It is our last day in Bologna and we plan to hike up to the Villa Ghigi Park, a beautiful parkland set on one of the first wooded hills as you leave to old city. I sometimes forget, when making plans, that we have two very small children. And even if I have equipped us well enough for the journey – sun hats, sun cream, picnic, water, wet wipes, camera, magnifying glass, and all necessary accoutrements for a trip into nature – I also sometimes forget things. Like the map. Naturally, I blame The Husband – you could have at least remembered ONE THING! – which doesn’t bode well for a long walk together.
Furthermore, I haven’t quite got the hang of working out an acceptable mileage for our family, and their little legs. Thus, forty-five minutes into the not-so-picturesque walk along the heaving ringroad, we find ourselves – looking like absolute tourists, lost and in deeply unfashionable sandals – on a steep street not far from the old city, and outside a boulangerie where the bakers in the front are languidly puffing away on cigarettes in the sunshine. We ask them where the park is, to which they survey our group, exchange glances with each other, laugh, and then shake their heads as if to say, “On foot. With children. You’re joking, right?” And then they point to a green, fuzzy hilltop in the distance, and I understand: the joke is on me.
Kindly the bakers offer an alternative much closer to home, and usher us in the direction of the Giardini Margherita at Porto Castiglione, a large parkland just around the corner. We are back on the roaring ring road for no more than ten minutes before the gardens open up their gates to us and wrap us in their tranquility. It is beautiful, heaven even, after the long schlep. The lawns are blanketed with locals. There are picnicking families swaying to the sounds of the samba band playing on the bandstand, and groups of friends slurping granitas and giggling. An upside-down yoga class practice headstands next to the giant ponds full of tiny turtles who unhurriedly breeze between sunbathing on the rocks in pyramid formations and gently gliding in the algae green water. Grandmothers out pushing their grandbabies along the avenues deftly dodge the half-naked Apollos advertising their abs and skateboarding skills.
It is lovely here, and Zippy and Roo have a ball dancing to the music, watching the turtles, swinging in the playground, collecting even more conkers, and crunching on the russety horse-chestnut leaves that decorate that floor. Autumn is arriving and this change in season seems to have happened in haste, yielding a bitter sweetness; it was summer when we left The Mother-in-Law’s House just two weeks ago, when the cucumbers and tomatoes were ripening in the greenhouse, and yet now it seems so much further away.
It is time to leave the park as our train to the south pulls out tonight, and there are backpacks to refill and mouths to feed. So we scoop up the children and head back to the apartment via the shops to collect dinner and onboard snacks. (We’d heard in Vienna that the sleeper trains in Italy might not be as plush as the Austrian ones.) We bag a loaf from the lovely and locally-famous baker, Piron el Furnar on Via Nosadella, and choose tortelloni di zucca (stuffed with pumpkin) from Nonna Cesira’s delicious-looking selection of homemade fresh pasta on Via Saragozza.
Whilst The Husband and I perform the now-weekly miracle of magicking all signs of family life from Alberta’s apartment (clearing out the fridge, checking under the bed, and stuffing all books, toys, toiletries, clothes and bedtime bears into one rather large backpack), the children paint postcards for loved ones. (I must say that a couple of paintbrushes and a few small tubes of watercolour squeezed out onto a borrowed plate are an excellent resource for the traveling family.) Somewhat unhelpfully, Roo attempts to decorate Alberta’s furniture with blobs of red and blue. We then attempt to help him understand that drawing on walls in a borrowed home is different (or is it?) to the thousands of graffitied walls that we have been admiring around the cities we’ve visited. The Husband points out that sometimes I might confuse matters, and more specifically our children, by explaining too much. Sometimes I think he is right.
Rucksacks and snack-bag packed, flat and children cleaned, we sit down to our last supper in Bologna and to Nonna Cesira’s pasta. Half-way through dinner there is a knock at the door and we are blessed with the presence of our lovely landlady, Alberta, bearing gifts of just-baked chocolate cake and news that she’s booked us a taxi for half-past nine. I take the cake to the family and we feed each other forkfuls of the sugar-dusted, deep brown torta, rolling our eyes and smacking our lips with that exact joy that only a perfect chocolate cake can inflict. It is so good, in fact, that I hurry next door to return the dish to Alberta less than five minutes later to ask her for the recipe. She invites me into her kitchen – an enormous and handsome yellow work horse of a place – where she is preparing tonight’s dinner of zucchini fried in garlic and tomatoes, whilst her youngest daughter, Elenora, sits at the kitchen table finishing some homework. I leave with a scrap of graph paper scribbled with a bilingual recipe, which I will cherish for the rest of our journey. And until I can find some potato flour.
It is gone seven and the children are weary; our train leaves Bologna at 10pm and so we tuck them into bed for a shluf until it’s time to leave. In the meanwhile, The Husband and I sit on the balcony and play a few rounds of klabiash, a card game of Germanic origin that is popular in Jewish communities around the world, and one that The Husband’s father taught him as a boy. He taught it to me when we first met and it’s been our beloved traveling tradition ever since.
Just before our taxi arrives we slip on the children’s shoes and warm clothing whilst they are still sleeping, before carrying them and the bags out into the cool night air. We load up the car and make the short journey to the train station, with Zippy and Roo sleepily arising from their late night nap to watch the lights of Bologna dragging past the windows. And fortunately their excitement about riding another sleeper train tonight is enough to halt any cantankerous commotion that may ordinarily occur from a middle-of-the-night awakening.
Our train awaits and although, as it were foretold, it is by no means as comfortable as the last (it’s hot, the beds are hard, there’s no sink in the cupboard, no onboard breakfast, and there’s definitely no sign of free sangria), by the time it leaves at ten o’clock The Husband and I are tucked up in the top bunks of our couchette for four, each cuddling up to a child. The Bologna to Lecce sleeper train will arrive, eleven hours later, in Puglia, the wild, hot heel of Italy.