Vernazza, on the way back to its former glory.
Vernazza, on the way back to its former glory. Mike Garry

All the fun of a real family affair

ONE of the best things I have done as a parent is to instil in my children a love of travel.

Travel has broadened their minds, enriched their life experiences and benefited them in so many other ways.

And their wanderlust proved a great bonus for my wife Leonie and me on a recent trip to England.

With two sons and their Aussie partners living in London, it was like having our own tour guides.

And not only did we get an insider's view of London, we saved a bundle on accommodation.

We visited historic pubs in Fleet St, once frequented by literary giants Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, while in the East End we drank with the ghosts of Jack the Ripper's victims (and probably Jack himself).

We enjoyed some wonderful and cheap Bangladeshi curries, after the traditional haggling over prices with restaurant spruikers in Brick Lane.

Sunday Upmarket, also in Brick Lane, is another great place to eat.

It is crowded and noisy - and we sat on the footpath to eat off paper plates - but the range of fresh home-to-market food includes Spanish paellas and empanadas, hand-rolled sushi, Japanese sweets and savoury pancakes and aromatic dishes from Turkey, Morocco, India, Thailand and the Caribbean.

Our guides also took us to fascinating markets including Old Spitalfields, which sells jewellery, clothes, craft and food, Petticoat Lane Market which specialises in clothes and, curiously, luggage, and Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill, which sells antiques.

Balancing these colourful, unpretentious experiences were some posh excursions, including high tea and champagne at the Ritz, an eye-opening tour of Buckingham Palace and an amazing dinner at Tom Aikens' legendary Chelsea restaurant.

Shortly after we returned home, two momentous things happened.

My son Simon and his long-time partner Tegan got married and moved to Milan, where Simon took up a teaching position at an international school.

Well, before you could say "la dolce vita", Leonie and I were buying tickets to Italy and Simon and Tegan were planning a driving holiday for the four of us to Cinque Terre and around Tuscany.

During our first week in Italy, Simon and Tegan, who are becoming proficient in speaking Italian, introduced us to the delights, sights and rites of Milan and surrounds.

One of the customs we became quite fond of was "aperitivo" where you buy a drink in a bar and eat as much food as you like.

All drinks cost the same whether you order water or a fancy cocktail - usually about 8 euros ($11) depending on the establishment. I hope it catches on here.

Leonie and I caught a train to Venice where we'd booked a night's accommodation just metres from Piazza San Marco.

Soon after our arrival - after cruising down the Grand Canal and wandering around magical canal-crossing laneways filled with fascinating shops and inviting restaurants - we realised we should have booked to stay longer. Venice is an enchanting, unique city.

The Grand Canal in Venice.
The Grand Canal in Venice. Mike Garry

On our return to Milan, Simon, Tegan, Leonie and I (and our full complement of luggage) crammed into a tiny Kia sedan for our week-long driving adventure.

The Cinque Terre in the Liguria region is five quaint villages - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore - perched precariously on terraced cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean along Italy's northwest coast.

Vineyards and lemon and olive groves have not only provided livelihoods for local farmers for centuries, they also stop the hillsides from crumbling into the sea.

This spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site is unspoilt by man, though nature did her worst last October when torrential rain and massive landslips sent mud rushing down the slopes through two of the villages, with fatal results.

The once-beautiful harbour at Vernazza was a depressing mix of earth and personal belongings such as toys, clothing and shoes washed from residents' homes. We wish the village a speedy recovery

We stayed in Manarola, which has many fine restaurants - squid ink pasta with seafood is a specialty - and a great little bar with live music and a convivial atmosphere.

Though the five villages are connected by train, we undertook some heroic walks between the towns, for which we were rewarded with some of the most breathtaking scenery I have found anywhere.

Tuscany's beauty is more subtle but every bit as lovely, as we expected. Even grey skies and drizzle, our regular travelling companions throughout this most famous region of Italy, could not diminish its singular beauty.

The rolling hills of endless vineyards are dotted with rustic villas, pencil pine-lined driveways and medieval hilltop towns.

It was one of these rustic villas, set in a family vineyard on the outskirts of Lucca that we used as a base to explore the Tuscan countryside.

It was everything we expected an Italian villa to be. The huge country kitchen was straight out of the many Italy coffee table books we pored over before we left Australia.

Our cosy Kia took us safely up hill and down dale through Chianti country to Siena, Pisa, medieval San Gimignano and Castellina, the small fortified village of Castello di Volpaia and the spectacular hilltop town of Monteriggioni.

We tasted and bought local wines and enjoyed memorable exotic dishes, including wild boar stew, black ink linguine, roast goose breast and myriad varieties of beautiful pasta, pizza and seafood.


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