Summer Holidays - and plenty of fun times, including a party at home we called the Highfield Hootenanny, partly as a housewarming do, partly to celebrate Chris's birthday but mostly because it was about time we repaid the hospitality of our friends and neighbours. Matthew also disappeared off on cub camp for a week and had a fantastic time whilst Cassandra made the most of the pester-free house.
However, all of this fun was just a prequel to our long-awaited (though only recently planned) holiday to Europe.
Having seen the glorious weather of early summer turn to frequent scattered showers and with the price of some of the package holidays to warmer climates failing to drop from their extortionate levels, we opted instead for a two-centre break with a week in Belgium followed by a short city-break in Paris, France.
On our previous trip to Europe we'd taken the Channel Tunnel so this time we reverted to the ferry which gives a very much clearer impression of leaving one country and arriving somewhere new. Here's Matthew with the white cliffs of Dover in the background.
Our destination was the town of Mol, halfway between Antwerp and Eindhoven. A very pretty town with a quaint town square in which the pleasant town hall is completely dwarfed by the town's main church.
We stayed at Kempense Meren SunParks which follows the same model as Center Parcs with its self-catering cottages scattered through a woodland setting around a large indoor pool complex. With cars banned from site for most of the time, we got to enjoy some very pleasant cycle rides.
And the best thing about cycling in this area? No hills. The whole area was almost completely flat and home to series of man-made lakes and canals, often stretching for miles and miles.
To help provide some sort of interesting views for tourists, we found at one major canal junction a free-standing tower built for no other purpose than to lift people about the unrelenting flatness.
We climbed this, of course...
... and were rewarded with some pleasant, albeit fairly featureless, views.
Back in the 'sub-tropical swimming paradise' we could rest our weary legs or just enjoy the slides and waves and other assorted stuff.
We did travel a little further afield to do some sightseeing, including Postel Abbey which reputedly used to have around a thousand visitors a day passing through and trading goods. Perhaps more interesting was the working windmill at Ezaart which visitors were encouraged to move right through to where all the action was taking place. Here's Megan right up in the top section where the direction of rotation is changed through some seriously weighty cogs and gears.
The lack of 'no go' areas was really refreshing ... although the volunteers were a little concerned with the kids doing their 'Windy Miller' impressions and walking between the moving blades and I think were more comfortable when we'd moved further away.
Mixing up days out with cycle rides around the local area proved a delightful way to spend a few days, and on the few occasions when the weather did turn a little cloudy or rainy, we still had the pool to fall back on. Fortunately, we were mostly lucky...
... even managing to squeeze in a round of what the Belgian's call 'Midget Golf' after one of our rides.
On our last full day, we cycled into Mol town centre as our visit coincided with a family fun day and also an animal market which has been a feature of the town for many years.
We expected to see lots of bunnies and chickens - and we did - but we were slightly surprised by the fish and terrapins and by the number of small birds and a bit uncomfortable with some of the larger birds like turkeys and even a mute swan in tiny cages.
The family fun day was a really great bonus too - with lots of free activities including circus skills, bracelet making, hair braiding, a petting zoo, some inflatables and - our favourite - a Total Wipeout Sweeper. With just one chance to get back on after a fall, it proved a great family challenge with a final battle between Father and Daughter...
And so we left Belgium behind with the kids thinking we were heading back to Calais for the ferry home. When we ended up in the centre of Paris they were really quite chuffed.
The hotel was just a stones throw from Gare du Nord station and just ten minutes stroll (uphill) to the church of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre.
As well as seeing a lovely church, the other benefit of visiting here first was the views it gave across Paris - including the most iconic (as far as the kids were concerned) - the Eiffel Tower, visible in the distance between these railings.
Back at the hotel, we rustled up a quick picnic lunch and then prepared to take a closer look at some of those more distant sights. Unfortunately, not long after we set off the weather took a turn for the worse and a light drizzle turned into a persistent downpour. Still, we soldiered on regardless passing the Place de la Republique and its statue on route to the River Seine, aiming for Notre Dame. Unfortunately, Chris had just slightly underestimated the distance, or forgot to account for little legs and the effect of the weather. By the time we finally made it to Notre Dame, Cassandra and Megan in particular were ready to head straight back to the hotel to get dry. Still, we tried to put a brave face on it...
But then, a stroke of luck. As we headed for the nearest Metro station, we happened to walk over a couple of pavement vents that just happened to be belching out really warm air from the Metro below. At the same time, the rain stopped so, despite some odd looks from passers-by, we decided that we had found the most perfect picnic spot in all of Paris and spent 15 minutes getting dry and refuelled.
And so our sightseeing visit was back on track, with a walk down the riverside past Pont Neuf ('new bridge', ironically the oldest bridge in the city) and onto Pont Des Arts, famous for being awash with padlocks covering all sides of the bridge, placed their by visitors. This is the view looking back East towards Pont Neuf.
From here, we ventured into the Louvre - and suddenly you could hardly believe it had been raining at all.
We opted to take full advantage of the good weather and avoided going into any of the galleries. Instead, we kept going West, hoping to find a view of the Arc de Triomphe. Matthew thought he saw it first, but this one (below) turned out to be the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. Much smaller than its namesake - but a fantastic demonstration of the layout of this part of the city since from here you could see all the way through the Jardin des Tuileries, up the Champs-Elysees to the real Arc de Triomphe, over two miles away.
We went right on through the gardens to the Place de la Concorde where Matthew was fascinated by the Obelisk with its Egyptian Hieroglyph markings.
We decided to save our close-up of the Arc De Triomphe until the following day so instead turned north, promising to look out for a nearby metro station but also hoping to see the Opera House. However, first we came across a very stern looking building, the Madeleine Church which was beautifully bedecked with flowers.
Finally, we did find the Opera House - a building which had featured heavily in the movie Smurfs 2 which the kids had watched only a a few nights before. At this point, little legs in the family were getting pretty tired so we jumped on the 42 bus and let it take us straight back to base.
It turned out that the 42 bus has a reputation in Paris as being the best and cheapest way to see a good proportion of the major sites. Sure it isn't open-top and doesn't have a commentary but it was perfect for taking us right over to the far side of the city where Day Two would start at the Eiffel Tower.
Of course, a trip right to the top beckoned so we joined the queue (stopping at the security checkpoint to sacrifice a small paring knife Megan keeps in the picnic bag in case of fruit-cutting emergencies) and were soon zooming up in the lift, first to what they call the 'second floor' which gave some already spectacular views...
... and then right up to the 'third floor' (the top) - a journey which just seemed to go on and on and on...
Yes, the views from the top were great. Unfortunately, Cassandra decided she needed to visit the bathroom and the toilets at the very top were closed for refurbishment so she and Megan didn't stick around for too long - and Matthew wasn't entirely relaxed up there either, certainly not as keen as Chris to be trying to get the vertigo-inducing views like this one:
We regrouped back down on the second floor and made the all-important comparisons with Blackpool Tower which, from this angle, it actually looks quite similar too
We opted to walk back down the stairs rather than taking the lifts again; very interesting from a structural perspective and really rounded off the visit nicely.
One of the sights Matthew had spotted from the top was the miniature Statue of Liberty (which had also featured prominently in the Smurfs movie) so after we'd grabbed a quick bite to eat, we walked down to take a closer look....
... before we continued on towards the Arc de Triomphe which - if anything - Matthew found even more impressive than the Eiffel Tower, perhaps because of the sheer bulk of the thing.
At this point, there were claims that little legs were getting tired again but this time we persisted, taking it block by block with the promise of finding a really good restaurant for a nice evening meal. We did find that restaurant - and the kids made the most of it with Cassandra taking on a huge steak and Matthew the biggest Croque Madame he'd ever seen.
After this big feed, batteries were charged enough to keep walking and we soon found ourselves outside the Moulin Rouge where most people were far more interested in the massive Metro vent - not as warm but much more powerful than the ones that had dried us off the day before.
By the time we made it back to the hotel, having taken another diversion up to the Sacre Coeur again so that we could see the Eiffel Tower by night, everyone was pretty tired but at least we all new that we couldn't have squeezed much more out of the day.
Next morning we left Paris behind and headed for the ferry, having to convince the kids several times that this time we really were going to catch a ferry. We stopped for a lovely lunch somewhere in the middle of nowhere and, with time to spare, we stopped again for a quick leg stretch in Boulogne. There was nowhere to park near the beach so we ended up on the nearby cliffs but that was good too, if not a little blowy.
And there we have it. An 8.30pm ferry and home before midnight with some very weary travellers.
Now, time to dust off the school uniforms...