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A Dream Family Reunion in an Italian Castello
The Italian castle, Santa Giuliana, wasn’t quite what we’d pictured. Once through the cathedral-sized gate, we entered not into the great hall of a structure of towers and turrets, but into open air, blue sky, pathways curving among rock walls, steps leading to doorways, a garden area, grape arbors, small courtyards and the scent of rosemary in the sunshine. Within the outwardly forbidding walls was a six-building medieval village. Family who’d arrived earlier rose in greeting from a lunch table on a sunny terrace. They had been here in various permutations of grandparents, parents and children for two weeks before we came with our son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren for our family reunion in an Italian “castle.”
The family members who rented the castle had come a few days before the first arrivals and were the sustainers for a month. They assessed the layout and bought the staples and first groceries. As family groups arrived for stays staggered through the weeks, each assumed the responsibility of preparing dinner meals for a day or two, dipping into the jar of lira to which all contributed, then driving to the market in Umbertide. This became a quiet competition for the most splendid meal and best-chosen wines. After late and long dinners on the terrace, families could retreat to their rooms to put the children to bed, then emerge for talk on into the night.
A Little Something for Everyone
Journeys into Italy’s Umbrian countryside were spontaneous, with full family participation definitely not required. Some adults welcomed an occasional afternoon at the castello with any children who preferred hill walks to dim churches. Anyone who fancied a gelato over a Giorgione painting took children for adventures in the markets of Perugia, Gubbio and Citti di Castello.
Once home we reflected on the ingredients that made the castello gathering a success, then applied the lessons learned to our next family event, this time to be in England.
Planning a Family Reunion Abroad
Family reunions abroad differ from most of those convened at home. Often they are “sponsored” by grandparents who have the time to devote to the planning (and perhaps the supplemental funds to make it possible). Because of the exotic nature of the surroundings, external stimulation usually replaces, but may add to, the more familial atmosphere that exists at gatherings on home turf. Think of foreign reunions as enhanced get-togethers. If this difference has appeal, the next step is to accept the fact that they require much more planning and the answers to some important questions:
Can everyone survive a week or two without TV while in some remote castle? Can the gamers in the family do without a stretch of screen time? How about teenagers and little children both, who may miss their friends and complain of “boredom”?
Deciding on the Best Location
Once questions like these are answered, the principal issues to consider are the location and the place itself. First in this hierarchy is the international decision: What country should be chosen? (Season will play an important part in this; the earlier in summer you go, the better your choices will be.) The usual tourism factors will apply here, but you may also want to reunite in the “old country” where your family emigrated from.
Try to find an uncommon abode in some distinctive area that best suits the needs of a diverse group. Whether it’s a farmhouse or a palace, match the location with the family’s primary interests, including a desire to find the family roots. It’s essential that the surroundings, both immediate and far-flung, be key to the choices. What area, or central town or city should the rental be near? Venice? London? Siena? Dublin? Is proximity to the sea important? The mountains?
Consider Different Interests
Walks through dales and moors suggest Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall; golf suggests Scotland. Food and old towns may suggest France’s Aquitaine, while interest in castles might lead you to Wales or Ireland, and cathedrals and sculpture to England, France or Italy. Prepare a list of personal preferences, then confer with all the family. It will be worth the effort.
Space is essential — private getaway space for each of the families and, ideally, a communal area in which to gather: a common eating place, a terrace under the arbor, a library or living room.
Those of each older generation must think of the younger. The educational value of wandering through cathedrals, museums, markets and ecclesiastic ruins must give way occasionally to parks, playgrounds, beaches and cafes where lemonades and ices are served, as well as ales, vino and espresso.
If you’re unfamiliar with the country or area, consult companies that serve as agents for vacation rentals and tell them what your needs and interests are. Reputable agents know the territory and can give good personal advice, especially on finding properties that are appropriate to larger gatherings.
Renting a Unique Reunion Space
The existence of special places such as castles, villas, manors, abbeys and the like in continental Europe, Britain and Ireland has to do with history. That is, the circumstances during earlier epochs led to the construction of castles, fortified great houses, manor houses and other grand and rich dwellings, as well as the large stone farmhouses that dot Italy’s countryside. It is the circumstances of the present — specifically taxes and cost of upkeep — that cause today’s owners to offer them for rent, making possible short stays in remarkable surroundings.
Most short-term rentals in Europe are what the British call “self-catering,” which means they will likely offer maid service weekly and a change of towels and linens, but they come with kitchens ready for use. If you’re seeking a staffed rental, including a cook, there are a few, but your needs must be made clear to the property owners or agency.
Britain and Ireland
It takes a bit of effort to find suitable large places for your reunion. We had the advantage of having researched the subject of European and Scandinavian vacation rentals for a guidebook we were writing. But also we took the opportunity of a visit to family in England last Christmas to seek an ideal spot where we might convene a 16-member family get-together. Through earlier travels and the help of a good agent, we had identified possibilities, among them Combermere Abbey in Shropshire, the Owlpen Manor Estate near Dursley in Gloucestershire, Fursdon House near Exeter in Devon, and Shell Cove House at Dawlish on the south Devon coast. These are a few among many that would be excellent choices in Britain.
Manor houses, stately homes and castles in Britain and Ireland stand ready for rent in many of the most desirable locations from Kent to the Scottish Highlands and from County Cork to Donegal. Ireland may present the best values in terms of space and elegance for the price. And renting an Irish castle is no joke — consider the small seven-bedroom Springfield Castle in County Limerick, a delightful and modestly priced example. For larger gatherings and an unusual experience, a richly furnished, fully staffed 15th-century castle near Dublin can be rented via Homes and Villas International or Elegant Ireland.
Because of four children under 12 and four teenagers, we settled on the Dawlish location, with its private beach, swimming pool and proximity to several coastal villages as well as to the city of Exeter and numerous stately houses, world-class gardens and National Trust sites in Devon and Cornwall. Between the time of hatching the idea and actually booking the place, nine months had passed. The message here is to start early!
Have Italian roots or just captivated by bella Tuscany? Castles and large rental villas dot the Italian countryside, especially in the hill country of Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia Romagna. Centuries-old stone houses on working farms, called fattorie, were built to house extended families and much activity. These are by their nature rural, often surrounded by acres of forested and agricultural land, thereby making them ideal for more familial gatherings with fewer outside distractions.
Typical is Tenuta di Spineto in southern Tuscany: nine traditional stone houses widely scattered around a 2,000-acre property, each with seven bedrooms and pool. For larger gatherings, simply rent more houses and plan some meals prepared by staff at the restored abbey on the property. For freedom from meal preparation (at a cost), one of the larger houses is Villa Michaela near Lucca, a staffed rental for 18 persons.
In Veneto province, not far from Venice and Padua, is one of The Parker Company’s large properties, the Villa dei Gonzaga, a former home of 15th-century nobility, so important that it’s a national monument. Your family can enjoy a pool, tennis court, gardens, rich furnishings, statuary and art, beamed ceilings, splendid dining room and covered arched portico for dining.
For France, we favor the less touristy southwest, especially the valleys of the rivers Lot et Garonne, Tarne and the better-known Dordogne just to the north. There French Home Rentals offers some among the few large places in France suitable for gatherings, including Lagarde, Regis, Le Castanet and the immense Le Temple, formerly a castle headquarters for the Knights Templar.
Additional UK, Ireland, Scotland and France property rental companies:
Booking a Cabin Cruiser for a Family Reunion
The uncommon abode for your family reunion doesn’t have to be stationary. Among the most unusual “abodes” are cabin cruisers on the rivers and other natural waterways of Ireland, Great Britain or continental Europe.
Learning the Ropes
These motor cruisers are self-skippered, live-aboard boats that sleep from two to 10 and rent by the week, available to novice and expert alike — no experience needed. “Hire cruisers” they’re called (as distinguished from “canal narrow boats”). A small flotilla of cruisers makes possible a wonderfully varied reunion experience for all ages.
In under two hours they’ll teach you all that’s required to take the helm, navigate, read charts, dock and tie-up. These are slow cruisers, diesel engines quietly idling, governed at 6 mph. No water skiing. Just wildlife, photography, old riverside towns and pubs, monastic ruins, forests to walk or ride rented bicycles through, angling, picnicking and meeting other boaters from many lands. The cruisers are both transportation and lodging; they have equipped galleys, private cabins and bathrooms with showers. They range in size from nifty 30-footers to 42-foot broad beamers.
Renting a Cabin Cruiser
Like renting a car or cottage, cruisers come in a wide range of prices, depending on size, time of year and standards of the boat and furnishings. Also, like cars or accommodations, generally the more people that fit, the lower the price per person. Overall, the cost is more like renting a large manor house or villa, and far less than the equivalent hotel rooms or B&Bs, plus auto rent and dining out.
Travelers on a budget can take a boat that has, for example, “6 berths + 2.” The “2” are on a convertible lounge, cutting the above example prices to $21, $26 and $30 per person respectively. You’ll also find both cheaper “standard” boats and more expensive luxury cruisers.
Keeping Your “Crew” Happy and Occupied
Each day’s itinerary should be flexible, planned with the help of the charts only to the extent that your family fleet will come together at specified public moorings each night, or perhaps for lunch. Plan to travel in a loose caravan so that if one “family crew” wants to fish, another wants to engage in wildlife photography and another prefers to moor and explore, there’s freedom to do so. For luggage space and because family members may want to move from boat to boat each day, each cruiser should have two berths to spare, and the cost difference between cruiser sizes isn’t much. Crowding a boat threatens enjoyment and family harmony.
Unlike in a castle or villa with large kitchen and dining space, each crew should be responsible for shopping and preparing its own meals, although picnic areas abound where dinnertime can be shared. Or, as we discovered, dinners and lunches in family pubs and inns along the rivers and lakeshores offer tempting alternatives to work in the galley.
We boarded our first cruiser at Carrick-on-Shannon as novices four years ago, and have returned often, cruising every major natural waterway of Ireland and Britain. Visiting with families on other cruisers along the way, we often thought about gathering our own families on board. The decision was made to go again to where it had all started: a week on Ireland’s Shannon-Erne Waterway, starting at Carrick-on-Shannon and heading north, ending a week later at Knockninny, near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.
The whole of the Shannon-Erne Waterway requires nearly three weeks to cruise, although it’s typically divided into three sections, each requiring an easy week of travel one-way. For a large family of mixed ages and interests, a week is plenty.
There are also hire cruisers on the Royal River Thames, a water route perfect for lovers of history. They can be taken from marinas as near to Heathrow airport as the village of Datchet to travel upstream for a week or two as far west as Gloucestershire. Quite unlike the familiar brown tidal river of London, the Thames from near Hampton Court upriver flows gently through towns and villages, past gracious estates, wooded hills and pastures, far from crowded motorways that provide the usual experience for travelers through Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Along this most civilized of rivers, the many public moorings from Hampton Court and Windsor to those in Marlow, Henley, Abbingdon and Oxford and villages in-between welcome boaters to moor and visit.
Additional UK, Ireland, Scotland and France cabin cruiser rental companies:
Whatever and wherever you choose, castle or villa or floating palace, your family will have an unforgettable reunion experience and will dream of returning some day.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine.