When our children were young, we used villas as our holiday accommodation. It was the most sensible option, enabling us to eat when we wished, and not when a hotel’s timetable said we could. Children want things to be as much like home as possible, and at home you don’t have to wait for lunch when you’re hungry. There were lots of other advantages, too, of course, but that was the main one.
The travel trade calls such holidays ‘self-catering’ which is a marketing own goal, conjuring up visions of someone (guess who?) spending lots of time in the kitchen while husband and offspring relax by the pool. We chose the ‘no-catering’ option. At the earliest opportunity we’d buy orange juice and coffee and breakfast cereals from the nearest supermarket, so we could breakfast at leisure in our villa.
Other meals were taken in local restaurants. Or we’d pig out on pizzas as we sunbathed on our veranda with no thought for timetables. I must boast that our three children were perfectly behaved when we took them to restaurants – so much so that fellow diners would sometimes come to our table to tell us how they admired our kids. At the time we didn’t think their behaviour out of the ordinary, but over the years I have learned that it was. The secret, if there was one, was that we introduced them to restaurants at an early age and treated them like grown-ups, which they desired and appreciated.
Faro, Portugal © Karol Kozlowski, Shutterstock
This even extended to allowing them to drink a glass of wine – extremely diluted, of course. The result was that, as far as they were concerned, eating in restaurants was no big deal, so there was no need to make a fuss about it – and, as far as children are concerned, ‘making a fuss’ means showing off and misbehaving. Which ours never did. We enjoyed such holidays in Portugal and Spain, and share wonderful memories of them all – including the time when Susan and Sarah conspired with their mother to smuggle a baby hare on to the flight home from Faro.
Portugal, in particular, was a great destination, back when it was still Europe’s best-kept secret. Yet, it is our experience of a villa on the island of Minorca that I particularly remember. We’d booked it through one of the UK-based firms that sell the whole deal as a package – flights and maid service included, along with a welcome pack of groceries to get you started and a hire car if you so desired. We duly arrived at Minorca airport late one summer afternoon to be greeted by a young lady with a clipboard, who directed us to a waiting coach.
The coach gradually filled up with fellow travellers, mostly youngish parents with small children, like us. Then we set off from the airport and, after a while, began to drop people off close to the villas they had chosen. We were among the last passengers to be so deposited. As we took the suitcases from the compartment in the coach, Miss Clipboard said the company’s local representative was unfortunately unable to meet us, as planned, but that the key to the villa could be collected from the owner of a bar just a few paces away. We were not happy about this, as we had hoped the local rep would see us safely to our door. However, I collected the key from the bar owner who gave me directions to the villa. This involved a lot of waving and smiling on his part, and much nodding and smiling on mine.
Key and suitcases in hand, we trudged along the lane as darkness fell. There were, of course, no street lights, but the chap in the bar had lent me a torch, so we were able to avoid the worst of the potholes. We finally reached the villa. The key wouldn’t open the front door. Leaving wife, children and luggage behind, I scouted round the back of the property. The key wouldn’t open the back door, either. ‘That idiot in the bar must have given me the wrong key,’ I said, when I returned to my waiting wife and kids, for I had noticed that he had a board there with several keys and empty hooks on it. But I was in no mood to go trailing back to the bar for the correct key. It was late, we were all tired and hot and scruffy from the journey.
So I decided to break in. I returned to the rear of the property, found a suitable window, broke it, and clambered in. I stumbled through the pitch black villa to the front door, opening it and admitting my family. It didn’t take long to find the fuse box and put the lights on. But I was not very happy with our situation. None of the beds were made, so we had to get pillows and sheets from a cupboard and make them ourselves. The rep from the villa renting company was going to get it in the neck when we met the following morning, that was for sure.
To make matters worse the promised welcome pack of groceries was not in the kitchen, even though we had paid for it as part of the deal. The refrigerator was empty, too. We were, at least, able to sluice down the children and get them to bed, with the last of the snacks and sweets we had packed for the journey. Then we all spent a fitful night. Came the dawn – or rather, a little while after the dawn – and we all trooped back down to the bar to get some breakfast and an explanation from the rep.
We were, as you may imagine, in a pretty sour mood and ready to rip her apart. Julie arrived as we were finishing our orange juices and croissants and coffees. She looked drained and anxious. Before I could say anything, she launched into an explanation for her absence the previous evening. Her small daughter had developed a painful earache and, fearing it could be something serious, she and her husband had whipped her into the local hospital’s A&E department. But, she explained, she had taken great care to ring the bar owner and tell him which property we were renting. Then I gave her our side of the story.
She listened in stunned silence. ‘I am positive Juan would have given you the correct key,’ she said. ‘And I know for a fact that the beds were all made and the welcome pack was left on the kitchen table, because I left it there myself and, when I did so, I checked all the bedrooms.’ This mystery needed solving, so we piled into her car and bounced off along the potholed lane. After a few moments we reached the villa in which we had spent the night. However, it was not the villa we had rented. That villa was on the other side of the track, more or less opposite to ours. Julie knew that the one we had broken into belonged to a German family, who kept it for their own use when they came to Minorca every summer. She also happened to know that they would be arriving the following afternoon. So we had the rest of the day to unmake those beds, clean the bathroom, remove all traces of our overnight occupation. And get the broken window replaced.
With the help of Julie, the owner of the bar, and the girl who was to provide our ‘maid service’ – who all thought it was the funniest thing that had happened in those parts for many a long year – we managed it. However, we kept a low profile when our German neighbours appeared. He was a very hefty, sour-faced bloke, and struck me as being the sort of fellow who would not regard my error as a laughing matter.