Disclaimer: Welcome to the modern day version of inviting you over to watch my slides of ‘how I spent my summer vacation’! The images are clickable so you can see them as a larger slideshow. Sorry this is a long one and I’m especially sorry I can’t provide wine and snacks, but I hope you enjoy!
I can’t believe Italy has already come and gone! What an amazing trip we had.
The kids were troopers on the flights, which was my biggest concern, and all we did was go to the beach every day and hang out. It was exactly what we needed. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I posted stories on overload but I couldn’t resist. There were too many fun (and funny) moments to capture.
For those whose Instagram account I did not already blow up with photos, we traveled to Cavo on the Island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany. Cavo is the closest point to the mainland and also the village where Dave’s dad was born. I had been a few times, most recently in 2014, so Dave and I were definitely itching to go back and share the place with the kids. Planning began around Christmas, but we really got serious in April when we actually pulled the trigger on a two-week adventure that would begin in mid-June.
Every Vacation Begins with Travel
The idea of long plane rides with the kids was a source of anxiety for me. The longest flight Luca had been on was across the country, not across an ocean! Meanwhile, Alessia had never even been on a plane (thanks a lot, global pandemic).The amount of snacks, treats, games, coloring books and crayons was a bit obscene but I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Spoiler alert: the kids were pretty good travelers!
In an effort to maximize the amount of time we were able to spend over there before we had to get back to work, we took a red eye flight the day that school got out (a Wednesday), so it was a busy day. I was absolutely ready to sleep on the 11-hour voyage to Switzerland for our layover. Luckily, the kids were amazing; Swiss Air provided little packets of gummy bears and little lovies of their mascot (so I guess we won’t be able to fly any other airline ever again) and having the whole four-seat middle row to ourselves definitely helped everybody get (somewhat) comfortable. Personal, in-seat televisions, that included not only movie and shows, but also music and interactive games, were also a big hit.
We had a brief layover in Zürich before we flew to Milan to begin our Italian adventure. Milan is actually a 5-hour drive from the town of Piombino where we would catch the ferry to go to the Elba. Ideally (and going forward) we will look to fly into Pisa or Florence, both of which are only a little over an hour to Piombino. For this voyage though, we knew we needed a Covid test to return home and the Milan airport had a testing station right there, so as a matter of convenience we thought that would be worth the drive time. A few days before we left for vacation, the testing requirement was lifted so all that planning didn’t matter. Of course.
By the time we landed in Milan, it was already Thursday evening and we were grateful to have a hotel room at the airport waiting for us for the night. It was a huge help to be able to unwind in a big room and get a good night’s sleep before we picked up our rental car and hit the road the next morning. Friday morning we got in the car, and after wrestling with the carseats and playing luggage jenga, we started the journey down to Piombino. Even in our tiny Fiat 500, the kids were great, despite being wedged in between suitcases.
The travel wasn’t stress-free, however. On the road to Piombino we realized that, because we were taking a car on the ferry, we needed to be there 90 minutes ahead of time. We didn’t realize that and we had only left ourselves about 20 minutes to spare (which dwindled even more when I directed us to an Autogrille on the wrong side of the highway for lunch… facepalm). Luckily, we got there with a few minutes to spare before the scheduled departure and, in the Italian way, it was not a big deal. We were able to get right on the ferry so we stressed out on the last part of the drive for nothing.
Once we were on the ferry it felt like the vacation was actually beginning. With all of our luggage safely tucked away in the car in the underbelly of the ferry, we went above deck and sat and watched the seagulls as we approached Elba, with the kids asking about every tiny rock formation along the way. The ferry was taking us to the town of Rio Marina, which was a 10-minute drive from Cavo and by the time the ferry pulled into port, it was early evening. We drove to Cavo and went straight away to get pizza at one of the local restaurants, followed by the best gelato, and just like that: we were in vacation mode.
Living the Italian Life
“Italy House” as Alessia called it, is a small home that has been in Dave’s family since the 19th century. Dave’s paternal great-grandmother was even born there! (Special thanks to my mother-in-law for that nugget that I didn’t even know all this time!) At some point in the 60s-70s, it was renovated (let’s hear it for indoor plumbing!) and the house continued to be used by Dave’s grandmother who would vacation there from her home in Genoa before she passed away. It is still fully-decorated as she had it, complete with a 70s style, tomato-red kitchen and a classic, Brady Brunch-esque color scheme in the bathroom of olive green and goldenrod. It also has a very large stone courtyard which we discovered needed some extra love due to the cinghiale (wild boar) who had been coming down from the hills at night and digging up the stones looking for food. The courtyard also served as an incredible “playground” for the kids.
Since no one has been to the house in about three years, we knew we’d have some cleaning to do when we arrived. What we didn’t count on was the bed we had in mind for the kids not working out, so all four of us crammed into the master bed. It was already late in the evening when we arrived so we figured it would have to do. That was really the only ‘bad’ thing about our trip– having to share a bed with the kids the whole time didn’t make for comfortable sleeping.
The house itself isn’t large and has an interesting layout, with the largest “master” bedroom just off the kitchen. To get to another smaller room, you have to walk through the master. It’s almost like having a nursery room right off the master, but instead of a crib, it has a bed where we thought the kids could be.
Also in that smaller room is a tight, spiral staircase, leading to a small basement-like area with bunk beds. When the kids get a little older, this would be a perfect setup, but they aren’t quite there yet so we just blocked it off from the curious eyes.
We ate lunch and dinner outside on the terrace, which is another relaxing element of ‘Italy House’ because lazy al fresco dining just really hammered home that we were on vacation. The table on the terrace was sort of our hub, where we would eat, relax, read and otherwise enjoy the fine art of doing nothing.
Beaches of Cavo
Our first morning was spent cleaning up, mopping, dusting, laundry, etc., and trying to figure out what we needed during our time there. After finishing that and having a quick lunch and nap, we got ready to go to the beach. The timing of this schedule was fortuitous, because my favorite beach, Cala delle Alghe, is small and tucked into a cove, so if you don’t time it right, you won’t get a spot.
We headed down during the Italian post-lunch break time, so we were able to enjoy our first dip in the Mediterranean in near privacy. The kids had an absolute blast (save the annoying paper-like dried seaweed that sticks to your wet feet).
All of the beaches in Cavo are fairly rocky, but this is the least so. It has the smallest rocks, more pebble-like, and once you walk out a bit in the water, it becomes soft sand. The waters are calm and it’s such a relaxing spot with a gorgeous view of the sea and the tiny islands of Cerboli and Palmaiola. While technically islands, just envision rock formations sticking out of the water, with a lighthouse on the top of Palmaiola.
Our body clocks were still adjusting, which actually helped us make the transition to the Italian schedule (i.e., later dinners). Similarly to our first day, we would often head to the beach after a quick lunchtime nap for everyone, while still getting there before the Italians had returned. We’d then head home and get cleaned up, before enjoying dinner either on the terrace overlooking the courtyard, or in town (a 15-minute walk from our house).
The first few days there, we explored our different beach options each day, taking the kids to Frugoso, which is mainly rocks, but great for swimming and snorkeling. The big creek-like rocks were too much for us, though, so we used this beach for our sand castle building and sunbathing. We also spent one afternoon at what I call “Be Seen Beach” which is actually just the main beach that runs parallel to the main drag. It’s where everyone goes– old, young, families, teens. Everyone. It’s closest to all the restaurants and amenities and bustles with activity. It was great for swimming, even if we did have to coax Luca into the water. It’s hard to concentrate on your own swimming with so much activity! Frugoso was a popular beach too, but not as crowded as Cavo Beach. In the heat of the afternoon, Cavo Beach looked like B-roll footage you’d see when watching a movie that takes place in a vibrant beach town: kids playing volleyball in the water, parents sitting by the water’s edge with little kids, gray-haired, leathery-skinned grandmas sitting on a mat in their bikinis smoking cigarettes, and teens crowded around a radio blasting Italian pop hits. It was quite the scene. We only went to that beach once, preferring the slower pace of the others.
Vacation Mode: Activated
When not at the beach, we were around the house, lounging. There was a lot of time spent playing our magnetic travel games of checkers, chutes & ladders, and tic-tac-toe on the terrace. I got a chance to read a lot of books (I can’t tell you the last time that happened). We took walks to town and in the evenings, Dave and I would just sit in the kitchen and chat over a glass of limoncino after the kids went to sleep (whenever that finally happened). It felt so nice not to have to think of anything to do, other than what time we wanted to go to the beach and whether or not we had fully applied sunblock to the kids.
One Monday, we chose to go to one of the outdoor markets in Rio Marina. We walked around and let the kids look at various market stalls. These markets are not only for produce; vendors sold anything from kitchenware and linens to clothes and little toys. The kids came away with little leather coin purses, as well as a hat for each of them. Dave and I looked through the fresh produce and bought a bunch of the fruits and veggies they had available. All of the food we bought at the market (and even the grocery store) seemed more vibrant and lush. It was probably the vacation filter I had on, but there really isn’t anything like it.
One of my favorite things, besides the lazy mornings, was what we called charcuterie lunch. As a bit of background, I had lugged a jar of peanut butter all the way from America just in case the kids needed a fix while they were in Italy. I am pleased to say we only really needed it on the last day in Cavo, when I packed travel sandwiches before we left the house on our way back to the mainland. The kids were willing to buy into our charcuterie lunches, which consisted of various fruit and cheeses, as well as some type of salami or prosciutto or some other cured meat. Every once in a while, we took advantage of the panificio in town and one of us would take a walk to grab a fresh loaf of the focaccia to have with lunch, but it wasn’t an every day thing. The kids were awesome with all of that and even Luca, who only likes fresh fruit in the form of raspberries, was willing to try some of the Tuscan melons, nectarines and apricots.
I wish I could tell you that they were as “adventurous” at the restaurants, but they always ordered pizzas, so they never went wrong. They did try some of our dishes, with the most exotic being insalata di polpo, or octopus salad (a favorite of Dave’s).
My favorite was gelato at Il Chiosco Del Gelato. That Fabrizio knows a thing or two and the fact that the kiosk is situated between two playgrounds makes him all the wiser. The evening routine consisted of dinner then we would make our way down to Fabrizio’s for our evening treat. The bad news was that because it was so early in the season, it wasn’t open every day so I didn’t get my full fix of his gelato. But if you ask Luca what his favorite part of the trip was, he will tell you it was the gelato.
After we would finish our ice cream, the kids would run off and play at the playground, carefully watching some of the other kids, and trying to figure out what was going on, what they were doing or what they were saying. To watch them watch the other kids was really fun.
One particular evening, a storm was blowing in and the wind was so fierce that the ice cream was actually blowing out of our cups. I had brought baby wipes from previous nights’ experience, but this particular night, I had left them in the car a ways away. As I tried to desperately to wipe the kids off with tiny, waxy napkins that didn’t absorb anything, another mom at the playground must’ve sympathized, because she came over and handed me her wipes. I was incredibly grateful and later went up to thank her again and found out that she was from the Czech Republic and spoke about as much Italian as I did. As we fumbled our way through, I learned she had two kids at the playground that night and her younger son was right in between the age of Luca and Alessia. As we watched the three of them sit in a playhouse and figure out how to interact, she and I tried to prompt them to introduce themselves. Finally, in an obvious attempt to appease her, the boy finally gave in and introduced himself in Italian to Luca and Alessia. Alessia, who was too bashful to speak, just extended her hand, they shook, then went about their playing.
We had some other fun ice cream memories when Fabrizio asked Alessia her name in Italian. Immediately, she got quiet and would only answer with ‘vanilla’. It’s hard to say whether she was shy or just hyper-focused on her flavor choice. On the other hand when Fabrizio asked Luca his name, Luca pointed to himself and very confidently said ‘mi chiamo Luca‘ in reply.
Watching the kids listen and get excited when they heard words they recognized or asking us what something meant, were some of the best parts of the trip and exactly what we had hoped for when we went over there.
Kid-friendly fun, Italian-style
Shortly after we arrived, we began seeing posters around town for a ‘Spettacolo’ featuring Clown Fragalone (Clown Big Strawberry, ha!) one evening downtown. It was a great chance for the kids to experience some “authentic Italian kid stuff” so we made plans to attend on the promise of a clown, a fire-breathing woman and acrobatic feats. We couldn’t wait!
We decided to grab a pizza in town that night before the show started at 9:00pm (good thing we sort of did away with bedtimes in Italy!) A little plaza at the end of a row of restaurants was set up with a semi-circle of chairs for kids and adults. Popcorn and cotton candy machines were whirling away as the chairs started to fill up. The kids were taking it all in, listening to their fellow audience members ask their parents for money for the vendors (that’s a universal language).
The show got started and really was spectacular, albeit long! After some clowning around and some impressive acrobatic stunts, the breeze was picking up and the kids were getting chilly. We tried to hold out for the fire-breathing woman but ultimately decided a visit to Fabrizio was more important. Unfortunately, it was so late (and everyone was likely at the show) that he had closed!
We returned to the show in time to see the fire-breathing woman (who was also the acrobat and really deserved top-billing on the posts, in my opinion) and the kids were very impressed. Luca even got to pet a snake they held around. He will now tell you that African pythons are pretty docile in cool weather because they are used to heat in Africa. Glad he was listening to the show, ha!
Practicing My Italian
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about getting to practice my Italian. I know enough to get by in most situations but not having an opportunity to use it with any frequency for eight years meant that I was a bit rusty. My only consistent practice was with Duolingo, which while helpful, doesn’t make me fluent! Still, I was able to feel comfortable going places, ordering or just generally chatting. What was most evident was my growth in comprehension, but I have a long way to go in speaking. It still takes me forever to form my thoughts into the right words.
One of our favorite places in Cavo is a corner bar in a the heart of town owned by Massimo and Elena. When Dave and I had previously been to Cavo with his parents, we would go there every night for an after dinner drink to visit and chat. I was so happy to be able to bring the kids to meet them and enjoy some of their pastries! I was also grateful that they make wonderful cappuccino and I would frequently take a walk down by myself in the morning and go see Elena for a quick chat while I enjoyed my coffee. Little moments like these and the ones shared with the kids are what made the trip, honestly.
Ready to Go Again
The whole vacation was just really, really wonderful (I’m leaving out the part about the significant flight delays on the way home that found us rolling into our driveway at 5:30am, six hours late).
The time gave us such a chance to relax and unwind. When you’re staying at a very old house, with no Internet, and no TV, you have no choice but to unwind and two weeks was a great amount of time to do that. Originally I thought I had hoped we would stay longer, but I actually think that that was a perfect amount of time for this first go so we could see how the kids would travel and how they would would react to being in a foreign country. Turns out, the slow pace of life agreed with all of us and we came back much more refreshed and looking forward to our next visit!