I’ve been writing a short column, three or four times a year, for Island Parent magazine. It’s usually a light-hearted look at the struggles to be a “good parent”… and a chance for me to keep writing and publishing shorter essays, to exercise those creative muscles, while I’m working (or procrastinating about) larger book projects. I’ve often gotten far more feedback from my Island Parentcolumns than I ever have for my books, which shows the reach of the magazine amongst local readership. Writing the column, as our kids get older, has also forced me to reflect on the ethics of nonfiction writing and memoir — and mining my family’s lives for public consumption. (I spiked one column when our son wasn’t comfortable with what I’d written, and now I always run the drafts past both kids before I get close to deadline.)
For my May column (due in late March), I’d planned to write about getting a puppy before Christmas. Again, the focus would be light-hearted, even if being new dog owners had added stress to our lives. Then the coronavirus hit. I emailed the editor of the magazine wondering if I should stick to my puppy topic or address COVID-19 head-on…. and if I was okay with the latter, could I turn around a column in a couple of days. One of the other writers had filed his column before the corona-crisis had exploded and so she could rush mine into print, if I didn’t mind reflecting on this fast-moving and frightening subject.
I figured why not. It was all any of us were thinking about and talking about anyway — as parents and as middle-aged kids worrying about our parents. And so I did, and the article can be read here.
On every long voyage (and many smaller ones), there’s a moment when the best-laid plans go awry, itineraries get disrupted, Mother Nature wreaks havoc, and/or logistics get log-jammed. That’s when a trip becomes an “adventure”.
You can’t predict when you’re going to have an adventure. (But blogging about how your trip has been going smoothly is likely a good trigger for the karmic gods to mess with your journey!)
Adventures tend to be what we remember, though, even if they give us grey hairs at the time. I still recall an ill-fated expedition to renew my visa while living in the Czech Republic that involved a bus trip from Prague to some obscure border town, a break down in the snow, and a futile scramble to make it back to the city (without a new visa) before I was meant to teach my ESL class.
That’s just a segue to say: We had our first real adventure of our trip.
By week six of our travels, we had entered France and were enjoying what felt like the doldrums, especially once we settled in Saint Remy de Provence for a week. We slept in, we ate well, we did one or two activities in the afternoon, and then played ping pong or read on the patio in the Provençal sunsets. One day led smoothly into the next. A couple late-night storms and cloudy days reminded us that autumn was well upon us, but nothing to disturb our serenity.
The forecast called for several days of rain as we headed off to Palavas les Flots, on the Mediterranean coast, but when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the sun was out and surfers were riding the waves on either side of the town’s canal. The next day was more overcast and windy and a full-on gale swept through overnight, rattling awnings and driving the current of the canal back up-river. I double-checked on our rental car, parked a few minutes away in a municipal lot, to make sure it wasn’t getting flooded. The next day, it rained but we avoided most of it with a relaxing day trip to Espiguette Beach — a huge swathe of duney sand and sea (only AJ dared to take a plunge) and then an excellent aquarium (or rather “Seaquarium”) in Grau de Roi.
Then the next day the heavens exploded. First, massive thunderstorms illuminated the sky and shook our Airbnb over night. And then sheets of rain poured down for most of the day. AJ, Briar and I tried to venture out in what seemed like a break in the rain, to dump recycling and check on the car again, but we were soaked through within minutes.
Palavas is surrounded by canals that branch off the Rhône, and the highways out were already collecting water before the rain really started falling. I asked our AirBnb host, a tourism centre guide, several police officers, and even the woman at a nearby bakery if we’d be able to drive out the next day. Does Palavas ever get locked in by flooding? (I’d also googled the town and found an article about how likely it was to be severely affected by global warming.) Non, it will be fine, they all assured me. If you can’t get out the direct route, there was an alternate that would only add 10 or 15 minutes to Montpellier.
The rain tapered off a bit that night, although the lightning returned, and then the rain started again. We scrambled to leave as soon as possible. The car needed to be back in Montpellier train station for 10am, but we wanted to get there even earlier… We packed up the car, dodged a few major puddles leaving town and enjoyed a relatively brief window of rainless sky for the drive to Montpellier. Car dropped off. One less worry.
But then we crossed the street to the Gare Roch station and saw that the earlier train to Barcelona had been delayed by two hours… it hadn’t even left yet. Ours wasn’t set to leave until 1:40pm so we hoped we could be fine. We were wrong. A glance at the departures/arrivals screen showed extending delays and cancellations for almost every train.And then the skies broke open again… and unleashed more rain and wind than I’d every seen before. Some locals video’d the deluge from the safety of the station’s high ceiling… although that soon began to leak. Other travellers sat and cried, either due to cancelled connections or the explosions of thunder that ripped overhead. Finally, the arrival/departures screens just went blank.
We joined the line of puzzled travellers and learned that no more trains wold be running today, so we should switch our tickets till tomorrow. So we did, for a 9am train. We did a quick search and found a hotel nearby. We’d have to swallow the extra fee — we were already paying for an AirBnB in Barcelona — but we needed a place to stay. The hotel wasn’t far. In fact, I realized it was down the stairs and across the street. But when we rushed with our luggage in what felt like a slow-down in the rain, we arrived at the front desk as soaked as if we’d fallen into a wading pool.
The hotel was worth every Euro. The kids had hot showers and lounged in the fat white bathrobes. We were able to check the status of the storm — it was epic in other areas of southern France, especially Béziers, which had been hit with 4 months of rain, nearly 24 cm, in the span of four hours. We decided that perhaps a bus might be a better option, as it seemed unlikely the trains would run tomorrow morning… in fact, the staffer had said it might not be till Friday. Then I noticed a message online saying that the tracks had been undermined between here and the border and might not be repaired for 10 days—well, after we needed to fly home. Jenny phoned around to make sure the roads hadn’t been washed out too and then we booked seats on a a noon Flixbus for the next day and walked back over to the train station (the rain was finally calming by late afternoon) to get our tickets refunded.
Then we enjoyed a “bonus” visit to Montpellier… wandering through its big central square and park boulevards, and then through its old town, until we could finally complete a mission that the kids were fixated on since arriving in France: eat some authentic macarons!(We managed to sample flavours from the two best shops in town.) Then, after a return to the hotel, we went out for dinner (after much discussion and Yelp-scanning) and lucked in (after our first choice was closed) on a little French restaurant called La Tomate… where I completed a mission I hadn’t even known I’d accepted: try some frogs’ legs!
We had time to have a big breakfast spread and get packed up the next morning… and then suddenly hit the panic button again. I’d decided to book an Uber in advance, rather than a taxi. My mistake. The arranged time passed and passed. On my app, I could see the driver circling our location — 2 minutes away, then 3, then 4… If we didn’t get to the bus station by noon, our tickets were useless. I told Jenny to get the front desk to call a taxi as backstop and we thought about dashing to the station to grab one there… when our Uber arrived nearly 15 minutes late. “Get us to the station!” I yelled as we hurled our luggage into his trunk… and he did, with plenty of time to spare.
We’d paid extra to sit together on the bus, but the semi-chaos that is Flixbus rendered that fee meaningless. The two men in our seats said they’d bought assigned seats but the sullen driver had told passengers to just sit where they want, so they did. In the end, the kids sat a few rows behind us and we enjoyed a quick, sunny, smooth and quiet 4.5-hour drive from Montpellier to downtown Barcelona with the Pyrenees rising to our right as we crossed into Spain.
Once there, we grabbed an official cab and showed the driver the address of our AirBnb. The ride was faster and cheaper than I’d expected… but that’s because he’d dropped us at the address in Barcelona, rather than Llobreget Hospitalet, the suburb where we were actually staying. Thankfully, taxis are plentiful in the city and we jumped into a second one and (finally!) made it to our final accommodation of the trip.
In the end, we only lost one day in Barcelona and one night of AIrBnb fee, although we made a little money back by cashing out our pricey high-speed rail tickets for the bus. For our final three days, our trip has included and will conclude by negotiating our itinerary around the political demonstrations — which got violent last week — throughout the city (we took a trip to the beach yesterday but made sure we were back in our AirBnb before the 5pm rally that saw 350,000 Catalonian protesters take to the city centre) and two potential airport strikes (security staff and baggage handlers) tomorrow morning.
As we enter week #6 — the final stretch — of our European journey, we have settled into a rhythm of almost perpetual motion.
We have gotten good at packing up quickly and leaving each AirBnb clean as we move on to the next — 11 stops in total. My pre-trip planning has worked out so far, with train connections and accommodations… some, admittedly, better than others. (My back is still recovering from a hard mattress in Nice and our cute but space-deficient boat-like cabin in Cassis.)
Anything to do with the rental cars spikes my anxiety. But the driving in France and Italy hasn’t been too bad, aside from a few Google Maps glitches. And we’ve let the car sit at our accommodations’ parking spot for severals days, so we can wander by foot. Most places we could shop for groceries and other essentials without the car.
We have suffered sleeplessness at times, but have all stayed (knock on wood!) relatively healthy, with only a half-day each for AJ and Briar when they felt out of sorts. We hadn’t lost anything until I mentioned that fact… and realized I’d left in the car my pricey attachable sunglasses when I’d dropped off the rental in Bologna.
Our actual day trips and sightseeing haven’t matched up with the ambitious plans sketched out on our trip-planning Google Doc. Often we don’t get out the door until 10 or 11am — or in the case of today, nearly 1pm. But we get out each day and walk and walk and walk and see something new…
We got tripped up in Nice, when every other city seemed to shut its museum and gallery doors on Mondays… except here, where things are shuttered on Tuesdays, our only full day in the city. So that meant no Matisse Gallery or the Mark Chagall Museum. (And there was much rejoicing from the kids!)
When we tried to make up for the lack of gallery time with a visit to the Picasso Museum in Antibes, on our drive to Cassis, we got caught in a massive traffic jam due to a highway accident… and just missed the last entry before the long lunch break, so we walked the old town and breakwater instead. France doesn’t want us to visit its galleries apparently. But its beaches and ruins and hikes and old towns and crepes are impressive too.
After five weeks, we miss friends and family back home, but our portable technologies at least allow us to stay in touch in ways that I couldn’t when I first went backpacking, to Israel, when I was 20. The familiarity of home will seem welcome, too, after struggling to figure out the odd functions of new bathrooms and ovens, locks and foreign TVs, to find peanut butter in the aisles of grocery stores, and bumbling through conversations with my high-school French and Duo Lingo Italian.
But aside from the odd scowl from a shop clerk or a driver, we have felt welcomed and warmed by the hospitality from all the people (and especially our various AirBnb hosts) who have helped us along every step of the road. We all agree with the words on the mosaic we found in a park that overlooked the spectacular coast of Nice: “Happy are those like Ulysses who have a good voyage.”
We are more than halfway through our trip so far — four-sevenths to be precise. Much of our focus, of course, has been exploring the cities and towns, streets and trails of Italy… and now France.
But the promise of leaping into the water in September and October — something we can’t do outside of a rec centre in Victoria — held great appeal too. At first I’d worried about my trip planning: the first three weeks of our itinerary were mostly land-bound, in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice (briefly — and you do NOT want to swim anywhere other than the Lido) and then Chianti. We would only begin the the truly Mediterranean part of our journey in October. Would the sea be too cold by then?
I didn’t need to worry. We’ve managed to find water and immerse ourselves on a regular basis. And the weather has been so gorgeous that we’ve swum in the sea several times. Here are 7 highlights from our aqueous adventures.
Ostia Beach: Day 2 of our trip, we escaped the heat and crowds of Rome to visit the Roman runs at Ostia Antica and still had time to take the train another 2 stops to the beach town of Ostia. The beach wasn’t the prettiest or the water the cleanest, but the locals knew this was the quickest escape from the city and the warm waters of the Mediterranean felt so good after several days of travel and two days of walking around Roman stones.
Outdoor pool in Florence: The kids had only so much patience for the museums and galleries of Italy’s hottest city, so Jenny found an outdoor pool in an expansive public park 30 minutes walk along the river from our apartment in Florence. It will be the priciest swim of our trip (I hope!) after admission and buying the mandatory bathing caps. But the 33m pool was clean and refreshing and we all felt renewed and ready to hit the road to Bologna the next morning.
Outdoor pool in Montegonzi. When we booked the farm “barn” AirBnB (recommended by friends who had stayed there 2 summers ago), I inquired if the outdoor pool would still be in open in late September. The owner said “probably” but warned that in the hills of Tuscany it would be getting colder and possibly rainy. The unheated pool definitely got our blood flowing, as we slowly immersed ourselves inch by inch, but the views across the valley were spectacular and we had the pool and the farm to ourselves. Paradise.
Pool near Montegonzi
Spiaggia Barbarossa, Elba: If we have any regret, it’s probably not booking more than four nights on the Island of Elba. What a gem! Especially this time of the year, when the summer crowds have thinned to sprinklings of German families and Italian weekenders. Our “local” swimming spot, 10 minutes walk from our AirBnB in Porto Azzurro, was a picturesque smile of rocky beach with clear water and several types of fish to amuse the kids as they dove in the shallows.
Spiaggia Livorno. We reluctantly said goodbye to Elba, traded in the rental car and took the train to Monterosso al Mare — the biggest (at less than 1,500 inhabitants) of the 5 cliffside towns that make up the Cinque Terre. Tourists must double or triple or quadruple that population. Even in October, the afternoon trains felt like rush hour in Tokyo and the narrow streets were thick with American accents. We hiked one day in the opposite direction, over the point to the larger town of Livorno. There we found a large rocky beach with crashing surf (and a small surfing scene) that offered a reward to the kids (and myself) for 2.5 hours of up and down hiking. Body-surfing in the waves helped clean out the sinuses and send us back to Monterosso (by train this time) happy and tired.
Spiaggia Monterosso: The next day, we used the Cinque Terre pass to train-hop between the other four towns. We skipped opportunities to swim in the slightly sketchy waters of two other harbours to save time for a dip off the wide beach in front of the new town of Monterosso. We missed the afternoon sun, but we still enjoyed a dip in the Mediterranean in front of one of the most memorable backdrops of coloured house fronts and rocky cliffs.
Nice waterfront: We arrived in France yesterday afternoon, but by the time we got settled into our AirBnb (still being cleaned when we arrived), it was too late for a swim…despite Briar’s protestations. We made sure we got one the next morning, though, and lucked into another perfect 22*C day. The whole Nice beachfront stretches for 2 or 3 miles, bisected into private and public swatches, and is made up of large stones and a steep drop into the surf. We saw a bull dozer drive the length of the beach this morning to reshape the angle of this drop into the water. The sea, however, was amazing to float and swim in, with one of the most visually splendid urban backdrops of any beach. I think only Tel Aviv’s seaside can compare… and that’s only due to its wide sandy beach. I could have floated in the Mediterranean for hours, where the colours turn from deep blue to bright azure before crashing against the white stones, but we had the rest of Nice (or at least its winding Old Town streets) to see. Still, the promise of more time in the Mediterranean awaits in 3 out of our 4 last stops….
Okay, even as I’ve nagged the rest of the family to post to our blog, I’ve been laggardly… Over a week since my last note and we’ve seen so much since Venice!
I could blame it on slow wifi. (I won’t even try to post a photo, given the snail-like upload speed here.) But mostly it’s because we’ve been on “Tuscan time” — first in our “barn” stay in the hills outside of Montegonzi, on the edge of the Chianti region, and now, for the past four nights, on the lush and spectacular Island of Elba.
Sure, we’ve done things, I suppose. We did a cooking class, a small hike, and a day trip to Siena while in Montegonzi. We’ve chased fish in the Mediterranean, explored Marciana Marina and the ridge top town of Marciana, and checked out the seaport shops (and one very good restaurant) in Porto Azzurro.
Mostly, though, we’ve let simply basked in the warm, unhurried, autumnal vibe of Tuscany. The weather has been perfect. A threatened thunderstorm yesterday never appeared. Dark clouds have shuttled past occasionally and always revealed glorious sunsets over the western ridges and hills of both Montegonzi and Porto Azzurro. We have slept in, eaten well, walked and walked, watched an excellent documentary on Netflix about the centuries-old Palio horse race to help us better understand Siena, learned how to make and to savour Italian cuisine (pasta, pesto, zucchini squares, turkey breast and the best tiramisu of my life) in a olive farm in Chianti, and simply enjoyed the leisurely pace of life in this corner of the world .
We have felt the sun on our backs as we floated in the sea. We have sat outside on the stone patio in Montegonzi (with the AirBnB host’s three dogs and one outdoor cat) and balcony in Porto Azzurro and read or just closed our eyes and listened to the breeze. (Actually, right now we are listening to one of our neighbours tune his Vespa — that’s definitely part of the soundscape of Elba!)
Alas, we leave tomorrow… for three nights (our last in Italy) in Cinque Terre. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to return to see more of Tuscany, to enjoy more time in a place that truly knows how best to spend —and bend and extend —time. Another time, I guess.