It started small. Let’s go on holiday at Easter, we said – there’s a two week school holiday, Sophia will still be exclusively breast-fed, so there’s no messing around with purees or finger food, and she’ll be small enough to carry easily in the sling. The idea of some pre-summer sun was appealing too, so we started to look at Spain and Italy.
Then we had a home exchange offer from a family in Switzerland. Our imaginations were instantly captured by the idea of Swiss mountain railway journeys, snow-capped mountains and carpets of wild flowers. Not to mention generous helpings of cheese and chocolate. Unfortunately that home exchange turned out to be totally unsuitable for non-drivers, but it had got us thinking. And when I say ‘us’, I really mean my husband, as holiday planning is very much his forte. Then we had a home exchange offer for Milan. We last visited Milan during an inter-rail trip ten years ago, and were only there for an afternoon prior to catching a sleeper-train to Barcelona, but we saw enough to make us want to go back one day.
My vision of snowy Alps was instantly replaced by one of myself sitting at a chic little pavement cafe, sipping Prosecco, wearing high heels and a slinky wrap dress (two stone of baby-weight having been miraculously left at the airport). Not quite sure how breastfeeding a baby and entertaining a six-year-old fitted into this vision, but hey, a daydream’s a daydream.
The only problem was how to choose between these two options. Or so I thought. My husband is made of sterner and more creative stuff. Which is how our mini-break to catch a few rays of spring sunshine ended up an eleven day epic tour of Northern Italy and Switzerland, comprising over 32 hours of train travel and taking in nine different towns/cities. I know that compared to trekking in the Himalayas or backpacking in Kerala it might not seem that ambitious, but given that we have two children, one of whom was only three months old at the start of the trip, and that Anna was two and a half before we ventured abroad at all, and that trip consisted of taking the Eurostar to Paris, it felt pretty adventurous to us.
It was an incredible experience. Our daughters were amazing. Anna absolutely loved it, and was indefatigable in pulling her little Paddington suitcase along and trying to remember whether, at any given moment, she should be saying please and thank you in Italian, German or French. We didn’t make her learn them in Romansch. Partly because neither of us speak a single word of it. One of the things I love most about Anna is her deep interest in the world and the things she sees, and the thought-provoking questions she asks. Travelling with her is a particular pleasure because it enables us to feed that interest and curiosity. And Sophia was sweet-tempered and placid, putting up uncomplainingly with a string of different travel cots, and having her nappy changed everywhere from a seat on the ultra-glamorous Swiss dining train, The Glacier Express, to the ancient rubble of a medieval campanile. The Swiss and Italians clearly love children, and travelling with our two gorgeous girls got us free drinks, biscuits perfume samples and sweets and lollipops galore.
There were, of course, elements of it which were harder work. Packing for four people for eleven days of train travel is a bit of a logistical nightmare, especially when one of the party is a baby who requires a rucksack full of bits and pieces just for a trip to the shops. Anna had her tiny Paddington suitcase, Husband and I shared a medium wheelie suitcase, and Sophia had her own cabin-bag sized pull along. Which my husband generously pulled along for her whilst she slumbered peacefully, strapped to my chest in her sling.
My vision of sipping Prosecco did come partially true, and it was on the terrace of a bar overlooking the stunningly beautiful cathedral in Milan, no less. What I hadn’t envisioned was that I would be red-faced and sweaty in my inappropriate clothing (I didn’t know when I packed that the whole of Europe was going to enjoy an unseasonable heatwave) and trying simultaneously to persuade Sophia to feed when actually she was much more interested in pulling off and exposing me to the whole bar so that she could have a good look round, to persuade Anna that arancini was just rice with bolognese sauce in the middle and as such was a perfectly acceptable evening meal for her, and to persuade myself that it didn’t matter that I was the only woman in the place who was a) bigger than a size 8 and b) not wearing head-to-toe black Prada.
But for every slightly fraught moment there were several magical ones. Eating pizza in a sun-drenched medieval piazza, watching Anna play for hours on the pebbly beaches on the edge of Lake Como, flexing bedtime slightly so that we could have supper together on the roof terrace of the flat we were staying in as we watched the sun set over the mountains, feeling I’d stepped into an Agatha Christie novel (minus the murder) as we tucked into a delicious three-course lunch, served at our seats as we sped along at 2500 ft above sea level on the Glacier Express.
And, you never know, maybe next time I go to Milan I’ll manage to pull-off the stick-thin, designer-clad fashionista look.