The idea to travel to Italy over our Christmas holidays was one that percolated for a long time. I’m not quite sure when it started, months ago for sure, when a women, I can’t remember who anymore, commented that Florence at Christmas is spectacular. Spectacular sounded good. And Florence? All of a sudden, accessible. I got quite excited – this was something I could actually do. Z’s mom would be visiting then, and it would be a great trip to show off our new part of the world.
Of course we didn’t get around to planning things until much later. Pretty much, the week before Christmas I grudgingly admitted I should probably find places for us to stay. Things are cheap over here – especially in Italy, and especially at this time of year. I had us booked into unknown hotels and apartments in no time, for a fraction of what I thought the cost would be (okay, that fraction looks something like 1/2, but still. It’s cheap).
A peek at the map told me there was no way we were going to drive to Florence in one day, not with a two year old, but Milan was a perfect stopover, filled with all the fashion and architecture an Italian-holidayer could want. A further peek at the map told me we could ostensibly head all the way down to Rome. Z put a damper on this by pointing out it would be psycho busy. It took me a second to figure out why – oh, yeah, Christmas and the Pope and all that.
But, within the course of two evenings, the plan that had been vaguely hovering over our heads to “go to Florence” was born. And thus, our road trip to Italy.
We left early on Boxing Day, pretty much leaving all newly opened presents exactly where they were as we dashed across the border into France. Our plan was to lunch in Chamonix, but when you’re taking the highways it is literally 45 minutes there, so we decided to wait until we were in Italy, on the other side of Mont Blanc tunnel. That’s right, guys. It takes me one hour to get to Italy.
The tunnel itself is about 10-15 minutes of driving, a little claustrophobic but not bad. A little disconcerting when you pass by all the memorials about the Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire of 1999, which I knew nothing about until then. We were VERY careful going through the tunnel, let me tell you.
Once you come out on the other side, the Italian side, it still feels very much like you are in the middle of the Alps, with a ton of cautionary signs saying (we think) that winter tires are necessary from November 15 through to April 15. Thank goodness I thought to put the tires on before leaving, around December 20. We drove the main highway down, through about a gazillion tunnels, before stopping for lunch in Aosta.
We were worried nothing would be open, it being Boxing Day and all, but the town square was in full swing with a big stage set up and it appeared to be the entire population of Aosta out for a walk (problematic when we accidentally drove through the town square – oops!) At noon, restaurants opened and we got to eat our first Italian pasta. Excellent food was a constant for us throughout the trip.
With every lunch we took taking an hour and a half, it constantly put us behind schedule, which was fine because we weren’t really on a schedule anyway. We arrived in Milan close to when the sun was setting (early, at winter, around 4:30 pm). The hotel, Hotel Berna, was good, nice rooms, close to the train station and the Metro, so I would totally recommend it to anyone visiting. It was affordable, even though we went with two rooms. One thing I noticed is that European hotels don’t do two large beds, so it’s difficult to fit more than two adults in one room. (Hilariously, at one hotel when I entered in that I was looking for a room for three adults, it gave me the option of a three-person bed. Like, one really big bed. How … open-minded. Not what we had in mind for our holiday, though.)
Our goal was to get to the Duoma, the major cathedral in Milan, then find dinner. But first we needed to negotiate the metro system. While we usually have Euros with us, because we are often in France, neither Z or I tend to carry loads of Euros in change on us. Which leads to us at the Metro, everything shut down because it’s Boxing Day, trying to get it to take our credit card, which it refused to. Enter our hustlers. They come up with their fast Italian, yelling and shaking fingers, communicating it won’t take our credit cards. “Come here, give us your bills and we’ll give you change. No, more money than that. These are expensive tickets” (I’m paraphrasing here, I didn’t understand them at all, they were probably actually saying “I will now screw you over, ridiculous people”). We stood there, knowing full well we were being hustled, but also knew we would get the result we wanted (metro tickets) so we just kind of took it. They told us, I believe, these were all-day tickets. They weren’t. The one-way, one-hour tickets we received ended up costing us about 25 Euro. It wasn’t entirely pleasant, but it definitely put us on guard for the rest of the trip. Italy is not like Switzerland – you have been warned.
With our super expensive tickets in hand, we made our way to the Duomo, the central square of Old Town Milan. What we found was sheer insanity. There was a Christmas market set up all around the Cathedral and the surrounding shopping Gallerias (one thing we found is that, in Italy, everything is ripe for advertising. Including the Cathedral itself, which housed many large-screen TVs with blaring ads all over it’s scaffolded sides). There were so many people there, it was unbelievable. You couldn’t walk, you could barely breathe. It was kind of amazing and magical to be surrounding by tens of thousands of people, looking at the stunning Christmas lights and the even more stunning Duomo (apparently the third largest church in the world).
That kind of craziness couldn’t last, though. We crept along through the crowd until we were out of the crush, and found a little palazzo where X could run around. There’s no way I’d let him out of his stroller in the midst of that crowd, he is FAST and can dart between legs like nobody’s business and that would be it. I’d never see him again, the thought of which breaks my heart, so that’s why we waited until we found an empty square. There were a bunch of other kids there, running to their little hearts’ content, so X had the time of his life that evening, while we watched and half-heartedly tried to keep up. He earned the right to run, though, he was awesome on the car ride, very patient with us. Little did we know how much that patience was going to be strained …
Anyway, that night we found a pizzeria near the square but out of the melee that hadn’t filled up yet, and enjoyed our first Italian pizza. Food is just so good there. Although this restaurant ended up being really weird. At first, it would only play one song, Songbird by Eva Cassidy (those of you who love Love Actually would recognize it). But they played it over and over and over again, for about an hour. Then they moved on to the next song, Frank Sinatra’s Young at Heart. And it played on and on etc. Like, how freaking weird? How do the servers not revolt? Are they trying to drive out the people eating so that more people can come in, unaware how their eardrums would be assaulted by the sheer weirdness of it all? I was confused. I’ll admit that I became a little obsessed and couldn’t let the whole thing go. If you ever own a restaurant, or a store or anything, for the love of god don’t ever do this.
We very much enjoyed our night at the comfortable hotel – Z and I especially since X was sleeping in his Mamie’s room. It was like a real vacation! We didn’t have to lie quietly in the bed, pretending we were asleep so that he wouldn’t wake up and expect to play with us. Pretty awesome.
The next day we got up early to try to see The Last Supper, only in my last-minute planning I didn’t realize you had to book a time to see it and the viewings were sold out. Although I make myself feel better by telling myself it probably would have been sold out even if I’d been a little bit more on top of things, it being a particularly religious time of year for Catholics. We did visit La Triennale di Milano, which houses the Museum of Design. It was a little stark, but interesting to see where fashion and design inspiration comes from (although most of the time Z and I ran after X, who had been set free for the morning, yelling at him to touche pas! Thank goodness we were the only ones in the museum!)
By the time we were out, it had started to solidly snow in Milan. It was the first real snowfall I’d seen in Europe, and it was coming down thick and heavy. I sort of wondered how the roads would be, but we all scoffed at the idea that they would be bad. We were about to drive to Tuscany, for goodness sake! How bad could it be.
whiteout conditions. The worst driving weather I’ve seen since driving Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton mid-winter when random blizzards blow in (one of the reasons I never want to return to Alberta). We were pretty shocked to find the roads like this between Milan and Florence. To make it worse, Italian drivers are crazy. Like, no wonder they pray a lot. I have to assume they don’t have tons of experience with this kind of weather driving, but still. “Lanes” were completely optional, while signalling and speed limits were actively dismissed. We had a few near misses in the first hour, before we stopped at a delightful road-side grill for “Western” flavoured burgers. European road stops are so North American it makes me laugh, but you know what? The food is still really good.
We’d driven two-thirds of the road to Florence, what was supposed to be our “short driving day.” That’s when we came to a complete stop on the road. For two hours. This incredibly busy, three lane highway, 100% shut down. I was getting anxious because we had rented an Airbnb apartment, so there was a guy coming in to meet us at a set time. A time which slowly came and went. We were able to contact him, but nobody was happy about the situation. Finally, a lane was opened to let the traffic crawl onto a secondary highway, forcing everyone on the road to go through one small toll area (thankfully, they weren’t making people pay, otherwise I think I’d still be on that road). Then it was an hour of crawling along poorly marked roads, all in terrible condition with the storm, people stopping willy-nilly to put chains on their tires (I was once again even more thankful we’d remembered to change our tires). All I can say is luckily Z is a stone-cold, amazing driver. He did awesome, and amazingly we arrived in Florence in one piece, where the weather cleared up. We were three hours behind schedule, so we just got some take out and crashed at our beautiful apartment. That was a lot to go through for 36 hours, so we all quickly fell asleep.