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Piedmont to Genoa or Getting Lost and then Found Again

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.

 

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Seaside in Monterosso

 

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End of the day

Solo

Traveling solo with my daughters is something I’ve done since they were babies.  It’s not unusual to find us in the car, traveling to Spokane for some “big city” time, journeying to our cabin on the river or headed to my parents’ house for a visit.  When my oldest was 10 months old I flew solo with her to Boston to visit my sister.  By the time my second child was born, my sister had moved to San Francisco.  So I bundled up my youngest when she was six months old and flew to California with her.  A few years ago the girls and I flew from our hometown to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  We got through customs, hailed a taxi and arrived at our resort in one piece.  We spent the night there alone, went to brunch the next morning and were joined later in the day by my husband who was traveling to Mexico from a work function in California.  Needless to say, we’ve covered some ground with just the three of us.  Sometimes it’s daunting to be the only adult with two young children.  There’s a lot of “mom”, “mom”, “mom” and not a lot of peace and quiet.  Over time, though, we’ve kind of figured this out.  Plus, the girls are older now and pretty responsible and could basically travel by themselves if I would just get out of their way.  And give them some money, of course.

If you’ve followed along with us so far, you also know that last summer the three of us flew across the Atlantic Ocean together, arriving in Paris.  Once there, we met my mom who was staying in the flat with us.  When she left a week later, my husband arrived for a few days.  So while we flew there solo, we meet up with family once we arrived and were not ever truly left to our own devices.

Until the day my husband left for Budapest.  Then it was just the three of us.  We had already planned to leave that day for the Loire Valley for a mini getaway.  So…..we locked up the apartment, bought some new leggings at Gap, (yes, Gap, hello global economy) and hopped a train to Tours.  Despite all our adventures so far, I have to admit to some trepidation as we pulled out of Paris and chugged down the line towards the countryside.  Staying in a big city is one thing.  Most people speak fairly good English.  There are grocery stores, wine shops, restaurants, hospitals.  There’s a pretty good chance that all my needs and most of my wants will be met.

In the countryside things are a little more, well, French.  English is NOT spoken by everyone.  Restaurant interactions have to happen in French.  Shopping and buying happen in French.  It’s sudden immersion in a foreign country in a way that just doesn’t happen in the big city.

Despite all the potential for disaster, the biggest adventure in the French countryside at the end of the day was driving.  Yep, driving.  After taking the train from Paris, I rented a car in Tours and managed to get the three of us to our lodging at Chateau de Pray just outside of Amboise.  Before picking up the car I did a quick Google search about “driving in France”.  I spent approximately 30 seconds determining that driving in France looked pretty straightforward.  Drive on the same side of the road as Americans? Check!  Steering wheel and gas pedal on the same side of the car?  Check!  Automatic transmission?  Check!  Road signs with internationally recognizable symbols?  Check!  And most importantly, a navigation system.  We were set.  Our car was an adorable Mini Cooper that we immediately named Sweet Cheeks.  As in”Sweet Cheeks, please deliver us in one piece.”  Or “Sweet Cheeks, what were you thinking?”  You get the picture.

At the end of the day, all I can say is thank goodness we were in very small towns with very little traffic.  Turns out that a 30 second Google crash course on driving in France is completely inadequate.  The assumptions I made about the road signs were like most assumptions.  Ridiculous and inaccurate.  My understanding of right of way is so not French.  I got honked at.  A lot.  I was probably sworn at, too.  Deservedly.

Of Sweet Cheeks’ many virtues, perhaps the greatest was her ability to find the shortest distance between two points.  She could, for example, find the quickest way to get from our lodging to the chateau we were visiting that day.  Never mind that her chosen route took us down the roughest, most narrow, most remote roads in the Loire Valley.  No concern of hers.  It was the shortest distance between two points.  If I thought about it too much, it would freak me out a bit.  What if we broke down miles from nowhere?  What if we got a flat tire jostling through all those pot holes?  What if she didn’t know where the hell she was going?  I could have let my worry stop us.  I could have stayed at our chateau, happily ensconced in good food, good wine and a warm swimming pool.  I could have gone back to the known quantity of Paris, or even stayed home for that matter.  But if I had done that, we would have missed out.  We would have missed out on a grand adventure and a lot of laughs.  We would have missed out on amazing food and wine.  We would have missed out on spending some really great time together, enjoying life and each other.  It turns out that some of my favorite memories with my girls are these times when it has just been the three of us.  So we cranked up the volume on our road trip playlist, sang along, and trusted that Sweet Cheeks would take us where we needed to be.

Getaway

I’ve always loved a good getaway.  You know, just a brief respite from day to day life.  A few days spent in a neighboring city or a weekend relaxing at the cabin, free from responsibilities and interruptions.  Vacations, of course, are usually one long, decadent getaway.  But during an exceptionally long vacation, sometimes you need a getaway from your getaway.  After two great weeks in Paris, we were getting just the slightest bit city weary.  So we hopped on a train bound for the Loire Valley.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not really that spontaneous.  I’d like to be, but I’m not.  Months before I had planned this mini getaway, knowing that a change of scenery might be just the ticket after a lot of togetherness in a tiny apartment in a bit city.  But I digress.)

We grabbed lunch at the Monoprix, hopped on the train and headed to St. Pierre des Corps, a relatively large train station close to our final destination of Amboise.  I picked up our rental car at SIXT, right by the station.  I had some angst about the rental car.  After all, I was the only adult with two children in a foreign country where I can’t even read all the traffic signs.  My original plan was to rent a car in Paris and drive to Amboise.  By some stroke of good luck and genius, I changed my mind and took the train out of the city.  Driving from the train station to our hotel was definitely rural but still difficult.  I was the navigator, translator and driver.  It took about 30 minutes and by the time we arrived I felt like I had more than earned my glass of wine.  As a side note, if you are driving in a foreign country, study the road signs ahead of time.  Trust me.  The rest of the world does not drive like Americans.  They just don’t.

We stayed at Chateau de Pray, just out of Amboise.  Our room was bigger than our apartment in Paris and beautifully appointed.  The loft sleeping area for the girls was an added bonus.  The grounds were amazing, the service impeccable.  The heated pool felt like our own private oasis.  Buffet breakfast in the morning (additional cost) was convenient and delicious.  A definite win and would be ecstatic to stay here again someday.

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Terrace at Chateau de Pray

We spent some time meandering about the town of Amboise.  We loved the specialty market where we stocked up on oils, vinegars, salts and wines at a fraction of the prices found in Paris.

One of the big draws of the Loire Valley of course, are the historic chateaux dotting the countryside.  You could spend weeks seeing all of them.  We picked two, based on our own interests and enjoyed them thoroughly.  I was able to drive to them both with the help of the car’s navigation system.  The first we saw was Chenenceou, a grand estate with glorious gardens and a labyrinth.  There is a cafeteria on site, lunch for three was €40.  We also visited Cheverny, known for it’s hunting dogs.  It is a smaller chateau but offers the excitement of feeding of the dogs at 11:00 every morning.  The girls loved this but found the chateau less impressive than Chenenceou.  Next to Cheverny is a storefront that offers free wine tasting of some of the regional wines.  A few shops and restaurants can be found on the quiet street next to the chateau.

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Chenenceou
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Gardens at Chenenceou

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Roses at Chenenceou

Another big draw of the Loire Valley are the multitude of vineyards and tasting rooms scattered over the region.  There are some truly beautiful wines that come from the Loire Vally that are accessible and affordable.  We stopped at Caves du Pere Auguste one afternoon.  I had a lovely tasting there which included a fabulous history of the wines of the region.  They even offered a grape juice tasting for children!  I bought five bottles of wine there for €30.  Ridiculously inexpensive, amazing wine.  Carting five bottles of wine back to Paris, first by train and then by metro was no small task and I cursed myself at least 100 times but, the wines and I all survived.

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The crowning glory of our time in the Loire Valley was our dinner at L’Orangerie, the restaurant on site at Chateau de Pray.  A Michelin Star restaurant, L’Orangerie offers impeccable food and service.  Reservations are a must.  My children were accommodated and treated like princesses.  The meal lasted for three hours and they made it through the entire thing without complaining!  The food is local, fresh, French and delectable.  My entree of blue lobster and beets with beet broth still has my mouth watering.  There was an endless supply of bread.  The cheese course was stunning.  The dessert of wild strawberries with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream was perfection.  There are multiple wine choices and a sommelier to assist you.  The prices were reasonable, particularly for the children who were able to order a children’s meal for €18.  This included their appetizer, amuse bouche, entree, bread, and dessert.  This was fine French dining at it’s best and a splurge I won’t ever regret!

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Salmon cream foam
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Dessert

My only regret is that we didn’t have more time in this beautiful valley.  This a place I could easily spend weeks, exploring, biking, drinking wine, hanging out with my fellow travelers.  Once you’ve seen Paris, plan a getaway, get off the beaten path and discover the gems.

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