After a week in the Gillies’ household in Dulwich I joined the BPs (Jude, Ed and daughters Ella and Maddie for a week in Italy.
This is a garbled account, written on my return, in moments between various medical appointments which I am cramming in before my next visitor arrives on Wednesday.
I have put up my general photos (the ones of the family are elsewhere and password protected).
Rome (26-28 May)
Our first stop was three nights in Rome, in a splendid and spacious third floor apartment in the Piazza Santa Salvatore, in the heart of the old city.
We were welcomed by the owner, Matteo, who lives nearby. We reckoned the flat must have belonged to his father, perhaps an architect or historian, judging by the huge number of books. It is interesting that it was perhaps the books which made us feel at home and gave the flat a special character.
For the girls, however, the highlight was the giant jacuzzi bath! The sleeping arrangements were challenging. Ed and Jude had their own room, Ella slept up on a mezzanine in the second bedroom, with me on a pull-out sofa-bed and Maddie on some cushions on the floor.
Friday: Vatican day
This was a very full-on first day. It was hot and crowded. Indeed my first visit to Rome will be coloured by memories of these crowds. I have never been surrounded by so many tourists, even in Indian temples.
We joined a guided tour to avoid queues. Our guide was a German woman who had lived in Italy for 40 years. But still very Germanic.
The architecture was wonderful, the art spectacular and I was not disappointed by the climax, the Sistine Chapel. It was impossible to loiter at will. Oh, how wonderful it would have been to spend the time it deserved – alone.
There were security checks everywhere, but then this has no doubt become the norm worldwide. What was unnecessary was the officials who barked out ‘Silence! No photos!’ in Italian and English. (Something to do with wearing uniforms?)
In the evening we went to the Trevi Fountain. It was completely swarming in tourists (and impossible to take a decent photo), but well worth the trip.
Saturday: Coliseum and Forum
The children tolerated rather than actively enjoyed this second day of culture, although Ella was impressed by looking down on the area where the lions roamed and the stories of the Romans’ brutal taste in entertainment.
I was struck by the incredible engineering of the Coliseum: a structure which house over 50000 spectators and had a seating and entry system far superior to many modern football stadiums.
The Forum was perhaps even more moving, helped by having an excellent guide, James (a bit of a Prince Harry type) who gave just the right amount of historical context.
The Rome experience was somewhat marred for me by developing a cold as soon as I arrived. The usual – a chest cough, no doubt picked up in London, and periodically feeling pretty rotten. Worse still, this time I TOTALLY lost my voice. Probably the only time the family will know me virtually silent.
Sunday: leaving Rome
Getting three heavy cases plus sundry bags down three flights of stairs was not easy. Nor was the long trek to find a taxi to the statio to collect the car hired. Nor was the fact that Ed had to queue for over an hour to collect the car ordered some time ago.
Gardens of Bomarzo – Parco del Mostri
To entertain the children after these full-on days of culture, we visited a monster park, on the road from Rome to Tuscany. Jude had read about it in her guide book for kids in Italy, which turned out to be invaluable – better written than the adult guides and with an intelligent selction of things to see and do.
The park was commissioned in the 16th centure by Prince Pier Orsini in memory of his wife. It then lay neglected for centuries and even now the moss-covered woods add to the charm. It was right up Ella’s street: wandering from one huge monster or mythical character to another.
Radicondoli (29-31 May)
We stayed in a large gite (another Air BnB) set in the beautiful rolling countryside south of Siena, outside a charming village, Radicondoli.
Despite the large size of our apartment there were only two bedrooms, so I shared with the girls. I have become rather attached to this arrangement and amazingly they sleep through my coughing and restlessness. Maddie usually falls out of bed about 4am, but without fuss climbs back in again.
The other much appreciated feature of this gite was the pretty swimming pool. Ella is oblivious to cold weather but even the rest of the family spent some time in the water (not me!).
We used the gite as a base for visiting Siena and San Gimignano.
I am particularly fond of Siena; I have happy memories of a break in our camping holiday – drying out in a gite of character, after some spectacular rain in Florence.
I love the over-the-top liquorice allsort cathedral and in particular the images on the floor. Jude and Ed clearly prefer the more restrained Duomo in Florence.
After the cathedral we wandered round the medieval streets of Siena, leaving till last, the treat that is the piazza Il Campo. My very favourite town square – if you can call this delightful sloping polygon a square.
We indulged in a lunch overlooking the piazza (I’m afraid my favourite tipple has become Prosecco) and then while the others did something more child-oriented (I forget what) I had a quick visit to the Palazzo Publico and above all, my favourite pictures in Siena: Lorenzetti’s Good and Bad Government. This was commissioned by the town council in the 14th century and amazingly for this period is not about religion.
I would say that the highlight of the day for Ella and Maddie was our daily ice cream. Maddie’s invariably needs a lot of ‘hoovering’ (an old family tradition) as strawberry (always strawberry) ice cream trickles down the cone onto her hands – and feet.
The next day, another car journey, to San Gimignano. The girls are very good about these trips, helped by the modern travel aide for children: tablets packed with stories. Ella is involved in some complicated series, based in a school with scary teachers. Maddie is still in the world of Peppa Pig and Room on the Broom.
San Gimignano was loved by all the family. It really is a delightful medieval town and of course has these crazy towers everywhere, as all the big shots tried to outdo each other building higher and higher tower houses.
There are still 14 of the original 72 standing and the family (not me this time) climbed up the Torre Grossa of the Palazzo Comunale.
Then, while Ella and Ed visited a museum of torture, Jude, Maddie and I wandered round the delightful Duomo. Even here, eagle-eyed Maddie spotted a painting in which people were ‘not being nice to each other’. Some are dead, she said, matter of factly.
And of course, we could not leave without sampling the wares of one of the two gelaterias claiming to be world champion. I swear Maddie can now read ‘gelateria’ as one of her favourite games was calling out ‘ice cream’ when we passed one. Not to eat one necessarily, but as a sort of I-Spy exercise.
One our way to our last stay – Florence – we stopped off at another gem from Jude’s guide book for kids in Italy: an excellent forest adventure. Apparently these are becoming well known activities in Britain.
Maddie refused to dress up in the safety gear, but – after an initial briefing – Ella (accompanied by Ed) spent a happy and challenging two hours traversing ever higher lines between the trees and then flying down a zip wire. We three gazed in admiration from down on the ground; Jude shares my unease with heights.
Florence (1-2 June)
And finally what was meant to be – and was – the grand climax to the holiday: Florence.
Our hotel was amazing. With all my years of camping and going cheap I have rarely been in a real grown-up hotel with luxurious rooms, smiling attentive staff and prime location. Of course the decor was over the top, but I did rather enjoy luxuriating in my marble shower in my marble bathroom. And the view from my balcony was hard to beat: I was looking out at the beautiful Santa Maria Novella (if you ignore the obligatory scaffolding behid and covered monument in front – both good signs of restoration work).
Only fly in the ointment: the weather. Florence was wet. Not as wet as when Chris and I camped here nine years ago, but still, definitely umbrella weather.
Duomo and Baptistery
Sadly no photo of the exterior as it was raining too hard! A pity because Brenelleschi’s dome is a marvel (but I will still have my photos from 2004 when I finish current upgrading). Inside the duomo is a marvel. It is much more austere and gothic than I remember.
I find the Baptistery, across the square, even more appealing, and could spend hours gazing up at the frescoes in the dome (if only they provided appropriate seating!).
We didnt go up the Campanile this time, but well worth the climb.
I am conscious I have not done justice to two of the most wonderful buildings in Florence, but I’m wilting!
Other churches visited
Santa Maria Novella. Our local church is a gem – one of the best in Florence. I love the simple, almost Renaissance facade, and inside (older) there are some wonderful paintings.
Santi Apostoli. We came across this church strolling round the narrow medieval lanes. It is a lovely old Romanesque church and well worth the visit.
San Miniato. We walked up to this church primarily for the view: perched high on a hill on the other side of the river (near where Chris and I camped) the panorama is worth it. I found the church itself less appealing, but we were there both for the view and for a lovely few moments listening to the monks singing Gregorian chants.
We braved the Ponte Vecchio, despite the rain. I’m glad we did. But the best views were from the cafe where we retreated for food, drink and to dry out.
We also packed in quite a lot of strolling round the old, narrow streets, admiring the huge fortified houses, visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, taking a pony and cart ride (great fun), and of course, eating an ice cream.
And so on by train to Pisa, where Ed and Jude and family were to take an afternoon flight home, while I stayed overnight for a more complicated journey to Montpellier, involving two planes via Paris.
But first, we managed to pack in a whistle stop tour to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then we found the time to take a second pony trip. It was both enjoyable and informative (a good guide) and we saw more of Pisa and realised there is much more than the well known Piazza.
A last ice cream and it was time for the family to sadly leave. I meanwhile walked from my dreary hotel near the station back to the Piazza whose glorious white marble I love very much. I paid lengthier visits to the Duomo, Baptistery and Camposanto (where sadly some of my favourite frescoes are away being restored and relocated).
A good holiday
It’s quite a challenge going to one of the most beautiful countries in the world, packed with churches, monuments, pictures… in the company of two small girls aged six and three – and a granny with serious mobility issues.
Well done to Ed and Jude. They showed it is possible balance sight seeing and playing to please all. Well done to Ella and Maddie for allowing us to look at things that didn’t usually turn them on – though Ella’s imagination was definitely captured by things like the Coliseum, and Maddie got skilled at spotting gory pictures and ice cream shops.