Mount Spalavera, Lago Maggiore, Italy | A Mountain Hike through Snow with a Spectacular Panorama over Lago Maggiore

Walking along snow covered paths to the summit of Mount Spalavera.

We had enjoyed a fun filled morning on the zip line, flying across a 340m deep valley at super fast speeds. For the remainder of the day we had planned a hike to the summit of Mount Spalavera, and the start was a short drive away from the zip line station. Luckily the zipline office had hiking maps so we could easily plan the route. We parked our car at Colle, the starting point for many hikes in the area of Verbania. Mount Spalavera is one of the higher summits that can be reached in a day, with the top reaching a height of 1534m. There was an information map and plenty of signs to the different walks adjacent to a hut, which I imagine serves as an information point to hikers and cyclists during the warmer season.

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There were a few other cars parked besides ours and we had just seen a man leave on the route up to mountain Spalavera before us. We were glad to have brought our hiking boots as the track was still covered in ten centimetre deep snow. Jerome was thrilled to be going on a proper walk in the snow, he had never been on a proper hike up a mountain with snow before, nor had Chris and I in a very long time. The snow was crunchy underfoot, in parts already wet and slushy and we could see in a few spots where the sun had already melted the white cover away. The first part led us along the trail through a birch forest, the green leaves already out, they had been surprised by the snow as much as the rest of us. The bright green of the leaves looked stunning against the white of the snow though and it was a truly unusual sight.

Stomping through the snow was much harder than we had anticipated, especially when walking uphill as well. We found it easier to walk in the footsteps from earlier walkers and followed their lead. Jerome was busy rolling snowballs and then letting them run down the hill, until they hit one of the birch trees and exploded into a puff of snow. Despite the snow on the ground, with the sun beating down on us we got hot hiking up the mountain. We had to take our jackets off and were able to walk in just our tops without being too cold. Bringing our sunglasses along proved to be useful, without them we had to squint our eyes from the brightness of the sun and the snow reflection.

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The hiking trail was snaking itself up the side of the mountain and clearly visible, even from further down, we could see the other lone hiker further on above us. The track is part of military road, which was part of a strategic defensive system built during World War One to prevent the possible invasion from Austro-German troops. It is part of the Italian-Swiss border known as the Cadorna Line, a unique example of wartime architecture, which today is used for civilian purposes only, like hiking and cycling. We had soon left the forest of birch trees behind and were able to see the valley, which Jerome and I had crossed on the zip line that morning. The higher we got the better the views were. We even started to get a glimpse of Lago Maggiore, stretching its many arms between the hills below. Just before we reached the top we could see a path going off to the left, into a forest of beech trees and some footsteps of a human person with his dog. This route had not been marked on our map but we kept it in mind as an alternative route down.

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From there on the wide track stopped and a narrow path led us along the ridge towards the mountain top. We noticed remains of trenches from WW One. We had to be careful of our steps now as the snow had accumulated in some parts and it was difficult to work out how deep the snow might be. This slowed us down but also made the last stretch of the hike more interesting for Jerome. He enjoyed jumping across the trenches and did not really care if he got stuck knee deep in the soft snow. Ahead we could see the summit cross and we were definitely up for a break when we finally reached it. Someone had put colourful bunting onto the cross and it had a sign showing the height of mount Spalavera. The vistas from the summit were incredible. 360º, with snow covered mountains, green hills and the lake visible below. The sky was very clear and we could see for a long distance. There also was a plate displaying the surrounding mountains and villages. We then sat down at the bottom of the cross and had a simple lunch of bread, cheese and tomatoes.

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We had originally planned to hike a circular route from the summit point. However due to the large amounts of snow we could not see the path, despite the signs pointing into the directions of where it should have been. We then made the group decision to head back the way we came along the ridge and follow the path we had seen on our climb up the mountain where the man and dog tracks were and a sign pointed to the same col as the other path. From there we would make a circular route back to our car.

When we reached the point where the footsteps went into the forest we started to follow them. There were also red and white stripes on the trees, which made it easier to find our route along the track. The snow was still thick between the trees and covered in the beeches’ brown pollen. Walking downhill was much faster but we kept sliding down the slippery leaves underneath the snow, every now and then. The path was winding through the forest and we had no sense of directions anymore, but it was an amazing descent with the snow, green leaves and glimpses of the mountains through the trees.

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travel with kids children mount spalavera lago maggiore hiking sunshineAfter about half an hour we arrived at a fountain and a crossroad, and back on our original route. There were the red and white signposts again, telling us to turn left along a dirt track back to Colle. We passed some teenagers on their motocross bikes, they obviously had fun riding through the snow and the icy patches on the road. Once we had left them behind us we were one again alone, with just the snow and the peaceful forest surrounding us. Jerome noticed some long icicles that had formed along the wall next to the road, the dew water dripping off their pointy ends. Jerome broke one off and tested its tip for sharpness and then carried it along, melting in his warm hands until it was almost gone.

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The forest ended and we passed the starting point of the zip line, walking back the bit of road that we had driven along in the back of the van to our flying experience earlier in the day. We passed some lonely houses on the way, most of them looked shut up until the summer season. In a few places we saw melt water running down the side of the mountain, some almost turning into mini waterfalls. The road had turned into slushy mud and we made a game of trying to avoid the puddles. We finally reached the end of the dirt track and our car.

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The hike is probably not very strenuous under normal circumstances and can easily be walked with a child that enjoys a longer hike. It is estimated to take around 2.5 hours, I would add another hour if you are hiking with smaller children. There are no major obstacles and the walls and trenches from the World War I give the hike an unusual feature, which most likely will appeal to children of all ages. The route is very well signposted and the paths are clearly visible during snow free conditions, you might even encounter some cyclists on the way. I recommend to wear proper hiking footwear and to carry a map of the local hiking routes. Take plenty of water and food with you, there are no opportunities to buy anything to eat or drink on the way. It is also advisable to wear a hat and use sun protection cream as there is no shade once you have left the forest. The views from the top are spectacular and I would recommend walking the walk on a clear sunny day for full enjoyment of the vistas. Do not set out on this walk if there is the chance of bad weather especially thunderstorms, this can be a threat to your life, there are no shelters or huts on the mountain.

Our dinner that evening was in the main square in Intra, at a wonderful little delicatessen, La Casera, that has a restaurant on the side. It has the most wonderful selection of wine, cheese and local anti-pasti, with great service and a friendly atmosphere. It gets busy so booking would be a god idea. To settle our dinner we took a stroll along the lakeside and watched the car ferries coming in and out with a Gelato for dessert which Jerome said was just reward for climbing a big mountain.

Premeno, Lago Maggiore, Italy | Our First Exhilarating Zip Line Experience

Our account of flying falcon style across a 340m deep valley.

Zip-lining had never really crossed our mind as an activity for holidays, however, when our Airbnb host Marina mentioned the idea we felt we had to find out more. She told us that some guests come specifically for the local zip-line and it is a great adventure. We were in two minds about it whether to try it, but in the end we asked her to call them up and see if they had a slot available for Jerome and I.

We were lucky and got on the first session the following day, meaning we had to get an early breakfast in order to be there on time.  We enjoyed our tea and coffee with croissants overlooking the the lawns of the garden at beautifully renovated Villa Guila where we were staying.  Thankfully there had not been any more snow overnight, which might have made our drive into the mountains more difficult and slower. Jerome was already over excited at the idea of reaching 100kmh on the line, I guess the anticipation of not knowing quite what to expect made it even worse.

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The drive to the zip line provided us with beautiful views of the mountains and valleys much of it still covered in snow. The higher we got towards the start of the zip-line, the more snow was still lying on the ground. At first the snow was only in places where the sun had not yet reached and later on even in the open fields and on side roads. We parked our car in the car park and walked down the steps to the hut where we completed the registration form, perhaps signing our lives away! We were the first ones to arrive in our group and the formalities were done with fairly quickly. Jerome and I curiously looked at the equipment. We could see the end of the line, just above the hut and the cable running across the valley was mostly invisible, only the red and white balls marking the steel cable made us realize where it went across between the two mountain sides. We could just about make out the hut at the other end. The idea that we would be descending that line hung high above the deep valley with just the cables for support was certainly creating some butterflies in our tummies. The view that morning was incredible, a clear blue sky with no clouds in sight. The snow covered mountains looked majestic and spectacular in the bright morning sun.

A ride on the zip line does not come cheap and we were about to find out if it is worth the money or not. Not surprisingly zip lining is a popular activity with stag and hen groups and so it came to no surprise when the others in our group turned out to be a group of men, one of them a groom to be. We still had some time before Jerome and I had to get into the van to drive to the starting point of the zip line. The café did some pretty decent coffee and hot chocolate which Jerome and I sipped nervously while waiting for the start.

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When it was time to go, we squeezed into the van and off we went along the narrow roads to the other side of the valley. The drive took us about 15 minutes and the last bit was on a dirt track that was still covered in snow. The excitement about our immediate adventure was all too visible, the guys seemed more anxious then Jerome and I. They spoke in Italian throughout the journey but I had a chat with my seat neighbor who told me they were from Milan and had come for the day to celebrate the upcoming wedding. Once we left the van, each of us carried some of the equipment that was needed for the flight on the zip line down to the hut. Our guide gave us some safety instructions and we were weighed in order to work out which fitting needed to go onto the zip line for our ride. We each got a helmet and some glasses to protect our eyes from the wind and any insects that might be flying our way. You may also wear sunglasses or reading glasses that you might require.

One of the group was kind enough to take a photo of us and email it to me, as I had decided against taking my mobile phone. When it was time to make the plunge the boys were all shy and asked us if we wanted to go first. We went to the open door, where we could see a net and the deep valley in front of us. I was worried we might get cold feet but we felt calm and were excited about our flight. We were strapped in, falcon style, meaning that we were lying down as if we were actually flying like a bird, rather then free style, which is like sitting on a swing seat. You also have the choice of going on your own, but of course that was out of question for Jerome and I. There is no minimum age restriction, however no person under the height of 120cm and 35kg is allowed on the flight. Children always have to go in pairs with an adult. It is also worth checking that there is no greater weight difference between the two people than 40kg and the maximum combine weight is 180kg.

We were strapped in and ready to go. The instructor asked us if we were ready….and then let us take off, onto our first flight. I cannot describe the feeling! All worries and fears were gone as we sped down the wire. It was incredible, probably the closest feeling to flying that we both ever experienced. At first we started to scream for joy and exhilaration and then when we looked down, we could see the snow between the trees, at some point I could make out a stream in the valley bed and the other end came approaching fast.

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At some point we flew 340m above ground and the speed can reach up to 120km/h, but I am sure we were too light to get even close to that maximum speed, as the heavier you are the faster you travel on the line. Once we had arrived and safe ground underneath our feet again, Jerome said he had had such an incredible time, that he wanted another go. Chris totally could not share our excitement, he had watched us fly over and said that just watching us made him feel sick – he has inherited a fear of heights sadly. However, he was happy for us to have another go and we checked and were able to get into the next available time slot.  There are runs about every hour. One after another we watched the guys fly over, one couple even had a go-pro and filmed the whole journey.

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On this flight we were joined again by another group of stags and to our surprise a mother with her daughter, who probably was around 9/10 years old.  We already felt like pros this time around and were the first to fly across, again.  The second flight was faster, I guess we knew that if we held our arms back and close to our body we would gain more speed, and it was still as exciting as the first.  I think I now understand why some people get addicted to these thrilling experiences…  We knew this was our last flight for that day, we could have gone back and forth all day long if Jerome would have had his way.

I borrowed Chris’ old phone for the second run to take some photos and I gave him mine to film our flight (my first video on the blog, please do not get scared while watching it, he took the film in time lapse mode by mistake!  It is probably about ten times faster than real!).  We threatened afterwards to go again a third time to make him get the video right, but we agreed to come back some time to try it again instead.

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Would we do it again? Yes, definitely! It was worth every penny, especially when you consider that there is no prior experience or training required. We felt safe and at no time worried that anything might go wrong. It was a fun filled morning that Jerome and I will remember for the rest of our lives. Maybe one day we can even get Chris to join us!

He got to have some fun later on Monte Spalavera that day which you will be able to read about in my next post.

 

Isola Madre, Lago Maggiore, Italy | Exploring the Charming Botanical Gardens of Isola Madre

Our visit to the exotic gardens of Isola Madre.

Isola Madre was a contrasting visit after we had explored the sumptuous palace and gardens of Isola Bella earlier that day. The short boat ride from one island to the next was over in less than 20 minutes, with a short stop at Stresa. On our approach to the Isola Madre we could see that it was somewhat larger, less built on and covered in lush vegetation, with only one stately palazzo on the Southern side and a small café on the end of the island. Isola Madre is not only the largest of the Borromean islands it was also the first to be inhabited by the aristocratic family. The palazzo Borromeo was built at the beginning of the 16th century and later extended in the Renaissance style, however it is renowned for its botanical gardens more than the house, with a variety of exotic plants from all over the world.

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Jerome was looking forward to the gardens of Isola Madre and we had to promise him to leave the house until last.  He loves to walk around and explore in gardens and unusually for a child loves not only all forms of wildlife but is interested by plants too. Walking up the ancient stone steps from the jetty, through an iron gate, we could see the palazzo above us and the entrance to the garden was straight ahead. We immediately realized that the style of the garden was very different to the Italian garden on Isola Bella. It was much wilder, with larger flowerbeds and big trees and bushes. The garden was constructed over seven terraces, in the English style, for count Vitaliano Borromeo and covers the entire island. They remain largely unchanged since the 18th century and have seen famous visitors like Napoeon and writer Gustave Flaubert, who named the Isola Madre “Earthly Paradise”.

We strolled along the southern side of the gardens, called the African Avenue, which on average is about four degrees warmer than the rest of the island. We could see the gardeners taking out the wilted tulips from among the flowerbeds of colourful poppies. We also noticed a beautiful staircase covered in sweet smelling wisteria as we strolled along. Further on were a lot of ferns and moss-covered stones, this part of the island was noticeably cooler due to the towering trees and the constant shade.

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We looked into the old boathouse, where we could see an old, wooden gondolier, very much like the ones we had seen last year in Venice. Around the corner we stumbled upon a field of camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, an overwhelming wall of flower power in shades of pink, red, white and yellow. Jerome discovered a narrow path going off into the depth of the colourful bushes that few others seemed to follow. It was a pleasure to stroll along the path, especially as we did not meet anyone else along the way. The rhododendron blossoms had formed a flower carpet underneath the bushes, which glowed in the setting spring sun.

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The narrow path ended by a large lawn, where we could see colourful birds grazing between the bushes and flowers. Jerome with his love and admiration for birds stopped in wonder to gaze at them. There also was a white peacock, like we had seen at Isola Bella earlier but also several colourful hens and some exotic pheasant like birds wandering around. At the end of the lawn we also saw an aviary with smaller, exotic birds.

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Our stroll took us on past some conifers and Japanese pine trees. Life on the island must have been very isolated and shut off from the rest of the world, wandering and playing in this amazing garden, full of rare and exotic flowers and plants must have nurtured the love and curiosity for nature from a very early age. I felt that children growing up on Isola Madre must have had a very happy and hopefully free childhood compared to the children on the more formal Isola Bella.

On our round through the garden we eventually found ourselves at the back of the Borromeo Palazzo. Right in front stands the Tibetean cypress, the largest of its kind in Europe. It was severly damaged in a tornado that hit the island in 2006 and on its path through damaged the garden substantially, including this precious tree. A lot of effort and care went into keeping the tree from dying. It was not hard to notice the steel cables attached to the tree to keep it from falling over and it appeared to have recovered from most of the storm damage, it still looks a bit delicately balanced though and I do hope it recovers fully.

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We entered the palace from this side of the garden and immediately made our way up the wide stairs, past paintings of the Borromeo family and ancestors to the first floor. This palazzo was much more down to earth in comparison to the splendor we had seen at the baroque palace on Isola Bella. It felt much more like a family home, although I felt it was much darker inside, despite the bright sunshine outside. The décor was more basic and rustic but Iam sure for the 16th century it was rich. There was plenty of plush furniture on display, a heavenly canopy bed with curtains. Jerome was curious about the curtains around the bed and we explained to him that they served as a form of privacy from the servants and to keep the cold and light out.

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One room had a massive theatre with marionettes and scene set up. In the room adjacent we found display cases full of the most incredible marionettes, including a devil that breathed smoke and other scary and beautiful puppets. It must have been an absolute childhood dream to live and watch these shows. A lot of money and time must have gone into preparing these spectacular theatres and surely adults must have had fun watching them too. Downstairs on the ground floor were more rooms filled with antique furniture from the Borromeo’s estates. We knew time was getting tight before the house and garden would close and did a quick walk through the remaining salons and out into the last of the sun.

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Back outside we walked down the stairs to the little chapel that has been turned into a shop and café. This was a lovely spot to sit and enjoy the view of the pretty pond whilst sipping a cup of coffee. We walked along the front of the house and exited to the back of the park. To our surprise we saw there was a restaurant, hidden away in the perfect location, catching the early evening sun. Sitting on the terrace must be one of the most beautiful places to have dinner in the area. I am not sure about the food though, on our visit it was still closed for the season.

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We walked back towards the gate and down the steps to the jetty. The sun had turned the lake into a silver carpet, a magical end to our trip to Isola Madre.

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Our only wish, would have been to have had more time to explore both islands, I would recommend considering up to a full day for Isola Bella and a good half day for Isola Madre. Children will love the boat trips, the animals on both islands and the little paths through the gardens. The houses can be a bit overwhelming but I think the marionettes and grotto can catch any child’s imagination.

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Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore, Italy | Visiting the Sumptuous Palazzo and Garden of Isola Bella

Exploring one of the three islands of the Borromeo family.

The Italian Lakes used to be an easily accessible weekend break for us when we still lived in Germany. The drive down to Lago di Lugano took just over 6 hours so it was a visit we often made in late spring or early summer. Unfortunately living in London for the last 7 years has made it almost impossible for us to make the journey there, as whilst flights to Milan are easy the timing and need for a car made it more difficult. This spring however so we had the perfect chance as for various reasons we were all in Germany giving us the chance to drive to Lago Maggiore for the May bank holiday weekend. We set out on Thursday, late afternoon and arrived in the evening, just in time for dinner in the little hillside village of Premeno nestling in the corner of the lake. This year the drive took much longer than expected, it started to snow just before we reached St Gotthard tunnel and the long winding road along the lake to reach Premeno seemed to take forever in the driving rain coming in from the lake. I had booked a room in an Airbnb, which turned out to be a true Italian Palazzo with a park like garden. The rooms were absolutely beautiful, Jerome had his own, and they were very spacious. Marina our host was a very friendly and helpful, and it was apparent that she had put a lot of time and effort into renovation the large house. The welcome made up for the drive and we enjoyed a quick dinner nearby before retiring.

After a good nights sleep we woke up to a snow covered garden. Jerome was overjoyed to see that it had snowed, as we obviously had not expected this to happen at all at this time of the year, it was nearly May after all! Breakfast was served for us in the salon, with the large double doors leading out onto the terrace that overlooked the garden. I had hoped that we would be able to sit and enjoy the early spring sun while having breakfast outside but that was not going to happen and we had to content ourselves with snow covered trees.

We had discussed our plans for the day over breakfast and decided to visit the Borromean Islands, Isola Bella and Isola Madre. These three islands still belong to the aristocratic family, the Borromeans, who acquired a string of islands, (five in total) in the 16th century. Isola Bella, Madre and San Giovanni are still owned by the family today. The islands are only accessible by boat but can be reached from a few spots on the lake by the regular ferry service. We drove into Pallanza, where we bought tickets for the next boat to Isola Bella and a return journey via Isola Madre.

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We waited by the jetty for the boat, the departure times were still displayed on a clock where the time had to be changed manually and the destinations were printed on boards, no digital displays in sight yet. Jerome was excited when the boat arrived and we got seats outside to the front behind the prow. We first glided across the calm lake towards Isola Madre, glad that the previous days rain had cleared. We soon left the pretty town of Pallanza behind with the snow covered mountains visible behind and to all sides of the Lago Maggiore. Some people got off and on at Isola Madre and we stopped at Baveno and Isola Supperiore (another of the Borromean Islands) before finally reaching Isola Bella.

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On our approach we could see the Palazzo Borromeo taking up the entire end of the island. Along the harbour side we could see a church and other buildings, some restaurants and small hotels among them. Once we got off the boat we went straight to the Palazzo, passing some tacky souvenir huts, which in my opinion spoiled the old traditional charm of the island a bit. The entry to the baroque palace is not cheap, but can be combined with tickets at a reduced fee for the other islands if visited on the same day.

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The grand stairs led us up to the first floor of the palazzo already gave us an idea of what to expect. Carlo III of the Borromeo family had started to build this palace for his wife in 1632, when the island was no more than a few rocks and the odd fishing hut. Even today parts of the palace and gardens are only accessible to family members of the Borromeos. The rooms we entered, one after another in this sumptuous palace, were filled with paintings of famous artists, intricate mosaic tiled floors and opulent furniture. The ceilings in each room were lavishly decorated and the walls covered in stucco and large golden mirrors.

We could only gaze in wonder at the opulence, such a palace surely should have been the home of a king and queen… One of the rooms was decorated to accommodate Napoleon and his wife for a while. My favourite room was the Northern Hall with its large windows looking out onto the lake and the high, domed ceiling, although this was only finished in 1948. After a few of these sumptuous rooms Jerome could not wait to get through the palace, and not surprisingly he did not seem very interested in the stuffy, old furniture or the views through the windows. He is a nature lover and was keen to get out into the garden and the sunshine.

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travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo ceiling

Even he seemed quite surprised when we had ended our tour of the first floor and walked the steps downstairs, and he considerably slowed his pace. First we stumbled upon a room full of marionettes, arranged in a variety of scenes. There were horse drawn carriages, armies of soldiers, giants and clowns, everything a child could want to watch in a puppet theatre. The children growing up in the Palazzo surely must have been well entertained. The next surprise awaited us in the rooms that followed, the absolute highlight of the Palazzo for us, the grotto.

The family retreated to these lower level rooms in the grotto during the hot summer months, which was designed as a cool retreat from the heat. The walls, ceilings, floors, and doorways were all covered with intricate, nautical inspired murals made from shells, and black and white pebbles.  It took workman and architects over a century to complete the grotto due to the ornate design. We were in total awe when walking through these rooms that anyone could have imagined such a living quarters. As well as the walls and ceiling the rooms were filled with rare artistic exhibits made of sea things from black Japanese coral to more local marine items. In the last room of the grotto we found the most peculiar display of horse saddles and bridles surrounding a model of the original castle of Angera.

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo grotto

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo grotto ceiling

travel with kids children isolated bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo grotto door

Back upstairs we left the building to visit the gardens, however, Instead of heading straight on we discovered some steps to the right, which led us up into the glasshouse of the Palazzo. Warm and humid inside, we walked among tropical plants and ferns until we exited and found ourselves close to the side stairs into the main gardens. This was built over ten terrace levels in the Italian style, a style that focuses on the symmetry and geometry of the garden as much as the plants. The garden did not stop to impress us as much as the house had. On the perfectly manicured, lush green, lawn we could see the famous white peacocks strutting about and lazing under the bushes. Every now and then we could hear their high-pitched screeches, which could be heard through out the gardens. The lawns were surrounded with flowering shrubs in bloom.

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travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo garden peacocks

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo garden white peacocks

We stood in front of the breath-taking amphitheatre, with its striking display of sculptures, fountains and giant shells and to top it off, Eros riding on a unicorn. We climbed the steps among the statues of the classical Gods to the top. From there we had an amazing view of the geometrical garden below and the villas and palazzos on the hillside of the lake.

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travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo garden amphitheatre

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On our stroll through the extensive garden we stumbled upon other fountains and ponds and a huge variety of plants that seem to thrive in the local climate. Jerome loved exploring all the paths and little hidden corners in the garden. I was most impressed by the bright pink azaleas, which were huge compared to the ones I had seen before.  The mild climate by the lake favours many Japanese and Asian plants that have combined well with more local specimens such as the towering cypresses and citruses.

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travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo garden azalea

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo garden

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo garden lemon trees

With time ticking towards our boat departure to ensure we still had time to visit Isola Madre, we reluctantly left this beautiful setting to head down the steps between the cafes for the jetty. We just had enough time for a quick snack waiting the last moments for the ferry back. Be careful to get the right jetty, as the return boats are further along from the drop off point.

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy restaurant

travel with kids children isola bella lago maggiore italy palazzo borromeo boat landing

You can read about the stunning gardens at Isola Madre in my next post.

Pisa, Italy | A Spring Forest Walk and the White Pebble Beach near Marina di Pisa

A day, off the beaten track near Pisa.

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We had spent the whole of Saturday exploring the streets of Pisa, with a visit to the botanical gardens, followed by a climb of the leaning tower and the other building of the Square of Miracles. The sun was shining and we felt like leaving the town behind, besides we had pretty much seen most of the sights in the centre anyway and so headed for the countryside. Pisa is located in Tuscany, one of Italy’s most beautiful regions. We had decided though, instead of driving into the hills to drive towards the coast, our first stop was at Parco Naturale Migliarino.

We had left Pisa behind us and were in the car for about 25 minutes. The park was part of a larger nature reserve that is located next to the Mediterranean Sea, between the town of Livorno and Viareggio. This large reserve used to be divided into large estates by wealthy families and is now a regional nature reserve. We reached the centre of the Migliarino Estate, where we could see some old stately houses, one of them had been turned into a restaurant and another into a visitor centre. There also was a place hiring out bikes but we decided to walk.

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park san rossore pine tree alley

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park san rossore pine cone

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park san rossore flowers

We could see other families and people already out, on their bikes or on foot. After parking our car we strolled down a beautiful alley of ancient looking pine trees. We could see the sea under at the end of the green tunnel of pines. Jerome found a huge pinecone and some dandelions already covered with white umbrellas, ready to for blowing. In fact it already felt like late spring in the UK, rather than the end of March. There were lots of colourful butterflies flying around and resting on the many blossoming flowers. To either side we were surrounded by a forest of deciduous trees, with the new light green leaves peeking trough the twigs, finally appearing after the winter.

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park san rossore butterfly

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino grass

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino cycling

After walking for a few hundred meters under the canopy of the pine trees we arrived at a barrier that told us we would not be allowed to walk further along this road which was a shame as we would not reach the sea. We had two options and decided to turn left, further into the woods. We were overtaken by cyclists and met a few other walkers along the soft forest path. The air was heavy with white seed pods, which looked like snow against the warm sunlight. I could imagine if you had a pollen allergy this could be a nightmare. Luckily we did not mind and especially Jerome seemed to like running through the drifting white tufts. Eventually we came to a cross road, with a narrower path leading to the left, which we took, as we thought it would be most logical if we wanted to end up back at the car park at some point.

The forest along this little walkway was turned into marshland, with the trees surrounded by water. The pollen had landed on the water’s surface and looked like floating snowflakes. It was an absolute dreamy sight and not something you could imagine seeing.

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino marshland

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino snow

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino pollen

We walked on through the marsh for another half an hour when we exited the forest and were out onto a field covered with tiny little white flowers. In the distance we could see families with their mobile homes or cars having barbeques in the shade of the pine trees. I could totally understand that this was a great spot for a family lunch on a sunny spring day like this. We were quite sad to be back at our car after this enjoyable walk through the woods.

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino barbeque

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino flower field

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino hiking path

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park Migliarino food stall

Luckily, we still had a few hours left before we needed to make our way back to the airport. We were so close to the sea and fancied a walk along the beach with a coffee and ice cream along the way. The closest port was the Marina di Pisa, which was also not too much out of the way for our return journey. We drove up along side the river Arno, before it ends into the Mediterranean Sea at La Bocca D’Arno. There we found a parking space on the side of the road, where there were lots of other cars parked already.

We walked the last stretch before reaching the Port of Pisa and noticed the old fishermen’s huts in the sea. They are called “retoni” and were built between 1946 and 1948 by sailors and local fishermen. Whole families used to live in them, the huts contain a table and pantry, plus basic camp beds and an outside toilet…After World War II fishing was an important livelihood for many in the area. Nowadays there are only four of the fishing huts that have survived the storms and times, but some of them have been restored and I found out that one of them is even available for rent. How about spending a night out at sea in one of these rustic huts? I think I would not be brave enough but it must be an interesting experience and if you are lucky enough with fishing you could even catch your own dinner. I was content to admire these rare old buildings from afar.

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park boccadarno retoni fishing hut

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park boccadarno retoni fishing hut

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park boccadarno retoni fishing huts

The port and marina of Pisa was more of a disappointment for us. It looked like what probably once had been a charming little fishing port had been changed into a new marina for all the posh yachts that would like to anchor along the coast. We walked along the marina wall, Jerome enjoyed a run along the wooden walkway and we finally ended up at the promenade leading along the back of a white, pebbled beach. It was heaving with people and there was a long row of white vans selling cheap, tatty clothing and other goods, the local idea of a Sunday market! We strolled past some of the stalls but soon enough realised that there was nothing of interest for us and the stalls were highly repetitive in what they offered. We sat down in one of the little café’s to have some paninis and a relaxing Italian coffee.

travel with kids children pisa italy nature park boccadarno new marina di pisa

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa sunday market balloons

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa market day

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa fisher

After lunch we went straight for the beach and sat down on the white stones. Before coming here I definitely had not expected a beach like this, how come that all the stones were snow white? Apparently the stones were imported from somewhere else. Jerome did not care at all, he collected some of the flat stones and tried skipping them into the calm turquoise sea. I just sat there, enjoying the warm afternoon sun and watching the other people on the beach. There was a local man peeling fresh oranges, while others tried their luck on fishing with a rod. Other people enjoyed to just sit on the beach, just like us. We built a stone tower out of the stones, sadly I did not take a photo of it as it turned out rather tall and it leaned a bit like the close by tower of Pisa.

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa beach pebbles

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa beach skipping stone

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa old man

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa beach

When it was time for us to leave we walked back to our car along the back streets of the village.

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa fun fair

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa architecture

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa church

travel with kids children pisa italy marina di pisa hut

Our weekend in Pisa had gone so fast and we really enjoyed our time in the area. We will definitely come back to explore Florence and the famous Tuscan countryside.

Pisa, Italy | The Famous Leaning Tower and the Square of Miracles

An afternoon of seeing all the sights at the Campo dei Miracoli with a climb up the Leaning Tower

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We finally reached the Leaning Tower after spending the morning wandering through the streets of Pisa. We were able to get a peek of its top from the botanical garden, which is a short walk away from the tower district. We could see many people standing in front of the leaning tower in awkward and weird positions, while friends or family members took funny photos of them. Close up, depending on the angle we looked at the tower, it did not appear to lean as much as we had imagined. Despite its original height of 60 meters on completion in 1399 it now has a height of 56.67m on the highest and 55.86m on the lowest side ue to subsidence in the base. Until 1990 the tower was leaning at an angle of 10% but has since been stabilised, otherwise it would have eventually toppled over and there is no further action required for the next 200 years – we hope anyway.

Nowadays the tower is open again to a limited number of people per visit. I highly recommend booking tickets in advance as the queues can be incredibly long during high season and while there are other buildings to see on the Campo dei Miracoli, the square of Miracles, it can be quite annoying to wait around a long time for a climb to the top. Bear in mind, that children under the age of eight years, are not permitted to climb the tower. I know this is a huge disappointment for many but I guess they must have their safety reasons for the age restriction.

travel with kids children pisa italy leaning tower architecture

travel with kids children pisa italy leaning tower portrait

Jerome was excited to finally be there and could not wait to climb the tower. We were lucky and got into the next slot and bridged our time with a close up look of the tower and taking some photos. We wandered over to the entrance of a few minutes before our time slot. There we waited for the last visitors to leave before we were allowed into the bottom of the tower. We found ourselves in a circular space with the stairs leading up one side of the wall to the top. Our guide explained a few historic facts to us in Italian and English and we noticed the light from the hole at the top of the tower. The stairs are enclosed and wind up on the outside walls of the tower all the way to the top, 294 steps in total. It did not seem that many steps, but they were definitely already well worn and slippery and somehow it felt weird walking up and later on back down again, maybe because of the angle of the tower.

Jerome almost raced up, we had to tell him to slow down and to not overtake the other guests. At the top of the tower, the eighth floor to be exact, we found the seven bells which each represent one note on the musical scale. In the centre of the floor we saw that the hole, which we had seen from the bottom of the tower was actually covered with a glass plate. We walked past the bells and enjoyed the view over the town of Pisa, the other majestic buildings of the complex and the Tuscan hills in the distance. We were glad to have made it to the top, despite the hefty entrance fee of 26.50€ per person. It was worth it, considering how much money it must take to keep the tower stabilised and the rest of the buildings in good condition.

travel with kids children pisa italy leaning tower inside

travel with kids children pisa italy leaning tower view cathedral

travel with kids children pisa italy leaning tower view streets

travel with kids children pisa italy leaning tower view

After the slanting decent we left the bell tower behind and strolled over to the other buildings of the Square of Miracles. There are three buildings beside the tower on the square, the imposing and majestic Cathedral, the round, dome shaped Baptistery and to one side, hidden behind a wall, the Composanto, the cemetery.

My odd obsession with visiting cemeteries might be known to all regular readers here by now, and we were not disappointed by our visit. The Composanto is not your average cemetery, with graves scattered around a field, this is what it used to look like before an archbishop decided to build on this secluded and enclosed place. Once we stepped inside we realised its grandness, designed to look like a cloister.

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery murals

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery sarcophagi

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery sarcophagi

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery skull tomb stone

The walls and gothic arches were of marble and at the centre of the cloister was a long, inner courtyard with well-tended grass. Walking along, inside the cloister we could see the extensive outlines of frescos covering the walls, unfortunately, many of them were destroyed by the Americans in World War II. The ones that survived are being restored or have been kept in a nearby museum. Besides the murals we notices the many tombstones denoting graves all over the floor. Sarcophagi monuments were placed throughout the cloister, some of them with beautiful Roman and Etruscan sculptures. We walked a full circle, Jerome mostly taking notice of some of the more morbid tomb stones and at the end walking out through the lush green courtyard.

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery tomb stones

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery cloister

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery garden

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery garden

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cemetery cloister

We then went straight to the Baptistery. It was in this building that from 1185 people wishing to take up Christian faith were baptised. At its centre once stood a large octagonal basin, where adults and children received the holy sacrament. We found the building to be quite imposing for just this purpose, but its circular shape was impressive and the striped walls and floors of contrasting marble and the columns, were very interesting to see.

travel with kids children pisa italy baptistry

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square baptistry

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square baptistry entrance door

Jerome’s favourite part, as he was not really that interested in the architecture or purpose of the building at all, was to climb the stairs to the women’s gallery.  The gallery not only gave us a great view of the inside of the building, we were also able to look out of one of the windows. From here we could see the cathedral with the leaning tower peeping out over the roof. Another distinguishing feature of the baptistery is the acoustic of the double dome. Jerome had heard that every thirty minutes an attendant would sing a few notes to give visitors a brief demonstration of the reverberation. This was definitely worth the short wait and quite interesting to hear.

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square baptistry dome

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square baptistry dome columns

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square baptistry dome view

Our last stop for that day was the Duomo II, the majestic cathedral, which is at the centre of the Square of Miracles. Even the outside of the cathedral with its many layered arches makes it one of Italy’s major architectural monuments. Looking closer at the columns we could see that they were all slightly different. Jerome by then did not really want to see another religious building. I could understand he felt it was more of the same, and he had already seen so many cathedrals before. We persuaded him to at least come in and have a look, even if it was for just a few minutes. Once inside both if us were in awe, I did not know where to look. The ceiling was stunning, the carved wooden angels and flowers were painted with gold with a black background for contrast. There also was an impressive mural in the dome, directly over the altar. The nave was edged by rows of columns and arches, underneath I could see more murals along the walls. Jerome and Chris had already left the cathedral, while I took some photos.

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cathedral duomo II

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cathedral

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cathedral ceiling

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square cathedral mural

Jerome was happy when we finally left the square behind and headed for an ice cream and a change of scenery. We walked along the medieval wall of Pisa and ended up at Via Guglielmo Oberdan. This street was lined with many shops and restaurants. We found some seats on the terrace in the early evening sun and enjoyed an Italian coffee while Jerome enjoyed a second gelato of the day. On our way back to our car, Jerome spotted a toyshop with a Lego tower in the window, and where we spent a long time looking at Lego and the like.

travel with kids children pisa italy medieval city wall

travel with kids children pisa italy miracle square view

travel with kids children pisa italy church sta maria della spina

travel with kids children pisa italy river arno bridge sunset

After all the walking around town, we were tired and went for dinner at a restaurant close to the hotel. Jerome was happy that he had finally seen and climbed the tower while Chris and I certainly enjoyed the walk around the town and the botanical gardens as well.

Pisa, Italy | Exploring the Streets and a Hidden Garden in Pisa

A stroll past the mural by Keith Haring and a visit to the botanical garden.

The leaning tower of Pisa is famous throughout the world and Jerome had wanted to see it for real for a while. I looked into visiting Pisa and found that most visitors stay in Naples and then make a day trip from there to see the tower, however, I knew that if we were going to stay in Naples we would not make it to Pisa as a weekend trip would be too short to see both towns. Instead I booked hotel San Ranieri on the outskirts of Pisa and hired a car for the time of our stay. The hotel was modern and quite cool, we had a lovely room with a spare bed for Jerome and generous breakfast was included in the rate. Direct flights to Pisa helped and reduced the travel for the weekend too.

With a late landing flight we got up on Saturday morning, just in time to have a lazy hotel breakfast. We then drove in our little washing machine on wheels, as the Brits used to call the old Fiat 500, to the car park across from Palazzo dei Congressi, where we could leave the car all day for just a few Euros (make sure you have some change with you). The early spring weather was not as pleasant as we had hoped for, but it did not rain and a thin jacket was enough to keep us warm for this early spring visit.  We walked across the river Arno, which flows through Pisa before reaching the sea a few kilometres downriver.

Travel with kids children pisa italy fiat 500

Travel with kids children pisa italy graffiti streetart

Travel with kids children pisa italy petrol station architecture

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With my penchant for modern art I desperately wanted to see the mural by Keith Haring before visiting the leaning tower. This was the first stop on our route into town. We passed through streets of apartment blocks, before reaching the Piazza di Vittorio Emanuele II. The square had a statue in its midst but I did not pay attention to this as right next to it was the mural by Keith Haring, which covered the entire side of a apartment building. Keith Haring was a child of Pop Art and all his artwork has its own signature. He took inspiration from the Mayan’s, Japanese pictographs and comic books. His art is fun to look at and always very colourful. Jerome liked the animals on the graffiti the most. Sadly Keith Haring died at the young age of 31 in 1990 of Aids but not before establishing a foundation for children with Aids, which to this day still supports other organizations.

travel with kids children pisa italy keith haring graffiti mural

travel with kids children pisa italy newspaper kiosk

travel with kids children pisa italy door knocker

We walked on through a narrow pedestrian alley, lined with small shops. It was a busy Saturday morning with many shoppers around. We went into the odd shop that took our fancy, there were plenty of the usual chain stores around but we avoided these choosing the more quirky and local places. At the end of the shopping street we turned right before the river and visited a chocolate shop, San Martino 82, which not only sold its own chocolate but we were also able to watch them make their fine pralines and bars in the back of the store. We were also able to try some of their delicious chocolate and Jerome got an Easter egg for his grandma. We chatted to the friendly staff for a while and they recommended Restaurant Galileo, a few houses down the road to us as an inexpensive and authentic place for lunch. Instead of walking on and looking for a restaurant closer to the tower we got one of the tables with its green-white checked covers and had their excellent set lunch menu before heading deeper into the town.

travel with kids children pisa italy shopping street

travel with kids children pisa italy local architecture

travel with kids children pisa italy church architecture

We crossed the river again at Ponte di Mezzo, which gave us a beautiful view of the houses lining the river on both sides and Jerome immediately spotted an ice cream parlour. There is nothing better than proper Italian Gelati, even better as De’ Coltelli uses organic ingredients and no artificial substances in their ice cream. Chris and Jerome had a gigantic cone each, while I enjoyed my single scoop of sorbet. Besides the standard ice cream flavours they had unusual ones like wasabi and sheep’s cheese with olives.

travel with kids children pisa italy river walking tour

travel with kids children pisa italy river arno

travel with kids children pisa italy architecture

We strolled on towards into the direction of the tower, ice cream in hand. Instead of heading for the obvious route down the pedestrian zone we turned left into the side streets of the quarter. After a few blocks we stumbled onto the botanical garden. Chris has always been a huge fan of gardens and plants, while Jerome usually likes running around along the paths between the flowerbeds. We discovered that the Orto di Botanico di Pisa was the first university biological garden in Europe. It was founded by the legendary botanist Luca Ghini of Imola to study plants drying them first in order to then be able to draw and study them during the winter season. There was a green house with plant seedlings, many flower beds, some ponds (with an incredible selection of water plants, some of them endangered) and fountains, plus some ancient trees and shrubs.

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden plants pots

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden water plants

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden pond

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden path

Spring was already visible here, the camellias were in blooms, as was a magnificent Wisteria or what the Germans call purple rain, which had grown up into a tall tree. Jerome liked the bamboo grove reminding him of Japan.

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden camelia

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden camellia flower

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden bamboo grove

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden wisteria bush

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden water wisteria blossoms

There also was the most amazing house, completely covered in shells, unlike anything we had seen before of its kind. The museum at the garden houses a Pharaonic collection from ancient Egyptian tombs, which we did not see as we were conscious of the time and wanted to move on to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, after all this was the main reason for our visit.

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden shell house

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden park

 

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden wild garlic flowers

travel with kids children pisa italy botanic garden leaning tower

You will be able to read all about our climb to the top of the tower and the rest of our visit to this wonderful Italian town in our next post.