Most of my travel posts will include a section at the end entitled “The Cost of Doing Business”. This is a list format reporting of the costs associated with that trip, or that segment of the trip. I will attempt, where applicable, to indicate how many people are included in the costs.
Travel costs can, of course, be significant. Additionally, we all have different values when it comes to how we spend our dollars. You might be a bare bones traveler for whom the experience is everything and not dependent on any luxuries. Likewise, you might find your self splurging on some things while controlling costs on others. Very few will travel with reckless financial abandon (no judgment here if you can swing that, though!).
You will likely ascertain my style after a posting or few. I like to think of myself as a traveler with high standards but endless patience for finding the very best value. I am very discerning about where I choose to lay my head at night. I will search and search for a good bargain but rest assured, I am willing to pay for quality lodging. I also love good food and good wine. That doesn’t mean they have to be expensive, but sometimes they are and that’s okay by me. I make up for my occasionally expensive restaurant meals by almost always eating in for breakfast and picnicking frequently for lunch or dinner. Experiences are of high value to me when traveling but this is where I feel I can also find the most savings. I will definitely shop the bargains, find the free passes, take advantage of extended hours, obtain the discounts that apply, make the calls for the coupons. Where applicable, I will try to note these in my posts. If absolute bargain travel is your thing, I may not be the resource for you. But I like to think that I provide insight about good value, high quality travel.
Some travel days have themes. Some of these are fun, others, not so much. Almost all are amusing in retrospect. Our third full day in Italy was apparently designed to test my navigational skills. I basically failed but I had a lot of fun doing it.
I started the morning by waking early and decided to get in a run before we traveled to our next stop. I set off on the winding country road, sure I couldn’t get too lost with a simple out and back route. I intended to run 3 miles so after heading down the road 1.5 miles, I turned around. After about a mile or so, I realized that the scenery didn’t look all that familiar. I was in a foreign country, though, so maybe that was it. After another half mile it was pretty clear that I wasn’t back at the agriturismo. Luckily, I had brought my phone with me and pulled my map which indicated that somehow, on my simple out and back route, I had taken a wrong turn and ended up WAY off the beaten path. Perhaps some day I will learn to embrace this type of situation but at the time all I could think was that my children were expecting me back at a certain time and I had no way to call them and that we had a train to catch in Genoa and a pretty tight time schedule. Damn.
I thought through my options, hoped and prayed that my Google Maps were actually going to be accurate this time in a foreign country, and began hiking up a rustic trail through an orchard. Eventually I came to the top of the hill and from there navigated my way back home. Phew. We ate breakfast, loaded the car, and set off for Genoa. However, the navigation system in the car decided to be a bit finicky and had us going up and down a rural path multiple times. We were hopelessly turned around, going in circles and getting later and later for our train. I had about lost my mind when fortuitously, the correct road appeared. It would seem that it was always there and I just didn’t see it, but who really knows?
After getting on the correct road we enjoyed a stunningly beautiful drive through mountain passes and along the coast to the seaside town of Genoa. Total time in the car was about 2 hours. I was anxious about finding the car drop off at the harbor in Genoa but it turned out to be really easy thanks to my eagle eyed backseat navigators who spotted it immediately after getting off the autostrada. We dumped the car and hiked 20 minutes to the train station where we met my husband who had purchased train tickets for us. We had a few minutes to wait and then boarded our train to Monterosso.
The train ride was less than an hour and deposited us at the train station in the new town section of Monterosso. From there it was a 10 minute walk to the old town where we were met by our Air BnB host and showed up five flights of steep stairs to our apartment overlooking the neighborhood square. The apartment was ideally located in the center of old town. It was a bit noisy, though, and without AC we had the windows open all night and the noise of the town was definitely noticeable. The long hike up and down the stairs was a bit of a pain, too. We knew about it ahead of time and weren’t surprised but I think next time we will find somewhere a little more peaceful (which in Monterosso would mean moving only a few blocks up the street).
We had lunch at Belvedere (good pesto pasta) and then met our friends at the Monterosso beach. One of the luckiest parts of our Italy trip was convincing our good friends to join us in Monterosso for nearly a week. The girls had friends to play with and the adults had good companions for a variety of activities. If you’ve read my earlier posts you know I love traveling with friends and having our friends with us on this trip was indescribably amazing.
Anyway, I digress. The kids hit the ocean, we lounged on the chairs and drank prosecco and soaked up the Italian sun. Life is good!
At the end of the day it turns out that we got lost a few times. But we also got found. And at the very end of it all we found ourselves with our dear friends on a beach in Italy, enjoying the good life. It doesn’t get any better than that.
A few logistical details: the main beach in old town Monterosso is a pay to play operation. You rent lounge chairs for the day. You can also rent paddle boats which were a big hit with the girls. There is a small walk up restaurant and you can order at the counter or from your chair. There are sandwiches, salads, etc as well as snacks and drinks. Beach loungers with umbrellas were 20 euros for the day, lower cost for a basic chair. The food and drinks were very reasonably priced
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