Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

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Time to change locations again.

The day started with Kas going for another run on the roof of the NH Lingotto. When she came back in we all got dressed and went for breakfast. The breakfast here was pretty good.

We left the hotel mid-morning, as we didn’t think we were in any particular rush, and we programmed Violet to take us out onto the motorway system in the general direction of Genoa. It was really quick to get out of town, which was good, and we quickly found ourselves speeding along the A21 towards Asti. When we got there we took a diversion of the motorway to go find a geocache in the Province of Asti. The one I chose was about 5 minutes up the road of the motorway. easy peasy, or so I thought. It turned into a disaster of biblical proportions. It took me ages to find the cache, and because of it’s being buried in thorny bushes I got scratched to bits on the way in. Five minutes after we’d left I noticed that I didn’t have my sunglasses. Kas politely agreed to go back but when we got there I just couldn’t find them. I must have spent three times as long as it took to find the geocache. I eventually gave up and Kas came out for a quick look. Of course she found them straight away, hanging in a bush. So one geocache found, but rather sadly, we’d spent nearly an hour finding it.

The second geocache was alongside the A21 in a rest area and was in the Province of Alessandria. It wasn’t separated from the carriageway in any way, so the girls stayed in the car while I jumped out and found the cache. Phew ! A quick one.

From here we continued east until we reached the A7 and headed south, despite Violet’s repeated insistence the we use a different road. We swapped drivers somewhere along the way as Kas was finding the drive rather uncomfortable. So I got to drive down what has to be one of Europe’s most scenic motorways (and also one of its slowest and wiggliest). It’s one where an existing wiggly road was doubled up with a second carriageway, but there is so little room in the valley it goes through that essentially they are completely different roads, and at many points the second carriageway is on the wrong side of you. Once we got close to Genoa we made a left turn along the A12. This couldn’t be more different from the A7 if it tried. It’s a newly built road which runs more or less on the flat and simply alternates between bridges and tunnels for the entire course from Genoa down to La Spezia.

La Spezia was to be our home for the evening. We’d booked the Hotel Ghironi for the night as this looked to be one of the few half-decent looking places in town that had rooms that could sleep all four of us. It was a flippin’ nightmare trying to navigate into their car park, and as a result we decided to leave the car there until morning.

Despite being the self-styled Gateway to the Cinque Terre, La Spezia is essentially a port town rather than a tourist town, so it’s not particularly full of decent accommodation.

Anyway, the hotel checked us in but told us they couldn’t run us to the station in their minibus (as we hadn’t booked). They might be able to fetch us back though. So we got them to order us a taxi, and pretty soon we were on our way up to the station and buying tickets for a 4pm (ish) train.

Our destination was the Cinque Terre village of Vernazza. We chose this one above all the others simply because I’d seen a cookery programme on daytime TV with Gino D’Acampo where he’d visited a gelateria in Vernazza and proclaimed it to be the greatest gelateria in the whole of Italy. You can’t sniff at a claim like that, so it seemed a reasonable use of an afternoon to spend ages in the car and on trains just to visit it. We did that first, as it had been a long time since breakfast. The gelato was exceptional.

From here we made our way downhill to the small harbour, took a few photos, and did an earthcache (in the Province of La Spezia – tick) before deciding that the sea looked very appealing. We’d bought our swimming stuff with us, anticipating the possibility of a dip in the sea, and it proved to be very refreshing. The air that day was really muggy and heavy, so it was really pleasant to climb into the relatively cold sea for a swim. We swam inside the harbour and Izzy was going at it like a good ‘un, so wee felt fairly comfortable in letting them swim without us. I did go in the water for a while but suffered for the first few minutes as the salty water found its way into all the scratches I’d acquired whilst doing the geocache in Asti earlier in the day. Ouch ! I guess it had the effect of keeping infection out though.

By this time is was most certainly dinner time. We farted about for a while trying to pick a restaurant before plumping for a small one with a secluded terrace at the back which we had to ourselves. It was quite a simple place but the food was good. Because we weren’t driving we were also able to both have a beer.

I think we caught a train back at about 8:20 and arrived back in La Spezia in time to catch the hotel’s minibus back home. Technically, I think they sent it specially to meet us after I’d called them from the station at Vernazza, but hey ho ! It was there waiting for us and we found it quickly.

It had been a long day again, so the girls went straight to bed and I spent an hour in the cubby-hole round the corner swearing at the poor internet signal whilst trying to update the geocaches stored on my GPS. Such is life when caching abroad.


Turin

Turin

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Day 5 saw us needing to get in the car and head off somewhere different. We had our normal substantial breakfast at the hotel and said goodbye for the final time at about 9am before heading out to the motorways.

Our target for the day was to reach the city of Turin – a journey of about 170km from where we were, via the Milan Tangenziale and then the A4. On the way there we obviously needed to make a couple of stops to “colour in” various provinces with the completion of a single geocache. Very conveniently, the provinces of Novara and Vercelli both contain a motorway service station on the A4 that contains a single geocache. Rather irritatingly, the Province of Biella isn’t quite intercepted by the A4, so we didn’t go there, and as a result our map of Italy now has an irritating little gap there, because we’ve cached in every province that surrounds Biella. Maybe we’ll go back one day, or maybe we won’t. We decided not to stop because we had a busy afternoon planned in Turin and didn’t want to waste the day chasing caches in the middle of nowhere.

The city of Turin was one of our main targets for the holiday, because neither Kas nor I had ever been there other than driving past on a bus on the way to various skiing holidays. When planning the holiday we decided that the best way to see central Turin would be to try to visit all the original shooting locations for the original (1969) film, The Italian Job. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a truly wonderful comedy caper about a bunch of London gangland thugs trying to pull a heist in Turin, and stars what was, at the time, a full-on British luvvie-fest in much the same way that all the Harry Potter films are. It’s packed to the rafters with famous British TV and cinema celebrities. It’s also interesting to watch as a history lesson in the monstrously stereotypical views held by many people in the UK at the time – the British are all portrayed as calm, hard working, erudite and loyal if somewhat eccentric, whereas the Italians are all portrayed as feckless, disorganised, over-excitable, loud and incompetent. All apart from the Mafia, who are portrayed as stylishly dressed and sinister. But enough of that. We shouldn’t judge people of the past by today’s standards, apparently.

The basic plot of the film is that a bunch of London gangland criminals attempt to steal a bunch of gold bullion on it’s way through central Turin from the airport to the Fiat factory at Lingotto and then try to escape in three Minis through a traffic jam they created themselves, onto a waiting bus which carries them over the Alps into Switzerland. Central Turin therefore forms the backdrop for all scenes involving the heist itself and the escape in the Minis. Because they were escaping through a traffic jam, some of the escape scenes are filmed in places you wouldn’t normally take a car, and that’s really the whole point.

We entered Turin on the north side and Violet the Sat Nav took us on a route round the east of the city centre which took us straight past Shooting Location #1 – the Gran Madre di Dio, where the initial black & white film of the proposed heist was shot and sent to Michael Caine and Noel Coward. Well that was a good start, I have to say. More of that later, though, as we came back on foot later in the day to “do it” properly.

The next location we arrived at was one that we initially didn’t plan at all, but when I found the location it was far too good to miss. In the middle of the week before we travelled, while I was researching the various shooting locations, I learned that the Lingotto factory was converted some time ago into a shopping mall with hotels. One of those hotels is the NH Lingotto. Why is this important ? Because if you read the hotel information closely enough you can establish that guests are allowed to use the rooftop test track as part of their fitness & exercise facilities. Well Kas always likes a good run, and if we hadn’t been staying there we probably wouldn’t have gone at all, so I rebooked our hotel in Turin to the NH Lingotto. Violet found it relatively easily but unfortunately we arrived early enough (about midday) that we couldn’t get into the room. The receptionist said it would be an hour or so and he could give us some free tickets for the Fiat museum in the shopping mall, but to be honest we had other plans, so we went back to the car and covered ourselves in suncream and headed off to do our homage.

One other advantage of moving to the NH Lingotto is that there’s a Metro Station just outside, from which it’s possible to get a train to the city centre in about 10 minutes – the metro runs from Lingotto through the Porto Nuova Station. Ideal.

From the station we walked north in the general direction of Piazza Castello via Piazza San Carlo. Most of the walking here was through covered arcades down the side of the road, which provided very welcome relief from the sunshine. It was turning into a hot day.

On this stretch of walk the “homage” included the covered arcade where the policeman on the motorbike slid off on the wet floor. That’s in the Galleria San Federico (and yes, that is the correct spelling). We spent a couple of minutes there trying to figure our which direction the motorbike came in from.

At Piazza Castello there are a couple of the shooting locations. The Palazzo Madama is the place where “Camp Freddie” is seen acknowledging the start of the heist from the palace balcony. The balcony in question was obscured from view, though, as a result of some maintenance work on the front of the building. On the opposite side of the square there’s a covered arcade which I believe is the place where during the escape scenes one of the guys grabs a chicken leg from a restaurant table as they pass by. This is really getting a bit nerdy, isn’t it ? Well, “go hard or go home” is the operative phrase.

Whilst in the Piazza Castello the girls also took the opportunity to get soaking wet in the fountains. Well, why not. Kas said it was fine so long as they both accept that they’ve then got to spend the rest of the afternoon slopping around in wet clothes and shoes. The temptation was too great. In they went.

Once the kids were bored of getting wet, we retired to a nearby touristy, over-priced cafe to treat ourselves to the traditional daily ice-cream, and then we set off in an eastward direction looking for some more filming locations.

The loading of the bullion into the back of the minis was filmed inside the Palazzo Carignano, where there’s a great big wooden door on one side and three mini-sized arches on the other. From here it’s a short walk to the Galleria Sub Alpina, which is the indoor arcade with the plants that the minis drive through immediately before the “falling off the motorbike” shot. It’s all nicely joined up around here.

It was getting slightly late in the afternoon by this point and we still had a couple of places we wanted to go, so next we scuttled off in the general direction of the Mole Antonelliana, a place which is so good that it is quite literally on the money. The gist of the place is that it was originally started as a massive synagogue, but then the local Jewish community ran out of cash and/or took offence at the amount of overspend being incurred as Alessandro Antonelli amended the design, so the synagogue was never completed. At some point later the building was taken over by the City and was completed in its current form. It now hosts a Museum of Cinema in its lower floors, but we were there primarily to catch the lift to the top so we could get a great view of the city, and do a couple of geocaches.

From here we continued east towards the River Po and the Gran Madre di Dio. The church was used twice in the filming of the Italian Job – once at the start, where it’s the location of the initial black & white film reel sent to Michael Caine explaining the plan, and once during the escape scenes, when the minis career down the front steps around the outside of a wedding. On the river at this point is also the ramp down and the weir where the minis make their escape, although the sewer tunnel entrance/exit are elsewhere in the city and the sewer tunnel itself is in Coventry. Two for the price of one at this location, then.

Ever since we’d left the Mole Antonelliana the weather had been looking progressively more threatening, and because it was now approaching 5pm we decided it was time to head back to the hotel so that Kas could get her evening run up on the roof. The walk back through the city to the station was quick and painless and once we got back to the hotel we were checked into a really very nice room.

Kas got changed quickly and then we all went down to reception to collect the keys and made our way through the shopping centre to the lift that takes you up to the rooftop test track. The time up there was spoiled somewhat by the thundery weather, which meant that the peaks of the Alps were shrouded in cloud, but still it’s a spectacular view from the top and definitely one of the lost iconic locations for the film shooting. Looking east from the rooftop you can see the top of the Palavela, which is the big white-roofed building that the minis drive onto the top of. Except the roof is now black rather than white. In the film it also looks distinctly like the place is only just being built, but it was actually completed 8 years before the film was released.

Once Kas had finished we shot down into the room and everyone had a quick shower and we went out to eat. We found a place called “Eataly”, which seemed to be half shop, half restaurant. Their “thing” is that every food item they sell is from Italy. The main downsides were that they don’t sell Coke, Sprite, or anything else in that vein, and you have to pay up front, but the food (and beer) we ordered was excellent.

We had a long day ahead on the following day (again) and it was nearly 10pm when we finished eating, so we decided to head straight back to the hotel and get some zzzzzzzz. It had been a long day packed with silly touristy stuff in a rather beautiful city.


Lake Como

Lake Como

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Day 4 of the holiday (if you count the day we arrived, which I do). This was going to be one of the “big ticket” days where we actually had a plan, and a specific target of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. The plan was to visit Villa del Balbianello on the shores of Lake Como. It was one of the filming locations for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Wikipedia describes if as the “lake retreat”, but as far as our kids were concerned it is the place where Anakin married Padmé. There have been plenty of other films set there too, but the kids only pay attention to the films they like.

We began the day as we often do, with Kas getting up early and going for a run. She got back at 8:30 and we made breakfast at 9am again, leaving the hotel at about 10:30. We hadn’t really decided the best way to get to the Villa but on the Sunday night we’d decided to drive up to Bellagio and try to catch a boat over the lake, to add a bit of extra “tourist” to the day. We’d decided this at the same time as realising that we couldn’t go to the Villa on a Monday (because it’s shut) and so deciding to go to Bergamo instead (see previous post).

On the way up to Bellagio we had the opportunity to engage in some geocache “map colouring” – the exercise whereby you stop once in each possible administrative subdivision of a country and do a single cache so that it get’s “coloured in” on maps on various statistics websites. In Italy the smallest administrative subdivision is the “province”, of which there are well over a hundred in total. We’d already completed Milan and Bergamo on previous days. I’d failed to raise enough energy to make special trips out to do Lodi and Cremona while we were staying near Milan – I’d sort of resolved not to make special trips out as it was supposed to be a family holiday, not just a big caching trip. This day gave us the opportunity (if we drove the right route) to colour in three provinces.

The first of the three was Monza e Brianza. I’d had some troubles with this as the caches I’d downloaded into GSAK only contained 8 in the whole province, and none of them were anywhere near where we were going. Further research revealed that the problem was just that the GSAK macro I use to populate the provinces in the database is really inaccurate. I did wonder why the province of Monza e Brianza apparently didn’t contain any of the caches in either Monza or Brianza……. Thankfully I was able to target some specific caches by working through individual maps and figuring out whether caches were inside the right province or not. Anyway, I digress. Initially we pulled off the road into the town of Agrate Brianza to do a cache by a church, but upon reading the logs discovered it wasn’t there, so we moved on. We completed the province with a drive-by just off the motorway in the town of Vimercate.

Our next target was a roadside stop at a small church in the Province of Lecco. We’d been in the car for a while by this point, so not long after this cache we stopped at a garage to use the toilets and buy bottled water We were still some way from Bellagio. From here we drove through the town of Lecco, which is at the foot of the lower-eastern branch of the lake, and continued from here along the ever narrowing road that runs along the lakeside. The road was a bit scary when driving a large and unfamiliar vehicle.

Parking in Bellagio looked like it was going to be a challenge, but as is often the case we got lucky and found one fairly quickly. Once we’d figured out how to pay for parking and used the toilet again we wandered off in the general direction of the centre of town trying to understand how to buy tickets for a boat, and where we actually wanted to catch a boat to. It took us several attempts, but by the time we’d found the right place we joined a relatively short queue and bought ourselves tickets for a boat that was just about to arrive. Ideal.

The boat ride over was very pleasant and gave us loads of opportunity for taking photos of the coastline of the lake. The boat took us over from Bellagio to Lenno, which was the closest stop to Balbianello, requiring about a mile of walking at a leisurely pace. On the way there we passed a puzzle geocache that I’d solved, and this allowed us to tick off the Province of Como. The cache was a bit awkward to get at and when I was trying to put it back in place I dropped it, and heard the proverbial clanking noises of doom. The cache had dropped to an irretrievable place in the back of a road sign and the attached magnets had taken a serious grip. I couldn’t get it out. D’oh ! And to make matters worse we walked about half of the 1km into Balbianello before I realised I’d left my hat behind, so I had to run back again to fetch it.

By the time I caught up with the girls they were at the entry gate and contemplating which tickets to buy. We went with the “gardens only” option as we were a bit tight for time, plus the girls don’t really do “insides” of things. The gardens are perfectly manicured and make a great contrast with the more stark beauty of the lake and mountains in the background. The bit where the wedding scene took place in the Star Wars film was easy to find, partly because of the fairly obvious shape of the tree in the background, and partly because of the throng of people queuing up to get their photos taken. It took a little while before we could get ours.

We spent about 90 minutes in the gardens photographing as many things as possible before deciding it was all far too hot. We walked back to Lenno at slightly above geological speeds and retired to “The Ice Cream Factory” for the day’s mandatory ice cream, although Kas and I both had a slushie (known as a “granita” here).

We just about had time to eat the ice creams and sit on the side of the lake for 20 minutes before our boat arrived. At this point we started to discuss strategy to get the girls their promised trip to a beach, and decided the best bet was to try to go to one of the ones that came up in a google list that was on the way back. The boat back was boaty, and the car was where we’d left it, which is always useful.

We decided that the road up from Lecco had been so bad that the road down to Como couldn’t possibly be worse, and that’s where most of the beaches were anyway, so we picked our way around the village and headed off back down the “other” road out of town. As it turned out, the road road to Como could most definitely be worse. It was narrower, more twisty, and has a lot of blind corners. It also didn’t seem to have any empty parking spaces anywhere near any of the beaches, despite the fact that it was well into the evening by this time. The further along we went, the worse I was feeling about the driving. It was very stressful.

So at the point where I had a real problem with it we decided to give up on the beach and just go home. Thankfully we arrived in the town of Como without having hit anything, and after a bit of queuing and upsetting the locals by not knowing which lane to get into, we escaped the town and headed back down the motorway towards Milan. I was so tired of driving that I decided I couldn’t be bothered with finding a cache in the Province of Varese – I hadn’t found any near to main roads, so it would have been quite a time consuming exercise – so we just drove back home.

We got back to the hotel at 8pm and decided to have a quick shower and return to the Monte e Mare restaurant we’d been to the night previously. We couldn’t go back there though, because they were closed on Tuesdays, so instead we returned to “Zhu MaoChao”, where we’d been on the evening we arrived, because we knew at least that the kids would find something they’d eat. We’d done most of our packing already too, because it was our final night in Milan before heading off to explore some more of the country on the following day.


Bergamo

Bergamo

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Kas ducked out of going running this morning, so we had a relatively relaxed breakfast at 9am and then promised the girls a couple of hours in the hotel pool before going to do anything else. We’d managed to do everything we wanted to do in Milan the previous day, so had found ourselves with an unexpected Brucie Bonus of a day. A quick search in the bar the previous night suggested that Bergamo would be worth a look.

Kas braved her first go in the car and drove us up to Bergamo. On the way out we had a debate about whether the car’s fuel tank was full or not, so to err on the side of safety we stopped at a motorway service station and incurred a look of displeasure from the service attendant as the car took in a massive six litres of diesel before being full. Obviously that display on the dashboard meant it was pretty much full already.

By this point, we’d definitely agreed that the Sat Nav was called “Violet”, and she did a respectable job of getting us somewhere near the place we wanted to be. Not quite close enough, though, and we ended up driving all the way up a long hill and back down again before eventually finding an underground car park with a fairly narrow and rather steep entrance ramp. Once inside it was OK, but Kas, like me the day before, took it very gently.

The city of Bergamo, for those not in the know (which we weren’t, until we googled it), consists of a new bit sitting on a flat plain and an old city on top of several hills, enclosed within a massive old Venetian defensive wall system. The old city is accessible by car (that’s the hill we drove up), but more interestingly (if you’re a tourist) it’s also accessible by one of two funicular railways. We found the base of this lower one and bought some tickets (and cold drinks) from a bar at the station. Italy works that way. The bar sold tickets, which is useful for people who don’t want to pay in any of the ways that the ticket machines take. It’s also useful when the ticket machines don’t work. Next to the bar was a geocache, which took me a couple of attempts to find.

The top of the funicular brings you out at the bottom end of a street which runs right up through the lower part of the old city. We meandered gently up the street with no particular purpose other than the search for a pharmacy so we could acquire some gel for insect bites. It took us a while, and when we did find one it was shut for lunch. Ho hum !

On the way up the street we were passing plenty of food joints and eventually we gave in and went inside one. The girls were in need of snacks. Well, I suppose we all were. We had a thoroughly eclectic mix of food types – Ami got some meringues, I got a sweet bread with raisins, and Izzy waited a few extra minutes and got some pizza. Rather more pizza than she was expecting, I think. I think Kas may have skipped, but can’t remember now.

We walked all the way past the square with the cathedral, and through an archway up to a square containing a massive dinosaur sculpture, before eventually arriving at the base of the second funicular, which takes you up a bit further to the Castello di San Vigilio. There was a bit more uphill walking to do once we got to the top of the funicular, but the view from the top was rather impressive. You get a great view of the lower part of the upper city sitting above the new city on the plains below. To the north you get a nice view of the bottom end of the Alps.

The castle is home to one of the new “virtual reward” geocaches, with this one requiring one simply to find the metal plate with all the distances and labels on, and to take a photo to prove you were there. It took us a little while to find the correct way up to the top, but that forced us to walk around a part we otherwise might not have done. While we were up top I tried to find what other caches were nearby, and discovered a puzzle that had been “de-puzzled” for a while – the cache owner had just provided the coordinates in the description. Those coordinates proved to be right below us, where we’d accidentally walked 20 minutes earlier, so on the way down again I scooted back round to fetch that cache.

Even though we’d bought a return journey on the upper funicular we decided it might be good to walk down the road instead, especially after I’d discovered it was actually only 500m down (and all downhill). So we walked back down the road, taking a few good “overlook” photos on the way, and ended up back in the square by Bergamo Cathedral and Santa Maria Basilica. Here we decided to have a drinks break and to generally assess the state of the union. We found a nice looking gelateria on the square and grabbed some for takeaways, with some more cold drinks, and sat in the shade for a while before attacking the “churchy” bit. The ice creams were good.

As it happened, both churches were quite good too. Very heavily decorated on the inside and (thankfully) nice and cool. The cathedral also has a serious hypno-floor. Don’t look at the floor ! Don’t look at the floor !

It was getting a bit late by this time and we decided we’d had enough, so we walked slightly more quickly down the hill back to the funicular. By this time the pharmacy was open again, so we popped in for the much needed insect-bite gel. The funicular was both funny and peculiar, as these things should be, and we found ourselves back at the car in good time. Kas managed to get the car back out of the car park fairly easily and Violet managed to get us back to the hotel with a minimum of fuss too.

We weren’t quite sure what to do for dinner but decided to go and try a different place in Caleppio. We ended up at the “Mare i Monte”, which might also be called the “Pizzeria Edelweiss” – it was all very confusing. However the menu wasn’t confusing and nor were the prices (again). And the food was very good. The girls especially liked the part where we made the waitress run all the way through the dessert menu before eventually just walking over to the display cabinet and pointing at things that looked nice, which was pretty much all of them. After driving home we frequented the hotel bar again and downed a few more amarettos. The bar staff were getting to know what we wanted by now.

That had been a surprisingly good day out for something totally unplanned. Bergamo really is very nice, and after a day in the hustle and bustle of Milan it was relaxing to go somewhere with fewer people. The weather was still hot though.


Milan

Milan

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And so begins the “proper” bit of the holiday after having spent the whole of the previous day travelling or being tired. Before we could do any of that, though, Kas went out for an exploratory run round the neighbourhood while the girls and me were generally taking a very long time to get dressed. Kas got back into the hotel room at about 8:20, which meant she had oodles of time to get herself sorted before we went down for breakfast at 9am.

I’d made sure every hotel we booked included breakfast in the price, hoping that we’d be able to eat so much each morning that we’d be able to skip lunch, other than drinks and ice creams. The breakfast at this hotel definitely fell into that category. It was a buffet style, but it had a veritable plethora of options – fruit, cereals, continental style meats & cheeses, pastries, coffees, juices, yoghurts, … You get the picture. As with the bedroom, this breakfast became the yardstick against which all subsequent hotels were measured. Most of the others came up short. The only downside on this first morning was that we were sufficiently late to have missed bacon. That meant that Izzy had to survive on cereals, toast, pastries and juice, but it was a minor issue that was corrected on all the following mornings.

Because we’d had quite a slow start it was getting fairly late by the time we headed out for some touristing. On the radar for this day was a visit to the city of Milan. We’d sort of allowed two days for this, hence us being happy with our general tardiness on this first morning.

I’d sort of decided in advance that attempting to take a car into the middle of Milan wouldn’t be a great idea, so instead we drove to San Donato Metro Station, which is on the very end of one of the lines and has a very substantial car park right next to it. As it was a Sunday the car park was kind of empty too. Once we’d plucked up the courage to believe it was possible to fit the car through the barriers and up the ramp (which took a while) we found ourselves in a nearly empty and rather large parking area. I picked a random space, and off we went.

The next challenge was figuring out how to buy a ticket, but we were assisted in this by a homeless lady who seemed very happy to guide us through the process in return for the €1 coin I got back out of the machine. Fair enough. I’m sure we’d have figured it out ourselves, but she was quite efficient at explaining, even despite the lack of common language. I got the impression she’d had a fair amount of practice at explaining it to tourists.

San Donato is at the end of a metro line that goes directly through the Duomo Station, taking a fairly painless 9 stations and 15 minutes to get there. The Duomo is obviously the place that tourists gravitate to on their first visit to Milan, and who were we to buck the trend ?

We took a few photos in the square and then went into the ticket office to see if we could get an entry to the Duomo itself. It was somewhat quieter than it might have been and we ended up getting tickets to do the walk onto the roof, which also gives a fast entry into the cathedral (by virtue of the fact that the return staircase descends inside the building).

Obviously the downside of having tickets for the roof is that you have to climb up to the roof (unless you pay extra for the lift). It was the first of many medieval staircases that we climbed during the holiday and one of the easier ones, given that it took us just 3 minutes from bottom to top, but we still managed to reach the top feeling hot and bothered. This was also a running theme for the holiday. It was the first time we’d been outside in the heat apart from jumping in the pool on the previous day, and boy was it hot ! The suncream and “big hat” were going to take a bit of a hammering during this holiday.

We seemed to be progressing around the roof at the same speed as a woman from Bristol, which was handy when both she, and we, wanted photos of ourselves on the roof. It’s really worth a trip up to the roof because from ground level you really don’t get much sense of the incredible detail in the carvings and sculptures up there. It mush have taken a large number of masons a very long time to do it all. There’s no concept of skimping on the bits that can’t be seen from street level. Oh no indeed. It’s ornately carved fiddly bits from top to bottom.

When we got to the bottom and done a brief but wonderfully shaded walk around the inside of the cathedral it was time to grab some cold drinks and do a couple of geocaches around the cathedral square. We plodded our way through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II whilst slurping away and came to rest for a while in the small square between the Galleria and La Scala. We sat in the shade for a while here. At least Kas and Ami sat for a while. Izzy came for a quick walk with me to find a geocache and then rejoined the other two while I walked in the other direction to find another. It was oppressively warm, even after 9 weeks of unusually warm and dry weather in the UK. I have to say that the exterior of La Scala is a bit of a let down. It’s really quite plain. Presumably it’s nicer on the inside, but the outside looks a bit shabby and drab.

When we reassembled in the square we had a brief discussion about what to do. We hadn’t expected to be done with the Duomo and the Galleria this early in the afternoon, so we were into unplanned territory. So assuming we’d continue at “faster than expected” we decided we’d probably got time to go for the other thing we’d planned to do in Milan, which was to visit the Sforza Castle. It was a fairly leisurely 25 minute walk there from where we were, and we were ready for another drink once we reached the fountain out front. We also bumped into the woman from Bristol again.

The castle buildings are quite impressive and very photogenic, and we spent a good while meandering our way through to the north side and the Parco Sempione. We walked through the park all the way out to the Arch of Peace, grabbing a few geocaches as we went, but also getting heavily bitten by the insects. The insect biting was getting the better of us when we reached the arch, so we hot footed it back to the castle and treated ourselves to another cold drink – our first slushie of the holiday. We strode back through the castle and back to the fountain whilst drinking these, and sat for a while trying to decide what else to do. It was past 6pm by this time so we decided we’d take a walk back through town looking for somewhere reasonable to get dinner before going home.

By “reasonable” we sought of meant “relatively cheap”, and the stretch of land between the cathedral and the castle in Milan is not a great place for finding reasonably priced restaurants, and there’s also not a great variety on offer either, so eventually we stood on a street corner and googled “burger restaurants”, with the girls having expressed a preference for this after the previous evening’s failure to find burgers. The best looking one that came up was called Mama Burger, and it was a few blocks away from where we were, but once we got there it was pretty good. The burgers were substantial and the fries were made from genuine thick-cut bits of potato. It fitted the bill very nicely.

From here we felt we were about done for the day, so we plodded back past the cathedral and into the metro station in the evening sunshine and caught a train back. The car was where we’d left it and was undamaged. The drive back to the hotel was painless.

When we got back to the hotel we were well in need of a shower and change of clothes, and then were in need of a pre-bed drink. We grabbed a couple of beers and some Amaretto until the girls had had enough, and we discussed what we were going to do on the following day. We’d planned to go back to Milan but had already been to all the places we’d wanted to go, so rather than make something up to fill a day we decided to add a new place onto the plan. Bergamo looked like it might be good, so that’s what we settled on.

The girls all went to bed as soon as we got the room. I sat up for an hour typing up geocaching logs.


Settala

Settala

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When we started discussing summer holidays with the kids at the end of last year the girls suggested that there were various bits of Italy that they’d quite like to see. I think the discussion was held in a restaurant one evening, although I can’t remember where (or when), and we concluded that we were all prepared to try a “touring” holiday whereby we’d rent a car and book a whole series of hotels so that we could travel around and see a good selection of places. Ami wanted to visit the self-styled fashion capital of Europe (in Milan), Izzy wanted to go and eat spaghetti bolognese in Bologna, and someone suggested we should go and pay homage to the original Italian Job film in Turin. I saw a cookery programme on daytime TV once where celebrity Italian chef Gino D’Acampo went to the Ligurian coast to supposedly the best gelateria ever. None of us had ever been anywhere in northern Italy other than a family holiday I had with my folks near Venice 40 years ago, and a little jaunt over the border while we were in Chamonix a couple of years ago (see Three Countries). And none of us had been to San Marino. All of which felt like a sufficiently large number of things on the hit-list to make up a whole 2-week holiday.

I’d like to say we planned something more than that, and in effect, we did plan quite a lot more of the logistics such as the flights, hotels, car, and the like, and we made a bit of a hit list of places to go on each day, but we didn’t really plan specific things to do or places to go in each location really. We just sort of assumed that the right thing to do would come to us naturally.

The right thing to do on this Saturday morning was evidently to get up while it was still dark and drive to Heathrow for our flights. We had an early morning flight to Linate and Kas had booked the “Meet and Greet” parking, partly because the “Pod” parking was full and partly because the “Meet and Greet” wasn’t really much more expensive than the regular option. We had to be at the parking by 5am, so allowing a bit of wriggle room we left home at about 3:15 and stopped for a coffee at the BP garage on the way out of Milton Keynes. I don’t like cutting it fine when driving to airports, but we did arrive rather too early. We’d allowed about 90 minutes to Heathrow from home and in the end it actually took about 55. The M25 is rarely empty and is normally what you’d call “chocka”, but at this time of the morning on a Saturday it’s really quite empty. We arrived so early that we got there before the guy from the “Meet and Greet” service, so we had to mooch about for a bit until he turned up.

And then we were off into the terminal building with remarkable ease for our check-in. Well, bag drop, because we’d already checked in. We were too early for that as well because apparently BA doesn’t open the desks until 5am, but Kas noticed a dedicated check-in line for people with children under 12. We still have one of those so we joined that queue rather than the somewhat larger line waiting for the general bag drop.

Once we eventually did manage to dispose of our suitcases the rest went very smoothly. We got through security controls quite quickly and then hopped off to Starbucks for breakfast. We got called down to our gate quite early because it was a bus boarding rather than an air bridge. The bus took long enough that I started to think the plane might be cancelled and we actually had a bus replacement service, but eventually they found us an aeroplane and we got onto it.

And we sat there for a while because there was a delay in getting a take-off slot, apparently, so by the time we got airborne we were 30 minutes late.

The pilot managed to catch most of that up on the flight, and the flight was fine apart from a bit of turbulence which stopped me from going to the toilet twice. I think the pilot was watching how close I was to the front of the toilet queue and every time he noticed I was getting close he faked some turbulence so he could put on the seatbelt signs and make me go and sit down again. So when we reached Milan I really needed the toilet.

Our baggage came out fairly quickly (and in still in one piece each) so we got through that part fairly quick, found our chosen car rental agency and began the lengthy process of them explaining exactly what things you’d expect to be included in the cost actually weren’t included at all, and hence needed to be paid for. This time around I’d gone with the third-party insurance to cover the rental company excess on collision damage but had somehow neglected the part whereby Sixt told me at booking time that they don’t include breakdown cover in the online price. So they’ll rent you one of their cars, but if it breaks down you have to pay them for the privilege of getting someone to drive out and repair/replace it. If you don’t buy theirs and the car breaks down, you have to pay for a recovery vehicle yourself, apparently. Well I hadn’t seen that one coming, and the third-party insurance didn’t appear to cover it. I did think about just walking out and trying someone else, but there’d be no guarantee I could get a similarly sized car for a comparable amount of money if I just walked up to a desk, so we sucked up the extra cost and just decided not to use Sixt again.

For once they gave us the car that was on the page when I booked it – a Peugeot 5008 – rather than the “or something similar” option. We wanted to make sure we had a big car because we had a lot of miles to cover and particularly had a lot of miles to cover between hotels, when we’d have all four people plus two weeks worth of luggage onboard. We didn’t want to feel cramped.

The car was away across the car park somewhere, and so we got our first experience of the summertime heat and the strength of the sun. It was a bit warm.

The vehicle itself surprised me a little bit by having a manual gearbox, but otherwise it was spacious and had good air conditioning, which would prove to be a boon over the next couple of weeks. It also had built-in satnav that was already set up to speak to us in English, so we programmed in the address of our first hotel and started driving. While we were driving we initiated the ritual of naming the satnav. Last year’s was definitely called Cynthia. This years was, we decided, called Violet.

Violet got us into roughly the right area but not actually to the hotel, so Kas had to do a quick bit of fine tuning while I kept driving in a straight line and hoping for the best. It turned out that the hotel was about a kilometre further on down the road.

The hotel in question was the very grandly named Ibis Styles Milano Est Settala. I’d deliberately chosen somewhere outside the city because the city hotels were much more expensive and very few of them have parking. Plus, on our four nights here we didn’t really expect to spend more than one or two days actually in the city of Milan itself. So Settala is to Milan what Coleshill is to Birmingham – a small town that’s close enough to make an easy trip in, but far enough away to avoid the expensive city-centre premium prices. Meh ! We have kids, so nightlife for us involves seeing how long we can keep going before we give in to the incessant moaning about boredom or tiredness. I guess that’s the problem with going for hotels rather than self-catering. We were all in the same bedroom and therefore more or less all had to go to bed at the same time.

Anyway, I digress, as I often do.

Despite us turning up 3 hours before official earliest check-in time the hotel had our room ready and was very happy to let us move in. It was kind of bigger than we expected and set an unfortunately rather high standard for the subsequent 7 hotels to live up to. The room was spacious, we had a balcony, the bathroom was massive, and everything worked.

We’d not planned anything else for the day as we didn’t really know what time we’d get here, so the kids were delighted to hear us say that they could spend the afternoon in the swimming pool. And that’s what they did, non-stop aside from a couple of short breaks for drinks.

We forced them out of the pool at 5:30 and made them come in for a shower. We hadn’t really had lunch and it had been a long day, so we decided to go out for dinner fairly early and then get a good night’s sleep.

We googled local restaurants while the kids were getting ready and noticed a few in the nearest village (Caleppio).

First of all we tried a burger bar, but they weren’t open in the evenings, so we ended up at a Chinese/Italian fusion sort of place called Zhu Maochao. It was a bit of a weird mix of pizzas, pastas and Chinese dishes, but reviews we read said it was fine and it certainly didn’t seem to be over-priced. Anyway, both of the girls were grumpy-as, which we assumed was due to exposure to sunlight combined with a lack of sustenance during the afternoon. It took a little while for them to return to normality.

Back at the hotel, we decided to briefly take a walk round the gardens, but very quickly wished we hadn’t. We started getting bitten by insects more or less immediately and it took about 5 minutes of frantic photo-taking before we’d had enough and retired to the interior.

None of us really had the energy to sit up drinking or talking, so we just went to bed. It had been a long day.