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My 2,500-mile, five-week road trip — with a baby and toddler

by Staff

Somewhere along the road to Salamanca in Spain, four days into a circuitous road trip from Hampshire to Morocco, the family travel manifesto made a necessary return. My wife and I had instituted this set of useful, quarrel-prevention pledges on our honeymoon in the Appalachian Mountains in the US. Scribbled over breakfast at Heathrow, it constituted basic principles even a reluctant backbencher could endorse: to pursue patience and positivity, to embrace adventure, to be accepting of one another’s playlists.

Now, embarking on a five-week trip with our toddler and baby (and with tension already rising over in-car temperature settings), a written commitment to cordiality appeared all the more essential. A few addendum pledges began with: “Before responding to the three-year-old, I will take a deep breath.”

It had long been our intention to spend some of Clemmie’s maternity leave in the Mediterranean. This had been our plan with baby No 1 when, before Covid derailment, we had booked two months in Italy. By the arrival of baby No 2 we had pivoted to Spain, tantalised by notions of immersing ourselves in a country, culture and cuisine neither of us knew well.

Five weeks of spring seemed sufficient to cover many key cities, diverse landscapes and a brief dip into north Africa, and we would ditch the flights and do it all in our own car.

Matt and his family during their road trip

Naturally eyebrows were raised among friends and colleagues at the mention of our proposed trip. I heard them say “With two young children, really?” and “You’ll need a holiday after that . . .”

The crossing from Plymouth to Santander takes about 22 hours, but there were many useful distractions: viewing decks, games rooms, even a cinema and pool. For the toddler the highlight might have been the kids’ disco were the cabin itself not such a thrilling novelty, particularly the ladder to daddy’s fold-down bed. It is a superbly comfortable way to travel. At sunrise, taking the early childcare shift, I couldn’t believe our luck in spotting dolphins.

Arriving into lush, green Cantabria, we eased in, staying two nights in the town of Santillana del Mar, half an hour from the port. This first stop prepared us for the beauty ahead, the well-preserved town introducing Spain as it was at the height of its global influence.

In the commanding architecture of the central square and Romanesque church there is an echo of stately Toledo or Avila, and from the sunlit balcony of Parador de Santillana Gil Blas — once the 17th-century manor house of a prominent Cantabian family, now a plush hotel — you sense first-hand the grandeur of Habsburg Spain.

Nearby is the Cave of Altamira, with 14,000-year-old paintings adorning its walls. With the baby bewitched by lamplit replica artworks above us in the National Museum and Research Centre of Altamira, we got to grips with prehistoric Spain, a land that would become host to numerous successive civilisations — Celt, Carthaginian, Phoenician, Roman, Moor, each leaving its mark on this multilayered peninsula (culturaydeporte.gob.es).

Heading south towards the city of Salamanca and into the plains of Castile and Leon, we made a game of turret and spire-spotting as historic towns appeared across the plateau like islands in a placid sea. Eventually Salamanca rose majestically into view and was a revelation: glowing sandstone, merry bars and the astonishing Plaza Mayor — probably the grandest of all Spain’s public squares. In the “Golden City” soft yet assertive architecture abounds, not least in the conjoined gothic and baroque cathedrals.

The ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar

The ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar

ALAMY

It was in Salamanca that we leant into a second manifesto addendum: “To entertain fun wherever our toddler finds it.” We chased him beneath the blossom of the Garden of Calixto and Melibea and delighted at the curious dolls in the Casa Lis Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum (£4; museocasalis.org). In the shell-clad Casa de las Conchas public library he exchanged giggles with a boy from Madrid, conversing in the universal language of toddlers as they raced after his toy truck.

Spanish cities can resemble cartoon castles, so they held a unique appeal for the toddler. In Cordoba it was the enchanting darkness of the cavernous Mosque-Cathedral, and in Seville it was the sparkling canal of the Plaza de España. Swifts circled around us as we climbed the bell tower in Caceres, while the medieval walls of Avila — well preserved and walkable — were Disney made real.

To the discerning three-year-old Ronda’s ice cream is the best in the country — forget the dramatic Puente Nuevo or Hemingway’s beloved bullring.

That isn’t to say all was fun and frolics. City stays with young children are no picnic, particularly when you’re spending only a few nights in one place. Across the trip we stayed in a range of accommodation — hotels, guesthouses, Airbnbs — 11 in total. At one point I considered uploading a social media thread titled “Tantrums in beautiful places”.

You must resign yourself to fluid itineraries. If we managed the decorated columns and courtyards of the magisterial Alhambra, for instance, the rest of Granada went unexplored. The Catedral de Cadiz, the dunes of Doñana National Park and Tangier’s renowned Café Hafa were all ditched.

The interior of the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba

The interior of the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba

PASCAL DELOCHE/GETTY IMAGES

But Spain’s great strength is its fondness for children — they can do no wrong. Both baby and brother received hair ruffles and kisses to last a lifetime, and I’ll never forget the sweet old señora who beamed adoringly by the car door while we changed a nappy in a Caceres side street.

We found it important to allow each parent a few moments of blissful liberation (in accordance with our third pledge: “We will make time for ourselves”). For Clemmie this was a massage at La Bobadilla, our hotel near Granada, while for me it was a wander through the gorgeous, colourful streets of Seville. I took my time with the Moorish tiles and paradisiacal gardens of the Alcazar palace (£11; alcazarsevilla.org), and over churros and coffee at the oak-ceilinged Bar Plata opposite the Basilica de la Macarena.

To “be relaxed with travel and accept disruption” was a commitment mightily tested when strong winds prevented our FRS ferry crossing to Tangier. We had already deposited the car in a Tarifa lock-up ahead of the week in Morocco, so were luggage-laden and facing a bus ride to the larger but later ferry at Algeciras. You might assume a chorus of expletives or kerbside crying. Instead we rallied, adapted and, reaching Algeciras, went for croquetas and cold beer at the market. If anything the disruption was an uplift.

There is so much regimented routine to the everyday raising of children that travel, by contrast, offers rare spontaneity. Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar on a warm evening, watching the sunset envelop Spain, recharged us all.

Two weeks at an all-inclusive hotel may save you the repeated bag-packing and restaurant scrolling, but to be on the move is to elude tedium. As every description of scenery rolled by — from the meadows of Andalusia to the arid fields and storks’ nests of Morocco’s Sais plain — there came episodes and encounters we will long cherish: the animated Easter parades in Salamanca, lazy lunches of shrimp tortilla, deep-fried brie and Iberian chorizo in Cordoba and Cadiz. I will remember the delight with which our baby was received by the lunchtime crowd of a Madrid bar and how poplar seed-fluff drifting up from the Ebro River made a snowglobe of Haro, a town in La Rioja.

Going on a road trip with children is far from a holiday in the conventional sense, but few countries could make such a case for it as Spain. The sensibility there is one of warmth, ease and vibrancy. We found this affirmed at every stop along the way. Back home in Hampshire, unloading the washing bags, presents and bottles of rioja, I retrieved a toy digger, weathered by a month in Iberia: scraped, sun-bleached and sandy, red from the soil of the Mediterranean and the ketchup of a hundred patatas bravas.

Matt Collins was a guest of Brittany Ferries, which has Plymouth-Santander returns for four from £449 (brittany-ferries.co.uk), FRS, which has Tarifa-Tangier returns for four from £99 (frs.es) and the Spanish Tourist Office (spain.info)

Five Spanish stays along the route

The Parador de Santillana Gil Blas

The Parador de Santillana Gil Blas

1. Parador de Santillana Gil Blas, Cantabria
The state-owned Paradores chain is a Spanish institution, with many of its 90-plus hotels situated within historic buildings. Parador de Santillana Gil Blas is a baroque centrepiece of the immaculate Cantabrian town of Santillana del Mar and among the most beautiful. The former home of the Barreda-Bracho family, its regal, wood-beamed rooms are charmingly ornate yet appealingly quiet.
Details Room-only doubles from £79 (paradores.es)

2. Finca Las Morenas, Malaga
Surrounded by the Sierra de las Nieves National Park and with the region’s most beautiful naturalistic garden, few Andalusian hideaways could match the tranquillity of Finca Las Morenas. Only an hour from Malaga airport, the spacious guest cottage offers a countryside escape so quiet you can hear the bees hum. We didn’t want to leave.
Details A night’s self-catering for four from £78 (fincalasmorenas.com)

The indoor-outdoor pool at Barcelo Sevilla Renacimiento

The indoor-outdoor pool at Barcelo Sevilla Renacimiento

3. Barcelo Sevilla Renacimiento, Seville
Walkable from the city centre yet a comprehensive resort in itself, the Barcelo Sevilla is the ideal family base for exploring Seville. Its domed modern architecture — with a tropical pond in the lobby — is airy and calming. The outdoor and indoor pools are fantastic for children and the breakfast options are dazzling. The in-house restaurant Arrozante does a decent lunch with a wide-range of paellas.
Details Room-only doubles from £79 (barcelo.com)

4. Urso Hotel, Madrid
Can Madrid be done in a weekend? Probably not, but a stay at the elegant and centrally located Urso Hotel & Spa will give you a chance to see a lot. Toddlers will love the antique elevator and children’s activities booklet, while the hotel restaurant Casa Felisa was the culinary highlight of our entire trip: cod fritters with dark garlic mayonnaise, delicate fish mains of hake and creamy sole.
Details Room-only doubles from £187 (hotelurso.com)

A lounge area at La Bobadilla

A lounge area at La Bobadilla

5. La Bobadilla, a Royal Hideaway Hotel, Granada
Set within an olive estate near Granada, La Bobadilla evokes a quaint Andalusian village. The stone chapel, streams and gorgeous interior conjure traditional southern Spain, yet this luxury hotel also provides biomass-fuelled heating and hot water alongside Michelin-star dining at the restaurant La Finca (tasting menu from £111 a person).
Details Room-only doubles from £234 (barcelo.com)

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