A Road Trip Around the Houses of Europe
From a rain soaked start to a glorious sun drenched finish, this road trip goes down as unique. Think Thelma and Louise, times 2, without the drama.
We sat inside out of the rain with our wine and some music in the background while the conversation drifted along with our jokes and laughs and moved along to ideas about what to do when summer finally came again. We’d already seen a lot of places and always found discovery exciting and more interesting than the idea of a daily routine at a resort. So it came as no surprise as the idea of a road trip going from place to place almost daily came up. And after it did, the outlines, mental pictures and sketch started to form.
Marilyn said “Where should we start?” and everyone chimed in with somewhere. At first it was all about the UK, but then crazy places came up, like Johannesburg, Austin Texas, Brisbane, Vladivostok (of all places) and then Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Venice … VENICE! Now that’s a good idea.
Some of us had been there and loved it and others had always wanted to. This led to going on to things we’d always wanted to do and included the understandable (£”<&ing) gondola ride. Then came thoughts of a train trip through the Swiss Alps and seeing historic houses in Europe. “You know, like National Trust places but over there.” said Jack, which wasn’t a surprise. And on we went to staying in people houses, Lake Garda and lying on the beach on the coast of the Mediterranean. And we knew what we were going to do.
Peter got the world atlas out and opened it to the heart of Europe, and there it was. We could see this trip in front of us and we knew it was going to be something very special. Fly to Venice and stay one the island for three nights, then, get on the train to Innsbruck (OK, not the Swiss Alps, but close) where we hire a car and make our way down to Lake Garda. From there through the north of Italy to Milan, followed by a quick run down to the Med where we stay somewhere in the hills or on the coast before hopping across to Nice and back home. All the accommodation would be in people’s houses and not hotels or even the European equivalent of a B&B. We’d feed ourselves by finding places locally. One rule though – we wanted the whole house to ourselves and not a number of rooms while the owners were there. This was Thea’s rule and we all agreed with it straight away.
“Marilyn said “Where should we start?” and everyone chimed in with somewhere.”
We’re all internet savvy and have no problem searching and finding but decided to let the professionals in the village do the travel side. We’d use sites like airbnb and wheretosleep and find the accommodation ourselves and this proved to be a trip of discovery in its own right! The places available ranged from you’ve-got-to-be-kidding to stunning and everywhere in between.
As you might expect, the travel agent had access to all the information, sites and details needed, in the right order, with knowledge of the backdoors and tricks to use. The train was tricky but got sorted in the end, the car was the fly in the ointment. Sure, we could pick it up in Innsbruck and drive it anywhere we wanted for as long as we wanted, but if we wanted to give it back in Nice, well, we could do that too but it’d cost us €600 because it was being dropped off in another country. So, we opted for picking it up in Venice, driving through the Dolomites (still not the Swiss Alps, but close) and giving it back in Genoa.
With that worked out we picked out and chose the places to stay and settled it all down. 3 nights in a 14th Century converted forge on the main island in Venice, a 3 bedroom house overlooking Lake Garda (southern end, western side). 3 nights in an apartment within a stone’s throw of the beach on the Mediterranean and within walking distance of the private beach, to which we had the key, 1 night in the villa on the harbour in Portofino and followed by 1 night in the hills above, and it really was above, Genoa. All for literally half the price of hotels and B&Bs that were looked at!
Now, the last time we’d gone away for a trip like this (Christmas in Geneva a few years ago), everything, all of it, went wrong. But that’s a different story. So were we nervous? Not a bit, well, Jack was a bit, but given what we’d already been through we were ready for anything. And that’s one of the things you take on when you do it by yourself. But, years ago when we were teenagers, who didn’t throw caution to the wind and just go for it? It’s what we did. What’s the difference now? It’s easier for one thing safer too, if that’s a concern.
The Venetian forge was on the Fondamenta Cappuccine, in the heart of suburban Venice where we lived together with the locals, walked with them on their streets, ate at their restaurants and drank with them in their bars. The place itself was one of the stunning variety. It’d been renovated but had been kept authentic and true to its character. We couldn’t believe what we’d lucked into. It’s fair to say now that we did wonder if the photos on the site were true but went with it as part of the adventure. We could walk or take the water taxi anywhere and everywhere and did. Yep, still love Venice.
For almost 5 hours we drove through the Dolomites in awe. The way up to Cortina was breath-taking and the way down to Bolzano was astonishing. We’d never seen anything quite like it before and ran out of superlatives in the end. Just amazing. The run down to Lake Garda was fast, smooth and nothing compared to what we’d just seen, but all that changed again when we got off the A22 at Mori for the drive down the western side of the lake. It’s unique! Village after village tacked onto its edge or to the side of the mountains that enclose it. All of it beautifully kept, clean, up to date and yet set back in a time now long gone.
We planned to visit an estate house near Malnate, a short distance north of Milan, but time got away and it seemed more important to get to the Med as quickly as possible, so we took a left onto the A26 off the E64 and went down the western side of Milan. It’s a pity we didn’t get to it or Milan in the end, but the stop into Alessandria for lunch and quick visit to the castle easily made up for it.
And then there was the Mediterranean and with it, the Cote d’ Azur, one of the most beautiful coast lines in the world (as far as we’re concerned). The beach, the small town of Menton, the weather, the surprising but highly valued lack of tourists and the connection we had with the locals, as in Venice, combined to make it the rest spot we treasured. The train to Monaco (where the track was walked with excitement) and then to Nice connected us with the glamour, sights and sounds of the playground such that we felt welcomed and at home.
Portifino is something else. Whoever it was that had the idea of settling there, way back in those Roman times, was discerning and wise. It was decided that retirement had to be there! Ah, dream on. It’s too small to get cars into, but boats as big as houses, sure. Not a problem, but only two at a time. Somehow, every Italian for miles around was in town that day but it didn’t matter. Nor did it seem to matter that most everything was seemed twice as expensive as anywhere else. We just bought less.
Genoa has been Genoa since it started and will always be that way; cramped, confused, grubby and lacking in many charms at all. We counted 5 cruise liners in port and wondered why they bothered, but then learned it was because many of their passengers came in to Cristoforo Colombo Airport to board them. And it was from the airport that we left, after a 6 hour delay (the only thing that went wrong this time).
So my daughters Marilyn and Thea, my wife Jackie and I had our road trip; for adults together. And each of us would do it again too. In fact, right now we’re eyeing the western coast of the Black Sea from Sevastopol to Constanta via Odesa. All we have to do is work out when we can get the time off together.
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