The Italian Job
The girls decided they fancied doing a driving tour of northern Italy and going to as many touristy things as we could manage.
We managed quite a few.
- Lake Como
- Cinque Terre
- More Florence
- San Marino
- Lake Garda
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 Felicity. 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.
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.
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 quiet 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.
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, was 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 goes, 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.
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 Turing 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.
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 swan 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.
Kas got up customarily early and went for a plod round the town. like she does. She got back in time for us to have a leisurely breakfast before setting off again. The breakfast here was the first of the trip that I’d describe as “average” rather than “good” – there was nothing particularly wrong with it, it just wasn’t as good as the two “business” hotels we’d stayed in up to this point.
When we’d done we packed up and got out of the hotel for around 10am. Our target for the day was to the most ridiculously touristy thing possible in Italy, which is to visit Pisa and get a photo of yourself pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower.
To get there from La Spezia you have to drive along the motorway through the provinces of Massa and Carrara and Lucca. Despite extensive research, neither of these has any geocaches acceptably close to the motorway, so we decided to skip them. I don’t mind doing them if they’re easy and by the roadside, but when each one is going to involve a 30 minute detour (or more) then I’m not so bothered.
So straight to Pisa we went, and after following signs for the town centre we found ourselves quite literally in the town centre. There’s a car park about 200m from the Piazza dei Miracoli, and that’s where we ended up parking. I expected it would be frighteningly expensive in there, but it wasn’t too bad. We arrived in town at about 11am, not really knowing the form at all, but suspecting that it involved some tickets.
The ticket office was close by and surprisingly had same-day tickets available for all of the attractions. The rather complex arrangement is that the baptistery, cemetery, cathedral and tower are all separately priced, but if you buy an entry to the cemetery or baptistery you get free entry to the cathedral too. The ticket agent advised to get the cemetery rather than the baptistery because the best bit of the baptistery is the outside, and that part is free. The earliest entry available into the tower was at 1:30, so we had oodles of time to walk around photographing everything and visiting the cathedral. We left ourselves time also to buy souvenirs and take the bags back to the car (because you can’t take them up the tower). And there was still further time to fail to find a geocache in the outer wall (we’d done others though, so we’d coloured in the Province of Pisa. The cathedral was impressive.
For the tower you have to queue up for your timed slot. If you are too early they ask you to go away and come back again later. The reason is basically that the stairs up the tower are narrow, so the let in a batch of people, who then climb to the top all at the same time, and then gradually make their way down again. I guess that both regulates the number of people at the top and ensures that everyone on the stairs is going in the same direction. There’s a very impressive collection of bells at the top, which I’d guess you’d expect, what with it being a bell tower and all, and you can get right up close to them. The stairs up and down are a bit of a death trap if you’re wearing the wrong shoes, because they are made of shiny marble and they lean all over the place. Ami had the wrong kind of shoes on, because someone has to. The view from the top of the tower is pretty good though.
After the tower we took an ice cream break and made our way round to the cemetery, which is not at all what you’d expect. It’s a covered walkway around a garden quadrangle, and all of the long-term occupants are buried beneath marked gravestones flat in the floor. One side seemed entirely to contain former Bishops of Pisa, in chronological order, which made me wonder what will happen when there’s no room left on that side.
When we’d finished here it was deep into the afternoon. What I’d thought might be a two-hour stopover (because we hadn’t pre-purchased any tickets) actually took us over 5 hours. It was time well spent though. It was busy, but not overly oppressive, and the monuments in the Piazza are well worth a visit.
We were spending the night in Florence, so still had a bit of a drive to do. There are two main roads running between Pisa and Florence. Violet took us to the slower one, which is the rather excessively named Strada di grande comunicazione Firenze-Pisa-Livorno. It’s not really a motorway. It’s an upgraded dual carriageway that has a speed limit of 110km/hr on some parts and 90km/hr on others. It felt rather slow to drive on.
Violet managed to find our hotel fairly easily – the Hotel Mirage. I picked this one specifically because it’s not in the centre of town but is close to a bus route, and hence seemingly ideal for leaving the car where it was. You can’t take cars into the historic centre of Florence without a resident’s permit anyway. We arrived at the hotel at exactly the same time as two bus loads of (I think) Chinese tourists. Thankfully we managed to get to the desk while they were still all farting around getting bags of their buses. After we’d checked in and walked back out to grab our bags from the car, the two buses had turned into four.
We got settled into our relatively large room and then went downstairs for a quick drink before getting ready to go out for dinner. We chose the nearby Restaurant Aloisius, and it turned out to be pretty good, especially the free “silly” liqueurs that arrived halfway through pudding.
All-in-all, that turned out to be a pretty decent day.
Saturday. The mid-point of the trip, being the eighth of 16 days, and after a cunning bit of planning on our part, we found ourselves in one of a handful of locations in Italy that has a parkrun. The parkrun course was a mere kilometre or so from the hotel (also planned) and we walked down there after what was a very quick and rather disappointing breakfast at the hotel.
The parkrun itself was on the small side, with only about 35-40 competitors. The majority of those seemed to be British, as seems to be the case with these things in France and Italy, in our experience. The course was dead flat and involved a couple of loops on gravel or soil trails through wooded parkland. It was quite pretty but also fiercely hot. As the girls are both “of age” now, we let them run round together whilst Kas and me burned it at our best speed. The girls made friends with the daughter of one of the organisers who’d decided to run around for the first time, which just goes to show you.
After finishing the race Kas ran back round the course to find the kids and I started walking back around after having a breather. They took a while but they were enjoying it. Kas managed to find a tree root to trip over and hurt her ankle. Once we were all back at the finish line we grabbed some drinks and then retired to the nearby kiosk-cafe for some more drinks before walking back to the hotel wishing we’d put more suncream on.
We were all mucky and sweaty, so we decided to have a round of showers before going out again. It didn’t make much difference, because it was so hot we were sweating again almost immediately, but at least it meant we were un-smelly enough to be allowed onto the bus into town.
The bus into town was a bit slow but it got us eventually to the Porta al Prato bus and train station, from where we basically had to walk. We arrived there at about 12:30.
We didn’t really have much of a plan and the heat was definitely getting the better of us, but we kind of ambled towards the cathedral via the Basilica Santa Maria Novella, attempting a handful of geocaches on the way past. We weren’t able to obtain tickets for the cathedral or baptistery or bell tower that day because we were too late, so we skipped that and continued walking.
The highlight of the day was finding the Magnum Shop – basically a “your way” method of presenting the popular ice-cream-on-a-stick delicacy. You got to choose a flavour of ice cream, a flavour of chocolate coating, and then a handful of different sprinkles. The effect was good except that it didn’t freeze solid again quickly enough, so they were a bit messy to eat. Kas didn’t fancy an ice cream so she ordered a cappuccino instead. It turned out to be a rather ornate affair. It was a pleasant enough setting in which to pass half an hour anyway.
From here we walked our way down to the Palazzo Vecchio for a few more photos and then on to the Ponte Vecchio for a few more. Progress through the streets was very, very slow, partly because it was really busy and partly because it was really hot. So hot, in fact, that it was dragging us down really quickly. We headed back to the bus station for just after 4pm, having managed to wander round Florence for all of three and a half hours.
To be fair, though, we did have plans for the evening that involved being in the car by 5pm. Over the previous couple of days I’d noticed there was a geocaching event on the Saturday night in the small town of Montecatini Terme, about an hour away in the direction of Pisa. Well, Google says it’s an hour, but we actually did it in about 35 minutes. Anyway, back at the plot, a French family visiting the area had created a geocaching event and on the evening before they had got precisely zero “Will Attend” logs on it, so I messaged them to see if it was still going ahead and they said yes. Well, you have to, don’t you ? After all, it was a new cache type for us in Italy and it coloured in the Province of Pistoia too. It’s the second time we’ve been to a regular event whilst outside the UK on holiday, the previous one being three years previously in Albufeira (see Caching on the Beach).
Because it took us a lot less time than we expected to get there, we were able to have a quick drink in a cafe before heading up to the event location. We then spent five minutes or so playing spot-the-cacher whilst sitting 40 metres away, but the family in question were very easy to spot. I sidled over and waved my GPS at them and got instant recognition. Thankfully they spoke really good English. Given that I’m the only one of the four of us that has anything more than a basic grasp of French it would have been a struggle if they didn’t. Not that the kids really paid any attention anyway. We had a nice long chat about all things geocaching, and got an invite to go visit them in their native Ardennes next year. That works for me, because their home department is the only one in the north-east of France that I haven’t been caching in, and there are plenty of caches there to be going at. Many of those caches belong to the family in question.
After we split up we dived into the first available restaurant to grab some dinner. It had been a long day again and we hadn’t really eaten much other than ice cream during the day, so we were ready for some proper food. We had to wait a while to get served because it seemed that the evening staff had only just arrived and were engaged in a pre-evening pep talk, which seemed a bit strange. Once we did get served, we ordered a platter of mixed starters and then burger, focaccia, Caesar salad and risotto, all of which were very nice. There was some beer involved too, at least for me. Kas had volunteered to drive home.
The drive back home was uneventful, and when we got there Kas wanted to get straight to bed. I thought I’d spend a bit of time finishing off caching logs for the day, so the girls and me went down to the bar, but rather unfortunately almost as soon as I’d got the PC connected to the wi-fi the battery ran out. I’d left it switched on and unplugged while we were out. So that was the end of that. We spent about 20 minutes down in the lobby bar and then had to give up and go to bed.
You will have to forgive a certain lack of enthusiasm that may be apparent in my tone whilst typing this post. Everywhere else we stayed on the trip we’d assumed that one full day in a city would be enough for us to “do” the important bits before moving on. This had proven to be the case in Milan a week previously, where we’d planned two but got done in one and went to Bergamo the following day instead. For some reason we held on to the belief that two days would be needed to see Florence. Maybe it was the heat getting the better of us, or maybe the crowds, but by mid-afternoon we’d had enough again.
Back at the start of the day, we had a full crack at breakfast, arriving at 8:30am, but somehow it was better the previous day when we only had 20 minutes. The hotel split the breakfast room into two sections, one for bus tours and one for everyone else. As there were loads of people on bus tours their buffet was getting lots of focus and was kept pretty fresh by the rapid turnover. Ours was a somewhat stale affair of dry bread, limited fruit and overcooked eggs. This was definitely the worst breakfast so far.
We caught a bus downtown at about 10am and made our way to the ticket office for the cathedral. We managed to obtain tickets for the cathedral, bell tower and baptistery. We couldn’t get tickets for the cathedral dome, because those apparently sell out months in advance. Did I mention it was hot ? A sign outside a pharmacy we passed was reading 41°C.
So first of all we walked into and sat in the baptistery. There was no queue to get in, although it was busy inside. We mainly sat and tried to photograph the walls and ceiling, which are rather ornately painted. It was difficult to get a good shot in the half light.
Next up we queued for 20 minutes to go up the bell tower. For me, this was probably the highlight of an average sort of day. It’s quite a long way up but the stairs weren’t too bad and at least it was in shade. At the top there’s a really good view aside from the chicken wire grade fencing they’ve put round to stop people throwing stuff off. This essentially means it’s nearly impossible to take good photos of the town from up the top.
When we got back down it was 12:55, so we decided to queue up for the opening of the cathedral at 1:30. By the time we got to the front door it was more like 2pm. And here we hit upon a bit of a problem. Apparently Kas was showing too much leg to be let in. The same rule didn’t apply to either of the kids, and nor, seemingly, did it apply to most of the other women entering the building, but it applied to Kas and she couldn’t go in. Me and the girls therefore suddenly lost any interest in wandering round the place, so we did the necessary selfie with Uccello’s clock, as required by a virtual geocache, and then we went straight out again. From what little we saw, the inside of the cathedral has a highly decorative floor but otherwise is rather plain, certainly in comparison to other cathedrals we’d been into on this trip. No loss then, really.
Kas was fairly easy to find, and once we met up we decided to go and get something to eat. We sat in a small cafe nearby and had some over-priced sandwiches, drinks and ice cream whilst generally feeling a bit touristed-out. Izzy shopped for a few trinkets and then we had a less than enthusiastic walk back to the bus stop, consuming several bottles of cold water between us while we walked.
We were back in the hotel room by 4:15 and that’s where we stayed for a couple of hours while we cooled down and tried to get our mojo back. For dinner we went back to the Restaurant Aloisius. It was just as good, except this time we had to ask them for the silly liqueurs. And that was more or less it for Florence. I’m sure it’s really beautiful, but if I was going again I’d go in winter and in the middle of the week. I probably won’t go again though.
Time to move on again after three nights in Florence. Our willingness to leave was enhanced by another distinctly average breakfast at the hotel, and we were fairly happy to get out of the pace at mid-morning. I guess there wasn’t anything especially wrong, it just wasn’t what we were expecting for the price and it was distinctly average compared to at least two of the previous stops. Never mind. All done and dusted. Onwards and upwards, quite literally in the case of this day. We were heading for the Republic of San Marino.
There’s no quick way of getting there from Florence. If you want motorways you have to drive all the way up to Bologna and then back down again to Rimini to access the only dual carriageway that enters the tiny republic. That seemed like a long way around and we fancied exploring a bit (well, technically I suppose, I fancied colouring in a few more provinces by finding a single geocache), so that’s what we did. We left Florence on the A1 heading south towards Arezzo and then headed east towards Citta di Castello. On the way between those two towns I’d found two roadside geocaches within half a mile but either side of a provincial border, so that accounted for the provinces of Arezzo and Perugia. Doing one in Perugia also meant colouring in the region of Umbria, which certainly wasn’t on my original plans. Anyway, both were easy finds.
I’d planned to colour in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino on a mountain pass just as we entered the province, but that opportunity was denied to us by some roadworks which had closed that entire stretch of road over the mountains. We therefore had to divert south by 10 miles or so to the next road down. This one was wiggly and winding, and rather sadly I found myself behind a large lorry just as we started climbing. The road was not wide enough to get past, so we drove for what seemed like an eternity behind this lorry all the way, in fact, to the town of Urbania, which is where we’d have ended up if we hadn’t had to make the diversion. It was scenic, but very slow going.
Thankfully the lorry ducked out somewhere near Urbania and we were free to accelerate all the way up to the 70km/hr speed limit, or sometimes even 90km/hr. It wasn’t a great set of roads, but I guess we weren’t in any particular hurry. In our sights we had the World Heritage Site of Urbino. We found it relatively easily and parked up in what my GPS was telling me was a big parking area. It was indeed a big parking area, and it was also underground.
The amount of time we’d spent in the car meant we immediately needed drinks and a toilet, as you do, so we popped into a little cafe on the town square where we’d parked and sat outside staring in amazement at the bottom of the Palazzo Ducale. It looked well worth the walk up the hill. We decided that Urbino would be today’s “place”, and hence we’d spend 2-3 hours wandering around before continuing on to San Marino.
We started off by walking straight up the steps towards a beautiful overlook under the palace. There was a geocache there too (Province of Pesaro and Urbino – tick) and then we climbed a couple of ramps into the rather lovely piazza next to the cathedral. From here we ventured a little further east and then northwards towards an old fortified entry gate (with prison cell included) which housed another geocache. And from there we headed back south and west again until we ended up at the Piazza della Repubblica, from where we walked directly back downhill to the car park. Most of central Urbino is traffic free, partly, I assume, because most of the roads aren’t wide enough for cars anyway. It’s also a university town, and students tend to like the whole traffic free thing. It stops them from getting run over when they’re staggering home drunk in the middle of the night. There, that’s my daily quota of horrendous stereotyping done with. I feel better for that.
Back at the plot, though, central Urbino is mainly traffic free apart from a couple of main streets, and a lot of the roads (or paths) are incredibly steep. In many cases, buildings bridge over the top of the paths, or at least form very narrow canyons. There’s not a lot of greenery around, but it doesn’t really need it, and the locals seem to do a good job of keeping everything neat and tidy. Also, most of the buildings are faced in brick rather than being rendered, which avoids the typical Italian medieval scene of coloured walls with big chunks of exposed blockwork beneath.
So all in all, Urbino is a very worthwhile stop for an afternoon. Had we not already booked all the hotels we might well have stayed here longer and moved on to San Marino a day later.
Talking of moving on, we found a fuel station and then spent absolutely flippin’ ages trying to figure out how to make the pumps work, before heading off in a vaguely northerly direction towards San Marino. Our route was going to take us over some minor roads and in through the “back door”, as it were. By “minor roads”, I mean “unpaved” in a couple of parts, but we figured if the geezer coming the other way in the RV could get through then so could we. It was rather twisty to say the least. At the crests of a couple of the hills, though, it became very apparent where we were heading to. It’s difficult to explain quite how much Monte Titano stands out from the surroundings, especially when viewed from the side, but from about 15km away you’re very aware that there’s a city on a mountain approaching.
The back door into San Marino was very much that, and we found ourselves approaching the City from the south side. Before we knew it we were winding our way up narrow street with multiple switchbacks and trying to guess where on earth we ought to park. I thought I’d read somewhere that the hotel said to park in Car Park 6 or 7, but we didn’t really know how to get to those. After one switchback we seemed to be driving up to the end of the road. There was a car park at the top so we resolved to pull up and call the hotel to ask them. The car park had some spaces and the hotel answered their phone immediately. I explained to the receptionist that I didn’t know which car park we were in but I could see a sign on the rock reading “Piazzale Cava Antica”, to which she replied that we’d magically found our way into Car Park 6, and that was the best one for accessing the hotel. Magic. Off we go then, having first established that she could sell me daily parking permits that were half the listed price at the car park.
The hotel in question was La Grotta, and it proved to be a small but perfectly formed affair. I think it only has about 15 rooms, but crucially for us, a couple of them could sleep four people. We’d sort of arranged our luggage the previous day so that we only had to carry one suitcase and the day bags into this hotel. The other three suitcases stayed in the car, so we were able to get checked straight in and the girls went up to check out the room while I ran back up the hill to put a parking ticket in the car.
It was still relatively early in the evening – about 5pm I think – so we had a quick wash and went out for a walk. It was immediately apparent that the City of San Marino doesn’t have many flat parts. It’s all either uphill or downhill, and in most cases it’s fairly steeply uphill or downhill. We opted for uphill, in the general direction of the top, but got distracted somewhat by shopping. On entering a couple of the shops the kids were delighted to discover that the lack of a local sales tax means that San Marino is actually pretty cheap to shop in, at least for souvenirs and luxury goods. Both kids also got very engaged by one shop really close to the hotel which sold an array of jewellery and stationary goods on the themes of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Lots of umm-ing and ahh-ing was done before we left that shop.
The street up to the top of the hill is almost all restaurants and souvenir shops, as you’d expect, but when you do get to the top there’s a couple of cafes that have views which are rather dramatic. We felt obliged to sit at one of them and have a beer (or soft drink, depending on the person). We were also a bit peckish, but we definitely didn’t order a bowl of chips and we definitely didn’t eat them when they didn’t arrive. No, you must be thinking of someone else. Cough !
After we’d finished not eating any chips we decided we’d got time to go for a quick clean up before going out for dinner. On the way back down the hill we went into the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop again. Izzy had broken her rucksack, so we got her a new one (Harry Potter), because she was going to need it for school anyway, and we didn’t want her to have to lug stuff around in a broken rucksack for six more days.
The hotel recommended a restaurant which was a little way back up the main street / mountainside ( * delete as appropriate ) and which had a terrace view looking out over the northwest (downhill) side. Well, to be honest, if it was facing the south-eastern side it wouldn’t be a terrace, it would be a cave, but that’s by the by. The view was pretty impressive and we sat there watching the sun go down whilst gorging ourselves on a selection of local dishes. Izzy discovered the seemingly popular local delicacy of the chip pizza. We would also have gone for a pudding, but the staff seemed somehow reluctant to offer us any, so eventually we just went up to the desk to pay and left. Never mind, I’m sure there’ll be other places that have puddings later in the holiday.
And that was the end of that day. In summary, San Marino is beautiful in a way we were more or less expecting. Urbino is beautiful in a very unexpected way, and the day ended with us feeling like our decision to take that particular driving route had been a very good one.
The breakfast in the hotel was nice, if limited in choice. There was a decent selection of fruits, cereals, pastries and breads and all of them were nicely fresh and being consumed fairly rapidly. We checked out of the hotel and wheeled our one suitcase uphill to the car, and then we continued uphill to have a pop at the Three Towers of San Marino that sit right on the cliff edge at the top of Monte Titano. The towers are accessed by walking uphill along the main street. Kas had been out for a somewhat challenging run first thing, and sort of knew what to expect in terms of terrain.
After the last switchback you exit the permanent buildings and there’s a collection of temporary retail locations in wooden buildings alongside the path up to the first tower. Our eyes got hijacked by a nice collection of leather goods and ultimately we all ended up buying a new wallet/purse apart from Izzy, who never keeps hold of money long enough to need a purse.
The old wallet had to be opened at the first tower (Guaita) to pay a nominal entry fee. It’s well worth the time and the money to go into this one. The views are spectacular and the climb to the highest part is quite entertaining, including a dodgy little bit of ladder up through a trap door. We walked the length and breadth of this fortress before deciding to move on. Second up is Cesta tower, which is on the highest point of the mountain. We decided not to go inside this one but we did muck about a bit doing a couple of geocaches.
The walk on to the third tower (Montale) is an unpaved path through trees, and it is somewhat less trodden than the paths around the first two towers. There’s not a lot at Montale as it’s basically just a single tower. When we got to it, we discovered that it doesn’t even have a door, or at least it doesn’t have one at ground level. There’s one about a dozen feet up that would require a ladder to get to. I guess that’s the point.
After completing the three towers we took a leisurely stroll back and grabbed a drink on the way back past where we’d parked the car. From here we descended a couple of flights of steps onto a quite broad road. There was supposedly an earthcache there, but on reading the description on the GPS it turned out that the earthcache has a half a dozen waypoints to visit, half of which were back up at the top of the mountain. As we’d not collected the requisite information I decided to leave that one. So we just walked along the flat until we reached the very far end, passing through San Marino’s rather compact government district.
When we ran out of town, there was a geocache in the wall of an old fortified gate, which was found easily enough. From here we returned to the government district and climbed upwards towards the Basilica and the Palazzo Pubblico. Further climbing got us to the upper end of the cable car and then eventually to the top of the main street where we’d started off first thing in the morning. There were still two restaurants up there, and we went into the one that wasn’t the one we’d been in the previous evening. And today we also didn’t have any chips with our drinks. They must have been someone else’s.
After all this walking we made one final trip to the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop near the hotel, and essentially bought one of everything. The girls both more or less emptied their wallets buying Lord of the Rings branded (and also some locally made) jewellery. And while we were at it, some more of those were purchased as Christmas presents. That particular shop must have loved us.
Back at the car, Kas volunteered to drive. After one hair raising moment driving into something that appeared to be pedestrianised but actually wasn’t, we found ourselves on the dual carriageway that snakes down the base of the mountain into Italy. A little way past the border we took a short diversion to complete a geocache in the Province of Rimini. After joining the motorway towards Bologna similarly short stops were made in the provinces of Forlì-Cesena and Ravenna before we arrived on the outskirts of Bologna.
Violet managed to get us to the hotel painlessly, but the same can’t be said of the hotel’s car park. The entrance off the main road felt very small and at the end of it there was a tight turn down a steep ramp into an underground park. We had to call reception to get them to open the doors to the garage, and space inside was a bit tight.
The hotel in question was the very modestly named Grand Hotel Elite, which is on the outskirts of the city centre about 2km from the famous Two Towers. Our room was ready for us and was suitably large, but had been prepared only for three people not four, so we were short one set of bedding and one towel. The room itself was pretty big, containing a double bed in one half and a sofabed plus extra mattress in the other half. It also had an entrance hall with a kitchen area and bathroom. And finally it had a lot of wood. I think this was the “Grand” part of the name. everywhere in the room was floor to ceiling wood panels, which were quite dark and probably made the room look half the size that it actually was. It’s a design feature of the place, I guess. It took multiple attempts to get them to bring up the necessary bedding and towels though.
One of the reasons for coming to Bologna was that Izzy wanted to eat spaghetti bolognese, that well known non-Italian dish. Surely it couldn’t be too far to find a restaurant that served it. The hotel seemed, though, to be in a restaurant-free area. We ended up walking quite some way towards the town centre before finding a restaurant that looked tolerable – the Restaurante Ma Gusta, close to Porta San Felice. The kids both had tagliatelle alla bolognese. I had an escalope which had “bolognese” in the name, but it wasn’t a meat-based tomato sauce. Kas went a bit off-piste and ordered something that didn’t have “bolognese” in the name. The restaurant had good beer too, and puddings.
Kas was suffering a bit after damaging an ankle while running in the morning, so she wanted to head straight back after dinner. So there we were. The end of our eleventh day in Italy. At least when we got back to the hotel room they’d finally brought us some extra bed sheets and towels.
The breakfast at the Grand Hotel Elite was pretty good, so we managed to get checked out feeling in fairly good condition, although Kas was obviously still suffering after hurting her ankle while running the previous day.
We loaded all our bags back into the car and checked out of the room but agreed with reception that we could leave the car in their car park until mid-afternoon. There didn’t seem much point in moving it. We jumped onto a bus down to the city centre, taking a mad guess at where to get off. We did so fairly close to the Piazza Maggiore, which was a pretty good guess.
We took a wander around the Piazza doing touristy stuff and attempting a few geocaches. One feature of the square (and one of the geocache subjects) is a fountain dedicated to Neptune. It’s a weird one because of the numbers of jets of water squirting our a stone-sculpted willies and boobs. Anyway, moving swiftly on….
From here we moseyed along to the famous Two Towers of Bologna. We saw a queue for the taller of the two and determined from the guy on the door that we needed to go back to the tourist office in Piazza Maggiore to buy a ticket. So back we went. They had plenty of tickets available for the 1:30 climb, so that’s the one we went for. It was another tower where the staircase is narrow (and wooden, in this case) so a batch of people is allowed up all at the same time, and are then given 15 minutes or so at the top before needing to come back down again. Two-way flow on the staircase is not really possible unless it was a party of bamboo canes or stick insects. We were among the first few onto the stairs in our wave, and we climbed them really quickly, meaning that the top was practically empty for about 5 minutes when we got there. That allowed us to take a few relatively unhindered photos before everyone else arrived. It also allowed me time to ask the assistant at the top if he knew where the geocache was. He did. It was back down one level of staircase. Province of Bologna – tick.
Once back at the bottom we needed a drink / ice cream, so we raided the gelateria across the road and then started picking our way back to the car. We decided to walk all the way rather than figure out the buses. It only took us 15 minutes or so.
It was much easier to get the car out of the hotel’s car park than it was to get it in, and Violet did a good job of getting onto the correct road for heading north to Padua.The drive up there was all hunky-dory until we got to the south side of Padua. Here we encountered a proper thunderstorm. It was loud, and dark. I couldn’t really see the road and I couldn’t really hear the sat nav, and as a result I missed a turning and we ended up driving on a provincial road around the west side of Padua rather than on the motorway around the east side. Never mind.
Our destination was Mirano, a small town on the mainland that is relatively well connected for Venice – more of that in the next post. For today’s post, Violet was attempting to get us to the Park Hotel Villa Giustinian. She did an adequate job of it and we arrived at the hotel just after 4pm, having left Bologna well after 2pm.
The hotel room has to be described as spectacular. In fact “rom” doesn’t really do it justice. It was half of the middle floor of the main building, and consisted of a massive bedroom, a decent sized entrance hall with a double sofabed, and not one, but two separate bathrooms, one of which contained a shower with a marble trough beneath that could probably have doubled up as an Olympic sized swimming pool. The whole thing was very ornately furnished and the walls in the entrance and bathrooms we head-to-toe in polished wood. Very nice, but all of that was subsidiary to the fact that the hotel had a swimming pool. The kids were in it within 30 minutes of our arrival, which is probably a bit slack by their normal standards. They stayed there for a good two hours, and were joined for a part of that by both adults.
For dinner we were going to try the restaurant right over the road, however they were closed (permanently, by the look of it), so instead we jumped into the car and headed into the centre of Mirano town. We found ourselves in a tidy little town square with a few restaurants and bars. We chose the “Fabbrica di Pedavena” – a food-serving bar which had a varied menu including a selection of burgers. They were good.
And that was the end of another day. We needed a good night’s rest because the following day was one of the expected “biggies” of the trip – our planned day in Venice.
Day 13 was one of the “big ticket” days of the holiday – Venice day.
We got up early (at 7am) and grabbed a nice if simple breakfast at the hotel before jumping on a bus. We’d originally planned to go into Venice on the train but the hotel convinced us that the bus was a better option than driving for 10 minutes and waiting for a train. Fair enough. Anyway, they were able to sell us the bus tickets and the bus stop was literally across the road from their front gate. We got the bus at about 8:40 and it took an hour or so to drop us off in the Piazzale Roma. It was already rather busy and rather warm by then.
Our first stop (after a quick geocache) was to go find toilets and drinks in the station. To get there you have to cross the new Constitution bridge, which has attracted its share of controversy. It was famous in my mind mainly for the fact that it appeared on a National Geographic programme about terrible engineering mistakes. The mistake was nothing to do with the placement, construction or accessibility of the bridge. It was entirely to do with the fact that it was originally faced with glass, which looks pretty when dry but becomes very slick when even slightly wet. It was, by all accounts, a major health hazard. It looks OK, albeit rather out of character with the rest of Venice’s architecture, and as it was a dry day we were OK walking across it. Once we made it to the station we fought our way through the crowds but were eventually able to find both the toilets and a shop to buy drinks.
From here we crossed the Ponte degli Scalzi and ducked out of the traffic flow for a while to photograph the San Simeone Piccolo church. From here we rejoined the throng following the marked walking route to San Marco, taking occasional diversions to grab geocaches as we went. The marked walking route obviously takes you right over the Rialto Bridge. No tour of Venice is complete without elbowing your way over here. There were more geocaches here anyway. The throng of people following the marked walkway was, if anything, even busier this side of the Rialto. It was starting to get a bit draining and it was pretty much lunchtime anyway, so just before San Marco we stopped in a little streetside cafe and had some sandwiches and drinks. The sandwiches were good and the prices were surprisingly reasonable.
Piazza San Marco seems to be pretty much the destination of everyone visiting the city. The walks from the bus and train stations (like what we did) are signposted to here only, and presumably there’s a fair amount of traffic from people who didn’t walk, or who’ve arrived by boat from outside the city. What can you say ? It’s busy. Although, having been in Florence on the previous Saturday we were feeling like this really wasn’t too bad. We decided not to bother trying to get tickets either to enter the basilica or the campanile because the queues looked large and anyway, we’d been into loads of them by this point in the holiday. So we mooched around the square taking photos and doing earthcaches (there’s 4 or 5 of them just in the square). From here we made the short walk around the outside of the Doge’s Palace for the mandatory photo of the Bridge of Sighs. It was pretty busy there too.
We decided to head back via a slightly different route, partly to get out of the crowds and partly to find a few more geocaches. Our route took us past La Fenice theatre and then onto the rather wonderful Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo (otherwise known as “the Snail”), where we paid a token few Euros to go climb to the top. Technically, we paid for a museum there too, but the girls weren’t especially interested in that (nor was I, but don’t tell them that). The Snail was actually the only thing we paid an entry fee for all day, unless you count the toilets. That was a refreshing change for this holiday.
We grabbed an ice cream break near there and then had a look at getting some tickets for a Vaporetto back to the station, but when we found one they were really busy and really expensive, so we decided not to bother. This meant, however, that we had to walk back through the crowds over the Rialto Bridge again and then back to Piazzale Roma. All of us were getting a bit hot, tired and grumpy by this point. Kas was struggling in particular, because as well as the heat she also had an aching ankle to contend with.
We’d managed to stay in Venice up until 4:30pm. On the original plan we were going to stay all day and have dinner here, but I think we all decided that the prospect of staying for 2 more hours, having dinner, and then spending another hour riding home on the bus was more than we could be bothered with. We were lucky enough to get onto a waiting bus as soon as we arrived at Piazzale Roma and so we got home again before 6pm.
We gave the kids a good 90 minutes in the swimming pool to cool down and unwind and then got cleaned up and went down into Mirano again for dinner, this time finding a very nice place off the central square called La Taverna. We had a quick drink from the hotel bar when we got home and then retired to bed. During the course of the day and the evening we agreed that the following day was going to be the “do nothing” day.
After 13 days of industrial strength tourism we decided we’d earned ourselves a day off, and this was it.
I think when we were planning the holiday we’d thought we might go to Trieste on this day, but somehow the idea of spending four hours in the car wasn’t very appealing once we were on the ground. We also didn’t really fancy anything that either Padua or Treviso had to offer for a half day out, and we certainly weren’t going back into Venice again. So we decided during the day on Thursday that we’d spend Friday not doing very much.
We had a late breakfast and then the kids got down to the serious business of not doing much. In their case, that involves going in the swimming pool. Kas was alternating between mucking about indoors and lazing around outside. I had a bunch of geocaching logs to do after the previous day, including about 6 earthcaches that required reading, research and multiple answers as well as logging and photographs.
We dragged the kids out of the pool for a snack based lunch at around 1pm and forced them to come indoors at about 4pm, when they were starting to turn a bit pink.
It took me pretty much all day to do the caching logs as I couldn’t find the hotel’s wi-fi and my phone signal was pretty poor. I got them done eventually though.
We had a couple of hours snoozing in the room before getting ready to go out. You can’t rush a good day of doing nothing in particular.
For dinner we returned to Mirano again and returned to the restaurant we used on our first night there, the Fabbrica di Pedavena. The food and beer were good again but for some strange reason we had trouble attracting enough attention to order puddings, so eventually we gave up and I queued at the indoor bar to pay, and we left.
The kids still fancied pudding, so we wandered around a while and ended up in a gelateria not far away, where we treated ourselves to some really good ice creams. I think Izzy had a marshmallow-flavoured one, which was basically just sugar. Ami and me both tried a lush looking chocolate fondant flavour. They did also have beer-flavoured ice cream, but none of us was brave (or insane) enough to try it. A pleasant quarter of an hour was then spent sitting on the edge of a public fountain eating ice cream and watching the world go by. There are worse things in life.
Back at the hotel we made quick work of a couple of glasses of Baileys and amaretto before retiring to the room to pack our bags and get some sleep. Tomorrow promised to have us back in the “busy” zone.