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My trip to Italy with Nico had been intended to welcome my son into my alternate world, my adopted country. I wasn’t sure what he would find interesting in terms of historical or cultural sits, but I knew he had one item at the top of his to-do list, visiting with his friend Emmanuele. Emi is the son of Lisa, one of my colleagues, and their family is rather like an extension of our family. They live in rural Piedmont, northwestern Italy, a part of Italy that is unknown to foreigners.

Getting to Piedmont without a car is possible, but not optimal. As we enjoyed our stay in the Cinque Terre, the relaxation was mingled with concern about receiving my driver’s license. I had called AutoEurope and was able to push back my pick up date as the wait dragged on. The folks at AutoEurope were stars, so helpful and reassuring over the phone, adjusting my reservations three times and deducting the days I couldn’t use from the cost of the rental. I was scheduled to receive my license by 8pm on the day we were leaving Levanto, with car pick up in the nearest big city of La Spezia. Unfortunately, the tiny office in La Spezia closed at 6pm, so I hoped and hoped I’d get the FedEx package earlier. I had a back up plan to change the reservation on the fly to Genova airport which is open late, but the agents suggest ed I try and make La Spezia work because the Genova airport rental car tax would make the rental much more expensive. Good tip to remember.

Nico and I went to the beach and played in the water. Daniela at the Primavera Hotel was on lookout for our package. No sign at noon, but she thought that the FedEx people usually come about 1pm. Sure enough, the license arrived at 1, and I quickly plucked Nico out of the water and hopped the first train to La Spezia.

The rental office looked like a bit of a walk from the train station, so we took a taxi and I was glad I did. It was REALLY far, in the industrial area. The office was just a tiny storefront with two women inside and no parking lot. Our car was parked in front waiting for us, and after a really quick check of paperwork, we were on our way. Nico was so excited about our car. It was a SmartForFour, and I don’t think he’d ever seen a car so small. He gleefully played with every knob and button, settling in as my copilot. I take my time before departing from a car rental place, checking to make sure that everything works and that I actually know how to drive it. Some cars in Italy have bizarre ignitions or hidden buttons for the gas cap. I didn’t do the walk around to check for scratches, but it didn’t matter since I’d bought the super insurance that covered everything.

Away we went in our little go-cart, off on the twisting highway through Genova to Cuneo. It’s a beautiful drive along the coast, but I would say that it was the least enjoyable road I’ve driven on in Italy. It was narrow, curvy and extremely fast paced. I’m not a timid driver and usually love Italian roads, but this scared the bejeezus out of me. I had Google Maps giving me directions, but even so, the turn offs were hidden behind curves and had short exit ramps. I’m pretty sure my finger prints are permanently imprinted into the steering wheel of that car from my steel grip.

I had kind of thought that we would take the day to do a little sightseeing on the way north, maybe staying the night somewhere in between Levanto and Cuneo. That was obviously not going to happen. Nico was anxious to see his friend and Emi was equally excited, so we went directly to their house, arriving just in time for dinner. I hadn’t even turned off the engine before Nico leapt out of the car and ran off to go play, and as I rounded up our luggage I enjoyed listening to the kids chatting and already engaged in playtime.

I’ve known Lisa since I started working for Rick Steves in 2000. She is from Seattle, but lives in Piedmont with her husband whom she met during a stint teaching English in Italy. I know a number of women in Italy that are Americans with Italian husbands, but of all of them I’d say that Lisa is the most well-adjusted. I have deep admiration for her, the way she’s integrated herself into the culture and made a wonderful home for her family, not an easy task. Her husband, Mauro, is a kind and gentle man, with reserved manners typical of Piedmont. They have two sons, Filippo who is 14 and Emmanuele who is 9. They are really such a lovely family, and my visits to their house are always a highlight of my year.

While the boys ran off into their imaginary world, I settled in and pulled up a chair in Lisa’s kitchen to catch up while she cooked. Her kitchen is set up to be the inviting place for hanging out in the house, warm and friendly. She’s an excellent cook, always putting together fantastic dinners and making it look effortless. They have a big garden and she makes just about everything including her own vinegar. I’m a pretty good cook, having learned my skills in Italy, but I feel like I work too hard at it and end up with a giant kitchen that’s a total disaster in the end. I’d love to learn her secret!

I’ve been nagging Lisa for ages to write a book about her life and the food she cooks. She worked in restaurants in Seattle and has become good with Piedmontese cooking, something that many Americans have never tried. As we sat in the kitchen, we decided that there is no time like the present and I set up a blog for her. We called it Lisa’s Dolce Italia, Lisa’s Sweet Italy. I’m really excited for her new project, she’s doing great so far.

Our time with Lisa and her family was relaxing and not particularly busy. It was like going home for a few days. We did laundry, drank coffee and chatted in the kitchen. While I love having friends to visit when I have days off in Italy, I enjoy her company so much that I kind of wished she lived in Seattle.

One of the nights we were there, I woke up at 3:30am and could not get back to sleep. I wandered the house trying to figure out what was wrong. I eventually fell asleep but was then woken at 6 by my buzzing phone. It was my dad, which I ignored because he often forgets the time difference. It could probably wait. But he called again and again. Then the messages from everyone on earth. “Are you ok?” That’s never a good message to see multiple times on your phone, from random people. It was just after the earthquake in central Italy. I don’t know what everyone in the US saw on the news, but it seemed like everyone I know was sure I was dead, even if I was hundreds of miles away from danger.

The earthquake was scary news here in Italy, even if it was in a very isolated area. It completely destroyed the town of Amatrice, and Lisa’s neighbors happened to be from there. She fielded phone calls from them and I eventually took the boys while she went to comfort her friends who had several family members killed that day. We felt no earthquake up in Cuneo, but I was not the only person in the area that woke suddenly at 3:30 that morning.

It’s a strange thing when there is a disaster in Italy. The news makes it look like the whole country is destroyed. Italy is about the size of California, a big place. I even had tour members on my next tour who said that they tried to cancel the trip because of the fear from the earthquake. The only damage was in a remote area, but the psychological impact was huge. The death toll touched every Italian, even all the way up to Lisa’s little village, but the scarier piece is that Italy needs to modernize its ancient structures. There is a major earthquake here every 5 years. These towns with 1000 year-old buildings are in danger. But who will pay for that? Only one out of a million issues here.

While Lisa helped her neighbors, I took the three boys on an adventure to a shopping mall and we bought groceries. Not exciting, but I wanted Nico to have the experience of doing normal things in Italy. Supermarkets were not a thing when I lived in Italy as a student, but they are everywhere now and they are huge. I’m sort of the indulgent auntie to Lisa’s kids so I let them buy whatever they wanted. Coke, chips, cookies, sisisi! (Sorry Lisa!)

The next day we took a day to have an adventure. I’d asked Lisa to take us somewhere that I’d never been before. We decided to check out one of the palaces of the Savoia family, the former royal family of the Kingdom of Italy.

Did you know that Italy used to have a king? They did, but it was a short and tumultuous relationship and something that many Italians would like to forget. The Savoia family was a wealthy royal family from the northwest, with a kingdom stretching out into southern France. During the unification of Italy in the 1860’s, Victor Emmanuel II from the house of Savoia was named king of all Italy, adding exponentially to the small kingdom. The Savoia Kings lasted until the end of World War II, when they were deposed and the monarchy abolished. As you can imagine, it’s kind of a long story, I’ll tell you the whole thing  another time.

There are several palaces to choose from, we chose Racconigi Palace, to the north of Cuneo. I’d never even heard of it, but Piedmont is full of delights that are virtually unknown to seasoned travelers. I had pretty low expectations but I was impressed. The castle was full of beautifully decorated rooms, most with themes. The gardens were laid out by the same designer who did Versailles. The tour was in Italian and, to be honest, pretty boring for a non-Italian child, so I spiced up the translation as best as I could. I wanted him to see a castle on the trip and this was a good one. We especially liked the kitchens. More on that in a later post.

Our final day was supposed to be our outing day with the whole family. We were going to go to Nice or maybe hiking in the mountains. Unfortunately, Nico’s stomach had other ideas. My kids rarely barf, but the food Nico ate at the Italian-Chinese sushi place revolted against him. Now that I write the description it occurs to me that I should have seen the red flags on that one.

Poor kid. He barfed all day. We went nowhere. One thing about Nico is that he becomes so gentle and cuddly when he’s sick, I kind of don’t mind. Is that bad? He just turned 9 so I need to soak that stuff up while I can. It was probably a good thing that we took a day off and just rested. I think we’d both been going too fast and it reminds me to remind you- plan a day of nothing on your trip. It may be the only way to get through the whole thing without bursting into flames. And sometimes the greatest travel pleasure is sitting around a kitchen counter with a good friend.

Coming soon, the final installment, Episode Six: Venice, Baby

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.


  • Tom A. says:

    Sarah, you make an excellent point about having some down time during a vacation. I think that some people try to pack so much in during a trip that they end up needing a vacation from their vacation. I really like that my first Rick Steves tour (Ireland in 2011) had a free day in the middle of the tour, and my Rick Steves Heart of Italy tour next April will also have a free day. It is always so nice to be able to just relax and chill out for a while instead of always “doing” something.

    • says:

      Yep, even for us tour guides! I’m in Florence tonight but am just hanging out in my hotel room. We all need hibernation time, even while traveling.

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