“Mama Mia Italy!”

A Mother’s Day Trip to Remember!

 The Swedish band Abba may have made the expression “Mamma mia!” popular around the world, but Italians have been using “Mamma mia!” as a mild expression of surprise, joy, annoyance, disappointment, anger and fear for years. It can be translated in numerous ways in English including, “Oh my goodness!” The expression sums up my experience on a recent trip to Italy with my family. From the snow-covered mountains to the Italian Riviera, I often wanted to shout Mama Mia! 

This past May my husband and I had the privilege of traveling to Italy with my two daughters and their partners. My daughter Hannah planned the entire trip for our family which was a huge blessing. The trip started in Geneva, Switzerland where we rented a van and headed south to Chamonix, France.

This past September I had recently hiked the 100-mile Tour Du Mont Blanc route and was excited to show the rest of my family a few of the towns we had passed through on our journey. We started the afternoon by filling ourselves with fresh pastries followed by a short but vertical hike providing stunning views of Mont Blanc. To fight off jetlag we made our way to the gelato shop which provided just the right amount of sugar to keep us rolling. 

After departing Chamonix, we paid a 50 Euro (yikes) toll fee to drive through the 11.6 km road tunnel that links Chamonix, France to Courmayeur, Italy. We checked into our hotel and enjoyed our first taste of Italian pizza.

In the morning I was treated to the most delicious Mother’s Day breakfast buffet at Hotel Alpechiara followed by a hike with my girls on the TMB trail. Along the trail, we enjoyed spring wildflowers blooming from the fresh snow melt. Visiting Courmayeur in May provided more solitude and cooler temperatures compared to the busy crowds and hot days of August. 

From Courmayeur we traveled on narrow twisty roads down to the Italien Riviera town called Monterosso al Mare to hike the famous blue trail called the Cinque Terre. There are five colorful towns along the trail surrounded by cliffs filled with beautiful Poppy flowers, lemon trees, and vineyards. The trail can be visited by bus, boat, train, or by foot in either direction.

The following day we purchased our trail tickets (they check at each town for your tickets) and hopped on the train to the first town called Riomaggiore. The hike started with a steep climb leading up the hillside providing spectacular views of the coast. We enjoyed the aroma of roses and lemon trees along the path as we took in the views of vineyards and amazing flower gardens.

 It took our family about 4.5 hours to hike through the five towns with a total distance of around 12 miles. The temperatures were already warm in the eighties so we all wore our swimsuits and enjoyed a much-needed cold plunge at various beach coves along the Cinque Terra hike. To enjoy the hike to its fullest we made sure to stop at one of the many Italian pizzeria restaurants and finished off the day with a serving of gelato. 

The following day we drove inland for a short visit to Florence. One of the days we rented gravel bikes to explore the smaller towns in the Tuscany region. We started the ride from the center of Florence which was a bit chaotic dodging motorcycles, cars, and buses zooming around the narrow roads. Just a fifteen-minute ride up the hill we could see amazing views of the Florence Cathedral with its spectacular red duomo!

 Our destination was riding to one of Italy’s best-preserved Medieval villages called San Gimignano. The town has become known as the “Manhattan of the Middle Ages” with its beautiful 12th-century towers. The bike route was much hillier than expected, so to our disappointment, we were forced to turn back earlier due to lack of daylight. The 50-mile round trip route provided breathtaking scenery as we peddled past olive groves, vineyards, and beautiful castles.

 The ride provided three food stops which was becoming part of our daily Italian routine. The owner of a bakery store blessed us with free baked goods since we realized they only took cash. The next stop was lunch at a quiet town where we watched children dancing to Italian music outside. The final feeding stop was at a gelato shop in another small town surrounded by an old Roman wall. I am not sure if our calorie intake was equal to our calorie output, but we sure enjoyed each bite.

The last day in Florence we had tickets to the Academy where we viewed the famous statue of David crafted by Michelangelo. It was amazing to view so many sculptures and paintings preserved from centuries ago. Later in the day, we drove to see San Gimignano which we had missed on our bike adventure. Back in the 12th Century, the aristocrats in San Gemignani wanted to flaunt their power and money so they built tower houses. At one time, there were more than 70 towers in San Gimignano. We walked along old Roman cobblestone streets and viewed the 14 remaining towers. 

 From San Gimignano, we continued to drive to the coastal town of Piombino. We took a short one-hour ferry ride to Italy’s best-kept secret of Elba Island. The French Emperor Napoleon in 1814 was exiled to Elba island for a year before returning to France. Not a bad place to be exiled!

Elba Island was my favorite highlight of the entire Italy trip. One could easily stay a week to explore the endless single-track trails, gravel roads, and remote beaches. Elba Island is a mountain bike paradise!

The village of Capoliveri hosted a major cycling event in 2021 for one of the stages in the Mountain Bike World Championships. Italy’s largest island also has a history of road cycling from the 1980 stage race Giro d’Italia followed by another stage race in 1993. Cycling around the island is around 101 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation.

Unfortunately, we only had three short days to explore, so we decided to focus our time on the west side of the island. The first day we did a trail run from Marciana Marina to Santa Lucia. The views of the turquoise sea below the hiking trail while taking in the aroma of wildflowers and lemon trees were heavenly. On the second day, we climbed to the top of Mount Capanne, which is the highest point on Elba island offering panoramic views 1000 meters above the Tyrrhenian Sea. We chose to ride down the mountain on small standing cable cars to save time for more exploration of the island.

 Later in the afternoon we rented three vesba motor scooters in the afternoon and stopped to swim and snorkel at several beaches. One of the beaches contains a famous Pomonte shipwreck, just 150 meters from the shore.

The merchant ship sunk in the 1970s and today is home to a varied marine life. We swam out to the shipwreck about ¼ mile from the beach to join a large group of snorkelers. Viewing both the sunken ship and all the colored fish that surrounded the boat was both thrilling and scary at the same time. 

Following Elba Island, we headed inland to our final destination in Rome. On the first day, we booked a three-hour bike tour with Baja Bikes. We followed our Holland archeologist tour guide on bikes around the center of Rome where we passed two thousand-year-old structures such as the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and ancient churches. The tour was a perfect way to get an overview of Rome while also enjoying a leisurely bike ride.

 We chose to save money by downloading the free Rick Steves audio tours of the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and St. Peter Basilica. We still purchased tickets to enter these sights, but instead of a large group tour we all wore our earbuds and enjoyed listening to Rick as he guided us through each historic sight.

Overall, the Rudd family had a good mix of both city and nature on our journey through Northwestern Italy. If I were to revisit any of the destinations again I would spend time mountain biking the trails of Elba Island! The best part of the trip of course was hanging out for twelve days with our adult children. Grateful for these memories and we look forward to future adventures.

Kim Rudd