Somehow, without planning it this way, I have a near-constant stream of amici e famiglia coming to join me for a slice of the action until the end of September. This has both its advantages and disadvantages. Pros: I can be my true weird self and I know that I won’t be judged (they have already accepted me into their lives and PAID to have the pleasure of spending time with me); I will be wholeheartedly congratulated on the progress of my tan, rather than asked (by those who are unfamiliar with my milky complexion) if I am averse to exposing any skin to the sun as I am “really rather pale”; I can experience a luxurious style of travel which can only be achieved through an injection to the accommodation budget – privacy, cleanliness and some ruddy air conditioning (or at least an electric fan). Cons: I can no longer pretend I am a successful travel writer / degree holder / Parisian (the latter perhaps more in my dreams) or any other profession / nationality of choice when introducing myself to new people; I now have competition when it comes to seducing the handsome Italian waiter / French linguist / Dutch engineer…; I have a constant companion with whom to blow my already stretched budget on delicious food, wine, aperitivo… (and get treated to the odd glass of prosecco because they feel sorry for me in my crumpled clothes and bulging backpack). It’s a hard life. But someone’s gotta do it.
First on the guest list was the one and only Moo Moo. Hooray! Finally someone to do the sun cream on my back! We met at the confusingly named Hotel Bologna in the centre of – Pisa. (I thought the same.) I arrived first (I was determined to utilise every possible minute I could in hotel accommodation) and entered the lobby slightly nervous that they would catch sight of this make-up-free, bite- and bruise-covered, backpack-laden globetrotter and dial direct for the Italian authorities to pack me up and take me back to more appropriate lodgings. But somehow with my eyelashes on their best fluttering duty and my charm at its most Italian (and my mother’s credit card) I was able to gain entry into this other worldly haven of marble flooring, double beds and, no – it couldn’t be, COMPLIMENTARY SLIPPERS!!! As soon as the door closed behind me the Nike’s were off and the pantefole were on, the king sized bed was well and truly launched upon, and I took a series of shameless selfies posing alongside the Hotel Bologna branded pillows to send to Moo Moo who was en route from the airport. Ah. This was the life.
Half an hour later (just enough time to complete that day’s French homework (I’m learning the language, mon ami)) the hotel room door creaked open and a lovely little lady came peaking through the opening. It’s the maid with complimetary chocolates! I hear you all say. Mais non! It was of course ma mère, ma missing monopoly piece (figuratively speaking (she’s not a recently retired iron)), ma multi bueno mumchkin, ma magnifico Moo Moo. The reunion hug was just like the best traditional Italian pasta – warming, comforting and oozing with goodness, leaving a satisfied glow on the inside which lingered for hours after the main event. Of course there has never been a better reason to have a glass of prosecco than the reunification of mother and daughter, so off into Pisa we went, in search of a glass of bubbly. The rest of the afternoon consisted of catching up on all the latest breaking news from the UK: the last three months’ ups and downs of the Parish Council; the state of the flowers on the patio (and the state of the patio itself for that matter); and, most importantly, the current mental state of my most treasured possession: Bimbo – the best teddy bear of all time. (He is suffering from separation anxiety (as expected) but doing well all things considered.)
After one full day exploring Pisa, taking comically badly lined up Leaning Tower photos and generally just trying to prevent mother dearest from keeling over from the heat (a vast contrast to the murky midlands), we got an early night and set off the following morning for stop two: Florence. Getting the train was an interesting experience. If you think finding the platform, boarding the train, stowing your luggage and obtaining a decent seat was hard with an 18 kg backpack imagine doing it with an 18 kg backpack, a 15 kg wheely suitcase and a 65-year-old mother… Getting all three into the overhead compartment was a nightmare! But we made it there in one piece and, after nearly throttling each other while trying to find the hotel, we arrived, and – my God – had we ARRIVED. The hotel room turned out to be a hotel suite. My mother turned out to be the bloody Madonna. Along with the maxi king sized bed there was the seating area (a sofa EACH); a bathroom with shower AND BATH; and a complimentary bottle of the nicest chianti I have ever tasted. I’d give it a six out of ten for facilities. And then there were the breakfasts. Mamma Mia. I had the same combo every morning, I fell in love with mini frittatas a little more everyday, and I now know what I will provide for breakfast for every guest I ever house ever again when I am back to real life and back to the kitchen. I won’t reveal the full bonanza as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but, friends, you are in for an eggcellent treat.
Our time in Florence was spent eating, drinking and doing lots of walking – pretty much my standard everyday life as I now know it. We even had a houmous, bread and cheese (and chianti) picnic in the suite (😉) to make me feel more at home. (In our complimentary dressing gowns, naturally.) We ticked off the Uffizi (lots of underwhelmingly endowed male sculptures), the Mercato Centrale (delicious octopus salad and even more delicious prosecco) and climbing up a hill to watch the sun set over the River Arno (a near mother faintality situation, but nonetheless a must do in any city).
Third and final stop was Stresa, a lovely little holiday town on Lake Maggiore. It had a definite air of older generation about it. The hotel was like something out of a film from a previous century. The entrance lounge was a meadow of a dozen different pink and red hues of floral apolstery, including on the walls, with the biggest chandelier you’ve ever seen hanging grandly from the ceiling like an upside down cake of cascading champagne classes (luckily no drips). I did consider hiding during check in to avoid embarrassment on my mother’s part but, once more, her credit card afforded me a temporary new identity of landed gentry with a penchant for all things kitsch.
Relaxation was the purpose and itinerary of this section of our Northern Italian mini tour, and boy did we do it well. I don’t think we veered off course for more than four minutes per day (and one has to brush their teeth, darling). The pool and garden area were as perfectly manicured as the nails of Amy Childs’ vajazzlist, with a sunny yellow theme to the towels, umbrellas and bar cushions which went fabulously with my floral yellow bikini. A solid two days were spent lounging, bathing, dipping and sipping. Aperitivo was a never-missed mealtime, during which I introduced Moo Moo to the Dolomitean-born (apparently) Hugo Spritz – my first successful convert to my favourite holiday tipple. The hotel also housed a spa and wellness centre which was unexpectedly about two decades ahead of the rest of the complex in terms of design, providing an additional escape for us when soaking up the Piedmontese sun became a little too much. I am a self-confessed spa snob and this one was pretty high up there. The lounge beds were sleep inducing, the lighting ambient, and the pool just big enough to do lengths, but not so big as to disturb the perfectly placid pulse rate. When you had completed your vigorous five lengths you could sneak around the corner to find a secret cave housing a delicate jacuzzi (none of this water in every facial orifice malarkey) in which to sink away into a deep state of gently bubbling calm. Experiencing this level of almost-meditative relaxation is what I love most about #SpaLife, and mother and I certainly achieved our quota of Vitamin R here, that is until we heard / felt a large splash from the pool and I received the following WhatsApp from the lounge bed to my right: Stop press! “Large guest causes tsunami at 4* hotel in Stresa by jumping into the pool” 😂. Oh mum. I do love you.
And before you chastise us for our utterly self indulgent three days, we also partook in a boat outing – yes a BOAT outing (for those of you who know Babsy babe) – to visit three of the nearby little islands on the extensive Lake Maggiore. They were all very beautiful and got progressively more interesting which made for the perfect three-stop tour. On Isola Madre we pootled; on Isola Superiore we pootled, had a drink, pootled, had some lunch; and on Isola Bella we explored (too strenuous to be defined as a pootle) the island’s magnificent palatial house and even more magnificent gardens, had a drink, and had a second near mother faintality situation.
Our last evening together was slightly scuppered by one of Stresa’s infamous storms (mum had been looking forward to one all week) so, like all good adventurous holiday goers with one last chance to explore the town, we decided to have nice long baths, get into our robes and order room service for dinner. Delicious. We parted ways the next day at Milano Centrale, and I felt like a proud mother waving off her child who was travelling abroad alone for the first time as she boarded the train to the airport. With mother, and mother’s credit card, now gone, it was back to the budget life for me. Grazie mille, mumma mia!