Getting back into the swing

For the last few years, we have rather lost our way with holidays, Mr Blue-Shirt and I. Historically, a holiday always meant visiting unfamiliar places in foreign countries, preferably where the traffic is terrifying, where shopping is conducted through a combination of mime and guesswork, where ordering a meal often means a gastronomic leap in the dark, and where you actually have to read the banknotes and coins to understand how much money you’re handing over. These criteria gradually became diluted, though, as from about 2007 we repeatedly found ourselves gravitating to Italy, albeit to different areas, and eventually the idea of actually moving here took root. Then once we had committed to living in Italy permanently, our holiday destination became defined by our latest house-search area, which grew smaller every year, and by about 2010 our entire trip would end up consisting almost exclusively of bumping down white roads somewhere in central Le Marche in order to poke around yet another ivy-and-bramble-choked ruin in the hope that it would be The One, the wreck that we could turn into the home where we could enjoy La Dolce Vita.

However, even though it is now five years since we found The One, our holiday mojo has been slow to return. While we made several trips back and forth across Europe in the summer we moved in, they were in no sense holidays as their sole purpose was to transport all our worldly goods from Lincolnshire to Le Marche as quickly and cheaply as possible in our noisy, hot and extremely uncomfortable MB van.

It was a similar story the following year: another overland trip to England, but this time to loosen some of our last administrative ties with the UK. And what made it even less of a holiday – in the sense of rest and recuperation – was the excruciating trapped nerve in my neck caused by all the driving that eventually required medical intervention, and then arriving home to find that we had had a break-in and that Mr Blue-Shirt had had every one of his tools stolen from the pigsty that he used as a workshop.

The year after that, we were simply too scared to go away until we had got a security system installed, having experienced a second and more serious burglary in the spring. The best we could do was three days away at a favourite blacksmithing event in Tuscany, but only once the system was up and running.

In 2020, and almost paradoxically as we squeezed it in between the first and second waves of the pandemic, we did manage something that came pretty close to what we consider a Proper Holiday when we took the ferry over to the Adriatic and spent ten days in Croatia. The trip certainly gave us some of the holiday vibe we craved – exploring unfamiliar places, trying unfamiliar foods and experiencing unfamiliar cultures. But our whole stay was spent in the ominous shadow of Covid, from which at that stage – several months before vaccines became available – there was little protection other than masks and social distancing. So it was very difficult to relax and enjoy ourselves fully, especially as we had to keep a constant ear out for changes to travel rules, paperwork requirements and testing regimes.

By summer 2021, Covid-induced inertia had set in. Although most restrictions had been eased if not lifted in most of the places we might otherwise have wanted to visit, we had simply become too weighed down by apathy to organise a Proper Holiday for ourselves. All that we managed was a 3-day stay in Arezzo tagged onto our customary trip to the blacksmithing event that we’ve been going to since 2007: hardly our most imaginative or adventurous trip – even if Arezzo was a complete revelation.

This year we finally cracked it, though, and sorted out a Proper Holiday. What’s more, as well as meeting our traditional criteria, it also met a couple of new ones we decided we wanted to introduce when we moved here, namely visiting parts of Italy that we had never been to before, and travelling overland to places that it would have been much harder to reach by car from the UK. Thus, having spent several wet Sunday afternoons in spring poring over maps, guidebooks and countless and Airbnb entries, we put together a trip that involved taking the overnight ferry from Rome (ie Civitavecchia) to Sardinia for four days in Alghero on the north-west coast, then taking the day-time ferry right across the Mediterranean to Barcelona and five days taking in as much Gaudì as our senses could bear – something that had been on our ‘to do’ list for years – followed by a leisurely drive back along the Côte d’Azur, around the Gulf of Genoa and then home via Tuscany and Umbria.

And I have to say, we got it spot on. Sardinia was unlike anywhere else we have ever been in Italy, with its dramatic, spaghetti-western-style landscape, rugged coastline, pearly-white beaches, Bronze Age settlements and, on the Costa Smeralda, glamourous marinas packed with eye-wateringly expensive yachts. Gorgeous though Sardinia was, however, it did effectively turn out to be just an appetiser for the main event: Barcelona.

Barcelona was everything we had hoped it would be, only on a much grander, louder, more flamboyant scale. Having lived in semi-rural locations for the last twenty-plus years, we find any large city pretty full-on, but nothing could have prepared us for the all-out assault on our senses that Barcelona treated us to, especially since we made the architecture of Antoni Gaudì the focus of our visit. The city has long been the epicentre of Modernisme (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau), stunning examples of which we stumbled across everywhere we went. However, Gaudì’s curvaceous, colourful and utterly surreal creations pushed this late 19th century school of design to its limits and beyond. Gaudì’s masterpiece – and unquestionably the highlight of our trip – is, of course, La Sagrada Familia, the mighty (and still unfinished) cathedral with its multiple bell towers and highly decorated façades that totally dominates the cityscape. And it is no exaggeration to say that it is the most remarkable building either Mr Blue-Shirt or I have ever seen; we were both practically overwhelmed by both its sheer scale as well as its other-worldly magnificence and spent nearly the whole day there marvelling at its splendour. Indeed, I was almost moved to tears by this most extraordinary manifestation of human endeavour, vision and creativity.

After such a spectacular, rich and spicy main course (that naturally included quite a lot of yummy tapas as well as all the Gaudì delights), our overland return trip made the perfect light, fluffy dessert: a lovely, gentle bimble from Barcelona, into France, and then, after an overnight just outside Nîmes, right along the Côte d’Azur. Muscular, forested hills rising up to the left, sparkling Mediterranean Sea to the right, the autoroute followed its sinuous course along the sun-drenched coast, taking us past or through all those places that have long epitomised glitz and glamour: St Tropez, Fréjus, Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Monte Carlo. Then it was back over the border into Italy and an overnight stop in the grand, elegant resort of San Remo that is now best known for its hugely popular annual Music Festival.

Our feast of experiences concluded with a satisfying digestivo. Like a sharp swig of Grappa, this started with the dramatic drive around the Golfo di Genova (Gulf of Genoa) along the autostrada that, with its many tunnels and vertigo-inducing bridges, threads its way through the Maritime Alps, high above the glittering waters of the Mediterranean. It then mellowed to a gentle afterglow as we turned inland near Pisa, then drove across Tuscany, past Florence before finishing in Arezzo for our last overnight stop together with the very dear friends who would be spending a few days with us as soon as we got home. Which we did the next day, feeling contentedly replete.

I think it is safe to say our appetite for holidays has returned with a vengeance.

Image: selfie of us in Alghero, sharing a ride on an e-scooter.

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