02 Sep 2017: the summer of staycations
This summer, apart from a toccata e fuga weekend in Germany for my friend’s wedding, I was stuck in Italy. For the first time in years, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. By the time I’d started thinking about going away somewhere, all the flights out of the country were too expensive, I didn’t have a whole lot of holiday days to take, and somebody needed to man the office anyway, so I bit the bullet and just stayed right where I was.
I’d never stayed in Turin for an entire summer, so this year was a challenge. But in the end, I found plenty of excuses to get out of the city, even just for a few hours at a time…
My Australian friend Francis had come back to Europe for a holiday with a friend of his, but seeing as he wasn’t stopping in Turin this time, and had flown half way around the world, it was only fair for me to take the train and meet him for a day of fun in Bologna. As usual, within minutes of seeing Francis again, I was cry laughing as we immediately set out on a mission to buy him some fancy leather shoes, despite him being dressed in exemplary tourist style in a tank top, baseball cap, and shorts (if there’s one way to be death stared in a posh Italian shop, it’s to go in dressed like that). After some breakfast, we met his equally cry-laugh-inducing friends and set off right away for some tigelle and wine at a cute little place called Zerocinquantino. We spent the rest of the day mooching around, stopping at the boys’ apartment for chats and rest, eating a delicious, carb-filled lunch at the Osteria dell’Orsa (can’t go to Bologna and not eat bolognese now, can you?), wandering around central Bologna, and getting a last-minute Spritz at la Gazzetta before I had to head to the station to catch my train back to Turin.
I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of Italian beaches. The water is unpleasantly warm, there are too many people, and there’s so much traffic on the roads to get there that by the time I arrive I usually can’t be bothered any more. That said, a few weeks after Bologna, a group of friends was organising a day out to the beach at Varigotti, there were spaces in the car, and I didn’t know if or when I’d next see a beach this summer, so S and I decided to join. Honestly, the day was fun because of the company – a weird (in a good way?) international crowd composed of a couple of Italians, a couple of Koreans, a German guy, a French guy, a Russian guy, my South African bestie Paula, and little British me. What was less great was the fact that none of the clever international crowd thought to bring an umbrella. It was a bit cloudy, so we didn’t think much of it, until we were all burned to a crisp and S was left to build a makeshift tent from sticks and a towel. One of the friends we were with happens to be a very fun farmer who had a car full of weird and wonderful vegetables. So, quite spontaneously, we headed off to the house of a friend of his (a stunner of a place, by the way), somewhere in the countryside near there, and went to play with the horses and the dogs and swing in the hammocks outside while a delicious veggie dinner was prepared for us. After a spontaneous evening of wine and yellow zucchini, we headed back to the city, exhausted but content.
Another stop this summer was in Sostegno, somewhere totally new for me this year. It’s a little village somewhere near Biella, and is S’s home town. For me, a person in a long-term love-hate relationship with the city, it is an ideal place for a weekend away. I am partial (occasionally) to places where phone signal is close to zero, where everywhere you go is silent, where old people say hello regardless of whether or not they know you, and where going for a long walk is a totally acceptable way to spend your day. Apart from having an excuse to ignore my Whatsapp messages, I definitely found the most attractive thing about this area in mid summer to be the river. Fresh, clean, icy water is the only antidote for a serious case of summer heat exhaustion. So in we jumped, and it was dreamy.
One Friday after a particularly long and tiring week in the office, S and I ummed and ahhed about whether we should join some of his friends in Tuscany for the weekend. Tuscany is a region I do have some knowledge of, having spent 2 months in Lucca what feels like a bajillion years ago (in 2008, if we want to get technical), and having visited Florence a few times both many years ago and more recently to visit friends living in nearby Prato. But I have never visited the ‘real’ Tuscany, the one from the tourist brochures with the rolling hills and the vines and the little farmhouses made of stone. One of S’s friends lives exactly there, on a stunning hill, in the middle of nowhere, in the Chianti region. So obviously I was keen to go, but what was putting me off was the insanely long drive there and back, to essentially stay there for little more than 24 hours. We finally decided that YOLO was the right attitude for this occasion, and caught a ride with one of S’s friends on the Saturday morning. Thankfully, despite the hassle of actually getting there (and back, that was even worse) it was so worth it, even for a silly-ly short time. We chilled out by the pool with a group of S’s super friendly pals and one lovely squidgy baby, drank amazing local wine, played with a chick that had been adopted after it fell from a nest a few days before, ate homemade pizza, and watched the sun set over the vineyards. It felt a world away from Turin, and I honestly came back to the city feeling physically exhausted but mentally so much fresher.
Until this year, I’ve always been the kind of person who’d choose the seaside over the mountains, especially in the summer months, but after the Val d’Aosta and Sostegno, I was officially a convert. So when my friend Cristina asked me if I’d like to join her, her boyfriend, and one of their friends on a day trip walking in the mountains in the Val Pellice area, I jumped at the chance.
In Italy, and particularly in the company of Cristina, “a walk in the mountains” is code for “walking towards a place which serves melted cheese”, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the day’s itinerary was: go to mountains, walk up mountain, stuff face, and walk back down again. Fortunately, all elements (the up, the lunch, and the down) were great. I love a good uphill walk – especially when the reward is reasonably priced cheesy polenta and wine in absurd quantities at the Rifugio Willy Jervis – the scenery is absolutely gorgeous (see the photo at the top of this post), the weather was perfect, and we even made friends with a bonkers sheepdog. Winning.
The last attempts at an Italian summer staycation were some visits to a few sites closer to home. S and I went to walk around the Castello di Rivoli (a modern art gallery in an old castle in a very cute little town attached to the edge of Turin) the day after Ferragosto, and had the place all to ourselves. It was quite a weird experience, but one I would happily repeat!
In the last weekend of August, my friend Katie came to stay. She’s been here before, but could only come out for a weekend this time, so we still ended up packing a lot in. Besides eating ourselves half to death (what’s new?), we went up to the top of the Mole Antonelliana for a rooftop view, and also went on a day trip to the Reggia di Venaria, yet another old royal palace with beautiful gardens and a museum, and which you might remember from this post. As usual, the main aim was just to find a location to wander around while we chatted, so Venaria did the job very nicely. The bus ride back through the Torinese Bronx was a little bit less picturesque, but we lived to tell the tale and that’s the important thing.
Finally, S and I had the brilliant idea to combine culture and exercise, getting a bus to Stupinigi, where there’s an old and very beautiful royal hunting residence, wandering around, and then getting another bus part of the way back before running the other 5km home. Needless to say the puzzled expressions of the museum employees were the highlight of the day when we showed up to the ticket desk and pulled our museum cards out of the tiny pockets of our lycra leggings.
So hey, maybe Italy’s not such a bad place to be stranded after all.