We didn’t have any burning aspirations to visit Italy. As with life in general, our travels have been largely determined by circumstance than great planning. After winter in UK and northern Europe, and with the emergence of spring, we knew we would want some certainty on the sunshine stakes. Spain, Portugal, France and Italy were all in the mix and one night we asked the kids which they’d prefer. When Bug said his favourite subject at school is Italian and he really wanted to go there, that sealed the deal.
Then came the next fateful twist – Black Friday – that ultimate day on the global consumerism calendar on the last Friday of November. Rugged up in wintery Germany, Lisa started trawling the internet for travel deals and the internet delivered in the form of fantastic spring deals across a raft of European holiday parks. We hit the ‘buy’ button and our itinerary was set, with three 1-week cabin stays through UK’s EuroCamp in Tuscany’s Sarteano, Rome and Lombardy’s Lake Garda.
We were SO excited. To some travellers, holiday parks are about as attractive as a migraine, but we wanted the kids to be able to roam free, play and swim without us having to give permission and (ugh) constantly supervise. And there was also the possibility of meeting a few other kids.
Holiday parks that we’ve researched and visited in Europe are often pretty swanky places, with amenities and services not common to us folk in less populated parts of southern Australia – who feel grateful to find a flushing toilet, green grass, working barbeque and basic swimming pool. They cost a small royal fortune during the European summer holidays but are quite reasonable to very good value in the shoulder seasons before and after, when they are also much quieter (hooray) but may not have all facilities operating (pool, kids club, etc). Quite a few close completely over winter, especially in those areas where it gets particularly cold.
Italy – and these three holiday parks – exceeded every expectation and became one of our favourite stints on BussAbout. Why is that so? Read on….
After our brush with a bogus AirBnB booking, and before the first holiday park, we found another property in quick time in the chilly and spectacular Apuane Alps. We’d never heard of them and now we’ll never forget them. We had a spacious apartment next to an imposing village church in Cotto, clinging to the mountainside above the romantic town of Fivizzano. The roads twisted and turned like my intestines, intended to be 2-way but barely wide enough in places to walk through sideways. I drove in a permanent state of prayer for the kids not getting car sick.
With the area somewhat off the tourist highways to the north and south, and still waking up from winter hibernation, it had a laid back feel and we were content to potter around a little aimlessly and cook up some fresh pasta to eat on our terrace in the evenings. We had long lunches in Fivizzano and ate the Best Pizza Ever (somewhat sadly peaking in our first week), wandered the chestnut groves around Sassalbo, played with sticks and stared at views.
Our one day of intent touristing was to Manerola, one of the towns within the famed Cinque Terra (five towns), and about an hour drive from Cotto. We snagged a free parking space on the road up high on the hill behind the towns that runs parallel to the coast, and found a stepped path down down across down right down left down down right down through terraced gardens into the town. We ate gelato. We peered into very old buildings. We very almost nearly got washed off a walking path around the tiny harbour. We contemplated the hot walk back up to the car. We picked poppies and talked about war. It was a good day.
Pisa is on the road between the Apuane Alps and Tuscany. So, off to Pisa we went. Tower. Silly photos. Fridge magnet. Box ticked.
We hadn’t gone box ticking since Paris and straight away realised we could have stayed in Pisa a few days to explore. We were quite taken with the scale and beauty of the architecture around the tower (which never makes it into the tourist photos!), the promise of interesting museums, beaches and a vibrant historic city centre filled with restaurants spilling into the cobbled streets.
Tuscany comes with very high expectations and, even so, we were blown away at every turn. Rustic walled towns crowning every hilltop, olive groves, vineyards and forests. We chose the Parco Delle Piscine because it has a thermally heated pool (essential in April), great playground and is within easy walking distance to Sarteano, a stunning village that is a stone’s throw from the famous Montepulciano but with very few tourists of its own (yet).
This massive park was practically empty. No TV or wifi? No worries. Our days consisted of pasta, pizza and gelato, exploring the town (and its very own 600-year old castle), hitting the local market (for an oozy slab of gorgonzola), watching the colourful May Day parade, playing the TeamBuss version of volleyball, swimming and speed dressing afterwards (brrrr). My favourite pastime was walking to the village supermarket at least twice a day …. once during the siesta midday break when I’d forget it was closed, and returning later in the afternoon to jostle with the locals.
There’s HEAPS to do all through Tuscany and beyond. You want to taste olives, fish, canoe, hike, bike or take in a few thousand years of history, this is your place! One day we wallowed in stinky oozy mud at the thermal baths in Bagni San Filippo. I honestly thought the kids (and I) would run a mile from the smell and sensory weirdness, but loved sitting in the warm water surrounded by forest next to a cold clear stream, covering ourselves and each other in the grey stuff. The advantage of taking kids? No one else seemed very interested in sharing our pool!
Montepulciano beckoned us one sunny day and we did what any local would do: had a lazy lunch in the town piazza, lit a candle in the 350 year old cathedral, and bribed the kids to walk all day with the promise of more gelato. They waited for us on the steps outside while we tasted wine at Contucci – a 1000 year old winery. We didn’t think we were inside for long but Bug said matter-of-factly he “now knows what it feels like to be a homeless kid”. Time flies when you’re in a winery.
Squirt and Koala wanted a 6th birthday to remember. Well, of course! Creating a sense of communal celebration for kids is tough when far away from home but on this occasion the universe delivered; our wonderful cousins from Holland happened to be holidaying near Florence and we all met at Saltalbero Adventure Park for a fantastic day of pizza, ziplining and other adrenaline hits.
I must say the girls accepted without a glitch such a small bounty of birthday presents, necessitated by practicality, budget and bag weight. Our kids do miss toys (especially Lego!), no question, but we’ve noticed with more clarity how short-lived their interest remains with most toys. The few they’ve had have been lost, broken or ‘left behind’ without so much as a second thought.
What about books? Well, these are guarded with zeal and continue to push the stitching of our bags to their design limits. Sigh.
Onto holiday park no. 2 – Fabuloso Village – on the outskirts of Rome and situated in a veritable forest of imposing, aged pine trees. The pool wasn’t heated but the spring weather was warming just enough to throw ourselves en masse helter skelter down the pool slide. And, bingo, the kids club had just opened in preparation for the frenetic summer holiday season! People who run kids club each deserve a medal…. those nutty guys kept our kids humming along with day time activities and an outdoor mega-disco. Every. Single. Night. Pity went to any visitors seeking peace and quiet of an evening.
Ostia Antica, Rome’s main seaport and bustling city in it’s own right from the 4th century BC, is literally down the road from the village. Vast and imposing, it’s possible to wander unimpeded (and largely alone) through what was once an important city of 100,000 Roman inhabitants, passing through ancient doorways, admiring frescoes, gazing at 2000 year old mosaics, and window shopping for an ancient sarcophagus. We truly felt overawed.
Well, the park – with it’s supermarket, go karts, mini golf, playgrounds, and new Irish friends – offered a lifestyle that was hard to tear ourselves away from. Much like our approach to Paris, we opted for ‘what-only-one-day-in-Rome?’. (we prefer whopping big cities in small doses … except London … for some reason we seem able to cope with London). With a relatively easy bus and train commute behind us, we hung out near a fountain to meet our local guide, booked through WithLocals (who we highly recommend for quality, good value tours), for a private walking tour. Three hours and 7 km later we were thoroughly pooped.
We witnessed some magnificent sights – Colosseum, Pantheon, Piazza Navona – but we didn’t want to only tick boxes. Highlights that day started with visiting the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary (location of Julius Caesar’s murder!) and sitting in the cool for a while with the volunteers and Rome’s famous felines. We loved wandering the Jewish Quarter and lunching at one of their local pizza restaurants serving a unique variety of toppings. Then there was a walk through the quieter streets of a local neighbourhood across the River Tiber for – you guessed it – gelato. Hanging with a local gave us a window into behind-the-scenes Rome life and neighbourhoods.
Holiday park no. 3 – Altomincio Holiday Park – situated on the Mincio River a few kilometres south of Peschiera del Garda on the southern banks of the massive lake was yet another winner. It had the largest pool complex with two loooooong slides, bars, restaurant, large supermarket, rental bikes, mini golf and another whizzpopping kids club. The park is designed as a ‘no car’ zone which meant lugging our many bags a long way from the car but added safety for the kids as they wandered far and wide with new found friends. The kids club even organised a gnocchi-marking class in the park restaurant and, high on early-in-the-season adrenaline, dragged a bevy of young kids on the equivalent of a bender; a late-night mini-golf session.
One downside of this period was a work commitment that meant me saying goodbye for a 5-day stint in Washington. And did TeamBuss have a ball? You bet. Lisa risked her sanity taking them alone on a day trip to Movieland. It costs substantially less than the neighbouring (and more famous) Gardaland but, for younger children, offers a quality day out complete with varied musical shows and movie / stunt-theme rides, including jet boats, jungle jeeps, army trucks, rollercoasters and a 4D cinema experience. How this place hasn’t crossed the line of copyright law is a mystery but our kids could have been convinced they’d been transported to the Hollywood hills.
It was during this time that we were reunited with Lisa’s mum, Cathy, and cousin Wendy, who were joining us for several weeks on the road. Well, easy to say we were all overjoyed. And it meant stepping up the pace, from barely-in-first-gear-slow-travel mode to commited-tourist mode, and in doing so seeing a few more sights.
Verona is STUNNING. Even after a gander at its famous colosseum (built before the one you might possibly have heard of in Rome and used as a template for it’s more famous architectural cousin) and Juliet’s balcony, there was beauty and joy to be had in exploring its maze of streets, wandering the Adige River, and sampling its food. Cathy declared that if she “could find accommodation on the ground floor, she could live in Verona”. Italy has lots of stairs. Cathy doesn’t like stairs.
Our day trip to Venice was dominated by rain, excitement and more stairs. I’d just flown back from Washington and so, without a single moment of preparatory research, we emerged from Santa Lucia Railway Station to contemplate the different regular boat ‘stops’ on the pier. A brief panicked glance at the route map (in Italian naturally) and we punched out seven tickets from a machine in pouring rain and jumped on a boat. We were in luck, emerging from our crowded wind-blown vessel at our destination; Piazzo San Marco (St Mark’s Square). Once we left the tourist frenzy and started disappearing through the labyrinth of alleys the magic started. In hindsight, a benefit of a no-research approach is we had nowhere in particular we thought we needed to be. Goodness knows though what delights we missed by an errant right or left turn! Freed of any itinerary we wandered, bedraggled with squelching shoes but largely alone, window shopping and soaking in wonder and rain. The only stipulation was avoiding as many canal bridges as possible. Bridges have stairs. Cathy doesn’t like stairs.
P.S. If you’re wondering why we’re holding up red and yellow packets of Fonzies, any Aussie will tell you they are ‘dead ringers’ (replicas in Aussie slang) of our very own Twisties … hallelujah… cheese chips that transported us back home with every bite.