Follow British writer and broadcaster Liz Fraser and her family as they decide to live the dream in Italy
Travelling with a toddler? Stunning mountains and lakes make up for all the rusk crumbs and singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ on Liz Fraser’s road trip to Venice.
Let’s move to Italy”, I said. “Let’s do it!” he said. And so, after 25 years in Cambridge, I have left. For a new city, a new country… a new life. Like lots of people, I’ve been dreaming of The Big Escape for decades, but have always found a thousand reasons why I couldn’t do it. School, work, money, a new series of /Peaky Blinders/. Finding ‘the right time’ seemed impossible.
Then one morning six months ago, looking out over the waterfront in Venice on our first trip away after our baby was born, listening to the sound of the lagoon waves lapping against the crumbling stone steps, the hum of passing boats and the local old ladies “ciao!”-ing each other as they pulled their little trolleys to the fishmonger, I suddenly realised that the ‘right time’ is quite simply the time you decide to do it – and make it happen. And that time was now.
Four months later, and we were ready to go. We had found an apartment in Venice, secured work out there to keep us afloat, cancelled our phone contracts and bought Waterstone’s out of books on Venetian history, life and cooking.
All we had to do now was GET there. We had two options; Option A was to pay a removals company to do all the work for us, allowing us to arrive in style when everything was in the new gaff.
Option B was to spend three months pilfering flat-packed cardboard boxes from outside shops at night, filling our home with brown tape and 75 boxes of Stuff We Haven’t Used For Ten Years But Definitely Can’t Leave Behind, pack our entire lives into a rental van, and drive the 1,200 miles ourselves. Over three days. With a ten-month-old baby in tow.
Of course, we chose Option B. Not only was it approximately 20,000 times cheaper, it also meant we would have a journey. A true ‘exodus’, and the start of an adventure, from day one.
It’s one thing to hop on a plane and emerge two hours and several G&Ts later, straight into the heart of a new country, but it’s quite another to actually travel there. To feel the passing of the miles of land beneath your feet – or wheels – watch the changing topography, hear the different languages as you stop to try and get some circulation back into your numb glutes along the way. To fully experience the distance you have travelled, and the journey you have undertaken.
Four months after that morning in Venice, we’re off. Our van’s packed to within millimetres of its roof, the odometer’s set to zero, and the new baby car seat is ready to get dusted in crumbs over the next three days. As I slip into first gear and release the handbrake, I feel such a rush of lightness and am crying before I reach the end of our road. Our road trip, and our Venetian adventure, has begun.
The road trip to Venice
Like all the epic voyages of humankind, we have planned our 1,200-mile drive to Venice entirely around the sleeping patterns of our baby. If Odysseus had a sprog, he’d have arrived at the gates of the Underworld covered in rusk smears and milk stains; which is exactly what happened within minutes to both me and the brand-new Maxi Cosi car seat we got to keep Little Miss I Hate Car Travel comfy in as we hurtle across Europe.
Key to our travel strategy is to cover as much ground as possible while she’s awake and happy or, ideally, asleep. Hence, we leave our shores by Eurotunnel, emerging an easy half-an-hour later into France – and into 90mph gales. Buffeted by the strong winds, and swerving along the autoroute across the grim, grey flatlands of northern France, I ponder whether the van will take off or tip over first, and try to keep our daughter from screaming the windows out. Could we not, maybe, flag down a Ryanair flight and hop on?
Ten hours, 12 chocolate bars, eight coffees and four nappies later, we cross into Switzerland. As the light falls, the mountains rise around us. They seem to wrap us up and announce the real start of our adventure. Later still, exhausted after a 14-hour motorway drive and 72 renditions of The Blimming Wheels on the Stupid Bus, we find a hotel and fall into the local pub for the most welcome schnitzel, chips and beer I’ve ever had.
The next morning, I draw back the curtains to reveal a sight I almost can’t believe. It’s a perfect, sunny autumn day and I’m looking at Lake Lucerne, lined by snow-capped mountains with trees ablaze in red and yellow, and cows straight out of a Milka advert. This is the happiest I can remember feeling for months.
The second day’s drive is so stunning that we have to pinch ourselves every few minutes – not easy when driving a heavy van on winding mountain roads, through tunnels and over bridges, and feeding a baby semi-regurgitated croissant. The landscape is pure Alpine cliché, and it gets even more beautiful as we approach our second stopover. Kissing the shoreline all the way along Lake Como, we finally park our crumb-filled van outside the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Welcome to the Grand,” smiles the concierge, kindly ignoring the fact that I appear to be wearing the contents of a skip. “I hope you will enjoy your stay.” Glancing at the mirror-like pool that’s floating on one of the most stunning lakes in the world, I’m pretty sure I will. It’s the day before my 44th birthday. Bye bye, 43. It’s been… interesting. Tomorrow will bring a new year, and a new life will start for real.
Arriving in your new home
Today, my 44th birthday, is the day we’ll finally make it to Venice. It’s shaping up to be pretty darned good. Built 1,600 years ago by those seeking shelter from invading barbarians, Venice’s history is founded on the need for refuge, and on the start of a new, better life created by hard graft and a smattering of bonkers adventuring. As such, no location could suit us better.
As we drive our tired, dusty, heavy van the last few miles on the mainland, trying desperately to read the not-very-helpfully well-concealed road signs to ‘Venezia’, the sky suddenly opens up around us and the most extraordinary diffused yet intense light bounces off the lagoon water, reflecting all over the roof of the van and dazzling our weary eyes. We’ve left the mainland behind and we’re on the bridge that connects it to Venice (or vice versa).
I’d expected some kind of whooping, high fiving or at the very least a small party popper to go off at this epic moment in our New Life Voyage. But as the iconic campanile of San Marco grows slowly bigger, and the shape of the city for which we’ve left everything starts to form, we fall completely still. Even our baby is motionless and quiet, as if she knows Something Important is occurring. Or possibly it’s just because the light is so blinding she’s stunned into silence. Or she is filling her nappy.
The next step is to find the boat waiting to take all our luggage all the way around the island. Stefano and his crew of (very) merry, (very) tanned men barely wait for us to switch off the engine before they began unloading the entire contents of the van and transferring it into a boat. Barely 20 minutes later, they wave us a sweaty ‘ciao!’. I stand on the side of the lagoon, watching everything I own sail away across the water. It’s the first of what will turn out to be many occasions where I have to just relax into the moment and trust that everything will be OK.
And HOW! By the time we’ve parked the van, hopped on a vaporetto (a floating bus) to our nearest stop and walked the last 400 yards, everything is already neatly stacked in the living room and bathed in beautiful, almost ethereal yellow-pink evening light streaming in through the long, south-facing windows. If this is the stereotypical Italian lazy ineptitude we Brits hear so much about, I’m all for it.
“Happy birthday, my love.” “Oh God it is! I completely forgot. It’s been quite a day. Fancy a Spritz to celebrate… everything?!” Walking down to our favourite café on the lagoon-front, I have to stop several times to take it all in. We are here. We are ACTUALLY HERE. We have no idea of the many months of nightmares that are to follow. But for now, nothing has ever felt better.
Follow Liz on Twitter and Instagram @lizfraser1.