Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Italian Job: Leaning in Pisa, discovering Dolce Acqua and the Lyon's share of chocolates

The kids turned round to each other.  ‘This can’t be it  Mum – check the map again.’  The big glass building loomed over us, incongruous in its translucent beauty against the dingy surrounding areas, and Garmin the sat nav confirmed that this was indeed the address of our hotel.  We wandered into the big white reception with its Matrix like glass counters and big plasma screens, and the boys looked at me hopefully – ‘Even if it isn’t our hotel, can we stay here?’
I’m not sure what we were expecting really, when we booked all of our hotels before our trip.  I do know that budget came foremost, parking next, and location third.   When a teenager veers from being a child in one place to an adult in another, and when despite his being the right age for a kid, but tall enough to count as an adult (when it comes to beds and food) it becomes a bit of a minefield.  Most of our bookings had hastily scribbled addendums or requests from me – could we possibly have a late check in, could they clarify what a cot bed was (in most cases a foldaway) and in all honesty we breathed a sigh of relief every time a couiffered receptionist confirmed that they were expecting us.

The modern environment of the Hotel San Ranieri, Pisa
We were indeed staying at the hotel and the boys whooped with joy as they charged around using key cards to switch all the lights on and off, ran amongst the sculptures in the trendy garden bar, as G supped another local blond beer.  The next morning we set off for Pisa, fortified by a good sleep and  a large breakfast. 

Even the sign into the city leaned...
The tower was all that we expected and more.  For a start it was actually incredibly beautifully ornate.  Secondly, it really really leaned.  A lot more than we had expected, and where the architects had attempted to right the lean, there was a distinct banana-ing in the structure. Along with several hundreds of tourists we took pictures of the boys ‘pushing the tower’, decided against queuing for an hour to climb the 249 steps up the tower, and sat on the grass people watching.  ‘Can you see what she’s doing?’ I asked in incredulity as I watched a girl twerking ‘against the tower’ as her boyfriend took the shots.  ‘Yes’ G replied, shading his hand against the sun, ‘I’m quite enjoying the view’.

Pisa was a laid back place with a lot of students and a university with an excellent reputation. The restaurants had reasonably priced menus and there was a very warm vibe everywhere we walked, from the bridges to the piazzas to the tower to the steady clip clopping of the tourist horse drawn carriages lazily ambling down the side streets.

But we had to get on – our journey was drawing to a close and we were on the home straight.  Next stop was Dolce Acqua.  ‘Where?’ asked every Southern Italian we had encountered en route.  ‘Where?’ asked our receptionist in Pisa, and indeed, no hotel in that area suiting our criteria had come up in our internet searches, so we had had to make do with the seaside resort of Diano Marino, with plans to visit Dolce Acqua the next day.

The hotel in Diano Marino could have been a hotel in Blackpool.  It had a swimming pool, coachloads of British tourists, and was saved only by the breakfast the next morning. Diano Marino itself was like any seaside resort in Europe – bright lights, cafes, burnt holiday makers, a souvenir knife and bong shop, and all the beaches seemed to be privately controlled.  We were pleased to get away and follow the signs to Dolce Acqua, up in the mountains.

The sole reason that we went to Dolce Acqua was that two of the three boys had studied it for ‘Topic’ at school in Year 4 for a brief period. We have no idea why, perhaps at one point one of the teachers had gone there on holiday, but at 20km square and with a population of 2000, it was quite hard to find. But we did, and there were 7 car parks servicing the town, all full, the number plates belying a multitude of nationalities.  We abandoned the car on a side street and wandered into the town where the clouds darkened ominously. It was there that I saw the bridge – the Ponte Vecchio that Claude Monet had captured to canvas all those years ago, and at the same time a light bulb went off in Little Man’s head and he waved at it excitedly.
Monet and the Ponte Vecchio
Somewhere on that bridge is my family...
The hidden secrets of Dolce Acqua
Thinking that this was it, the sum total of Dolce Acqua, we wandered over the bridge from the new town to the old bit, in an attempt to get to the ruined castle at the top of the hill.  In doing so we entered what can only be described as an alternate world.  One in which Diagon Alley out of Harry Potter would sit very comfortably – where houses piled higgledy piggledy on top of one another and alleyways opened up to reveal artisans working in darkened rooms and teeny weeny cafes exuded aromas of garlic and frying onions. And there were loads of guest houses behind tiny doors.  None of which had come up on my searches because of the parking criteria.  We had a wonderful day there.

Lyon stood impassively before us, our last hotel of the tour looking down on us loftily – offering us a sumptuous apartment with a kitchenette, English channels on the tv, which was good because it was also the only place in which we were charged for using the wifi.  It was a little wearily that we dragged ourselves out for the evening, but we were delighted that we had done so, because it was a city with a lot to offer – a big opera house, piazzas, and eateries influenced by the huge immigrant population.  We found a tiny restaurant in which I had turbot with coriander, Middle Son had fish (our translation only stretched to that) with a crab butter, and the other three had beef. We ordered a Pot – which is literally a carafe of the local wine of choice, and G had another local ale which was in a small bottle but with a big punch.

The silk merchants of Lyon
Yup... chocolate heaven
Lyon is famous for silk and chocolate.  I’m not that fussed on silk, but we all enjoy a bit of chocolate and had read up about a chocolate shop that had its own ‘laboratory’ and the next morning we wandered into town on a mission.  A couple of wrong turnings later and we had arrived at Sebastien Bouillet and were stunned at the selection on offer.  Unfortunately the laboratory tours closed over August, but the chocolatiers were happy to help us choose something to sample from the cakes and chocolates on display.  They were not cheap, but melted in the mouth, and were the perfect accompaniment to our coffee and pastries for breakfast.

Sated, we looked at one another.  This was going to be a big journey home – our longest drive of the trip, some 634 kilometres to Calais, and then a 2 hour journey from Folkestone to home. We had a night time Eurotunnel crossing booked, and needed to set off.

As we swerved the wrong way down a one way street in an attempt to leave Lyon, none of us flinched at the blaring horns of the frustrated French drivers. I just threw my arms up in a Gallic shrug, as G screeched the gears into reverse.

‘Ros Bif coming through!’ the kids yelled as we careered towards Calais.