Part 1: Getting started
We planned to leave on 31st July 2009 at 8:30. We left at 10.30, because the night before leaving my eldest son suddenly remembered that his mobile phone unlimited text option had expired a month ago and needed renewal. How could he keep in touch with his friends and girlfriend in twenty long days abroad? We had to rush to the Vodafone shop in the morning to renew the subscription and buy a top up. Needless to say there was a long queue. But we were not in a hurry, we were on holiday. We had just to drive about five hundred miles, crossing England from North West to South, face London Orbital, reach Dover, hopefully board on a ferry, land in Calais and have a nice night sleep in a Formule 1 hotel in Vernon (North West of Paris) before the sun rose on 1st August.
Our Ford Galaxy was full up with our family (six people: two adults, two teenagers and two children) and an incredible amount of luggage, from a proper black and grey Samsonite suitcase to plastic bags for shoes and paper bags filled from last minute shopping at Primark..
Of course we were stuck in the London Orbital. We took two hours from Junction 23 to Junction 3 and reached Dover when the late afternoon sun was shining on the high white cliffs and on the grey castle, which was guarding the busy harbour and the ticket office. I dashed in hoping to get on board in half an hour. No way:- an hour and a half for the next ferry. All right; we’ll wait.
So I got my time to look at the castle again. I have never visited it because I am always in a hurry when I get to Dover. It has the shape of a proper castle, a fortress all one with the cliff, useful in old times when enemies were visible and predictable.
Good bye old country, coming back soon.
Crossing the Channel by ferry gives me time to be aware of the distance. We slouched in the first comfortable chairs we found and snoozed, peeping out of the nearest window from time to time expecting land. We were all settled except for my youngest daughter Valentina, who is autistic. She was as awake as an owl at night and as lively as a squirrel. After three minutes she signed she wanted to go. No chocolate, candy or soft drink we promised to buy her could convince her to stay put. She was restless and wanted to have a look around the ship with me or my husband Luigi. She did it…for an hour and a half till we reached Calais. I and Luigi took turns with her as usual.
A flat grey beach and tall white ugly buildings met us at Calais. It was 8, no it was 9 pm in Continental Europe and we had at least three hours driving till Vernon. What about dinner? We opted for a quick McDonald’s drive in.
While duly queuing at the drive in and waiting for our chicken McNuggets and chips a car beeped his horn behind us. So what? Our order was slowly passed us in warm paper bags through the narrow window. The car beeped again. Were they cross with us? One by one we collected all our meals and icy drinks. We moved quickly farther and the car suddenly overtook us, engine roaring and tyres screeching. Did we do anything wrong? We shrugged and headed to Vernon Formule 1 eating our meals on the way.
The Sat Nav said three hours and a half and we managed to get there before 1 am. Have you ever been in a Formule 1 hotel? It's not Formula 1. It is a two storey building made of assembled cubicles of reinforced concrete, very hot in summer but cheap. The rooms are provided with a sink, a window, a TV set to remind you how rusty your French is, and beds with clean sheets. Hot coffee, crispy baguettes, plenty of butter and jam would wait for us at breakfast in a few hours. Enough for us. We fell in a slumber.
Part 2: Chartres
The second day of our journey I wanted to see Chartres Cathedral again for the fifth or sixth time in my life. This time I and Luigi had planned to attend the guided tour with Malcolm Miller, the famous expert of the Cathedral. We knew there was a tour at 12:00 and another one at 2:45, except on Sundays. It was Saturday and we were confident we could do it this time. We left at 10:30 from our Formule 1 hotel and rushed to a supermarket to buy some baguettes, ham and salami for lunch. I didn’t weigh and label the bag of apples because I thought they would do it at the till so when I was at the till I had to go back to the scales on the other side of the supermarket and do it, leaving a long queue waiting after me. When I paid I got lost with euro banknotes thinking a 10 euros note was a 20 note. So I handed a 10 euro note for an amount of 18 euros and waited for the change. The girl at the till stared at me, where did I come from? The North Pole? I realized my mistake, blushed and apologized and swore to myself to pay more attention next time.
We arrived late for the midday tour. But we still trusted in the 2:45 one. We entered the Cathedral and stopped for a few minutes. The blues, reds and yellows of the stained glasses contrasting with the dark grey limestone walls and pillars ravished us once more. I went to the shop and asked for the guided tour at 2:45.
“No guided tours this afternoon,” the girl answered. “There are two weddings. Would you like an audio guide?”
“Oh sugar,” I mumbled. My hopes of a brilliant experience visiting my favourite Gothic church were going to hell. I’ll be back again, I thought from the depths of my disappointment. “All right, five audio guides, please.” Valentina didn’t care a fig.
“It’s 20 euros. Have you got your passports?”
I handed our passports. “Italian?” she asked. I nodded.
We hung the audio guides to our necks and played number one. What a waste of time and money. The comments recorded were pompous and pointless with only few real information and in a bad Italian. Maybe the English version would be better. My children, who were already bored by the idea of visiting a church, were now almost angry. Only the weird pronunciation of some Italian words they had heard from the recording kept their spirits high. I bought my third book on Chartres to curb my frustration.
We had our sandwiches avoiding a selection of bright pink salami, sitting on a bench outside the church glancing the Royal portal and the two towers of the façade still regretting the missed tour. I noticed how the eerie shapes of the zodiac signs with dangling tongues and dragon tails and the committed figures of the monthly labours were at ease near angels, saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. An attempt to represent the story of man from all its sides.
In the end I had to cope with the fact that my children didn’t care about the fact that they could see an abridged, effective summary of the Old and New Testament in Chartres’s sculptures and stained glasses. But whatever they thought, I found it incredible that finely wrought sculptures and more than a hundred fragile stained glass windows had survived the 16th century wars of religion, the French revolution and two World Wars.
But the children had also fun. Crossing the old town with its expensive shops – where my daughter caught the sight of a very high heeled pair of shoes I forbade her to buy for the sake of her legs and feet – we reached a large square. Gigantic shapes of yellow and blue plastic bunnies and red meerkats adorned the area together with a fountain with water springing from the pavement in sudden unpredictable gushes. They ran about the jets of water barefoot splashing each other and getting soaked. Never mind, it was hot.
We went back to our car dry and pleased. Next stop: Orléans, Jeanne d’Arc’s town. Was she a witch or a saint? You decide.
Part 3: Les châteaux de la Loire 1
Next morning we tackled the main reason for travelling through France: visiting the Castles of the Loire. Following the river southbound the first castle we met was Chambord. I was longing to see it. But the children had different ideas. The word ‘castle’ sounded boring to them. Luigi and I were sure that visiting castles was good for them and went on with our plan.
The French buildings of the area had already struck me with their regular cream colour shapes and dark grey roofs. In vain I looked for brown or pink buildings:- they all stuck to the same pattern. And the castle of Chambord had the same colours too. But what happens on its roofs is fantastic. Like inlaid, multifaceted candles on the top of a birthday cake its chimneys and pinnacles ornately overlay the roofs. The effect is stunning.
Inside the salamander icon of François I is everywhere, for after all he ordered the creation of the castle spending large sums of money and emptying the Treasury. Crazy man.
We enjoyed the double-helix staircase probably designed by Leonardo da Vinci, who was the king’s guest at the Clos Lucé (a castle farther south on the Loire). People going up or down the helixes don’t meet. We got lost. Some of us climbed up on one side, others on the other side and we stopped at different floors. Waiting at the second floor with Valentina I spotted my two boys racing up and down the stairs. I stopped them before somebody else did it and sent them to look for their father and sister.
Nothing else interested the children so we moved on the next castle: Blois. This time it was in the centre of a town, not in the countryside like Chambord, and in four different styles: Gothic, late Gothic, Renaissance and Classical. Surprising that each king added his part without destroying the previous work. The story of the murder of the Duke of Guise intrigued us. We followed his steps in the king’s chamber and along the corridor where his assassins were waiting for him with swords drawn. Apparently he was a big, strong man and king Henri III had chosen twenty men, who succeeded in killing him. A few months later the king himself was murdered. What a good example.
It was Sunday and all the shops were closed in Blois as well as the Tourist Office. Don’t they expect tourists in August?
Well we headed to our Bed & Breakfast in Chinon, where we would spend four nights. But the children didn’t know yet.
The rooms were cosy, too cosy and full of delicate craft items from Thailand and Japan set on tables, cupboards, shelves and hanging from screens and pegs. Too much for Valentina, our autistic daughter, who would tear them to pieces or throw them to us in a tantrum. We apologized with the kind landlord but we had to hide everything as quickly as possible before she caught sight of them and decided that that was her playing room.
We had dinner late in a sort of Italian restaurant full of tourists and local people. A good sign, we thought. Fifteen minutes after ordering Valentina had already drunk all her lemonade and played with the cutlery. She pointed at the exit and uttered a scream, a cross expression on her face. What could we do? The waitresses were busy with other customers (in fact we waited more than an hour for our order). I picked up a red and a blue pen from the supply in my bag (I always have from five to ten pens in my bag in case I got lost in a desert without a stationery shop at hand). She was pleased and started to scribble and draw circles on her paper place mat. This lasted for five minutes. Then she started to draw lines on her hands and arms, which attracted the attention of some people around us. We ignored them. But she used up all available space and then got bored. She stood up and pointed at the door again. My husband Luigi saved the day. He took the pens and drew boys’ and girls’ figures on her arms and calves using the blue pen and coloured them with the red one. This took some time and she was absorbed in it. A girl about nine years old, Valentina’s age, sitting behind us, turned around and followed the whole thing with wide open eyes. She must have thought we were sort of upside down kind of parents.
Unfortunately the long wait wasn’t worth it. The tagliatelle carbonara and pizzas were full of onions and we could eat only part of them. My children were horrified, the carbonara had an uncooked egg in the middle. Where did they find such a recipe? But Valentina had a shower back at the B&B.
Part 4: Les châteaux de la Loire 2
Chenonceau was my favourite castle. And my teenage daughter agreed with it. The castle was created by women, Queen Caterina de Medici, her rival King Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers and Louise de Lorraine, wife and widow of Henri III ( the one who ordered the murder of the Duke of Guise). It lies across the river Cher like a bridge, smaller than the previous castles, impressive and fragile like its reflection on the waters. Luscious gardens outside, tidy bedrooms inside.
I wonder if these important women really slept in the uncomfortable four-poster beds surrounded by heavy tapestries and allegorical pictures. I would have nightmares every night and wake up looking for my chamber pot. Did they keep it in their bedrooms? Nice smell.
The children had a quick tour, almost running from one room to another.
“Do you think they are starting to like the castles?” I asked to my husband.
“No,” he said.
But we didn’t give up. Talking with the landlord he recommended us some unmissable castles: Amboise, Le Clos Lucé, Azay-le-Rideau and Villandry. How could we convince our children to follow us? Bribing them!
We found a go-kart track near one of the castles and booked two places for the boys. Valentina jumped on a kart but it was for over twelves. I went shopping with my teenage daughter at Gallerie Lafayette in Tours. The prices froze me. She soon headed for stylish jumpers for next Autumn, the cheapest item one hundred and fifty euros (two dinners at a restaurant for all six of us). Looking around I spotted a stock on sale where she found a cotton jacket with a frilly collar that fitted her to perfection, reduced to less than half its original price. I sighed.
Previously Valentina had already collected a pale pink and a bright pink winter coat, her favourite item of clothing in all seasons.
So Luigi and I didn’t feel guilty when we made them follow us in a tour of four more castles. They enjoyed Le Clos Lucé, though, because of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines scattered in the park around the castle and also the gorgeous gardens of Villandry.
Sitting on a bench in the shade near the garden of water I read them all the information about the seven different gardens of Villandry. In a typical French style garden number one symbolized four different kinds of love: tender, passionate, unstable and tragic love. L’amour…
Somebody said, “What about dirty love?” We chuckled.
Our trip around the castles of the Loire had ended. That night we felt chuffed and relaxed in our room at the Bed & Breakfast. Valentina felt hyper instead. I had the bad idea of buying her some wax pastels and her artistic temperament triumphed over the rule of drawing only on paper. While the rest of the family was trying hard to make out the plot of a French detective film on TV she drew a huge long armed and long legged human figure with spiky hair on the wall behind us. I spent the following two hours cleaning it. Wax pastels are particularly nasty to wipe away.
Next morning we packed and had our last breakfast in Chinon: hot coffee or hot chocolate, tasty brown bread with candied fruit inside, butter and a wide variety of home made jams. More than ten jars with different confitures were on display each morning with tiny spoons to scoop them up and tiny bowls to pour them into. I tasted all of them: pear, apricot, tomato, grapes, plum, peach, cherry, blackcurrant, redcurrant, raspberry and aubergine, all delicious.
We paid cash, no card please, bought some jars and warmly thanked the landlord and the landlady.
“Il fait chaud ici, mais il sera encore plus chaud en Italie.”
It will be hotter in Italy, he said. Yes, it will be scorching.
Part 5: Reaching the seaside
Back to our car we had two days travel to reach the seaside resort in the centre of Italy on the Adriatic coast where we had booked a three room apartment for a week.
For hours and hours we drove on motorways crossing wheat fields and vineyards, confirming my firm belief about the richness of the French land.
The second day of our journey we crossed the Swiss border and the landscape changed completely: narrow valleys bordered by steep mountains with high harsh peaks spotted with snow. We passed the Great St. Bernard tunnel and arrived in Val d’Aosta (Italy) by lunch time. The temperature was already boiling.
Our stop was in Pianura Padana, the Po Valley, a sort of tropical hothouse in summer. But our room had air conditioning. My aim was to visit the nearby Busseto and Roncole Verdi, the homeland of Giuseppe Verdi, one of my favourite opera composers. What about Aida, Rigoletto, Otello? Total masterpieces.
Do you know the popular aria the Duke of Mantua sings about the fickleness of women in Rigoletto?
La donna è mobile qual piuma al vento
muta d’accento e di pensiero….etcetera. And he outdid them.
The big news in Italy was the unbelievable Lotto prize: one hundred and forty seven million euros. Mamma mia! People came from Germany and Switzerland to bet the six numbers. The day we left to start our journey back the radio said that someone from the area of Massa Carrara guessed the six numbers right: ten, eleven, twenty seven, forty five, seventy nine, eighty eight. Lucky guy. I hope he is still alive. So much money can be tempting, people go missing for less.
We arrived at the seaside on a Saturday afternoon. My parents, mother(seventy nine) and father(seventy seven), and my sister’s family, two adults and two children, were already waiting for us there. The beach was just across the street and our apartment hotel had three swimming pools. What a place for a holiday!
Another member had joined our family, my teenage daughter’s friend Giulia, same age, same passions for glossy magazines and make up.
My eldest sixteen year old son had the right idea. He had a friend nearby, on holiday at a camping site five hundred yards from where we lived so he would spend his time with him. Would he come home for dinner? Yes, sometimes for lunch too. And what about night curfew? We negotiated. Half past eleven? Midnight? Too old-fashioned Cinderella-style. What about half past twelve? Still too early. By one pm? Gone! He would come home by one except for the eve of the departure when we had to negotiate it again.
So my eldest son was busy, my fourteen year old daughter had a friend, my second son had his cousins, my sister’s children, to play with, and Luigi and I….could we totally relax for a week? Of course not, we had Valentina.
She loved the sea. She splashed about in the water the whole time we spent at the beach, one, two or three hours didn’t matter to her. We moved to a more isolated side of the beach away from the crowd after she had tried to get on a small rubber boat full of children, risking capsizing it, and had grabbed some strangers' swimming suits almost stripping them naked. They smiled and said it didn’t matter but the second day everybody knew her name…and my name too.
The weather was fine most of the time. A mild breeze from the sea kept the temperature cool. The sky was blue and the sea was calm, even clear sometimes. Stout palm trees and rhododendron bushes bordered the beach along the road. Summer music, mainly Latin dances, was pounding the air all the time. But I managed to relax for a few minutes.
My mother cooked for all of us for the whole week, which gave me a rest. And we had dinner all together in the terrace of their apartment. My father had dinner a bit earlier or we would have been thirteen at table. As the old saying goes: ‘Non è vero ma ci credo’, it isn’t true but I still believe it.
We had a good time at the seaside, but a week was enough.
Part 6: At the grandparents’ little village
On Saturday 15th August we moved to a little village in the mountains at the border between Lazio and Abbruzzi in the centre of Italy. My parents-in-law were born there during World War II and since retirement they spend three of four months a year there.
Years ago they spent some money having an old shed converted into a three storey house. So there is enough space for all of us, six plus one, including my daughter’s friend.
It sounds idyllic. But it isn’t for me. I relax and have a rest for the first day and a half then I get bored and restless. My skin itches and everything irritates me: the old scratched houses, some of them wretched, the dog’s droppings, the steep alleys I climb panting, the fact that there are no shops, no bars, no parks, nothing worth seeing. Less than ten people live there in winter and only in August you can say there is someone. Most of them are old people who were born there and their grandchildren, whose parents work in the city, Rome or Tivoli. The village is sunk among thick forests of chestnut trees, a place to hide like Luigi’s grandfather did during the war or to grow your own vegetable garden like my parents-in-law are doing now. Not a place for walks or camping especially in summer when horseflies devour you as soon as you get out of the village.
Not much to do for me except eating, sleeping and reading, when I am not dizzy from too much eating and sleeping. These are the habits of the place. Eating is the solution to every problem. Are you nervous? Eat. Are you bored? Eat. Are you ill? Eat, for Heaven’s sake. Maybe it is because they didn’t have so much to eat in the past, as it was a poor village.
After a few days I felt sick so I ate less and felt better. Luigi had hay fever so we made up our minds to have an excursion: one day trip to Rome, my birth place.
We had some books and CDs to buy so we took our time in a three storey bookshop with air conditioning. For a few hours we didn’t need to worry if the children were having fun or not or if they were hungry, thirsty, their mobiles didn’t work, the iPod had run down or they had any other urgent need. And we could stop being in the look-out about how to head off Valentina’s tantrums. It was life, normal life.
When we went back to the little village in the evening Valentina, who had stuck to the grandparents since we had arrived, clung to us instead like a little monkey to a banana tree, afraid we would leave again without her. And my eldest son asked us, “Why on earth did you go to Rome?”
Did they miss us? We should do it more often, I thought.
To be honest the children had fun because they had friends there. And the grandparents were happy to have them.
So what? All right, I am the only one who hates that little, narrow, stinky village. But I can’t help it.
On Saturday 22nd August we finally left. Grandparents inquired about the reason why we were leaving after only a week. We had already explained two months ago, and we told them again that the children were starting school the first week of September and we needed time to reach England and get everything ready. We had a narrow escape.
On the way back we didn’t plan to see much. We stopped in Milan to see the Cathedral square, which I had never seen before. I thought the Gothic Cathedral was grey but instead it is covered with white and pink slabs of marble. What a surprise! And we also had an evening walk in the busy, old, fascinating centre of Colmar, a characteristic Alsatian town with half-timbered houses overlooking the canals. All the shops were closed of course.
I was looking forward to being back to England to my house, my life and my space. Valentina was happy to be back with us as well. After all she is our defence against the Bogeyman. He is so scared of her that he leaves us alone.
We arrived safe and sound in Lancaster on a sunny evening, the day before the heavy rains started.
And this is what really happened.