What happens when a seventysomething eschews escorted touring for an independent jaunt with family? Some might predict disaster. Dayle Green finds out.
WE ARE standing in the Sistine Chapel, the jewel in the crown of the Vatican Museums in Rome. But instead of craning her neck to study Michelangelo's masterpiece, my mother is transfixed, head down, looking at the floor.
My mother is a quilter. She sees patchwork patterns everywhere and today, in the Vatican Museums, we appear to have found quilting nirvana. On our way towards the most famous chapel in Rome, we pass through room after room of mind-blowing and elaborate paintings and frescoes. These are matched by the most beautiful floors - marble tiles in shades of pastel pink, white, grey and brown, pieced together in traditional patchwork patterns. There are flying geese, mariner's compass and tumbling blocks. My mother knows them all by name.
Later, in Venice, she is almost beside herself when we find out that no photos are allowed inside San Marco. My mother barely notices the shimmering golden mosaics that cover the roof. She is concerned with memorising the various tiled patterns on the floor.
We are travelling from Rome to Paris by train - my husband and I, with my seventysomething mother. Some might think this a dangerous combination but we are a mostly happy trio, despite my husband's running joke that he is taking his mother-in-law on a one-way trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
While we lug well-worn packs around on our backs, my mother sports a shiny new trolley bag and matching cabin bag. During our preparations, there was much emphasis on the need for a medium-size bag that my mother could handle herself. This was based on the fact that we would be travelling independently by train, bus and short distances on foot and carrying our baggage up and down stairs in hotels and apartment buildings.
Despite her best efforts to pack lightly, my mother's suitcase is full to overflowing and much heavier than she expected. It is not until we leave Rome and start our backpacking, trolley-wheeling adventures that she seriously understands the implications of independent travel.
We use the Metro system to get to Rome's Termini Station. There are stairs down to the platform, stairs up from the platform, stairs when we need to change trains. At the other end there is a bus to be caught, cobblestones to negotiate and more stairs in the hotel.
Now I know what you are thinking. What sort of children would drag their mother around Europe like this, when she could be sitting comfortably on a tour bus paying someone else to take care of her bags, or be chauffeured around in a rental car?
The thing is, we are a bit phobic about driving on the other side of the road and believe the hassles of parking combined with the exuberant driving style of Italians make train travel a more sensible option. We like to travel at our own pace and, this being our second time in Italy, we want to see parts of the country that we have not visited previously. We are also on a budget - not quite a shoestring budget but a budget nonetheless.
And so the train it is.
We begin "la dolce vita" with three nights in an apartment in Rome. For the price of a two-star triple hotel room we have two bedrooms and a full kitchen and lounge room. Our apartment is just two blocks from the Colosseum in a wonderfully quiet and authentic neighbourhood.
After an early arrival, we take things easy on our first day. We spend the afternoon riding around on a big red bus, ticking off the famous landmarks of Rome. In front of me, a wild-haired woman waves her little camera excitedly at every building we pass - my mother is having a ball.
In the next two days, we tour the Colosseum, visit the Vatican, explore the historic centre, eat pizza in Piazza Navona and join the crowds at the Trevi Fountain. My mother tosses her coin in the fountain and is then chastised by an elderly Italian couple for doing it wrong.
We take our first train trip to the historic hilltop town of Perugia, where we begin our daily ritual of morning coffee and cake. This is one of many things I learn about my mother during the trip - she has a devilishly sweet tooth and is partial to a pastry or three. We also can't leave town before sampling the chocolates Perugia is famous for.
A bus takes us to Siena, where we stay in a perfect little bed and breakfast. Despite having to climb two flights of stairs, my mother wants to move in permanently. She sleeps under a skylight with the stars of Tuscany overhead, under her own patchwork quilt.
The city of Siena is a pleasing palette of reds, terracotta, burnt umber and marmalade. We are all enchanted. My mother takes her favourite photograph here, furtively stalking three nuns as they walk along a quiet laneway, then capturing the moment as they pass one of Siena's typical oversized doorways. That's another thing I learn - she's a far less inhibited photographer than I am.
Three trains later, we reach the Cinque Terre coast. Our apartment in the tiny village of Vernazza affords us stupendous views over the village and its picturesque little harbour. But where there are views, there are steps - and there are many in Vernazza. The trek to our apartment nearly kills my mother and she is not even carrying her suitcase.
The villages of the Cinque Terre (which translates literally as "five lands") are a riot of colour and brim with rustic Mediterranean character and charm. We visit three of the other villages and take in rugged coastal views on part of the famous Cinque Terre walk. We buy fish from the pescatoria, olive focaccia from the bakery, gelato from the gelateria and more pastries from the pasticerria.
By the time we leave Vernazza, my mother is getting used to the daily rhythm of travel. She is not fazed by the four trains we must negotiate to get ourselves from one side of Italy to the other. She even starts talking about "next time" and what she would do differently (No.1: take a smaller bag with less stuff). We arrive in Venice after six hours of train travel and jump straight on a crowded vaporetto, which takes us down the Grand Canal to our hotel near the Rialto Bridge. Our room has terrazzo floors, a view of the canal and its own ancient fresco covering the ceiling. What more could we ask for?
In the next three days, we barely stop. We ride up and down the Grand Canal on the vaporettos, visit San Marco and wander through the Rialto fresh-food markets. My husband leads us on a mystery tour through the laneways of the Santa Croce district and we check out the Arsenale, the historic naval area of Venice. We peer into shop windows admiring jewellery, handbags, tapestries, masks and glass. But it is the day we visit the islands of Burano and Murano that my mother and I enjoy the most.
Burano was once a traditional island where the men went fishing and the women made lace. Today, Burano is crowded with tourists but worth the visit for its jumble of colourfully painted houses, each neighbour trying to outdo the other with eye-catching hues.
The island of Murano is famous for its glass factories and furnaces. Mother and I are in heaven as we ogle the huge array of shiny things for sale, from the tourist tat to the sublimely beautiful. We both make a few little purchases, while dear husband's patience is severely tested.
A budget airline transports us to Lyon in France from where we catch a train south to Avignon. We visit the historic Pont d'Avignon (the bridge across the Rhone River) and spend a rainy morning loitering among the charming pedestrian shopping streets of Avignon. At nearby Arles, Wednesday is market day. We start with the fresh food - a tempting array of fruit, vegetables, home-made pates, cheeses and meats - before trawling through an assortment of stalls offering clothes, linen and home wares. The market stretches for a kilometre in the shadow of the old walls of the city. My mother is disappointed at the lack of bric-a-brac or antiques. She consoles herself with coffee and a pastry as we admire the impressive facade of Arles's Roman amphitheatre.
Our final train journey takes us from Avignon to Paris by TGV. Flashing through the countryside at speeds of up to 300km/h, we arrive in Paris in just two hours and 45 minutes.
Our hotel room in Paris is best described as cosy - it just fits the three of us and our luggage. But we have a wonderful view of the street and my mother props herself in the window, enthralled by everyday scenes of Parisian life playing out in front of her. By now my mother's legs are stronger than mine. After a cup of tea and a biscuit, she is ready to start exploring Paris. From our room on the edge of the Latin Quarter, we wander in the direction of the Seine and join the throngs of people gathered outside Notre Dame.
We spend a day ticking off the major sights - the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, river, gardens and Louvre.
Our final day in Paris is my mother's choice. Having spent far too much time watching antiques shows on cable television, she is keen to visit an authentic French flea market. A bit of research in our guidebook reveals a small antiques market on the southern outskirts of the city. Even better, we can catch a bus to it from a stop just a short stroll from our hotel. We arrive to find our "small" market stretches a full block along both sides of the street and then another two blocks around the corner. We spend the morning happily browsing furniture, plates, old fabrics and assorted junk and never make it to the end. My mother excitedly hops from one stall to the next, fingering some linen here, a plate there. At one point, it looks as though she is going home with an antique sewing machine (or two) but eventually we drag her away with just one plate and an antique trivet for the grand total of €25 ($34).
At Charles de Gaulle Airport, we watch silently as my mother disappears up the escalator to join the immigration queue. We have another five weeks of travel ahead of us, just the two of us, all alone. And while I am looking forward to being a couple again, I am sad to see her go. My mother has added a new dimension to our travels. We would never have fully appreciated the remarkable floors of San Marco or the Vatican Museums, or visited a French antiques market. We would never have laughed so much, or shopped so much, or eaten quite so many pastries.
A few months after our European adventure, my mother rings me, babbling excitedly about a book she has found on the internet. She is desperate to get a copy. It seems my mother is not the only quilter to have visited Italy - someone has written a book called Patchwork from Mosaics: Patchwork from the Stones of Venice. My mother makes her first internet transaction and the book arrives in her mailbox within a week.
For Eurail passes or to book individual train journeys before leaving home see www.europeantravelshop.com.au.
Tips for inter-generational travel
Choose accommodation wisely Apartments are ideal for families as they provide everyone with a bit of personal space while allowing the option of home cooking. Three days is usually the minimum rental period. If you're on a budget and need to share hotel rooms, look for family rooms, which sometimes offer separate bedrooms or at least a little more space. Beware of triple rooms — in Europe this often means a fold-up bed in a double room.
Pre-book accommodation on the internet before leaving home or at least several days in advance. The writer used hotels.com and booking.com for most of the bookings. For apartments, rentalinrome.com.
Embrace different interests Make sure that everyone gets to tick off those particular sites or activities that are on their list. Doing this together as a group will result in some great shared memories and ensure no one is disappointed.
Consider physical capabilities The old bushwalking adage applies equally well to travel — "You can only go as fast as the slowest person". Allow for morning tea stops, comfort stops and other opportunities for resting. Where possible, break the day into a series of outings so that those who are tired can return to the room, while the more energetic can continue with their explorations.
Patience is a virtue Travel with a good dose of humour and patience. Small tasks such as buying stamps, using foreign autobanks or the inflight entertainment system can be intimidating for some older travellers.
Tour options "Hop-on, hop-off" tour buses are great for travellers of all ages. They give you a good overview of the city's attractions and save you some legwork when it's time to hit the streets and explore. Tickets are generally valid for 24 to 48 hours.
Expenses Keep track of expenses in a notebook and reconcile them at the end of each day. Parents are inclined to be overly generous and all those coffees and lunches can quickly add up.
A parent's point of view Travelling with your adult children provides an opportunity to see that your children are all grown up. Learn to let go of the reins, go with the flow and enjoy the journey.