My second trip to Italy, to the town of Viareggio, started less than fortuitously.
We checked in at Stansted airport, which I’d never heard of, onto a Ryanair plane, a small Irish airline that I’d never heard of; so far, so strange. We’d only ever flown out of Gatwick but this time, we were not going on a standard family holiday. Along with me was my Mum, my friend Esme, and her mum Mu. Happily wandering around the departure lounge we lost track of time. Suddenly the gate was closing! Frantically we started to run towards the gate. I’d been told that Stansted was tiny but this was a long run, up and over the road to the furthest gates. Exhausted and stressed, we arrived just as they were starting to close the flight. Knowing what I know now about Ryanair, I am incredibly relieved we made it.
After landing we head to Campeggio Paradiso, our home for the week. We began to construct our tents but I soon noticed that mine wasn’t the towering dome it usually became. Looking back, a horrible memory and sense of realisation crept over me and my stomach tightened in anticipation of the confession to come. There had been a pile of tent poles, after a festival weekend, that all looked remarkably similar. Distinctly hungover and truly exhausted, I had grabbed a set that , it turned out, was at least 3 foot to short for my tent. Mu, being Italian and so able to speak the lingo, did some fantastic negotiations. We ended up chalet hopping as bookings left them free for one of two nights.
We even stayed in the one that they kept the cleaning supplies in. I wasn’t everybody’s favourite travel companion that first evening as the rain started and we went off to bed. I suspect my mistake cost our parents a fair amount of their spending money. However, as dawn awakened the campsite, we emerged from our cosy cabin to discover clusters of tent dwellers two foot deep in waterlogged sand. The rain came down in spectacular, tropical deluges throughout the week and so I reckon my three travel buddies appreciated their dry pillows and power sockets after all.
Esme and I went to hire a couple of bikes from the campsite office to shorten the journey into town. The only two that were left were awfully European, very heavy and one even had a basket on the front. At first we rode them with shame, mountain bikes were all the rage at the time, but during the week we grew to love them.
The bikes gave us a nice sense of independence, we jumped on them whenever the fancy took us and cycled to the centre of Viareggio. During one cycle ride, we spent an embarrassingly long time in a supermarket trying to decide if the legal drinking age really was fifteen. Would they allow us to buy the bottle of peach vodka we were clutching nervously? With our Mums, we had been allowed to drink Bacardi Breezers with dinner, but as semi-experienced imbibers at fifteen, we scoffed at and looked down on these weak, chemical filled “alcopops”. In fact, they were mostly used as mixers for the spirits we could get our hands on.
But I digress. Eventually we found a bright red English chap who assured us that we would be fine before edging away looking a touch bemused. Looking about twelve of our fifteen years, we approached the cashier hopefully. She barely looked up and the bottle of peach flavoured fun sat proudly in the bike basket all the way back to the campsite.
The Swimming – The Beach
We attempted two swimming excursions during our week away and both ended up a little disappointingly.
Our first try was at the beach where everyone wanted to get some sunbathing done. After half an hour of baking, we plunged into the inviting surf. We were having the gentle kind of aquatic frivolity that maintains ones hairstyles. I snatched up a plastic bag that bobbed past and tossed it at Esme, who picked it up and threw it back. After a minute or two, we both realised we were feeling a little tingle. This steadily developed into a stinging we couldn’t ignore. You guessed it, it was a jellyfish we had been playing catch with! We ran for the freshwater showers and whined as we tried to rid ourselves of the pain.
The Swimming – The Pool
Deciding to play it safe for our next swimming trip, we made our way to one of the beachfront pools (minus sealife). The lady on the front desk took our entrance fee but was then very intent on selling us a swimming cap. We attended swimming lessons at home and even then, we didn’t subject ourselves to this humiliation. After a lot of repetition and some excellent charades from both sides of the argument, we established that it was a rule for swimming in the pool. Reluctantly we parted with an extra €5 each for the offending piece of rubber. Clad like two gender confused uncle festers, we jumped into the pool..which…was…Baltic!
We furiously swam laps to try and warm up, giving up after a measly five minutes. We decided that sunbathing would have to do but of course, the rain clouds started to gather once again and so the whole endeavor was called off. Jumping back on our bikes, we scarpered.
Esme’s Nonna lived in Perdona, a small village in the hills above Viareggio and so Esme and I boarded a bus, without the mothers, to visit her and thrilled at our bravery. The bus ascended steeply and we were making slow but steady progress, until we pulled up for what we thought was just a bus stop. The few passengers that we had shared the past twenty minutes with jumped off the bus. Sitting at the back of the bus we noticed that the driver had also disembarked. Someone boarded and insisted, in Italian, that we also get off. We did so and gazed around for our fellow passengers, who had all deserted us. The man gestured to us that we should climb into a smaller minibus that sat some way across the gravel car park.
We debated in hushed tones about our chances of being rescued if this was a kidnap operation. How fast could I run down the hill with all those trees in the way? What is the Italian for “Do you know the way to Grandma’s house?” Would people think I was Red Riding Hood? Left with little choice, we clambered aboard the smaller bus and it made its way up the ever smaller and more winding road to Pedona.
Nonna’s house was at the bottom of a steep track making it a little down from the very top of the valley but it perched on the edge of the hill, surrounded with trees offering lemons, olives and other edible delights. The views across the valley were superb and the terrace was bathed in sunshine. We spent a lovely afternoon basking in the glorious Tuscan atmosphere but all too soon it was time to jump back on the bus. As we left the villa she wished us goodbye over and over. As we climbed she kept calling and even at the top of the hill, we could still hear the well wishes on the breeze. “Bye Esmeeee, bye Rosieeee”An enduring memory that still makes me smile every week at least.
On our last evening, after another agonisingly slow meal, watching Mum make her way sloth-like through her dinner, the campsite threw a party night. Esme and i broke open our hard won peach vodka and set about sipping it between grimaces. We made it through half the bottle. The DJ heard me singing at the top of my voice and handed me the microphone, I prepared myself to wow the crowd. Shakira’s ‘Whenever, Wherever’ came on and I threw myself into the performance with gusto, singing and wiggling my non-existent hips for all I was worth. Unfortunately, my drink-addled brain could only remember a few of the lyrics. I sang “..luckily my breasts are small and humble, so you don’t confuse them with mountains…” over and over again.
My Mum meanwhile, was hoisted onto a table to dance for all to see. Her fear of heights kicked in and she was screaming to get down again, whilst also being so scared, she couldn’t move. That night, I don’t think we did anything to disprove that we were Brits abroad, even with our two Italian companions.
Incidentally, we determined to smuggle the other half of the vodka back to the U.K. We emptied my bottle of leave in conditioner, rinsed it out and replaced the contents with the vodka. Later, it was opened with much ceremony and anticipation, but to my chagrin, our drunken selves had failed to wash the bottle properly and it had a good head of conditioner floating on the top. We went back to Bacardi Breezers.