incredible, as you’d expect, but – just as importantly – our waiter made us both feel relaxed and was happy to chat about his experiences working there. My only regret was that by the end I was too full for the optional bonus cheese course. Fortunately we could opt for room service breakfast the next morning (plus the FT), which was carried in on an enormous tray and contained a number of bonus items which its bearer (correctly) judged would make “nice additions” to the meal. We agreed.

Breakfast!
Breakfast!
Our wintery walk on Sunday morning
Our wintery walk on Sunday morning

I do realise that you’re supposed to expect an ultra-luxury hotel to be nice but we still felt very grateful for everything we received there, including the warmth and friendliness of the staff. And I was also pleased that they weren’t so fancy to not stock a selection of nearby walks for us to pick from on Sunday morning, allowing us to walk off some of Raymond Blanc’s cooking by meandering along snowy country roads through various pretty villages before making our way back home again, ‘bon voyage’ bag in tow. (If this all feels a bit like an influencer post, I apologise. Standard disclaimer: we enjoyed a free stay at Le Manoir, but all thoughts, opinions and greedy bites of their complimentary lemon cake are my own.)

Enjoying one final tea and biscuits for the road before leaving
Enjoying one final tea and biscuits for the road before leaving

Back in the real world, December has been packed with fun stuff. While Randi was gallivanting in Edinburgh I went along to our neighbour’s primary school Christmas fair with Angela and her family, which was delightful (a) because I’d heard a lot about them already, and (b) because it’s hilarious how immediately recognisable any primary school hall is, from the climbing frame to the little red handheld beanbags.

I also spent a lovely morning in West Hampstead with Josh, Anna and Cora, attended a high-spirited work dinner (in which I learnt everything there is to know about Rutland) and chatted away merrily at the office Christmas party. Since my team is mostly outside the UK, we also enjoyed another virtual board game night to celebrate a productive and successful year (7 Wonders: Architects was particularly fun!) although, as usual, the only way to beat Kira is to choose a game like Ticket to Ride which she’s never played before… and even then, it was too close for comfort.

Cora makes the wise decision to pick Thomas over some car
Cora makes the wise decision to pick Thomas over some car

Meanwhile, Randi and I briefly hosted Esther on the first snowy night of December, who rather magnificently managed to arrive on the last train before they all stopped. One Sunday afternoon we also played at being proper grown-ups and went along to one of our neighbour’s Christmas gatherings for mulled wine, cheese and controversial cocktails. The couple who hosted have a good neighbourly track record, having successfully organised the installation of some bike storage along with the planting of some street trees earlier this year, and I’m really excited to see the latter grow next year.

But on top of all that, two huge pre-Christmas highlights of December were going to a couple of live shows! You’ve almost certainly heard of the first one, Six, in which the six wives of Henry VIII reclaim their narratives through an 80-minute musical/pop concert of catchy songs, historical revisionism and dirty jokes. I’ve wanted to see this for ages, ever since Spotify snuck one of the tracks into my Discover Weekly playlist, and it didn’t disappoint. The tone is fun and light-hearted – Hamilton this ain’t – but it really works, especially if you grew up in the British school system. And of course I’ve had the album on replay for the last week.

Even better, though, was A Sherlock Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve Eve. This is, as the name suggests, a mashup of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, which is a sentence so laser-targeted at me that I bought tickets as soon as I read it without reading anything else. Everything is woven together perfectly, with some lovely touches to knit the universes together (the boy Ebenezer Scrooge pays at the end of A Christmas Carol to fetch the turkey for Bob Cratchit turns out to be a young Watson) and excellent performances from the cast throughout.

Boxing Day on Hampstead Heath
Boxing Day on Hampstead Heath

With the Christmas spirit well and truly unleashed, everything was set for our family’s annual gathering at my mum’s. As usual, we played games (Shout Out, Balderdash & Sushi Go Party) and continued our new morning tradition of Secret Santa on the big day itself (many thanks to Cormac for my gifts this year!), followed by a stupendous lunch at Carolyn’s, a format-bending edition of the infamous Christmas Quiz and a closing party game of Empires which Tash introduced us all to. The next day, my mum was inspired to make tacos for a Boxing Day brunch – if this turns out to be a new tradition, I’m definitely not complaining – before we set off for Hampstead Heath.

Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas!

If you’re a regular reader – and let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone is picking up at this point – you’ll know that this is usually the week that I churn out my annual reviews and roundup of the year’s books. Everything was all planned out for a mammoth blog-writing session yesterday, with Randi having safely departed in an early morning cab for a solo trip to New York and Chicago to see friends. And then, in a single gatecrashing text, came some very exciting news: Nolan and Rebecca had just flown into town that very morning, and did I fancy a pint? Hell yes.

A few hours later we were gathered around a pub table in Camden with their wonderful friends Celia and Parrus, swapping life updates and lots of laughter after a multi-year gap. It may have cost me my blog writing timetable (and therefore some spillover into 2023 – sorry!) but it was worth it for such an unexpected and delightful reunion. I hope that you’ve all had a chance to spend some time with people you love over the holidays, and I hope you’ve enjoyed “our December update” for 2022.

With Celia, Rebecca, Nolan and Parrus
With Celia, Rebecca, Nolan and Parrus

Studies of flashbulb memories – your memories of hearing about major news events – show that even though people remain very confident that their memories are accurate, their actual stories change dramatically as they get further and further from the event. So, as an experiment, I want to put in writing that confirmation of Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Thursday came to me as a BBC Breaking News alert – as I was midway through writing a message in one of our family WhatsApp groups – while crossing the car park area between the Waterlink Way and Catford’s two railway stations on a post-work evening walk. There – done – and now we can revisit this in a decade and see if I’m still sticking to the same story.


At the summit of mini-hike #1
At the summit of mini-hike #1

Back in March we were thwarted in our attempt to visit Katie in Glasgow, but on the August Bank Holiday weekend we succeeded on our second spin of the Wheel of Fortune (Scottish Cities Edition) and had a lovely long weekend with her and James in Edinburgh. Hurray!

Obviously everyone else visiting Edinburgh that weekend was there for the final days of the Fringe, and we did go see a handful of shows – more on those in a bit. However, given that the weather was so nice, our priority during the daytime was to go on some mini-hikes, admire the city from suitably high-up and (at least for me and Katie) distract ourselves from the climbing with lots of hypothetical would-you-rather-style questions, although I’m not sure that James or Randi were as enthused as we were.

We were all very impressed by this guy the next day
We were all very impressed by this guy the next day
Katie and James on the uphill section
Katie and James on the uphill section
Reaching the top!
Reaching the top!
Falling off the edge
Falling off the edge

But yes, alongside the hiking, the dodging of uncollected rubbish during the city’s bin strike (which, to be honest, only added to a festival atmosphere) and a failed attempt to acquire khachapuri, we loved the atmosphere of the Fringe and we especially loved the first show which Katie had booked tickets for us in advance: Shamilton, an improvised Hamilton-esque hip-hop musical about a public figure nominated by the audience at the start of the show. This was an extremely similar vibe to the Improv Shakespeare which was our favourite thing to take people to in Chicago, and the all-American cast did a superb job after the audience landed them with the life story of Nicola Sturgeon. I felt very sorry for them at the beginning as they tried to read the room, quickly realising that this was potentially dangerous political terrain, and still pulled together an amazing performance which (I think!) everyone enjoyed. As Randi says, it’s just so rewarding to watch people on stage being both incredible at what they’re doing and clearly enjoying themselves too. I will go see this again whenever I get the chance.

The next day, Randi, Katie and I saw another improvised show – this time with a Doctor Who theme! – which had a more gentle, family-friendly vibe. More silly, less sharp, but still very enjoyable to see the first (and last) performance of The Last Turnip set in the thrilling confines of Killington Lake Services on the M6. Afterwards, the three of us felt we had one last Fringe outing in us and blindly picked Jolly Boat’s 10 Songs for Geeks on the basis that it was (a) free, and (b) starting in a few minutes nearby in the basement of a bar. This was the perfect way to wrap up our brief Edinburgh experience and felt very authentically Fringe: a pair of brothers singing about D&D, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter to a happy, drunken crowd of nerds. Bonus laughs came from the unplanned comedy callback of the “battery low” and later “battery critically low” warning messages on the laptop they were using to project until for the final few songs it gave up the ghost altogether.

Queuing for our Doctor Who improv
Queuing for our Doctor Who improv
Last-night-of-the-Fringe pizza
Last-night-of-the-Fringe pizza

Even though Randi and I are supposed to be planning a wedding in, ooh, less than two weeks, the following weekend we still took time out to travel all the way to Amersham in order to ride part of the way home on a 1938 stock Tube train. (Sadly this sub-genre of nerdiness did not make it into Jolly Boat’s Fringe show, but maybe next time.) Promoted by the London Transport Museum as the ‘art deco’ Tube train, it is just quite charming to ride along in something which is obviously antique (just look at these delightful wooden panels) but also still immediately recognisable as the Tube. We also had a good wander around Amersham beforehand, which boasts many great lunch spots and (unrelatedly) also the world’s most aggressive anti dog-fouling signs.

Our special service arrives in Amersham
Our special service arrives in Amersham
On our ride home
On our ride home
Not super-tempted by the Inner-City food options
Not super-tempted by the Inner-City food options
Travelling home from London Loop 1 Revisited
Travelling home from London Loop 1 Revisited

And yes, of course we have also been busy on the final wedding preparations – as Tash knows from having lunch with us amongst the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park on Saturday – with perhaps the strangest part being the collection of 38 paper tickets for the train to Hereford. As a reward for our productivity, however, today we treated ourselves to the opening section on a fresh rewalk of the London Loop (carrying a guidebook this time, like real walking pros) followed by the season two finale of Succession once we made it home again from Bexley. The first part of the Loop is certainly not the prettiest, but we’ve missed our long Zone 6 walks.