Last month, after surviving the ordeal of moving house in Switzerland, I became desperate for a vacation during my kids’ school holidays. Unfortunately, due to lack of planning and lack of funds (both due to previously mentioned move of house), we found ourselves without a destination or reservation just three days before we wanted to leave. What we did have was a strong desire to get out of town and the knowledge and resources of a fantastic group of international moms on whom I constantly rely for information and support. With gratitude to this amazing Facebook group for a long list of ideas, my hubs and I hunkered down with our laptops that night, but found flights too expensive and only two hotels with available rooms within driving distance to a warm location. We gambled on the less expensive hotel, booked our room and off we drove to sunny Italy, after a scramble to find all our swimming and summer things still packed in moving boxes.
Our first stop was the St. Bernard Pass connecting the Swiss and Italian borders. Traveling up and over the pass was a new experience for me as my first time to Italy last year we took the tunnel. I highly recommend the pass – it added only 30 minutes to our trip and allowed us to park and stretch our legs (and use the restroom and take some pictures) in an amazing and geographically interesting location. There is also a sweet church there and the famous St-Bernard hospice where the dogs are bred and spend the summer. We were too late in the year getting there to spend time with the dogs, but will plan on doing so on our next trip. On the far side of the lake in the photo below (in Italy), on the left side is the fantastic Restaurant du Lac, which serves delicious and affordable food April through mid-October.
Next time I think we will make the pass itself (and maybe Martigny or Aosta) our destination. There are plenty of activities and hikes to keep a family busy for an entire day.
After an all-you-can-eat sushi lunch in Aosta, we traveled on to our destination – the beautiful Sestri Levante. True to form, before we even checked into our hotel, we drove to the water. This rush to the sea has become an important family tradition – the way we begin any beach vacation.
After a tour of the beach on the seaside, we made our way to our hotel, the lovely Hotel Villa Agnesa. I can’t say enough about this small boutique hotel. There is a good-sized heated outdoor pool, generous morning buffet serving vegan and gluten-free options, attentive staff and beautiful grounds. The only downside of the hotel were smallish rooms and beds, but we were more than pleased on balance. We headed back downtown to walk and choose a dinner location. I can really understand why so many Americans dream of going to Italy. The people are friendly, the food is incredible and offers so many choices beyond pizza and pasta (although those are good too) and the weather doesn’t disappoint. I love the laid-back vibe, especially as a tonic for Swiss life, which can feel very restricting at times.In the past when my kids were younger, I avoided making any plans for myself since I was inevitably disappointed when baby/toddler/small child needs took precedence. Now that my younger kids are eight and 12, they can hike a fair distance, stay at the beach all day without napping, and stay up late. Because of this, I’ve started choosing one activity for myself that I insist upon. This trip it was hiking the Punta Manara. This hike takes you above Sestri Levante to the ruins of a tower. On the way you enjoy amazing vistas, cool olive groves and forests and quaint Italian farmsteads. Sestri Levante also has a vibrant Saturday market and a regional architectural proclivity for faux facade painting that is quite interesting. We found the same phenomenon in Cinque Terre, Portofino and Rapallo. Next day, we boarded an early train for the northernmost Cinque Terre village of Monterosso al Mare. Although the Cinque Terre is extremely touristic, I found the two towns we visited to be just busy enough in October to be alive, but not overcrowded. The beaches were nearly deserted, even though my kids and husband reported the water to be approximately the temperature of Lac Leman in July and August. The images speak for themselves in terms of both the natural beauty and the quaint appeal of these towns. After spending some time in Monterosso, we took a boat to Vernazza for just a couple of hours and then took the train back to Monterosso for late afternoon swimming and dinner (and gelato after, of course!). Then we took the train back to Sestri Levante. One caution when using the train in Italy. Unlike Swiss rail, our train didn’t have any interior displays of approaching stops nor verbal announcements. This is fine during the day when you can look out the window and read the name of the station at which you are stopped, but it proved to be difficult at night and we ended up following along with a Google map and counting stops. Dreaming of restoring abandoned real estate in Italy – a sure sign that I have fallen in love with a place. Check out that penthouse rooftop terrace!This might be the most special travel photo I’ve every taken!Vernazza from the boatand…back on the train to Monterosso….More pool time next dayWe checked out of our hotel happy but sad (as my kids like to say) and headed home by way of Rapallo and Portofino, all the while hearing fantastic stories from my husband about his adventures in this area during his 20s. We stopped for more all you can eat sushi in Rapallo and a walk by the sea.and then headed to Portofino. The drive was gorgeous and Portofino is itself very lovely, but I found it profoundly overcrowded, especially for the fall and the relaxed vibe of Italy was a bit ruined by the crowds and the jostling of tourists. We walked a bit and had an ice cream and then headed for home.In spite of our last minute (lack of) planning, I’m so happy we went on this trip and ecstatic to have found Sestri Levante. We hardly ever go a second time to somewhere we’ve been before, but I have a feeling we’ll return to this lovely little city. I hope you enjoyed my travel journal from Italy. Ciao!!! xxoo Kate.
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Kate Cuénoud is a family adventure and travel photographer and photo editor based in the Lake Geneva / Lac Leman region of Switzerland.