Our 10 days in Portugal were wonderful and just what we all needed. We had great fun, lots of sunshine, delicious food, family time and a chance to get a break from all that’s been going on at home. It’s been a busy few days, so these are just a few photos to share that capture our fabulous holiday:
I’ll be honest, the last few months have been difficult in more ways than one. M’s broken leg has meant that we’ve been unable to trial any new foods since April, which has been tough for him especially as we’ve just marked one year since we last successfully introduced a safe food into his diet. I knew that his restrictions were taking an emotional toll on M, but nothing expressed that more than when he recently apologised to me for feeling fed up and complaining about the fact that he has to eat the same 5 foods day in, day out. As we were preparing for our Portuguese holiday, we quickly realised that, without doubt, our travels abroad would stretch our keen foodie to his absolute limits and we needed to come up with a plan that would allow him to enjoy himself without too much pressure on his health.
This was particularly important as M had been frustrated to not be able to trial the couple of new foods we had pinpointed as pre-Portugal challenges because of his lengthy recovery and was extremely disappointed at the prospect of only eating his safe foods whilst the rest of us enjoyed seafood and fish galore. After much discussion, both between ourselves and with M too, Mike and I decided that we would allow him the occasional day off whilst we were in Portugal and let him choose a normally forbidden food or two to enjoy.
From the start we made it very clear that this couldn’t be an everyday treat and that between days he would have to keep strictly to his diet and so we planned accordingly. The holiday was split between a short hotel stint in the capital city and a longer stay in a self-catering apartment on the Algarve, which allowed us to cater for M and G as and when was needed. Our medical suitcase had been crammed full of a selection of safe foods for M including cartons of rice milk, cereal and rice pasta as I had no real idea as to what we would be able to find for him where we were based. Unlike our recent travels to Italy, where allergy-friendly offerings had been easy to find in the airport and service stations, safe foods were not so readily available in Portugal, but our trip to the Jumbo hypermarket just outside of Portimão proved to be a visit to a real Aladdin’s cave. My Mum and I were impressed with the array of dairy-free milks available and chose some new brands of rice milk for M to taste during our holiday. As for the selection of products on the freefrom aisle, I could easily have spent a lot longer than I did examining each and every one of them to see which were suitable for both children. I managed to buy nearly everything we needed including cookies for G and rice cream for M and the only disappointment was that I couldn’t find a gluten-free loaf of bread for G. There was several bread mixes available, but there was no way I was ever going to entertain the thought of baking a loaf of bread for her in 35°C weather and so she managed with some delicious gluten- and dairy-free crackers I discovered instead.
M’s experience of eating out with allergies in Portugal was mixed to say the least with the resounding success of two dinners at the Hard Rock Café in central Lisbon in stark contrast to the disappointing first night meal of plain boiled rice and an apple and it was hard to predict what the rest of our holiday would bring. Our translation cards meant that language wasn’t a barrier to making our needs known, but we did struggle with well-meaning restaurant staff offering alternatives even though it was clearly stated that these were the only safe foods he can eat. To be fair, I can understand their difficulty in believing that M’s diet really is that restricted, but it was frustrating to deal with especially when the viable food options were diminishing before our eyes and a certain 10 year-old was hopeful we’d give up and give in and allow him another unplanned treat. For the sake of M’s health, we did have to insist that some of our meals out were strictly M-friendly and the offerings were often mixed. In the UK we frequently find that most restaurants are unable to provide plain rice and so M often ends up with a meal consisting of chicken and cucumber and occasionally some apple too, all supplemented by a bag of slightly crushed Rude Health Mini Rice thins recovered from the depths of my handbag. Portugal was surprisingly no different. We did discover a few restaurants that could cook plain, boiled rice, but sadly this was rarely accompanied by safe chicken and he ended up with some very odd meals indeed.
However, as well as the Hard Rock Café, we did achieve great success in 2 restaurants in Alvor, where not only was M well-fed, but G enjoyed some great dinners too. The first was at what has long been a favourite of ours, Vagabondo in Alvor itself, a place that the children were keen to go back to again this year. Every year since our first visit there, M and G have loved their chicken kebab starter because of the delicious peanut sauce it is served with and it’s a dish that they’ve asked me to recreate at home time and time again. Peanuts have never been a problem for M in the past, but I was anxious about him suffering an unexpected reaction to them and wasn’t keen to trial them for the first time whilst we were abroad. M was disappointed by my decision, but reluctantly agreed to eat his safe foods only. By the time it came to dinner there, he was still suffering from the effects of some of the other “treats” he’d enjoyed during the week and was happy to stick to his normal diet for the evening. Once our waitress grasped M’s exact needs, she was fantastic at sorting out his meal and advised us brilliantly about what would be safe for him from the menu. Unfortunately the wild rice was marinated with garlic beforehand so we chose not to order for M, but the plate that arrived contained a huge piece of chicken as well as some cucumber slices and a specially prepared apple from our thoughtful waitress. The apple had been cut and served to resemble chips and so M’s plate looked similar to G’s dinner of a chicken and bacon kebab and chips. It was a large meal, beautifully prepared and he managed to eat every single mouthful.
The second and surprise success of the entire holiday was our final lunch, which traditionally we have always enjoyed at the poolside restaurant at the hotel Pestana Alvor Praia. In the past the children have chosen gluten-free hot dogs and chips, but we had spotted that they served grilled chicken and rice and were hopeful that these would be safe for M. Once again, a well-informed, attentive and extremely helpful waitress advised me that there would be no problem in preparing these dishes to ensure they were safe for M and in the end both children enjoyed a delicious grilled chicken breast, which was served with chips for G and plain rice, cucumber and apple for M. We enjoyed our meals out on holiday and found all of the restaurants eager to help us as best they could when it came to encouraging M and G to eat out with allergies the Portuguese way.
One of the attractions that M was keen to visit was the Oceanário de Lisboa, opened in 1998 as part of the last twentieth century World exhibition and which is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. Having explored Old Lisbon on our first day, we were all happy to change pace a little and eventually made our way there via the beautiful Praça do Comércio and a necessary decision to hail a Tuk-Tuk, when our hop-on, hop-off bus couldn’t be spotted except as a dim mirage in the distance. By the time we arrived the main queue was dishearteningly long, but thanks to the helpful advice of our friendly Tuk-Tuk driver, we instead joined the one for the ticketing machines and found ourselves moving through it fairly rapidly and were into the aquarium itself within little more than 30 minutes of our arrival.
We were directed to begin our visit with the temporary display before we cannily stopped for a relatively early lunch, which meant we managed to dodge any lengthy waits in the cafeteria. Both children were eager to head into the main and permanent exhibit, lured by the promise of manta rays and rainforests and we spent a glorious afternoon there. This was a truly amazing exhibit that took us on a 2-level tour around the world and around the incredibly impressive huge tank that formed the centrepiece of the aquarium. This tank was filled with all manner of fish and could be easily viewed from just about every angle as we made our way around the building. G and M spent their time photographing or filming what they could see, racing between displays and tanks, and excitedly sharing the tidbits of information they had picked up along the way. From penguins to puffins, jellyfish to sunfish and sea otters to sharks, the kids got to see them all and were totally fascinated the entire time we were there.
Our second child-friendly stop was spotted as we left the Oceanário and meandered our way in the glorious sunshine to where we had been reliably informed we could catch that ever-elusive tour bus back to the main centre. M had actually already identified it as a possible place of interest, but it wasn’t until breakfast time of our final morning that we decided to pay it a visit. After an unsuccessful lengthy wait for the renowned Tram 28, Mike, the children and I decided to abandon the rest of our group as they continued to queue for it and instead headed off to the Pavilhão do Conhecimento or Knowledge Pavillion. We have previously had great experiences visiting other interactive science museums such as the Science Museum London, @Bristol and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto and G and M have loved every moment of them. I was confident that we would have similar success in Lisbon and couldn’t wait to see what experiments and activities were on offer there.
It was absolutely another day that was more than well worth the very reasonable entrance fee and we explored every inch of the place thoroughly. We started downstairs in the Viral exhibition, which looked at what contagion is and how it works, not just from a bacteria point of view, but also looking at the current spread of the social media trend. G and M loved the interactive displays from capturing and identifying different germs to seeing if watching others yawn can cause you to do the same , as well as whether they could incite a virtual audience to copy their clapping, dance moves and Mexican wave. We paused for a quick lunch, which included a plate of rice for M and some gluten-free chips for G in the on-site restaurant before heading upstairs to tackle everything else the museum had to offer. M was particularly enthralled by the prospect of riding a bike across a high-wire suspended above the main floor of the building and successfully rode there and back, though G was a little more cautious and couldn’t quite brave it. Our afternoon was packed full of activity for us all and I was especially appreciative of the strategically placed armchairs spotted throughout the exhibits for those of us who didn’t want to be on the go the whole time! We filled the time we had there and managed to do most of the exhibits, though not quite all of them. It was a fun afternoon for the whole family and I wouldn’t hesitate to take G and M back if we had the chance.
Dinner out on our first evening in Lisbon was not as easy as we might have hoped and, in some ways, encapsulated our worst fears. By the time we had made our way from the airport to our hotel, we didn’t really want to hunt around with two tired children in tow, so simply headed to a local restaurant with our fingers tightly crossed and our recently acquired Yellow Cross translation cards clutched in my hands. We found a restaurant that looked promising as it had grilled chicken and rice on the menu and sat down to peruse the choices for the rest of the family until it came time to order, when I handed over the cards and waited to hear their response. The cards did their job, but whilst the restaurant staff were incredibly helpful in trying to provide safe food, poor M ended up with just a plate of plain boiled rice and an apple. At that point my Mum vowed that she couldn’t face another dinner out like that and so the search began for somewhere that could cater much better for M’s particular needs.
As a long-time fan of the Hard Rock Cafe, I had been delighted to discover a couple of weeks before we travelled that there was one in Lisbon and had even managed to find a copy of their menu, including allergens, on-line. My e-mail enquiry about their ability to cater for M had gone unanswered, but I felt confident that there was a good chance they would be able to cook him some safe chicken at very least and so we headed there for our second meal in Lisbon. We were not disappointed. The Hard Rock policy is that all allergy enquiries and requests are dealt with by the manager and she came to our table to understand exactly what we needed. They weren’t able to provide rice for M as it’s cooked with vegetables, but an impressive plate of grilled chicken with apple and cucumber slices arrived and was quickly devoured by our hungry boy. G was also well catered for as they had comprehensive allergen listings available and could prepare all burgers and sandwiches using a delicious gluten- and dairy-free bread. She chose the classic club sandwich with fries and I was delighted to hear that they used a separate fryer to cook the fries to ensure that cross-contamination risks were kept to a minimum.
The meal was such a success that when my Mum suggested that we go back for our final meal out in Lisbon, Mike, the children and I were quick to agree. Once again their service in meeting our allergy needs was impeccable and despite it being a much busier Friday evening, we were still confident that the food had been carefully prepared. We ran through M’s food restrictions with that evening’s manager and the resulting plate of food earned a well deserved 9.5 out of 10 from M. We did have a couple of small hiccups with both meals, but they were quickly dealt with and the staff were keen to make sure that we were happy. M’s food was re-plated on a clean dish when I pointed out that the decorative strawberries included on the original plate were not safe for him, and G’s mayonnaise was replaced after she found an unidentifiable lump in the bottom of the small serving dish. It turned out to be a stray spoonful of coleslaw, but they apologised profusely and the manager even came back to the table to add her apologies and to ensure that the rest of our meals was everything we needed. It was great to discover that this old favourite of mine was so capable of preparing safe and delicious meals that both children absolutely loved and I’m now excited to discover what other locations we can visit on future trips.
The first few days of our Portuguese adventures were spent in the capital city, Lisbon, where we enjoyed some great days out in what was a first visit for us, even though we know parts of the Algarve extremely well. For anyone wondering where to go on a family break, Lisbon has a huge variety of choices to suit just about every age and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. We weren’t staying in Old Lisbon itself, but rather in one of its suburbs and it was extremely easy to travel in and out of the main centre by train using their Via Viagem travel card system, something akin to London’s Oyster cards.
My Mum had lent me her Lisbon guide-book before we went, which I had just about had time to skim through and highlight some things which I thought might appeal to us all, given our ages ranged from 10 to somewhere in the 60s, and I knew she had a list of ‘must-sees’ to hand too. Her Berlitz Pocket Guide also proved to be a welcome distraction for an unexpectedly nervous M, who was surprisingly anxious about our 2 hour flight as he hasn’t flown since before having his tube and spent the time studying the guide pinpointing attractions he really wanted to visit whilst we were there. With a list as long as our arm to work our way through, we narrowed down our choices to the top few that appealed the most to us all and set off to see just how much ground we could cover in our 3 full days in the city.
Our main choice for the first day was to jump on to a “Hop-on, hop-off” bus, a firm favourite in our family as a way of exploring a new place as it not only helps orientate ourselves, but also serves as a great way of seeing some sights that we might otherwise not get to visit due to time constraints. We used the familiar City Sightseeing tours as a company we’ve used around the world with great success, but have to say that this time we were left a little disappointed. The bus-stops were poorly signed and we frequently found ourselves walking miles in an attempt to work out exactly where we needed to be to catch the bus back to wherever we next wanted to be. On one occasion, we even gave up completely having spied the bus heading away from us after a good 20 minutes standing in the blazing sun at a marked bus-stop on what we knew had to be the wrong side of the road for the direction we wanted and instead negotiated a great rate with one of the Tuk Tuk drivers, much to the children’s delight.
We took the bus and travelled out to the area of Belém, where M had identified the impressive Torre de Belém as a necessary sightseeing stop. He was particularly intrigued by the stone rhino that graces the base of one of the Tower’s turrets and insisted we explored until we found it whilst the older members of our group held a place in the queue. We waited for well over an hour in the soaring heat and it was just about worth the wait. Both children enjoyed exploring the different levels of the Tower, honing their photography skills amongst the cannons in the artillery as well as in the dungeons and of the stunning panoramic views of the River Tagus from the top. The tower is climbed via a steep spiral staircase and a series of sequenced traffic lights indicated when it was time to climb up, down, or pause for breath in one of the rooms off the main staircase.
Having exhausted all that the Torre de Belém had to offer, my Mum was keen for us to head towards the infamous Padrão dos Descobrimentos, perhaps one of the most well-known sights in Lisbon. Sadly, the monument that depicts a number of important Portuguese historical figures including explorers Magellan and Vasco da Gama, was hidden by scaffolding, but we enjoyed the walk along the river before wearily trekking on to our ever-elusive next bus-stop. Our travels also took us past the impressive Cristo Rei statue – M’s “…like Christ the Redeemer, but not..” – the beautiful Moorish-inspired Campo Pequeno Bullring and the awe-inspiring Águas Livres Aqueduct, all of which give us great reason to visit this beautiful city again.
As Mum to a child with additional health needs, you have to be prepared the minute you venture outside your front door. You don’t just carry with you the medicines, equipment and food items you need to get you through the next few hours relatively unscathed, but also the necessary mental strength to explain your child’s needs to everyone you encounter and ensure that your trip outside of the safe bubble at home goes as smoothly as it possibly can. There are, of course, times when an essential gets left on the kitchen counter and you have to think on your feet and find a solution that will work until you get back home, and, for us, there have been times when, despite the clear explanations given and the seeming comprehension of the waiting staff, mistakes have been made and the children have suffered the consequences of those misunderstandings.
When you add travelling abroad to the mix, those unavoidable stresses become even more intense and, as an allergy Mum, I can tell you that worries about safe food are right at the top of the list. As you may remember, last year we decided to stay in the UK during that first holiday season with a tube in place and had the most amazing week in Cornwall, where we discovered hidden treasures of restaurants and sight-seeing spots that we are still talking about nearly 12 months on. However, we decided that this year we would venture back to a favourite haunt and visit the Algarve in Portugal, with a few extra days in Lisbon tacked on to the start of our trip. We know the resort of Alvor extremely well, but this will be the first time of visiting with such a restricted diet and I have to confess that nerves have been a little greater as we plan our 10-day stay away from home.
One thing I learned early on in our holiday planning with M was to talk to our airline about taking an extra case filled with whatever medicines or foods we will need whilst we’re away and have had superb experiences with both Easyjet to Portugal and Virgin Atlantic to Florida. These conversations paved the way for our long-haul flight to the USA and we found that both the airport lounge and the airline were able to provide safe meals for M when we gave them a little advance warning, but what happens once we’ve landed abroad, especially in a country where we don’t speak a word of the native language? Our back-up plan is our self-catering apartment, which means that there is always somewhere to prepare a simple meal of M’s safe foods without too much trouble, but I do, perhaps selfishly, want a holiday from that daily grind of cooking and be able to enjoy a family meal as we used to do when the children were small. Our previous holidays to Portugal were challenging, but not impossible as M loves fish and seafood which are always readily available, but I worried that the current restrictions might be a demand too far.
Fortunately, there are answers to the anxiety about communicating food allergy requirements in a foreign language and whilst it took a little more effort than originally planned, I got our perfect solution in the end. I started by calling Allergy UK, who offer a fantastic service of providing translation cards which “…feature an allergy alert message, an emergency message and a message for use in restaurants to ensure that your food order is free from the particular allergen that causes your reaction…” and can be ordered in any one of 36 languages to cover 70 different allergens. However, I really wanted a bespoke message detailing M’s current safe foods and unfortunately Allergy UK was not able to tailor their cards accordingly, but they did point me in the direction of the amazing Yellow Cross, a company I had never even heard about until recently.
Thanks to a detailed e-mail conversation with Yellow Cross Director, Jane Harrison, she agreed that it would make far more sense to detail what M can eat, rather than a lengthy list of his many allergens and suggested she spoke to their translator to cost out these personalised cards. We settled on appropriate wording, it was passed to their Portuguese translator and I was quoted a very reasonable £20 for a set of 4 eating out translation cards. I confirmed that we wanted the cards, made payment and in less than a week, the finished credit card-sized cards dropped through our letter box. The cards are printed on card and then carefully laminated to extend their life, and I couldn’t be happier with the finished product. They clearly state the wording I had discussed and agreed with Jane and their service was absolutely faultless. I found Yellow Cross willing to help us with our request and I’m certain that the inclusion of these cards in our travel survival pack will ensure that our Portuguese holiday goes with a swing.