When possible and practical, I like to include the details of a packing list for my various adventures. Partly, this is to perhaps help others in their journeys. I have to admit, though, to a certain selfish agenda. You see, I struggle with the packing. I want to have all the right things at all the right times. Kind of a tall order when you are allotted fifty pounds and one bag. Also, I want to be a minimal traveler. You know, the one who rolls through the airport, jauntily toting one weekender bag which will sustain her for a month or more in a foreign country. I have a long ways to go.
The packing for this trip was instructive. Mostly because I kind of messed it up. So I thought I would share. Maybe it will help both of us next time around.
I’ll start by confessing that I packed for the trip I wanted to have, not the trip I was actually going to have. Pretty much always a bad idea. You see, I wanted to escape for a sunny and relaxing getaway, replete with lounging in the sun, running, yoga, hot tubbing, strolling through the nearby small town, and sipping wine at sun soaked wineries. I envisioned a lot of sun and outdoor time. Never mind that the forecast called for clouds, rain, and highs in the upper 50’s. Not to worry. I’d just bring layers.
My other posts about this trip will detail what we did, for now we will just focus on what worked, and what didn’t, from the packing standpoint.
-Hat (for sitting in the hot tub during a rain storm. Also for wearing while snagging croissants in the early morning pre-shower hours)
-Running clothes (short sleeve top with arm warmers, crop leggings, headband, lightweight mittens, socks, water bottle)
-Comfy pajamas, like these from Cuyana. Seriously, these are the best!
A little over a year ago, the world was shutting down. We didn’t know where we could go, what we could do, how to be safe. Supplies were purchased, tears were shed, plans were canceled. For many of us, there has been no travel. It has now been 13 months since I stepped on an airplane.
For a long time, I simply had no desire. It was too risky to sit in airports, share space on planes, or contemplate navigating lodging and food and activities in a manner that was going to be safe. It felt too irresponsible to my patients to knowingly put myself at risk and then return to caring for them. It was all too hard.
Two months ago, with the protection afforded by a COVID-19 vaccine, I began to contemplate traveling again in this world. It’s far too soon for me to leave the country, but perhaps I could venture out a bit. I thought about my options (still somewhat limited), but decided that what I really wanted to do was visit my sister. She lives in San Francisco and it occurred to me that a wine country getaway might be just the ticket. I texted and asked if she might be interested. There was no hesitation in her affirmative response.
(COVID caveats: I am fully vaccinated. My sister has had COVID. My two daughters, traveling with me, are presumed to be non-immune. So I still wanted to be as safe as possible.)
(COVID caveat #2: No judgment here, please, about any choices we might have made. I tend to be thoughtful and conservative with what I am willing to do. I also recognize that we all have different levels of risk tolerance. I firmly believe that we all need to make the decisions that are both societally responsible and best for ourselves and our individual circumstances.)
With agreeable travel partners secured, the planning commenced. Our target area: Sonoma Valley. I’ve been to both Sonoma and Napa on previous trips and find Sonoma a little more approachable, a little more affordable, and a little more willing to accommodate the presence of my tween and teen daughters. We didn’t have a specific location in mind, choosing more based on available accommodations than on any other criteria. I searched AirBnB and narrowed the list down to 5 potential candidates. They all boasted various amenities. All had hot tubs (a must for this trip), at least 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms (another must), and all had been afforded multiple positive reviews. One had a pool (would it be warm enough to use it?), a few had spacious decks, most had beautiful outdoor spaces, one had a game room complete with pool, foosball, Pac Man, and backyard chess. I decided to let the girls choose. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they voted for the property with the game room, well situated in the little town of Healdsburg.
We secured our rental property, purchased plane tickets, and sent grocery requests to my sister, who would be driving up from San Francisco and procuring our provisions on the way. The girls and I excitedly debated the merits of various outfits, shoes, and accessories (half the fun of the trip is in the planning, right?). We scoured the weather forecasts. We brainstormed activities to enjoy while we were there. (The details of which will be reviewed in future posts.)
As we planned this trip, I thought a lot about my intentions. It had been a long, hard, emotionally taxing year. I was spent, both personally and professionally. I was struggling to feel mindful. I was struggling to feel passionate. I was struggling to balance everything. I was going through the motions and I needed to rectify that.
I often have lofty visions of all that I will accomplish when I travel. You know, sleep enough, eat healthfully, meditate, exercise, see all the sights, spend quality time with everyone, learn photography, etc, etc, etc. This time, though, I needed something different. As I pondered my needs and my intentions, I arrived on one very simple thought. I just wanted to be present. To exist in the moment, whatever that looked like. And sleep. I needed sleep.
It’s a pretty big deal for me to have my focus so narrowly defined. But I felt for sure that it was going to be exactly the reset I so desperately needed.
The day dawned sunny and peaceful which was more than I could say for the night prior which saw me awake for 3 hours wrestling with the jet lag demons. We enjoyed breakfast at our agriturismo then hopped back in the car to journey to our second winery, Ceretto. Ceretto is a family run vineyard located just outside of Alba and produces glorious Barolo wine in addition to Barbaresco and a lovely Arneis. They offer typical wine tastings as well as a wine trek which allows you to explore the entire property. I was intrigued by the idea of wine trekking so booked the experience months in advance (absolutely necessary). This turned out to be a very enlightening, educational experience both for myself and my children. We toured the vineyards, hazelnut orchards, and greenhouses which provide produce for the family owned restaurants in Alba. We received a rich history of the land and family as well as the wines that are produced there. An absolute experience of terroir.
Side note: bring comfortable, closed toe walking shoes. The paths are dusty. If the day is hot, also bring along a water bottle, sunscreen, hat, etc.
The trek lasted for approximately an hour and was followed by an hour long wine tasting in the air conditioned tasting room with magnificent views of the vineyards. The staff very graciously accommodated my children who enjoyed the views and the snacks of grissini and hazelnuts. We tasted a variety of exceptional wines during the tasting and before leaving I purchased a multitude of bottles. A few to keep and consume during our trip but many, many to send home. The Arneis was a crisp, refreshing white, perfect for summertime drinking. Cases of Barolo were also sent home to age in the wine cellar. I also purchased two special bottles of Barolo Prapo. This was first produced by Ceretto in 1976, the year I was born. These bottles will kept and one will be opened on each of our daughters’ 21st birthdays. (They will be ruined for mediocre wine!)
Following the tasting we went back to the agriturismo for a lazy afternoon of lying by the pool, snacking and napping. Dinner was enjoyed on the patio as we snacked on our assorted meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables, played games and enjoyed each other’s company.
Following a not so auspicious start to our Italian trip, we woke on our first full day of vacation to clear, sunny skies and improved outlooks on life. We ate a quick breakfast at our hotel and hopped in our rental car in search of a gas station. We found one without too much difficulty and I thanked my lucky stars that I had at least briefly skimmed the information in my guide book about gas stations in Europe. This one was full service (!!!) which was a major plus. It felt decadent to just pull up and allow someone else to figure out what gas to put where. After a huge sigh of relief, I entered our final destination into the GPS and we hit the road.
We headed towards the small Piedmont town of Alba. We had a reservation at an agriturismo in an even smaller Piedmont village, La Morra, and wanted to explore Alba on our way there. With the help of GPS and my backseat navigators we hit the Italian autostrada. The roadways were really easy to navigate and traffic was fairly light making the entire experience as stress free as it could possibly be. We drove through farmland and countryside with occasional glimpses of the Alps towering in the distance. The drive took us approximately 2 hours and we arrived in Alba just before lunch time. We parked in a small parking garage and walked to the town center. From the center there is a pedestrian only shopping area that extends for a few blocks. We snagged an espresso (and restroom) and then explored the shops. Hazelnuts and truffles are produced in this region and can be found in many of the shops here. The village feels very friendly and relaxed and the streets are just the right amount of busy. We sat briefly at a restaurant intending to get lunch but the service was poor and before we could be waited on we discovered a small food shop a few doors down. We quickly abandoned our menus and headed to the food shop to snag fruit, cheese, salami and bread. The Italian woman who was running the store spoke no English and my Italian is quite limited but we managed to figure it out and walked out with a lovely picnic lunch. We took this with us up the road about 20 minutes to our agriturismo, La Morra Brandini.
At La Morra Brandini we were greeted with warm hospitality, a refreshing swimming pool and stunning views of the valley below. Our suite featured a main living area, lovely bathroom, and sleeping area in the loft with a large bed plus a couch bed. There was a common area outside with tables and chairs for relaxing. There was a garden on site as well as resident chickens, a goat and a mule. My children quickly made friends with the goat (whom they named Albert) and he became our very own one goat welcoming committee.
After enjoying our picnic lunch we commandeered chairs poolside. I read and journaled and the girls swam. I spent much of the time simply sitting in my lounge chair, taking in the views of rolling hills and green countryside. There are rare moments in life when I feel fully and completely content and relaxed and at peace. This was one of those.
Following our respite, we hit the road again to visit our first winery, Fontana Fredda. It was located approximately 20 minutes from our agriturismo. On a side note, navigating through Piedmont requires a sense of humor and a well developed appreciation for adventure. You must have GPS or an exceptionally good map. The roads are narrow and sometimes steep. The speed limits are posted for a reason. You can easily get lost and sometimes feel like you are going back and forth across the same road fifteen times. You might be. But I’ll always advocate that getting there is half the fun. And sometimes getting lost is all the fun.
At Fontana Fredda, we were treated to the cellar tour which was rich in historical information as well as wine facts. The story of the estate is really cool and even my children enjoyed it. The tour lasted approximately an hour and a half and cost 30 euros for myself while the children were free. While the tour was great, the tasting afterwards was very limited. We tasted just two wines. Not sure why the tasting was so short. No explanation was offered. I decided to just roll with it.
After the winery we drove back through La Morra stopping for a few groceries and gelato. Then back to the agriturismo where we enjoyed more swimming as well as a decadent dinner of gnocchi, pasta, wine and cheese plate.
Sometimes when you travel you are lucky enough to be with amazing people. Sometimes you are lucky enough to be doing something you really love to do. Sometimes you are lucky enough to be in that magical place that just feels right. Every once in awhile, all the forces of the universe come together and you get all of it at once. That is what Piedmont was for me. It was the most amazing, perfect people, in the most amazing place, doing the most amazingly simple yet fulfilling things all at once. It gave me that warm, full, relaxed, contented feeling that will continue to inspire my travels for years to come.
We’re off again, this time to spend three weeks touring Italy. My daughters and I will be joined by a rotating cast of characters during this trip to ensure that we don’t get utterly tired of each other! Unlike our last European adventure where we spent the majority of our time based in Paris, this time we are traveling around the countryside. The girls are older and a little more adaptable when it comes to packing up and moving on every four to five days which makes this approach more feasible. It also allows us to cover more ground and ultimately, find things that appeal to everyone. The greatest joy for me, however, is that it allows to sample Italian culture in all it’s variety and glory, from the top of the country to the bottom (almost).
First stop…..Milan and Piedmont. I’ll admit, the first leg of this trip was more about me than anyone else. I don’t feel even the tiniest bit guilty about claiming a small slice of the trip for my agenda. First, moms deserve to have a bit of what they want, too. Particularly as the children get older there can be a bit more accommodation for our wants and needs. Additionally, in true serendipitous fashion, my girls found plenty to love on this leg of the trip. Even though there were no beaches or grand tourist sites, we have fond memories of little villages, local farms, good food, relaxation and a goat named Albert.
I’ve long been a lover of European wines and have recently had a particular interest in wines from small vineyards in the Piedmont area. The family and friend portion of our trip was slated to begin in the Cinque Terre which isn’t all that far from Piedmont (if you’re an optimist with a sense of adventure). Truthfully, to get to the Cinque Terre in a cost effective fashion we were going to have to fly into Milan. Once in Milan, you might as well take a few extra days and detour to Piedmont. It turns out that even a few days is just not enough, however, and next time I’ll go back for a week or longer.
Our journey into Milan was fraught with difficulty. When you are traveling thousands of miles via three different flights and one rental car there will almost certainly be problems. Or opportunities. Depends on your frame of mind. Generally I’m of the opportunity mindset but by the end of this particular venture I was of the “get me out of this recurring nightmare” mindset. I’ll spare you most of the details but I can’t help sharing a few of the highlights. We were just pushing back from the gate at 6:00 am on our first flight when the crew announced that they needed a physician to come to the front of the plane. I pretended to be something other than a physician for a nanosecond until my daughters outed me. I proceeded to the front of the plane where I found a lovely, gray haired, tenacious woman in her 70’s who felt dizzy and nauseated and couldn’t catch her breath. Given that I’m a pediatrician, this was not really my wheelhouse. No matter. It didn’t take me long to realize that whatever this woman was experiencing was not going to be improved by climbing to 30,000 feet of altitude so back to the gate we went for medical services. After some time, the woman was removed from the plane, evaluated by EMS, put back on the plane (!!!), and we took off for Salt Lake City. There we enjoyed a little club room access (thanks Delta business credit card) and boarded our next plane to Atlanta. That flight was blissfully uneventful. Upon arrival we walked around, stretched our legs, stocked up on some drinks and snacks, and boarded our plane to Milan.
Those of you who have flown through Atlanta surely know that that airport is utterly cursed. I don’t think I’ve ever had a flight go well from there. This time was no exception. We were just about to push back from the gate for our 9 hour flight when the captain informed us that there was a “small crack” in one of the panels that needed to be fixed. No worries. Within 20 minutes they would have us on our way. I stand in awe of the optimism that airline personnel must possess. Because as all of you know, this was not a 20 minute kind of problem. This was a 5 hour kind of problem. Five hours! On the tarmac! We were given a small bottle of water and bag of Cheez-Its to tide us over. Thank goodness.
You can imagine the scene on the airplane. It was all hungry, tired, chaos ridden angst. People were threatening to get off the airplane, sue the airline, etc, etc, etc. Apparently water and Cheez-Its don’t quite soothe the masses. Regardless, at the very bitter end, just before the pilots timed out and the flight got canceled, the crack was fixed and we were on our way! I was so tired from keeping myself and two children from flying off the handle during this ordeal that I didn’t even have energy to waste wondering about the safety of the aircraft. Seems like it was just fine, though, because we landed in Milan in the middle of a hot, sunny afternoon, only 5 hours later than planned.
We managed to navigate through customs and immigration, get our passports stamped and grab our luggage. We muddled our way to the Hertz rental car desk. I know, I know. Car rental in a foreign land attracts me like a moth to a flame. But really, to navigate Piedmont you have to have a car and I wanted to go to Piedmont. So I got a car.
We waited in line forever. Literally. Time is just different in Italy. When it was finally our turn, the representative gave me grief about being five hours late and said that our car had already been rented to someone else. Like being five hours late was somehow a choice I had made and now I was suffering the consequences of that choice. But wait, magic! A new car was available. Brand new. Just perfect for us. So we hauled our luggage out to the parking lot and waited in another line until someone could direct us to our car. It did indeed appear to be clean and new. We loaded our stuff and headed out gleefully for our hotel. We had made it approximately ten feet out of the parking lot when it became apparent to me that this brand new, clean, good smelling car wasn’t capable of accelerating past 5 mph. As I merged into airport traffic I checked everything. In drive, check. Parking brake off, check. Evidence of weird European car settings that I just wasn’t aware? Nope. So I attempted to pull back into the rental car lot which unfortunately was up a small incline. This car wasn’t going up a small incline. In fact, it stopped halfway up said incline. So, I got out of the car, children in tow and trudged up the hill to the man working the booth. I explained to him my trouble. He looked at me like I was an idiot. I invited him to drive the car. He tried. It didn’t go well.
Eventually, there were six Italian men (in full suits, ties and dress shoes, in the 90 degree heat), attempting to push this car up the incline. This didn’t go well either. They eventually abandoned that idea. As far as I know, that damn car is still sitting there.
After much ado and a lot of negotiating I found myself in another car. This one was definitely not new. It was definitely not clean. It didn’t smell all that great. Come to find out, the gas tank wasn’t even full. But the car did run and it was beat up enough that I didn’t really worry about inflicting further damage upon the poor thing. Basically, it was perfect. We took off down the road to our hotel where we would spend one night before heading out to Piedmont. It felt like we had surely used up all of our misfortune for one trip. After a shower, a stroll around Milan, some gelato, wine and pizza (I don’t like to mess around), I was certain that sunnier days were ahead.
The cost of doing business:
Train tickets from airport to Milan city center and back again: €40 (€20 per adult, €10 per child)
Converters (forgot mine at home, ugh) and water: €55