Parents go duty free

You may feel a bit guilty, but even the best mums and dads need a holiday from their children.

Adults: 2. Children: 0." I felt incredibly guilty even typing that into the easyJet booking website. But all the parenting literature says you must take time out from children. As the mother of Sonny, four, and Buddy, two, it's hard to carve out time and attention for myself (let alone my love life) so, with a little bit of lip tremble I hit the proceed button.

Here we were going on our very belated honeymoon, the main attraction of which was four nights of sleep – oh, and a bit of history and culture during the day. Barcelona, the centre of European chic, we'd heard, seemed like a good choice – and not too far away in case of emergency.

While Simon was busy checking passports, my mind was racing in a way I had never before experienced when travelling. Ticking off a million lists: is there enough apple juice in the fridge? Spaghetti hoops in the cupboard? Where did I leave the spare pyjamas? Before I could get on with the serious business of a carefree holiday, I was getting giddy trying to go over every minute detail of their lives.

Peering forlornly through the cab rear window, watching two little hands waving, two questioning faces disappearing into the distance, we guiltily turned and looked at each other.

I made three phone calls home before we even got to the M1.

At the airport, the first strange thing was that it didn't take 15 minutes to get out of the car, as is the case with the kids. The flight was delayed by two hours, but we had several over-priced cappuccinos and just revelled in how stress-free all this was sans enfants.

Parents of bored and screaming children were frantically trying to find ways to amuse them, the last resort being sweets. I made a mental note that if we went here with Sonny and Buddy, we would go through to the departure lounge as soon as we checked in: that's where they've hidden the Toddlers Heaven Play Area, with Tweenies videos and all.

Our own play area was Barcelona. We loved this intoxicating city at first sight. Every way you turn down the cobbled streets and alleyways you came across more delights.

On our first morning we saw a couple with a little girl about Buddy's age. I felt a twinge of guilt as I saw her ambling along, stopping to pick up every stone and twig, with her parents trying to gently coax her along.

We passed by, smiling knowingly, marvelled at the cathedral, browsed in some antique shops, bought an ice cream and a few trinkets for our kids (by the way, don't get bogged down with buying guilt presents) and decided to retrace our steps. And there they were again – they'd only managed to amble 50 metres further. This was a holiday we were really going to enjoy.

We stayed in the central Hotel Rialto (mid-priced, and perfect) and packed in all the tourist must-do's: soaking up Gaudi's architecture, the Picassos and all the spirit this fantastic city has to offer. We walked our feet off, had the best meals and endless cups of coffee in tree-lined squares.

In a few years we'll bring Sonny and Buddy here; Barcelona has wonderful history and visionary architecture plus a seaside – St Ives, San Francisco and Marbella rolled into one. Strolling down Las Ramblas, we threw euros to Cleopatra, Marge Simpson and Charlie Chaplin – Barcelona is famous for mime artists and human statues.

We also enjoyed an alfresco boogie-woogie band complete with an upright piano on wheels. Crossing the bridge at Port Vell into Port Olympic, past the trendy harbour and shopping centre, we reached the five-mile stretch of golden sand, stopping every few metres for jugs of sangria at bars right on the beach which, by night, are lit by huge plastic palm trees. It was like our first date again.

There were many times we wished our bodies didn't have a finite capacity for fresh fish and spectacular tapas; if only we could just keep eating and drinking. In fact, if only we could just keep on keeping on – Barcelona is truly the city that never sleeps. Thousands of people party the night away at waterfront clubs to rival Ibiza; barbecues burn around beach parties at 2am; one night we saw a naked man reading (I swear!) The Independent by a beach-side lamp.

But what of the kids back home? We'd decided not to phone. Children have a different sense of time and probably wouldn't realise that we'd been away (they don't really miss you as much as you'd hope). But we'd emailed, faxed and left phone numbers. In our new-found relaxed state in the gorgeousness of Barcelona, we even found time to discuss parenting issues and made some fairly momentous decisions about family life. Somehow I don't think we'd have had those conversations back home in the middle of teatime hell. It's important to be a couple again – recharge your batteries, catch up on sleep (and sex), let the bigger picture come back into focus; it can get forgotten in the mayhem of lost socks and tantrums.

We came back refreshed and rejuvenated. It was even a bit of a thrill to change a nappy again. For the kids, it was like we'd never been away. No open arms greeting us on our return, just: "Mummy, where's my Bob the Builder?" Extended families have got it right: let granny, granddad or auntie take over and give yourself a break. Even the clingiest toddler needs to form other relationships and, quite frankly, even the most besotted parents need some time to just be adults.

Janey Lee Grace is a presenter on BBC Radio 2

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