My family has a tradition of a summer family holiday altogether. And when I say my family, I mean my four brothers, two sisters, their families, my mum, and my children. Last year there were around 40 of us. This year we were 25 – the corona regulations making it tricky with the hassle of tests. The risk of quarantines on return meant that some decided not to go.
Our chosen destination was Tuscany. After a year of corona restrictions everyone was looking forward to some summer sun and those rolling Tuscan hills. My brother and his family flew in from the US without too much hassle. My UK family members all flew in. Their holiday was slightly over-shadowed by all the corona test requirements, but they were undaunted none-the-less.
And as for me and my husband? We decided to drive to Italy from the Netherlands. Nearly 1300km, or a 13-hour drive. We stopped off for a couple of nights on the outward journey, taking in the Black Forest in Germany, and Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. For our route back we stopped off in the Cote d’Azur, South France, and a final stop-over in Dijon. In total we passed through seven countries (if you count Monaco) – and we didn’t have to take a single test, show our ID, or our vaccination pass once at a border. In fact, the only time we had to show our vaccination pass was to get into a couple of museums in France.
Isola Bella, Stresa
The Scharzwald in Germany was stunning, fir trees on mountainous hills, with the winter ski runs visible and sapphire-coloured lakes in the middle. However, it was our stop at a lake in northern Italy that had the hidden surprise. When booking things online for a road trip one looks at the route rather than things to do on the way, and all we knew is we’d booked an Airbnb on the edge of a lake. To get there we chose the scenic road, hugging the edge of Lake Maggiore from the north, driving to our destination on the south shore. The lake was stunningly huge, and a feast for the eyes after a few hours of motorway driving. We stopped to take in the views properly, and the faded Italian villas dotting the lakes perimeter suggested a time more glorious.
As we reached Stresa, we passed towering white Art Nouveau hotels lining the promenade along the lake’s edge. Narrow streets punctuated with pretty piazzas wound through the ochre-coloured storied buildings. It was in exactly one of these that we were to be staying for the night, and our host was keen to recommend places for us to visit. Our original plan had been to get up early and drive to Milan before heading to Tuscany but landing ourselves in such a jewel of a place we felt we should honour it. Early the next morning we took the ferry to Isola Bella, the island palace, a short ride away. There were three islands in total.
The grand palace literally consumed the whole island, which consisted either of gardens, or walkways wrapping the palace itself. On the stone walkways street vendors and ice-cream stalls had laid out their colourful wares. The palace itself was opulent, rooms crammed with tapestries and paintings, floor to ceiling, most of which had been commissioned for the palace and created by teams of dedicated artists. Views across the lake were framed by fabulous windows. The last section of the palace held a grotto created to be like an underground seascape. The 10-storied palace gardens had white peacocks strutting around, everything was lavish but miniature, an over-the-top fountain resplendent with statues as the centrepiece.
After our visit, we were back in the car, for the final leg of our journey to Tuscany. I drove this bit, along the coastal route – which consisted of more tunnels than I care to remember.
We finally pulled into the villa at dusk, to be greeted by my family. We had lucked out, and our designated apartment in the two-villa complex had a balcony view, as wide as you could see, with rolling Tuscan hills, and just as I was taking it in for the first time, there was a glorious sunset unfolding.
The next few days were spent catching up with family, swimming in the pool, and exploring nearby towns of Sienna, Arezzo, Montepulciano, and a trip to Florence. The highlight of this week was not just one but two dinners al fresco. Our Italian hosts cooked a special Tuscan banquet for us. We sat on long trestle tables with white cloths, with a view over the hills to one side, a vineyard on the other, jumping up to take pictures when we were bathed in the glorious evening light. The many courses meant that conversation could flow unchecked, and when it was dark, we played music and danced under the stars with the children to whom bedtimes had become non-existent.
Our last day a bunch of us went quad biking, a nice adrenalin thrill after a few days of gentle tourist walks. Motoring through hill-top villages and off-roading alongside rivers on bumpy paths for 3 hours was a good challenge for us all.
Our last day in Tuscany my husband and I set off early for our next stop. We headed up the coast to France, stopping for a wander in Monaco, taking in the famous square in Monte Carlo and enjoying a walk around the harbour where we ogled billionaire’s boats. (Seriously, a yacht with its own helicopter?).
The Cote d’Azur
Our destination was Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small resort nestled between Nice and Cannes. That evening we walked to the beach down many steps. It was swelteringly hot (as it had been all week) and we were desperate to swim in the sea. The pebble-beach was packed, but the best respite was in the water, which was warm.
The next day we took a bus into Nice, our first port of call being the museum. I was delighted by the exhibition running, L’Amazones du Pop – all about the women in the pop art movement.
Next, we hit the beach. There was a strong breeze, creating a heavy surf, and with the beach’s natural formation of a steep incline at the shoreline meant getting into the sea whilst walking on hot stones was somewhat tricky. Once in, bouncing in the waves was fun, but getting out was equally challenging. When we’d had enough of the wind and intense sun on the beach, we wandered through the town. The small streets bustled; this was the busiest place we’d seen all summer so far. Nice Centreville was very appealing, bright colours, shops, restaurants with terraces.
I had a flash back to my last trip to Nice, 32 years ago, whilst backpacking around France by train with my friend Cathy. That was a trip on a budget, full of simple pleasures, taken in our student days. There were no mobile phones or instant bank debit cards. Just us, our backpacks, a budget in francs, and Walkman’s with two cassettes between us. Those were days when a plain baguette, slice of gruyere and a bottle of Evian whilst sat on a jetty in the sunshine made us feel rich.
After Nice we were pointed for home, driving north through France. This was the route de Soleil in reverse, and we were grateful for the quiet motorway as we sped homeward. Our final stopover midway was in Dijon, again chosen for its location rather than anything else. We wandered into the city before heading to our Airbnb, and a visit to the museum. Dijon, home of the Dukes of Burgundy who had once ruled north-west Europe. And the home of mustard, of course.
A lovely surprise at the end of our trip was our wonderful hosts for the last night of our adventure. This French couple opened their home as if we were not just guests, but friends. They cooked for us in the evening, and we all ate together in their large garden, ‘parlant francais’, trying anyway. It was a delightful encounter and repeated in the morning at ‘petit dejeuner’, fresh croissants from the patisserie accompanied by our basic Franglais. The night before, on discovering my husband played the piano, they invited him to play for them. There we were, sat in a beautiful living room with antiques and modern art, Valentin banging out Bohemian Rhapsody and Billy Joel’s Piano Man, with our hosts both dancing and filming him at the same time!
The rest of the drive home was uneventful, France, Luxembourg, then Belgium and finally the Netherlands. Home is always good but travelling awakens the soul and creates memories to store up for the dark winter days ahead.