After the bright lights and busy streets of Paris, it was time to venture into the Italian countryside and a gorgeous little villa just outside Lucca – a medieval town I’ve been desperate to return to for three years. It was everything I remembered it to be, and a whole lot more.
Italy is fabulous. France is awesome – the cities and the countryside – but Italy is fabulous and cheaper. We flew into Pisa and grabbed a hire car, before venturing off into the big unknown. Siri guided us with the most appalling and entertaining Italian accent. The drive to our villa was just over 30 minutes and we’d been warned about the last section of road. European country roads seem to be universally narrow, but this particular stretch of road was the trickiest I saw in three months of travel. We’d read about the hairpin bends on the road to the villa – 96 of them one Airbnb reviewer claimed. Turns out there were nine and they really weren’t a big problem. Lots of horn tooting to let oncoming traffic know there’s something around the corner, but otherwise it was all navigable. Until the last 200 meters. Now 200 meters of road might not sound like much – but this particular stretch was very stressful. High stone walls on both sides, and a road barely two meters wide in places. Essential to fold in the side mirrors of the car and hope like crazy there’s no oncoming traffic. The drive is quite the adventure – once you get used to it!
Our little group of four had three drivers – including myself. I promised many moons ago to assist with driving and navigation. Little did I know that by the time I arrived in Italy I’d be physically and mentally exhausted, and developing escalating anxiety. I didn’t sit in the driver’s seat once – I let the team down and feel really bad about it. I felt fine to drive, but my friends weren’t keen on me being behind the wheel when sleep deprived, constantly shaking, and stressed. So I navigated when I could and worried the rest of the time.
It’s hard to put anxiety into words. The paranoia – nobody loves me, everybody hates me. I’m a burden. If only I could do X, Y, Z. The lack of sleep. Incessant fear. Constantly jumping at noises. A heart rate that won’t slow down. The internal monologue of self-criticism. The constant assumption I’m doing the wrong thing and everyone is annoyed. Knowing my thought patterns can’t be trusted, yet can’t be changed on a whim. Knowing I’m having the holiday of a lifetime, but feeling miserable and afraid for no apparent reason. Fear the anxiety will never go away.
Seeing a doctor in Italy was too complicated – we were staying in the countryside. I had no medication left. My eating deteriorated – I didn’t want to eat but couldn’t be seen not eating. The week we spent in Italy was amazing – I loved it. But it was a rapid decline mentally and I’m sure my spiral down spoiled things for my friends.
We visited Lucca’s old town three times. And I could visit it a hundred more. It’s only a little village, but it’s so easy to wander the ancient streets and get lost. Discover a cute little archway, or beautiful little dress shop. Eat lovely fresh food and drink lots of wine. And the wall. I love the wall. We walked along the top of the wall several times. It’s very wide with a road and parks and lots of foot traffic and bicycles. We hired bicycles one day to ride around. I did one lap before having a little tantrum and sitting on the side by myself. I couldn’t cope with the pedestrians walking the entire width of the path, or the big four-wheeled carriage things that won’t take into consideration anything else on the walkways. So I got off my bike while my friends did another lap. They loved it – the fresh air and beautiful views. I wish I could have loved it, but the crowds and anxiety were a terrible mix so I was stressed instead. My big dream of cycling around the bottom of the walls didn’t come to pass. Time ran out and we weren’t sure if there was a path. I regret not having the time to explore the walls at ground level – all the little tunnels and gateways. The walls of Lucca are a sight to behold, and I need to return to behold them properly.
We spent two days around the Cinque Terre. One day on a yacht, sailing around Portovenere, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, soaking in the sun and the wind. Then a second day catching the ferry up the coast to the five towns. The weather was appalling. My dreams of sharing the fabulous experience I’d had were quickly shattered. Everyone crowded into the inside of the ferry, desperate to stay dry and warm. The first town we visited was awash with ponchos and umbrellas. There was a short respite from the rain where we quickly wandered the streets, then the rain returned and all the tourists sought refuge by searching for an indoor lunch – something in high demand in Vernazza. Outdoor seating was in abundance, but nobody wanted to sit in the rain for pizza and pasta. After much searching and waiting, we found a table to have lunch and stay dry. Then it was time to move to the next town – Riomaggiore.
The sun came out on the ride back and stayed out for the next few hours. At last we got to experience the spectacular coastline from the top deck of the ferry, then wander the steep streets of the colourful village, soaking in the full Cinque Terre vibe. Then we headed back to Portovenere to explore the township and St Peters church on the promontory.
In 2015 my experiences of yachting around Portovenere, and exploring the Cinque Terre were truly magical. The sun was out and the wind was in my hair and I hugged every moment to my chest, desperate to hold onto the precious memories. Returning with my friends three years later, I wanted them to have the magical experience I’d had, but it wasn’t to be. It was a stark reminder that special times are impossible to repeat. No matter how much I would have liked to. On the day we visited the Cinque Terre, the weather gods were not in a good mood – so that was that.
My fondest memories are sitting at our villa, eating dinners outside and toasting the magic view of Lucca in the distance. The evenings were warm, the food spectacular, the drinks convivial, and the company exquisite. These are the precious memories I cling to.
As our week came to a close, we packed up and headed to Pisa for the flight to Lisbon. With my anxiety now peaking and bordering on full panic attack, the flight became an interesting affair.