So, after two years living between Devon and France there is so much I want to share with you about this little corner of the Charente region that we now call home. To be honest, my heart has always called France home, ever since I was a small child spending endless summers running wild in the Dordogne. Memories of swimming naked in rivers; going to sleep at dusk listening to crickets and the smell of the sun-baked earth through the bedroom window; early morning trips to the boulangerie with my sister, arguing all the way as to who was going to say ‘deux grands pains s’il vous plaît’ and the never-ending lunches, the table heaving with food and friends… as a country, it just makes me properly happy.
I love that we have put down our own roots here and now have a proper home – and what a home she is! Living somewhere, even if it is part-time, is so very different to holidaying there. We have made real friends, not just with other expats but with our neighbours, the stall-holders at the local market, the lady in the pharmacy who is as skincare obsessed as I am…
So, I thought I’d create a dedicated section of Countryfille for all things French. Reviews, recommendations, great places to visit, city guides, interiors inspo and my favourite flea markets to visit… the works. I’ll also be interviewing interesting women who have also made the move across the channel and carved a new life for themselves in the South West of France.
Sometimes the simplest laid plans turn out to be the most stressful don’t they? In the midst of end of term mayhem, organising our 2-month trip to France for the next phase of Chateau renovations and a teething 10 month old, we decided to just nip to Naples for a brief weekend to eat pizza, look at volcanoes and hang out with the OH’s family. No biggie.
Only Easyjet had other plans.
Our first attempt ended in an 8-hour stand-off at Bristol airport, an overtired baby and a gutted 4yo. So back home we came, disappointed but not defeated. Some diary-wrangling and a week later we were soaring through the skies, Napoli bound. This time minus the OH (god love self-employment), but with pizza firmly in our sights…
We were staying with family in a gorgeous converted Palazzo in the centre of Naples and arrived (late again) at the stroke of midnight, to 30 degree heat and a baptism of fire for the 4yo. I forget what a total country bumpkin he is and how mind-blowing a city like Naples is for the uninitiated. It was hot, noisy and beguiling. His little nose was pressed against the taxi window drinking in the cobbled alleys, moped horns and asking in a tiny voice ‘why are all these people not asleep?’
We awoke next morning a little travel-weary but determined to explore. With no set plans and the mercury hovering around 32 degrees by mid-morning we aimed low and settled for a day down by the water at the castello, eating fennel sausage pizza, looking for the fabled crocodiles in the moat and taking the train-obsessed 4yo on his first tube ride… to a station named after him. Mind. Blown.
Toledo station routinely tops the list of ‘world’s most impressive metro stations’ – it’s like an underwater cave/gallactic mash-up, crammed full of artwork.
In the decade I’ve been with my Italian OH I’ve been to Naples and the Amalfi Coast countless times (you can read my pre-children full city guide to Naples here), but this was my first with kids and I hadn’t appreciated what a child-friendly city it is. The underground was a breeze with the buggy, clean and with lift access at every station. The 10mo was not such a great fan of the noisy, jolting journeys but we found our fellow commuters more than willing to play, sing and cajol him into a smile. It’s a cliché but Italians really do adore babies. We saw photos of beloved grandchildren proudly whipped out of wallets and a great deal of doe-y eyed smiles and cooing in shops, queues and restaurants – our sons have particularly Neapolitan names, which went down a storm with their new found fans.
Eating out is a breeze; pizza and pasta are the staple diet of most under 5s (ours more than most) and the waiters entertained our two without the blink of an eye, even medicating the grouchy teething 10mo with some lemon granita for his gums.
Day 2 was spent shopping on Via Roma for a/ sfogliatelli for moi (my all-time favourite Neapolitan pastry) and b/ the 4yo’s first Swatch watch. Such a Euro kid tradition that the OH and I remember well. We finished the day travelling up to the hills overlooking Naples on the finicular railway to the Vomero. Quieter, wider pavements and cooler. A good shout when Naples reaches boiling point.
If we’d had longer I’d have loved to take them for a boat ride to Ischia, or perhaps when they’re older out to Pompeii, or for a peer into the crate of Vesuvio… next time, we’ll be back – my love affair with Naples has just begun a new chapter.
Tomorrow: My Top 5 bits of travel kit for travelling with under 5s.
Spending nearly a decade with a man from Southern Italy kinda rubs off on a girl. Namely a true and unwavering love for refined carbs, good coffee and gelato (spaghetti alle vongole! Pizza marinara! gjanduja!) – unfortunately he won’t let me share with you his family’s recipes (something about swimming with the fishes), so I thought I’d do a post sharing all the little nuggets of travel info I have picked up over the years ‘from the inside’. Feel free to drop me any questions in the comments on specifics if you are visiting the area and need more ideas/tips.
Arrive in Naples much improved Capodichino airport and prepare for a baptism of fire – this is the unapologetic ‘real deal’ of Southern Italy. Be guided as to the ‘no-go’ areas, stay savvy to the whereabouts of your valuables and then – relax. Let yourself be absorbed by the history, faded glamour and vibrancy of the city – visit Giuseppe Sanmartino’s The Veiled Christ in the Sansevero Chapel for perhaps the most emotive and intricate example of marble sculpture you will ever see. See ‘the other Naples’ with a two-hour walking tour 40m under street level, through the ancient city’s aqueduct (a blissful escape in the midday heat but not for the claustrophobic) that was transformed into bunkers during WWII, complete with 1940’s graffiti.
The best sfogliatelli (sweetened ricotta and candied fruit filled pastries, a speciality of Naples), are at Pintauro on Via Toledo (it’s a hole in the wall job, so don’t expect any frills with the service – just buy one and thank me later). Whilst the city’s finest bowl of vongole can be had at A Figlia do Marinaro, on the Via Foria opposite the Botanical Gardens. Wander past in the early morning and you’ll see them prepping that morning’s haul from the bay for that night’s dinner. The main event here though is the pizza, the L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele on Via Cesare Sersale has five generations of experience and are purists, only offering ‘real Neapolitan toppings’ of Marinara and Margherita. Expect to queue for an age, but persist and you will taste the best pizza in Italy, served rapidly and with no ceremony (and on paper plates). If you are not completely straining at the waistband by now, stop off for an ice-cream sandwich at one of the many gelato joints. Two scoops of soft, fresh gelato wedged in a warm cloud of brioche. Decadent yes, but what else are holidays for?!
For a hit of culture (or simply to walk off some of your daily calorie intake) the archaeological museum is a must, not only for its ‘secret room’ of rather graphic Roman artefacts retrieved from Pompeii and Herculaneum (worth a giggle), but also for the important collections of mosaics, antiquities and jewellery, that have all been recovered from the sites. Go to Pompeii and Herculaneum first as being able to imagine all these relics in their original homes makes them all the more poigniant.
If you need to escape the heat of the city for an afternoon, nip up to Museo di Capodimonte, the city’s ‘National Gallery’ equivalent. It includes examples from all the nation’s great painters, with a particular Neapolitan bent, including Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio, El Greco, Botticelli and Bellini. All housed in a beautiful palazzo with cool courtyards in which to wander. The view is another big draw, as is the incredible Cameo factory and shop next door.
If you’re done with city living, take a day trip from the harbour to the exclusive rocky outcrop of Capri for unabashed people watching with the yachting glitterati (it’s where Testino shot that D&G Light Blue advert with Mr. Gandy), or opt for a day on Ischia – Capri’s bigger, greener, less expensive neighbour. Here you will find the Negombo spa. The natural thermal waters are heated by Vesuvio herself and have been soothing the aches and strains of visitors since the Twenties (Around €12 entry, negombo.it).
Now escape the city altogether and head to the relative retreat of the Amalfi Coast, but you have to get there first. If you drive, then do so with balls and conviction. The Neapolitans can smell a cautious driver a mile off and will gleefully run you off the road in an instance; whilst talking animatedly on their mobile. Wind up the Vallico di Chiunzi road from the motorway (taking the exit at the brilliantly named Angri) and try not to get too distracted on the hair-pin bends by the fruit stalls or the view over the bay of Naples and Vesuvio, dormant yet brooding in the distance.
RAVELLO AND AMALFI
The town of Ravello, prominently placed with 360 degree views over the Bay of Naples to the front and the mountainous backdrop, was founded in the 9th century when the Romans fled the dying empire. The residents elected their own Doge in the 11th century and have held their hill-top stronghold ever since. The Ravellese today are as proud and independent as their ancestors, holding court on the Amalfi Coast from their vantage point amongst the clouds. The glamorous, secluded retreat has attracted artists, musicians and socialites over the centuries – including Wagner, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Chanel and Gretta Garbo.
At the summit of the village lies a cluster of 5* hotels and Michelin-starred eateries, if the credit card stretches by all means, book in and retreat into other-worldly luxury (The Palazzo Avino (above) gets our vote for sheer decadence and old-school glamour – not to mention the view – palazzoavino.com). There are various family-run, more wallet-friendly, priced hotels dotted around the town – try Hotel Giordano, Bonadies or the Parsifal. Make sure you eat at Cumpo Cosmo once during your stay, it’s like a pantomime, with good food thrown in.
Float down into town, take a seat in the main square and just soak it all in – from chocolate-eyed toddlers on their trikes to strutting local teens like peacocks. All Italian life is here. The café under the stairs of the Duomo is the best – the owner Fausto is family, a true gentleman and a good man to know in these parts.
Once revived, check out the town’s two historical villas. Villa Ruffolo, in the shadow of the duomo, was restored by Scot Francis Nevile Reid in the mid 18th century, pay the €6 or so to get in, just to get the ‘classic’ postcard Ravello shot (above). Wander out the other side of the square and you’ll reach Villa Cimbrone, rebuilt by Lord Grimthorpe in 1904, the house itself (now a hotel) is the supporting act to the main feature, the villa’s idyllic gardens, which culminate in the famous Belvedere of Infinity that Gore Vidal described as “the most beautiful view in the world”.
With Ravello as your base, dip in and out of surrounding towns and villages, with your mercifully cooler mountain-top retreat to escape to at the end of the day. A tip I learnt the hard way (there was an armed policeman and a lot of gesticulation involved) – never drive to Amalfi. The traffic is ridiculous and the parking, non-existent. Instead, take the regular €2 bus with the locals and zip down the coast road in 20 minutes. You could also hop off at Castiglione the postage-stamp cove with vertiginous stairway approach to cool-off, get there early as towel-space is in high-demand. Minori’s beach is a better bet with infants.
That said, make sure you walk down to Amalfi once during your stay, follow the Dragone Gorge, past a rather charming watermill (I admit I only mention this as it is called Villa Lydia and I fantasise that one day it will be mine). Arriving at sea-level in Atrani, a warren of whitewash and cobbles en route to Amalfi.
To save you the research, I have done the hardwork for you, without a doubt the best ice cream in the whole of Italy, ergo the world, is at the gelateria directly opposite the base of the Duomo steps. I will let you decide the flavours as they are all organic, fresh and magnificent. Ditto the pastries at the delightfully antiquated Pasticceria Pansa, forget about calorie consumption and go wild.
As John Steinbeck wrote for his article in Harpers in 1953, “the road [to Positano] hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing.” Indeed, the 12km drive from Amalfi to Positano is thrilling, impossible at times, but enlivening. Pack a beach bag and ease your fraught white limbs halfway in the turquoise cove at Furore.
For some, Positano will be too ‘playground of the rich and famous’ with its Missoni boutiques and €40 for a plate of pasta menus, but just go with it, even if it’s just for the day. Negotiating the vertiginous alleyways a la mountain goat, catching a glimpse of the water through ‘Vesuvio Red’ buildings, drowned in bougainvillea, is what it’s all about. If you are looking to stay, and remortgage your home to do so, one of these ‘rouged’ villas is Le Sirenuse. As the story goes, four Neapolitan siblings (Aldo, Paolo, Franco and Anna Sersale) reunited at the family’s summer house in Positano after WWII and decided to open their home as an eight bedroom hotel, Le Sirenuse – so called after the villa’s enviable vantage point of the Isles of the Sirens in the bay. 60 odd years on, with an additional 55 rooms, Aveda Concept Spa and an antiques and art collection to rival a national archive, Le Sirenuse is still run by the next generation of the Sersale family who, incidently, also own Eau d’Italie – one of the best independent perfume houses EVER.
As a woman ‘married into’ Southern Italy, my love affair with Napoli and the Amalfi Coast is not so ingrained that I don’t still see the region through new eyes with each visit, and I’ll admit, fall even deeper in love – the ungroomed perfection, faded glamour, stoic values and almost comical superstitions of the Neapolitans, the familial hub at the centre of everyday life and the seemingly genetic ability to look Very Cool on a Vespa… I’ve got a feeling this one’s a keeper.
I had to get this shot of tulips and daffs in as it is currently the only vestige of spring that seems apparent in the run up to Easter (bitter aside: I was on the beach here in 20 degree sunshine last Easter). To this end, we have decided to forward-plan a couple of weekends away to add a little sunshine to the horizon.
First up: Tenby. Yep, we’re not talking French Riviera or chic city break here. Oh no, we’re jetting (well, driving) off to the South Wales coast, namely Tenby, the Georgian harbour town in Pembrokeshire. At first glance it may not sound too glam, but I’m assured that the sleepy coastal town is having something of a ‘foodie’ revival. Plus, the blue flag sandy beaches are really all we’re after as we are holidaying with our friends and their 18-month old son, aka Country Bebe’s best chum (be prepared for an Instagram feed full of adorable small boys in board shorts). I am already in love with the architecture, it’s a bit like Portobello by the sea don’t you think?
I’m hoping it’s going to be like Padstow, St Ives, Mousehole et al were in the 80s. So a classic bucket & spade/Fish & Chips holiday minus half of West London, basically.
Talking of Cornwall. I am *seriously* excited about the prospect of the Rosevine near St. Mawes on Cornwall’s southern coast. You might think that as Devonians, Cornwall barely counts as going on ‘holiday’ but I assure you it does. The counties really are completely different and even 90 mins from home really does feel like being somewhere else entirely. Handy when you want that ‘holiday feeling’ but have a grouchy, car-phobic 18-month old in tow.
We haven’t stayed at the Rosevine before (we did stay at Bedruthan Steps in North Cornwall last summer which was brill), but I love the self catering-hotel hybrid idea. So, we have a family apartment which encompasses two hotel-style bedrooms (the toddler will categorically not sleep in the same room with us without demanding to play at 3am), a lounge area complete with toddler-toys and a mini kitchen/dining area so we can feed Country Bebe to our own schedule. Genius huh? There is a great looking restaurant downstairs so come 7pm we will be flicking on the in-room baby monitor and making a swift exit to the bar. We are taking the grandparents too for some much needed quality family time so watch this space, as I say, high-hopes, I will post a full review when we get back.
Other than that we don’t have any big trips planned for this summer. We will make it over to the OH’s family home in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast at some point (perhaps for my 30th in September. Eek!) but other than that it’s a Devonian summer for us, it could be worse, couldn’t it?!