After months of procrastination and changes of plans, we found ourselves sitting on a plane from Newcastle to Rome in the last week of the school summer holidays. Three kids 14 and under plus four adults, all set to soak in anything and everything that Italy had to throw at us. As always, Newcastle airport was an absolute delight to pass through. We arrived in a mini bus from the airport parking at Callerton Park and got through check in and customs with not a single problem. The kids did ask us about why people were drinking pints of lager before the normal time for breakfast, but we explained that stag and hen parties mean that adults have different rules applied to them.
We flew with Jet2 and had the most stunning views of the Alps or Dolomites on the way over, it’s very hard to tell the difference from so high up. Maybe there should be a project, we could crowd fund it, where huge labels can be placed at strategic points around the globe so that aeroplane passengers know exactly where they are in the world. I know that the big planes have this on the in-flight display, but the short haul flights miss out and I would be happy to chip in a fiver to get this off the ground. Who else is in?
We landed bang on time at Rome Fiumicino and found our first life hack of the holiday. If you travel with under 12’s you get to skip the queue at passport control. It almost makes travelling with kids worthwhile. Almost. We found out that it wasn’t always such a great idea moments later having got through passport control as we immediately lost the kids car seat that we had checked in at Newcastle airport under ‘Excess baggage’ despite it being the size of a box of cornflakes. We were told that you had to pick it up from a certain area so wandered over and found a massive collection of, what appeared to be, abandoned car seats and pushchairs that you could pick up without any sort of checks taking place. Life hack two of the holiday, don’t take a pushchair or child seat with you, just pick one up on arrival and run!
The seven of us, with six suitcases and a child seat in tow, looked like we were heading off from New York to join the gold rush but we were in fact heading to pick up the hire cars. My brother and I, as designated drivers, took a ticket from the machine that, I think, they had taken from the deli counter at Asda when they remodelled in the late 80’s. Despite our number coming up, a loud American lass that was dressed as if she was heading to a Yoga convention decided that, as she was louder than everyone else in the room, she should be seen to next. I was happy so long as it meant I never had to see her or hear her ever again.
When we eventually got to the front of the queue, I was happy I had lost my rightful place in the queue as the lad who looked after us was absolutely spot on. He was one of these people that, despite ‘just’ being the guy at the car hire station, he actually managed to add to the holiday by doing his job so well, with a smile on his face and a kind word and the odd joke with my little boy. As with almost everything in life these days, I got asked to do a follow up survey once we had picked the car up, I hope he got the kind words that I left for him passed on.
Having got all of the paperwork squared away and turned down 329 different types of insurance that they tried to upsell me, we headed out to pick up the cars. I had been allocated a Jeep and my brother a hybrid Toyota Yaris. Squeaking our way round and down the shiny floored multi story car park, I had about two minutes to get used to the car and the handling before hitting the Italian roads. I had driven in Italy last year, but mainly on the motorway in the North of the country, but this was different!
If you haven’t driven in rush hour Rome, all be it just the outskirts, it’s pretty easy to imagine. It’s like playing Mario Kart but instead of bananas and mushrooms the other players have a child in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. Seriously, it’s like being in a car in the UK in the 1980’s, it’s not unusual to see kids standing on the passenger seat with no seatbelt on or two kids sharing the passenger seat. Insane.
The excitement of the crazy driving got a bit much for me. I was so focused on blowing my horn at people and shouting Mama Mia as drivers switched lanes for fun in front of me, I forgot to follow the directions. It took a few false starts and U-turns but we were eventually on the way and eating into the 90KM to Sermoneta, our home for the week. It was only about an hour and a half away but that, on top of the early start, the flight time, the wait to get out of the airport and it was touch and go if the three kids would have driven each other to madness in the back seats before we arrived.
We broke up the journey with a service station stop where we loaded up with mini loafs of bread, crisps, chocolate and fizzy pop. Classic car trip fodder. While everyone else got the provisions I stayed in the Jeep and worked out what the dazzling array of buttons were all about. I managed to get my phone synced up with the blue tooth so that I could play my tunes but that didn’t last for more than half a song I seem to recall.
I thought that the car was handling a little strangely and I had worked out what I thought it was. The Jeep was fitted with lane assist and so every time you switched lanes the car tried to auto correct you and put you back. I had a choice, I had to either fight to move in and out of traffic while overtaking or be the only person in Italy who used indicators. I didn’t want to be the odd one out so it was a good upper body work out for the rest of the week, fighting against my AI car.
The motorway eventually turned into a main road, the main road into a minor and the minor into a single track that snaked along the flat expanse of land between the Mediterranean sea to the west and the mountains overlooking it. As we got closer to the mountainside, we could make out a village hanging off the side of it. We knew we were close and there wasn’t much else around and so that had to be Sermoneta. We came to a junction and turned off up the hill. The kids, who had just started to get a bit bored and fighty, suddenly had something else to focus on and it was starting to get exciting, trying to work out where we would be and what was going to be around us for the next seven nights.
We followed the hair pinning road up the ever steepening hill and followed the road into the town square. It felt like we were not the first people to drive into the town square expecting to find their lodging and be surprised that it was pedestrian access only after about 500 meters. Titchy jumped out and asked for directions and was told we had come in the wrong side of town and had to come in via the back road. At least we think that that was said. Either way, I had to perform a tricky U-turn in the town square watched by, what looked like, the entire village that had come out to see the foreign guy take the wrong route.
The square was full of life. Cafes, shops and an ice cream shop jumped out to the kids and they thought it was looking good. Driving out of the town square and working our way around the back of the village, we worked our way up and around the tight single track road until we hit the car park at the end of the line. We had arrived at our destination.
I was not able to get my mobile phone working in Italy at all for the next week and so the landlord was not able to call me to arrange access. So we waited around for a while looking for keys, trying locks and search for clues as if we were taking part in an escape room. Eventually, we got in and as the adults worked out who would stay in which room and began unpacking, the kids walked down the terrace to the swimming pool. They wanted in and they wanted in fast!
Inside, the house was lovely with big, comfortable rooms and a pool table, but outside was where this place came into its own. There was a terrace with a Barbeque and a patio table and chairs from which you could look out over the winding roads that we had just come through and the sea off in the distance. We were to spend many an hour there in the next week just watching planes taking off, farmers zig zag back and forth over their fields, cyclists making their progress and clouds forming and moving in from the sea. It really was the most perfect view. One section further down the terrace and you had a swimming pool and sun loungers from which you could relax and take in the same views, just this time with kids trying to drown you.
This was going to be a good holiday, I could tell.
We were all pretty tired by the time we had unpacked and got used to the surroundings so we decided to take a little walk into the town square and pick up something to eat. We snaked our way through the narrow, cobbled streets and headed towards where we thought the town square was that we had driven up earlier in the afternoon. We thought we were lucky by finding it pretty much right away, it turns out that there were only about three streets that all meet at the main square so we would have done well NOT to find it.
There was a lovely atmosphere. Old people sitting in seats just watching the world go by, families (all locals) chatting over drinks at cafes and children running around playing without a care in the world. All dressed up and just savouring the warm evening air. We picked a pizza shop, it wasn’t a restaurant, more like a takeaway with a few seats and a table outside on the cobble steps. We ate lovely slices of pizza fresh from the oven and watched customer after customer walk in, chat to the owner like a long-lost friend and pick up their takeaway pizza. It felt amazing to be let into their world, no delivery guys, and no options, just going to the one guy in town that did takeaway pizza and chatting with him. Making a connection and saying hello to neighbours and friends as they waited to be served.
As we walked back to the house, we could hear family life going on through windows above open to let a cool breeze into the rooms. Football on the TV, children crying, singing along to radios, family life. Old people sat outside their front doors, keeping guard and chatting excitedly as we walked past them and said our ‘goodnights’ to them. We thought it was the perfect evening, but there was still one more treat before bedtime.
Outside the house there must have been a dozen cats and two kittens all pottering about waiting to be fed by one of the neighbours. Some were friendlier than others and they all looked like street cats but well fed, but the ones that were brave enough to hang around us were rewarded with cuddles and love before bed. I think we all went to bed happy that we had picked the right place to call home, Sermoneta.