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.”
After three days in Cinque Terre staying in the seaside village of Monterosso, we are currently on a train bound for Nice. Monterosso and the other famous villages were scenic and interesting but also very crowded, even in October. My favourite time was spent hiking from Monterosso to the nearby town of Levanto. It was hot, uphill hiking, with a stop to view an ancient sanctuary at Punto Mesco. Luckily, Levanto (not one of the five villages) had a beach to make the kids happy after their hours of hiking.
I am sad to be leaving Italia, particularly as I have now mastered making espresso in a Mokapot. A.J. has become a self-taught expert in this and did considerable research about the best technique. He even bought himself a pack of espresso decaf. We are eating most meals in our AirBnB apartments—so far lots of pasta, beans and salad served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar), and out for an occasional dinner in a a restaurant. In Monterossi, we had pizza on an outdoor patio by the beach. The area is home to pesto, so we also bought a jar to try. Briar is a pesto maniac.
Street scene in Monterosso. Green shutters and laundry hanging.
Some things that will remind me of Italia:
- Mokapots. Every apartment we stayed in had one. Otherwise, there has been a real range of kitchen tools. One place had a panini press and a mezzaluna but no spatula or turner.
- Seeing people enjoy Aperol spritzes on patios. The spritzes are served in bulb-like glasses with a lemon slice and a straw. Aperol seems similar to Campari in flavour.
- Laundry hanging on balconies, everywhere, everyday. Sheets might be dangling right over people eating dinner in a ristorante. I respect that! All our apartments have had one small washing machine, usually a Candy model.
- Ochre buildings with green shutters.
- Apricots growing on vines over fences. Lemon trees.
A.J. with a cone. He had two gelatos on our last day.
A few things I will miss:
- Bottles of Italian milk. Even partially skimmed (scremato) it is inexpensive (to me) and delicious. This trip has actually made me realize how expensive food is on Vancouver Island as we have been shopping in some busy tourist areas and I have not been shocked by prices.
- Peaches from Sicily. All fruit has been delicious.
- Focaccia. I am not even the biggest fan (Briar again!) but it was particularly good in Monterosso. We shared some on the train.
- Gelato, a thousand times gelato. A.J. obsessed over it. His favourite was stracciatella, a traditional flavour with chocolate chip pieces. The names are beautiful. Last night I tried fior di latte (flower of milk).
- I will also miss seeing so many ancient buildings and places. Even the “barn” we stayed in in Tuscany was a thousand years old. The kids know well by now that I love ruins and exploring them. On my last night in Italy, I took a walk by myself along a stream lined by old lime mortar walls that lead to la Valle dei Limoni, the valley of lemons.
The last focaccia from Italy is unwrapped on the train.
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….
Seaside of Nice
Cinque Terre also known as 5 Terre, are 5 little towns on the cliff side along the water. Today we hiked up and up and up. When we finally thought that there was no ending to the stairs we saw the most spectacular view ever. Which made us forget how tired and hungry and thirsty we were. It was overlooking the town of Monterosso, with its brightly coloured houses and shimmering oceans. The lush green mountains standing tall behind it. It’s like in a fairytale! The people on the beach looked like tiny tiny specks, that’s how high we were.We walked for another hour before stopping to satisfy our hunger. Which probably took a lot of weight off of mummy’s back. Then we had to hit the road again. We walked and walked and walked until we reached Levonto!!! A slightly bigger town than Monterosso. When we got there AJ and I ran down the hill, we could not wait another minute before jumping in the refreshing water. Once we cooled off in the Ocean, we walked to the train station to catch a train back to our welcoming Airbnb. Our Airbnb has an oceany theme which I really like. Though it is a lot smaller than our previous one. We are making the most of our last days in Italy. Then we will be heading off to France!
The island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea is where we have been spending our nights and days. Our days have been packed with walking, swimming, eating and exploring. You can barely swim in the ocean in the summer in Victoria and definitely not October. But here you can swim to the end of October. The water is bright blue and clear, with lots of fish too. And we saw flamingos on the way to Elba. They were very pretty. And we have seen so many breathtaking views. We’ve seen the mountains from the towns and we’ve seen the towns from the mountains. We’ve seen the sunset every night and morning from our balcony. Arranging its self in different calming colours. We’ve soaked in the sun well playing paddle ball or just watching the waves roll in. We tried new foods such as mandorla gelato, aperol spritz (daddy not me), tuna pizza and much much more. Some we loved some not so much, but it’s a good experience. Live life on the edge! And to top it all of we had a wonderful place to come back to. To watch Italian movies, work or rest for the next busy day. If you ever need a get a way vacation come to Elba!!! (more…)
I had never imagined that Briar would be obsessed with wild boars. But she was. We stayed six nights on an olive farm near Montegonzi, Tuscany, home to black scorpions and wild boars. There was olive oil to sample, a pool surrounded by olive trees and three dogs on site—including a sleepy-eyed lumbering Newfoundland named Nelson. We were a 25-minute drive from any store, but close to winding roads, rolling hills, medieval castles and many vineyards and olive farms.
The famous Siena square.
The highlight of the kids’ stay in Tuscany will surely be the Tuscany cooking class they attended in a rural farm or podere, along with their dad and a couple from New York. I chose to roam the hillsides, visiting a convent, walking past tiny chapels and shrines and watching grapes being harvested for the famous Chianti wine.
We returned to busy streets for a day trip to Siena, with its most beautiful medieval square, the Piazza del Campo. We toured their ancient hospital that cared for the poor and abandoned—Santa Maria Della Scala, which was a captivating combination of high art in frescos and bizarre underground tunnels with bones and artefacts.
Briar never did see a wild boar while we were in Tuscany, though she heard their howling guttural sounds at night—which incensed the dogs. She will have to return some day.
A shrine by the roadside in Tuscany.
From Montegonzi we drove to Piombino and took an hour-long ferry ride to Rio Marina and then Porto Azzurro on Elba Island on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is apparently chock-a-block with tourists in July and August, but the ferry ride over had the air of an empty Carnival cruise ship. Porto Azzurro was not empty—there were quite a few German families, particularly in the campgrounds—but overall the village of 3,700 or so residents was peaceful and welcoming in its shoulder season.
I had two particularly wonderful runs, one along a coastline trail that took me past three beaches: Barbarossa, Reale, and Terranera. Elba is known for its beautiful beaches, but there was more here, for example a Spanish fortress, now a prison, that looms over the cliffs, and minerals—evident in the sparkling black sand of Terranera. Elba’s mining history apparently dates back to the Etruscans, one of many peoples who took turns ruling and living on Elba.
Standing at the sanctuary.
Another run took me to Spiaggia di Barbarossa then up a long, winding road to a pine tree called the pino monumentale, or nonno (grandfather) pino, said to be 400 years old. From there I ran to a hidden cliff top sanctuary, the Sanctuario della Madonna di Monserrato. The stone church in the cliffs was commissioned in 1606 by the Spanish governor Pons y Léon to worship the cult of the Black Madonna (in Spain worshipped at the Montserrat Sanctuary). I found myself completely alone on the path and at the top. The chapel door was locked, but the view of the ocean, the town below, and the strange, otherworldly stone chapel was eerie and exhilarating.
The painting of the Black Madonna seen in the sanctuary.
David and I later hiked to the sanctuary another afternoon. The chapel was again closed, but we peeped through the keyhole to glimpse the altar with the painting of the Madonna. Taking the path down to real life, we agreed we had seen something unusual and special.