Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Italian Job: Rome

They say that all roads lead to Rome.  Well, that is, until you get lost.  And then it’s all a bit hopeless as cars veer in front of you, double park with their hazard lights on whilst the driver saunters over to the coffee shop; motorbikes weave precariously in  and out of the cars knocking off wing mirrors as they go, and which side of the road, and how much of it you use, is negotiable.  And if you are in a car with GB plates it becomes a little game for the Romans – we were even cut up gladiator style by a sweet smiling teenage girl in a Smart car… 

So this is when one has to adopt another saying – When in Rome, do as the Romans.  G became proficient at charging into non moving traffic, me at deciphering the mood of the drivers and the general direction in which we were going, and the boys at buttoning it as we swerved this way and that with all the passion (if not finesse) of the Italian drivers.

Luckily our hotel, the Ca’ Selva Candida, was a little oasis of a hotel on the outskirts of Rome, to which we would return daily, sinking into the chairs at the bar with the sighs of the seasoned traveler. This has been a little gem of a find, the rooms are big and spacious, the staff friendly and exceedingly helpful – all have got to know us – and although we only stayed 3 nights, we felt very welcome. Stefano at Reception recommended a car park in town whilst we caught the Metro into the city centre. And so we did.  (After a couple of wrong turns in which we ended up in a small alleyway with no turning circle and all the Italians came out to watch and suck their teeth and debate amongst themselves as to which bit of the car we would hit on the bulging brick walls).

Catching the Metro was easy – again once you had worked out what type of ticket you needed and how long for.  And once we were in Rome we took the advice of Liz, a reader of the blog, and got on one of the open top tour buses.  There are several companies that offer this service, and after looking at the routes that they offer, we decided to go for the blue bus, as that covered the parts of the city that we wanted to see.  It’s a great idea for getting a general layout of a city, you can get on and off where you please, and simply catch the next one when you’ve finished sight seeing.  It also has an audio guide – ours was in 13 languages which pleased the boys no end as they messed around with the settings.  Mine seemed to be permanently stuck with Italian in one ear and English in the other, but I got the general idea.

The Colosseum
It was fabulous.  Coming from the UK, we get a bit blasé about antiquities and ruins and ancient history. But Rome is simply breathtaking.  Even the oldest smallest pillars had intricate carvings, there were thousands of statues from those framing St Peters to those above shop doorways.  The Pantheon with its open air domed ceiling was a marvel.  The Circus Maximus, now a dust bowl, still evocative of days gone past.  The Colosseum, and small Roman ruins, open for all to walk by and stop, and look.  Paintings, glorious in their size and colour. Great mansions like the Villa Borghese, and gardens, and hundreds and hundreds of shops and restaurants.

Trevi Fountain, under scaffolding
A few of you have been asking how my ankle has been faring.  I tore my Achilles tendon over a year ago and have subsequently developed acute tendonitis in my right ankle.  This manifests itself as a large painful lump, with swelling which goes up and down, depending on how much exercise I have done.  I have had a number of physio sessions, and two saline injections under local anaesthetic to break down the scar tissue, which seems to have alleviated the pain.  But there is no doubt that the travelling and walking is paying its toll.
Strapped up for Day 1

The night we arrived in Rome, I was slightly alarmed to see that my good ankle had developed a small painful lump on the tendon.  This was clearly the result of a year of over compensation, but did not bode well.  Hence our decision to do the bus tour.  Underneath my well padded leather British Knights trainers were heel inserts and both feet were strapped up in support bandages.  But that evening it was clear that I was in trouble.  And what was worse was that the next day we had booked to see the Vatican Museum and the thing that was on my bucket list, the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museum is vast, our rather enthusiastic receptionist told us it was roughly 7km of walking (unverified) and I needed my hiking feet.  So G and the boys brought back two buckets of ice from the bar and we wrapped my ankles in ice and towels, and I slept in ice all night, waking up to a slightly soggy bed, but no lump on the good ankle.

The Vatican City was simply astounding. Every room in the Vatican Museum assuaged your senses in a way that is incomparable – from the Egypt room, to the Animal room, to the painted frescos on the ceilings in the Geographic room or the carvings on the walls, there was simply a brain overload everywhere you looked. And after a long walk, through corridors, up and down stairs, I drew a deep breath before I entered the Sistine Chapel.
Egypt Room - mummified woman from Phebes
Adam and Eve in their Earthly Paradise (Wenzel) - Middle Son's favourite of the day

The stunning ceiling in the Geographic room 
Three little cherubs (not mine)
As an art student at A level, I studied Michelangelo, and one of my favourite books to date is The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.  The Sistine Chapel was worth it – the agony of getting there was worth the ecstasy of being there.  That’s all I can say really. It is not often that I can’t put into words what I felt, but this is one of those times!

My three little cherubs outside St Peters
Our last night in Rome before setting off to Naples was spent in a restaurant local to the hotel and the boys let off steam from all the culture in the play park and enjoyed showing  their ‘jumping off the swings mid air’ skills to some local kids who were there for a birthday party. Amazing how they managed to converse – Little Man using exaggerated mime, and the younger kids using broken English, whilst the teenage girls giggled coyly at our elder boys.
G and I sat and watched them as we washed down our pesce alla griglia with grappa and limoncello.

 As I said, when in Rome, do as the Romans.  And so we did.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Italian Job: Venice

Venice was not far away from Verona, Garmin our sat nav had cheerfully told us that it would take 1hr 50mins to get there, but of course we hadn’t banked on it being a Sunday…  In the queue on the main route into Venice I saw cars from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Italy.  But only one other with UK plates.  I had done a bit of research into parking, as we were arriving in peak season, and it seemed that a man made parking island called Tronchetto fitted our purpose best, being secure, near a water bus station and not astronomically priced.

It was also beautifully signposted, and I think we were lulled into a false sense of security about Venice- because certainly from that point onwards we had no idea what we were doing or where we were going!  Waterbuses veered from station to station avoiding water taxis, private boats and even a water ambulance.  By the time we got to the part where we were staying, it had taken 2 water buses to get there – and as they weaved in and out of the lanes and down the Grand Canal, we had had several instances of déjà vu, and no idea where we actually were on the island when we and our bags were deposited.  Luckily, the lady from Ca’Riccio, the apartments at which we were staying, had anticipated this and provided us with a photographic route to the hotel, which I have to confess we kept with us at all times just in case we got a bit lost!

Apartment Rachele was big and had everything in it that we needed.  The woman who met us explained that everyone had taken part in a Festa (Italian equivalent of a fiesta) the night before and was feeling a bit jaded.  We thought we would fit right in…

Wandering through such well known sights such as San Marcos square, past the Realto Bridge and through the cobbled streets on which hundreds of shops showed masks which ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, or brightly coloured artefacts and jewellry in Murano glass, or artisans at work, carving, painting, gondola part making – we even saw a gravestone maker – we were struck by how despite the incessant procession of tourists snapping up shots greedily, the Venetians managed to retain their own sense of identity.

Animal masks
Stunning masks with Swarvoski crystals
And as for the place – it was stunning in its setting with little water lanes snaking round big buildings with hidden steps and decaying brickwork.  Black gondolas with stripy gondoliers pointing out places of interest to the tourists who sat taking selfies and chattering excitedly.  Bridges, lots of them, made of brick or iron.  Hundreds of cafes and restaurants in piazzas, or in streets.  Bustling markets selling fruit and veg, or brightly coloured handbags and clothing.  The pigeon feeding Senegalese were replaced by Indians, who just as effectively stripped the tourists of their Euros once anyone got out a camera.
National drink of Venice - Prosecco, which we were happy to imbibe!

Believe it or not, we had been travelling for 6 days, and there comes a point at which you hit the travel ‘wall’ which is similar to any other ‘wall’ be it  running, working or eating flat out – i.e. you feel tired, emotional, and that you can’t go on.

Thunderstorm in Venice
This happened for Little Man the next day.  He had had a disturbed and hot sleep – broken by an enormous thunderstorm and heavy rainfall… In a bid to not mess everyone’s day up, he got changed and came out with us, but he looked listless and tired, and so we set some objectives for the day - things that we knew that he would look forward to. We knew from inside information that the best time to book a gondola without queuing would be at about 1.00pm which was lunchtime and generally coincided with the hottest part of the day.  We also wanted to cover several other sights – notably the big fish market, Venecchia glass blowers and a Facebook friend had recommended the Ferrari store if we had time. 

Murano glass in all different shapes and forms
It was hot, sticky despite the occasional drizzle of rain, and terribly crowded.  You couldn’t stop to look in shop windows even if you wanted to, as the river of tourists caught you up in the current.  We lost Little Man and Middle Son a couple of times when our hand holds were broken.  It was uncomfortable, and slow.  We broke free of the crowd to get to the fish market only to find that it was closed.  We sat on the steps of a grand building in San Marcos square only to get chased off by an official. We got turned away from a glass blowing place we had found on the street before Venecchia, because we weren’t on a booked tour.  And then we got to Venecchia glass blowers and the man said we couldn’t go in.  In peak season it was tours only, and no that fact wasn’t publicized in the brochures and no, we couldn’t pay to go in and join a group. Little Man burst into great racking sobs of disappointment.  It had all been too much.

And so we cheated, we found a window, through which we had a perfect view of the glassblowing demonstration, and we all watched, fascinated, as the artisan blew a perfect bubble, twisting and turning the molten glass, tapping it at the relevant time and producing a perfect vase.  And the boys all gave a sharp intake of breath as at the end of the demonstration he threw that perfect vase back into the molten glass, ready to do it all over again.  And they watched it twice, and we didn’t pay a cent. And we didn’t buy our glass souvenirs from their shop. More fool them I say.

And from then on the day went perfectly – a gondola ride in which our quiet gondolier and Eldest Son found that they had something in common with rowing.  Our gondolier had been a singles and doubles sculls man in his day, and Eldest Son has just progressed from 8’s and quads to doubles.  And although we hadn’t booked a singing gondolier, he hummed and occasionally broke into song.  It was fascinating to see how the gondolas are not symmetrical, being wider on the right than on the left, and causing it to list, so that the gondolier can control it with one oar.  Each gondola is customized, and very treasured by its owner. And the sights that you could see from the water, and not accessible on foot were truly magnificent.

The next day we packed up and made the long confusing journey out of Venice to Rome.  I settled down to read my first book of the holiday, as I knew that it was a good 5 hour drive.  It was a thriller, and I was hooked.  The writing was brilliant, and I could feel and smell the fire that the hero was trapped in.  Except it wasn’t the book, there really was a small puff of smoke from the in car adapter plugged into the car charger right by me.  All the in car lights had gone out and the boys awoke from their electronic reverie and started to moan that their electronics had died. The circuits had been overloaded and the fuse had blown. I yanked out the charger and it had totally melted.

We stopped as soon as we could in a layby, cooled the car down and changed the fuse so that we could set up Garmin whilst the kids set up Uno on a nearby picnic table.  They looked happy enough.  Amazing what a weeks’ travel has done to them already, and the changes that we have seen in them.

Next stop, as Gregory Peck would say, our Roman Holiday. Watch this space…

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Italian Job: Verona

The drive to Verona was quicker than we had anticipated, and indeed, we would have got to our assignated hotel too early for check in and so we made the decision to head straight into town and have lunch and maybe get a few sights tucked under our belts. It was a little hairy entering Verona.  The Italian road system is at times incomprehensible to the Brit.  Junctions spring up unexpectedly, signs disappear, and nothing is ever more complicated than trying to go in a straight line.  But we made it into the centre, and to Parking Citadella, a funky underground car park with numbered spaces, above which there was a red or a green light indicating that it was available, and with tracks from Grease and Dirty Dancing bellowing out of the speakers.

On emerging above ground and walking into the centre, the old Roman Ampitheatre dominated the surroundings.  Still a working theatre, with Operas daily from June- August, there were elaborate pieces of set sitting outside, huge gold lions and big Corinthian pillars.  A fully dressed Roman soldier and his lady resplendent in heavy gold brocade arrived for their shift and stood at the entrance joking with the many tourists thronging the streets.  It was hot, throughout our stay the temperature has never gone below 33 degrees, and we decided to have lunch in one of the restaurants nearby before the sight seeing began.
Roman ampitheatre

The Teatro Romana was cool inside, and multi layered, with a number of no access points – possibly because of the opera, probably because bits of it were being restored.  But there was no doubt that it was an amazing sight, rising from the cool stone underpasses into the searing heat of the day and one could imagine many things happening in the arena.  The boys and G managed to scramble up to the very top, with Middle Son attempting to sit in every row on the way down again, whilst I contented myself with just taking it all in.
market stall

Next stop was Piazza della Erbe with its bustling market stalls surrounded by beautiful, colourful, higgledy piggledy housing with gravity defying balconies laden with foliage and blooms. Then the Duomo, in which the ceilings soared majestically above us laden with paintings and intricate carvings, and from one of the chapels we saw a bride, groom and the wedding party emerging from the marriage ceremony.

Definitely not Juliet...
Chewing gum wall
And then Casa de Giulietta – the house identified as being the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene. Now we all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but I was struck by how their tragic romance still affected people today.  The walls into the Casa were scribbled with millions of love messages, inside the courtyard there were hundreds of little padlocks attached to an iron trellis with names on, and I was amused to see that there was one wall on which the budget conscious had stuck their used bits of chewing gum, and on which they had inscribed the initials of their loved ones.  That’s romance for you.  The actual balcony was a bit of a let down, there were only so many tourists you could watch shouting Romeo Romeo Wherefore art Thou Romeo? in various formats and dialects, and so we decided against getting the shot!

Verona, definitely a city that G and I would like to visit again, perhaps one day when we can appreciate the opera, the elegance and relax with a glass of wine and just watch the people walk by.

It was time to set off to our hotel, as we strode on the friendly Romans were melting in the heat and drinking from plastic bottles of water. Parking Citadella cheerfully sent us off with a blast of Abba, and we quickly found the route to Villafrancha, about 20 minutes outside the city.  I, of course, had booked the hotel, and so had an inkling of what it might be like, but I had not told the boys for fear of disappointment.  Driving through vineyards and fruit trees laden with citrus, kiwis, and tomato plants, our first view of Ca’ Maddalena was a huge elephant with its trunk upraised, and the sound of splashing.

‘A pool!!!’ shrieked the boys in delight.  A party was in full swing with an enormous charcoal barbeque upon which there were mountains of smoky rectangles of golden polenta, big steaks, ribs, chicken wings, and sausages.  A genial chef, ear pierced with a symbol of Africa, ushered us through to reception where an efficient lady took us up to our rooms. It would seem that there were 11 rooms in total, and it was fully booked throughout the summer with tourists and parties for the locals.  She explained that her family had lived in Malindi (the coastal area of Kenya) for 20 years, and once they had moved back, they decided to make the old family home into a B&B.  It had been a success ever since.
Elephant gate keepers

hotel reception area
Now I was brought up in Kenya, and immediately recognized all the furniture, the décor, the dolls, the masks, the carvings and the absolute attention to detail was outstanding.  I had had no idea that in the middle of the Italian vineyards would be an African Safari Lodge, complete with duka (outside shop) selling bikinis, kikois (sarongs), kaftans and straw beach bags.  Or that there would be enormous painted wooden animals roaming the relaxation area. The kids made for the pool, G made for the beach bar, and came back with two beers and a smiling young barman called Daniele, who was an Italian living in Germany, and a family member who was helping out for 6 weeks.  Aged 17, he was an instant hit with us and the boys, and made every effort to join us in between running errands, sorting out the bar, serving the food and dealing with a local birthday party that had booked into the pool area.  Having the advantage of 6 languages under his belt, it was clear that he was, for the family, indispensable during the busy season.
our bed with mosquito nets

relaxing by the pool with a beer
Although it was a B&B, within no time at all a table was laid up for us for a BBQ dinner, and one for a group of 9 comprising 3 generations of Italians from Australia, with girls similar ages to our boys. The chef piled our plates high with meat, and Daniele flitted between us, and joined our table for a glass of wine and a slice of melon, and within no time at all in this melting pot of a watering hole, all of the kids were back in the pool, and at around 10 pm Daniele joined them.

The Australians were on the latter end of their journey, and were soon to be flying home, and regaled us with their adventures.  It seemed that we were all travelling to Venice the next day, but they had arrived from Innsbruck and had not had a chance to see Verona. Their plan was to get up early and get into the city the next day. We told them of the beautiful sights we had seen.
And then the kids came back, dripping towels on the concrete floor.  They begged to stay on the next morning, have an extra play with the boys in the pool before they left. Their granddad threw his arms up in the air hopelessly.  I felt a bit sorry for him – 4 young girls with beseeching eyes – no chance…

And so it was that the next morning even Middle Son was up and alert, and faced with a sumptuous breakfast of freshly cooked pumpkin seed bread, juicy watermelon, golden apricots, homemade cakes made by Danieles grandmother and fortified with bittersweet full strength Italian espresso, we let the all kids have a splash and a natter, as we packed up our bags. Sometimes in travelling, plans change, and the Aussies gave in to the younger generation with a smile.

We were all sad to leave this little oasis, Little Man was teary and hugged Daniele tight.  In the meantime another party was starting up, and we left to the smell of a barbeque, and music. 
Little Man's message in the guest book

The elephant waved us off as we settled into the car on the way to Venice. It had been enormous fun, and brought back so many childhood memories for me. 

Kwaheri (Goodbye) Ca’ Maddalena and the African animals of Verona.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Italian Job: Milan

Driving into the outskirts of Milan was a bit of a shock after the relative peace of the mountains of France.  Traffic veered wildly from left to right and even Garmin, our sat nav, seemed to be taken by surprise.  Her very British accent seemed at odds with the long road names and often she gabbled incoherently like a woman in her cups. However soon we found the locality of our next hotel, which was situated in a suburb of Milan called Novate Milanese – a very Italian village scattered with cafes, gellatorias, old ladies in black seated on foldaway chairs outside in the street, a newsagents and not one hotel in sight.  Garmin announced that we were here.  We looked incredulously around us. There was nothing but traditional ancient townhouses, and certainly none with car parks. 

G wandered aimlessly up and down the road, trying to find our hotel Antica Corte Milanese by tracking the numbers.  I went into the newsagents, and he directed me to where G was standing in front of an enormous arch with double wooden doors.  I buzzed tentatively on the bell that was scrappily labelled with the name of our abode.  The doors swung open to reveal a wonderfully cobbled courtyard, surrounded with balconied apartments covered in white flowering heavily scented passion vines, large pink unidentifiable blooms and in the top corner of the balcony white linen curtains flapped gently in the breeze round a sun terrace.

A young man who could only have been a few years older than Eldest Son appeared and announced himself as Lorenzo.  He was extremely helpful, and was eager to practice his English on us, which was a good thing as none of us speak Italian, and there was a complicated system of keys and machines to be explained.  The boys soon disappeared into Dalia, our delightful three storey apartment complete with secret attic bathroom which Little Man claimed for his own. Lorenzo patiently explained all the intricacies of living in a converted 17th century building – the light switches were all in odd places, the clay brick floor creaked, the main bathroom had a tiled floor and a bidet, and the stairs were precariously steep. Breakfast, which was included in the price, was through a vending machine, on a prepaid key.  We looked at the empty machine, which apparently served both hot beverages and packets of pastries and made a mental note that we would probably skip breakfast in favour of the many pastry shops we had seen en route. He then led G and I through a series of maps, and drew out laboriously our train route into Milan, and back, and gave us pointers to restaurants. We instinctively knew that we would enjoy our stay in Milan.

the gorgeous Corte Antica
That night the street was thrown open to a Festa, or street party.  We ate at a pizza restaurant called Volpe to the strains of a jazz band that had set up on one end of the street by a bouncy castle and a bustling café. Our antipasti arrived, mountains of mussels, prawns, clams and razor clams, fresh thin slices of smoky breseola, peppery rocket and creamy buffalo mozzarella. All this before our pizzas, and sloshed down with a lovely bottle of Italian red. We ambled back through the crowds - couples wheeled buggies, young men swaggered past giggling teenage girls in teeny shorts and iPods, and old men laughed over glasses of beer, gesticulating wildly with cigarettes.

Exhausted, we all fell into bed, the faint sounds of the street music in our ears.  The next day, G went down the stairs to see what he could hunt down for breakfast, only to find Lorenzo disconsolately mopping up in the breakfast room.  It seemed that the vending machines had given up the ghost and flooded the floors overnight…

G came back with 3 Elvises and 2 Sophia Lorens.  These were hot paninis made by a local who not only dressed like Elvis, but named his fodder accordingly.  They were delicious and differed only in that the Elvises had salami and the Sophias were slightly less fatty with parma ham.

Fortified thus, we set off for the railway station clutching Lorenzo’s map.  It was a five minute walk and we found it with no trouble at all.  I must stop here for a moment and talk about language.  None of us can speak French or Italian, and one thing that I have found so far with booking slightly out of town is that not a lot of people speak English.  So G, armed with a phrase book, attempted to talk to the woman behind the counter.  Now although I cannot speak Italian, my deceased grandmother, an uneducated woman, could speak 7 languages and write not a jot.  Something has rubbed off on me, because I can understand a lot more than I can speak. 

On their first double decker train
Sensing that I understood her, the woman turned to me in despair, and began rattling off staccato style.  I am proud to say that I managed to get a free pass for all public transport in Milan for all of the kids, and an adult return to the station.  She then ran on to the platform where we were waiting and proceeded to chat on about all the things she had forgotten to tell me – where we should get off, what we should do etc.  Maybe it was only because I was the ‘Madre’, but I noticed G had put away his phrase book and slunk off to look at the train timetable as the boys sniggered.

Feeding the pigeons outside the Duomo
The Duomo
a fortifying gelato
Milan, home of fashion and the beautiful people.  The boys looked in awe at the expensive shops and Middle Son declared his ambition to one day own a Gucci suit.  The superb Duomo, towering above a Piazza in which the kids fed the birds courtesy of some Senegalese hustlers (hmm…5 euros later we learned our lesson, and so did the kids – shouting NO! whenever any approached us). The lovely women with endless legs and swinging little expensive bags, the men, no matter what age, exquisitely dressed in a panacea of colours.  But the unexpected hit of the day was the Leonardo 3 exhibition.  Covering all aspects of Leonardo da Vinci’s life including his inventions and his art, meant that all of us had something to look at.  The boys were fascinated by the model flying machines, time and motion, and invented their own land and air machines with print outs. Always an amateur conspiracy theorist,  I spent ages reading all the 3D computerized info on the Last Supper and was shaken out of my reverie by the boys. Little Man declared that he wanted to be an actor and an inventor.

the biggest billboard in the world - and aspiring models...
We got back in the evening exhausted.  G went to sleep. I was packing up and checking through the stuff for Verona, our stop the next day. The boys were debating what the bidet was.  Eldest Son thought it was a bath for toddlers, Little Man thought it was for washing your feet.  Middle Son, who is a bit more savvy, told them that it was for washing your butt.  The other two looked up in incredulity as he described what to do.

And then they tried it out to much hilarity.

Milan, here bidet, gone tomorrow

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Italian Job: Dijon

There’s no doubt about it, travelling this way is tiring.  And we suffered for it the next day, with the boys surfacing at around 10.00am – unheard of at home.  And so consequently we missed breakfast, which was not included in the room fee, and so we entered Dijon absolutely famished and heading for the first car park that we could find.  There was a scraping noise as the car went down a steep ramp to the underground parking that was Parking Darcy.  G looked a bit concerned, whilst the rest of us concentrated on finding a space in the packed car park.  As we got out of the car, the boys all knelt, peering into the darkness under the vehicle.  There was a piece of the undercarriage hanging low, through which flowed a liquid on to the concrete floor.

Pandemonium and panic ensued.  G panicked that it was terminal, the boys panicked that the car was falling apart. I wandered how on earth we were going to eat.  I don’t profess to know much about cars, but having been brought up in Africa, where pretty much any vehicle is held together on a wing and a prayer, I was not unduly concerned.  I suggested that G put his finger in the puddle and look and sniff.  It wasn’t oil, diesel or brake fluid.  It was water.  It made sense that because it was so hot, the air conditioning had been working overtime.  And on that diagnosis, the pouring liquid stopped abruptly.

We had a Lonely Planet and some advice from the internet. Of course Dijon is famous for its mustard, and we were sad to see that the mustard factory tour had closed down – we had no idea why. We decided that the Owl Tour seemed to fit our style of ambling around, with the benefit of being free (with the exception of 2.50ϵ for the guide book from the Tourist Information Centre). 

The Owl is a lucky symbol in Dijon, and built into the pavements are tiny brass owls which one follows, and which point out the places of interest. The tour itself takes about an hour to do, unless you are us, and meander up and down, in and out of mustard shops and little interesting side streets. 

The owl symbols in the tarmac that the boys ran ahead to spot

The boys were on the hunt for food, and soon we came across the Maison Millière, a house steeped in history and built in 1483 – and now a renowned restaurant. We went in, were seated by a young man who spoke fluent English and who nevertheless understood our attempts at French.  We decided on the Menu du jour, and Little Man’s children’s menu was served at the same time as our entrees, and he had his dessert when we had our mains.  The restaurant itself was set outside in a quaint old courtyard, replete with elegant French women sipping glasses of crisp white wine and with wall paintings of the French countryside which would have done a Hollywood set painter proud.
Maison Milliere with its painted walls

Mustard mustard everywhere
So well fed and watered, we ambled through some of the finest architecture that we have seen, and taking in some fine sights such as the Hotel de Vogue, Jardin Darcy, the Palais de Justice and the cathedral at Saint- Bénigne.  It was very hot, and several stops were required to stock up on l’eau and les glaces. The boys were delighted to reach the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne.  This was not because of the enormous tower of Philippe Le Bon which stood at 46m above the town, or the Palais des Etats with its host of red white and blue flags and the proud words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité above the enormous door.  No, it was the Place de la Libération with its three linear ground level fountain displays, amongst which the local kids ran squealing and shrieking in the sunshine.

Fun in the sun
Within no time, G and I watched as our kids joined in, forgetting their shyness as they joined in the splashing and shouting and getting totally drenched much to the amusement of the people in the nearby cafes.

Nodding Queen
Those who know me, or who are regular readers of the blog, will know that for a year or so I have been battling with an Achilles Tendon problem, and indeed, by the end of the day, my foot was tender and swollen and in need of icing.  Stopping off en route at a leClerc near the Hotel Armony, G used his initiative, and came back with a bag of frozen peas.  I would give any money to have seen the puzzled face of the chamber maid after we had checked out the next day…

Dinner that evening was in a family friendly French chain of restaurants known as Hippopotamus.  The boys were slightly disappointed that hippo was not on the menu, but they were delighted with their steaks, and I with my Hippopotamus Colada cocktail. Walking back across a dual carriageway proved an exciting end to the evening, and I was glad that I had only stuck to the one!

The next morning we were all up early enough to make check out.  We sat in the car and Garmin sprung into life.  She sounded perky as we typed in the address in Milan.  The boys settled down, and I got out the Italian phrase book.  As we whizzed along the toll roads with their magnificent mountain views and the glaciers of Mont Blanc, all we could hear were the kids rolling their ‘r’s and stressing their ‘e’s with Latin drama ‘Per favorrrrrre’ and ‘Grazieeee Milleeeee’.

9 or 10 tunnels, 15 bottles of water, 2 boxes of tracker bars, 1 bar of melted chocolate, 5 tangerines and 4 hours later we reached the border.

La famiglia Morrisoni had arrived in Italy.

The Italian Job: The Start

So this was it… suddenly the time had come for us to depart.  And for once in a long time I felt very unprepared.  It has been a bit of a thing, our holidays.  Most of our friends go all inclusive.  Or they try the cottages in Cornwall.  Every one of them proclaim that it is simply the best way to vacation- there’s so much to do, to see, to eat.  We’ve done Cornwall at Easter for years – it’s practically a tradition, sitting there on the beach at Perranporth in fleeces whilst kids and husbands, seemingly impervious to the weather, reenact Baywatch in various episodes with not one Hasselhof between them.  And our one experience of all inclusive certainly worked in terms of food –my hungry family ate whatever was offered whenever, but after about 5 days lounging by the pool, joining in the watersports and meeting lots of people, even the boys got a bit bored… whereas G and I had cabin fever. Our happiest days were spent hiring a car and enjoying the land around us – G loved the landscapes and we loved the shopping.

So, back to our kind of holidays.  Before Little Man had become a reality, but was an actuality in my swelling belly, we had taken a tour sans schedules or charters off the beaten track to a massive villa in Tuscany, where we invited the grandparents and had a lovely idyllic time. This spurred us on, two years later, to travel, with 3 children under 8, in a car to Spain, where we went to Paris (and Disneyland), Le Mans (where we mistakenly got on one of the perimeter race tracks in our Nissan Pathfinder and roofbox) Andorra, Grenada, Rosario (to visit friends who had just moved there) Al Hambra and Majorca (again to stay with friends but we seemed to cause a lot of attention with our GB plates). We saw fiestas, carnivals and lots of sights were well documented in our photo albums.  Two years ago we did a marathon tour of Australia.  So this year we decided on Italy.

 Why?  It kept G quiet, part of the joy for him is in planning out the route, which is then changed by me when I remind him of the realities of travelling with three boys – a 9 year old, a 12 year old and a 6ft 1 14 year old. So he sorted out our vehicle, his car, a golf estate with the racing roof box from Le Mans. In a break from tradition, and a nod to the kids desire to look inside rather than outside the car whilst travelling, he set up a complicated system of adapters and chargers for all of the electronic devices, including a brand new sat nav, which he has since said came with no instructions (more on that later).  I was then presented with a map of Italy, several bits of sticky paper with nights and locations, and proceeded to book up hotels in those areas.

Those of you with a strange family size that doesn’t fit the 2 adults/2 kids hoteliers dream, will realise that this is no mean feat when you are on a budget.  Luckily, over the years, the world has been getting smaller, families bigger and hotels have had to adapt.  And the internet is extremely useful.  So in one happy but slightly stressful afternoon I booked up all the hotels/apartments.  The plan was to travel down through France and Italy stopping en route, and then have a relaxing break in a pre booked villa in Sorrento before making our way back again. With 3 kids and a car, it became quite clear in some areas that it was going to be expensive, and so I looked out of town at more flexible options. We have yet to see how it all pans out, but so far, so good.

Garmin, sitting pride of place...
The alarm went off at 4.30am, and G shot out of bed as if he had been electrocuted. The boys had packed their bags, with all the essentials like gismos and hair styling products. We were all out of the house by 5.15, Tesco bags crammed full of BLT’s as a nod to breakfast.  Getting to the tunnel early, we were put on an earlier slot than booked and as the boys began to wake up, we reached France.  Garmin, our sat nav, woke up too, ready for our first stop, Dijon.  She (we haven’t learned yet how to change her slightly nagging voice, but I quite like her as she sighs and throws her hands up gallic style as we yet again go off in the wrong direction) directed us to Lyon.  G disagreed with this, and so we had to resort to (this is where friends of mine will grin, as they know how I love itineraries) my printed out directions from hotel to hotel, or in this case, tunnel to hotel. Garmin was right of course, and so G and her settled down to become better acquainted, just as the first ‘I’m hungry’ started from the back.

Swapping seats to the back to unfurl cramped legs
One service station later we were all traumatized. Eldest Son had been stopped by an over officious assistant who told him to put back his drinks and step away. At least, that is what he thought she had said, what she meant was, was that there was a certain place to pay for cold drinks, whilst we were queueing for baguettes. Once we got to the front of the queue, the server looked at me quizzically when I ordered three double hot dogs. ‘Trois?!!!’ she bellowed in incredulity as she looked at me.  I pointed out the children.  She muttered under her breath and slammed the baguettes into submission.  G and I had ready made ones, in a bid to pacify.  She refused to let G pay for the cold drinks in her queue, directing G to another queue.  Little Man wailed that he hated France.  This was not going well…

Hotel Armony, wasn’t really ‘armonious.  Situated on an industrial estate (lots of clothes shops and shoe shops) it stood like a slightly shabby teenager at a glamorous function. But it was cheap, it had parking, interconnecting rooms and a restaurant.  We were knackered.  The staff took to Little Man and didn’t even mind when he broke into an impromptu song and dance routine, Happy Feet style, as he waited for his food.

Little Man, our official tour photographer

We toddled off to bed, full and weary, the boys giggling through the interconnecting doors, Eldest Son trying to stop Little Man from jumping on top of him in their shared double bed.  Suddenly the boys broke into hysterics as Middle Son shot into our room, his face green, his toothbrush in his mouth.

Ahhhh Dijon, famous for its mustard, and somewhere that my boys will always remember as the place that Middle Son mistook Eldest Son’s hair gel for toothpaste…

Friday, 4 July 2014

My Word of the Day - Revelation

I’ve realised that at the tender age of 45, my kids are beginning to outstrip me in the knowledge of so many things.  Mobile phones, the intricacies of Excel spreadsheets, how to work the tv, downloading something off a cloud, designing a Powerpoint Presentation with moving graphics and video and Skyping without the urge to show off in front of the camera or apologising for the way they look.  Of course it helps that they have no fear of technology, no mad crisis point in their lives yet when all their work simply disappears into the ether 5 minutes before they are due to present it, and so they continue to progress and amaze me.

There is, of course, an argument that so much reliance on technology means that they simply do not have the background knowledge that we had when growing up without it.  My kids have no idea how to go into a public library and find the information that they require without logging on to the internet, or the intranet.  I have been in an office, or on the phone many times when the computers go down.  Pandemonium ensues.  Even my washing machine engineer is helped in fixing the machine by computer nowadays, and restaurants take orders on iPads…

And so it was today that with some trepidation I turned up to Little Man’s year assembly.  Actually it was a Years 3 and 4 assembly which was about the artist Lowry. Now despite my endless hours of research into the Impressionists at Art A’level, which resulted in a very successful thesis, I have, to my great shame, not much knowledge of many other artists.  So I was interested to see what it was all about, and having been to quite a few of these concert type things, hoped that it didn’t take too long...

On entering the room we saw lots of pictures hand painted by the kids in the style of Lowry, and to the side a couple of ‘Victorian’ children ground an old fashioned musical barrel organ, as our kids filed in dressed in all their finery.  I saw a couple of boys in girls dresses, and a few girls in boys trouser suits.
Things were looking up from the usual concerts.  

A boy 'midwife', with a resplendent bosom, handed a baby to a Victorian couple on stage.  The woman wailed that she wanted a girl.  She then proceeded to dress her boy child (Lowry) as a girl.  The story continued throughout Lowry’s life, exploring both feelings and facts, the social situation of the day and how to interpret some of his pictures.  It explored the art of slapstick, we had various renditions of Laurel and Hardy moments, and ended with a hearty rendition based on the Matchstalk Men and Dogs song from the 60s.  And then the kids gave out Eccles cakes that they had made in cookery class yesterday.

Little Man Lowry
It was, quite simply, the word of the day, a Revelation.  That the teachers co-wrote and directed this half an hour smorgasbord of experiences with suggestions from the children, and in which every single child had a couple of lines was a Revelation.  That the children tied cookery, painting, acting, singing and dancing into a few pictures was a Revelation. 

And that the kids can teach us all something new about something old was really a Revelation.  

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Killing The Snake

I’ve been a little quiet on the blogging front due to a number of things – some good, some not so good, others just plain trying.  One of the good things was that I managed to get away for a few days with my very oldest friends, a quick jump on to a plane from the various points of the UK in which we live, and within hours we were gassing away in the sunshine in Majorca.  It was a wonderfully carefree time in which we lived in bikinis and didn’t give a damn about our sagging bagging bodies riddled with scars of childhood or childbearing mishaps, drank what we wanted and ate when we wanted without the rigours of the school run or kids’ feeding times.  And we talked.  And I tried a gentle form of yoga for the first time, despite having an existing ankle injury before I’d even got on the plane.  And for the first time in over a year, my body enjoyed being stretched and pulled back into shape. 

And whilst I was away, sans kids and husband, they too thrived in their own little ways.  G managed supremely well as always getting the kids to and from their various activities and this year didn’t manage to poison them with burnt lasagne.  They were all delighted to see me back and within half an hour I didn’t feel that I had been away… 

But I had come back enervated and energetic and willing to try something new, and when a recruitment agent called me to ask me to an interview I thought ‘Why Not?’  It’s not that I was particularly looking for a job - I run my own small business from home- it’s just that I’ve been working from home for years and frankly I’m beginning to bore myself.  At times I think I’m going a little mad. Even the dog yawns when I try to involve him in conversation… And it was only 17 years ago that I was a bona fide yuppie, the breadwinner of the family, so I figured that a small permanent part time office role would get me right back into the swing of things.

So I pulled on my glad rags and tottered on over to the interview in heels that had lain unworn in my wardrobe for a while.  And I got on really well with the interviewer who would be my boss, and I left feeling that it would be something new and exciting.  And I called G animatedly to give him the rundown on how it went.  He of course has been office based and therefore worldly wise in office politics for an awfully long time, whereas I float in and out of offices in my consultancy, spreading equal amounts of cheer and fear, depending on the role.

I didn’t get the job.  And this was an enormous blow to me – from a professional perspective, someone else fitted the company culture and role better.  And from a personal perspective I felt rejected and dejected – this had been the best that I had looked and felt in myself for a long time, and it clearly wasn’t good enough. And that day I got a call from my medical consultant to say that I needed to have another procedure on my ankle, which made me feel a little more useless and decrepit.

And then I got a call from the school Matron to tell me that Middle Son had been hit in the knee with a cricket ball, but he was all right, a bit swollen and bruised.  I got over there in time to see him return to the game and proceed to get hit in the thigh and retire again. He woke up the next morning raring to go. He is a fabulous high jumper, but that day he jumped awkwardly in a schools competition on a height over which he would normally fly.  And as he lay there concussed,bleeding and crying, first aiders looking panic stricken towards me, my dodgy ankle suddenly grew wings, and in no time at all he was in hospital, his head glued together again, and asking for ice cream.

As we sat at home, snuggled on the sofa and hiding under a blanket from any more bad luck, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a brightly coloured object.  It was a snake, fashioned out of loom bands (that worldwide craze in which bracelets and such are created out of elastic bands).  It was, he suggested, the harbinger of doom, the denizen of despair – or as he put it, the bad luck omen.  He had found this object on the path two days previously, before all our bad luck had started. None of us had made it, it had simply appeared. He was convinced that this was the font of all our woes.

And so we had a ceremonial killing of the snake for all of our sakes.  We decided on a cremation in the garden.  And boy did it go up in flames, and it burned and burned for about 5 minutes.  And then it went out with a last hiss.

I don’t know whether it has worked. I do know that Little Man brought home the best report I have ever read.  And Eldest Son won a coveted Rowing trophy which I was there to witness. I do know that I have back a happy, healthy child in Middle Son who is going straight into a Nationals Athletics competition today. I do know that every day my sons say 'I Love You Mum' to me - whether it is before they step out the door in the morning, or with a last sleepy breath at night. And I do know that after the second procedure on my ankle yesterday it feels bruised, and battered, but a little bit better.

And as for the job?  Well, it obviously wasn’t the right time or place or opportunity for me.  But I do know that from now on I will have my eyes wide open to anything that charges (or slithers) around the corner.