A trip to Italy with her family inspired author BELINDA MURRELL’s latest book for young readers
Belinda Murrell is from a family of writers that goes back nearly 200 years — her great-great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, wrote the first children’s book published in Australia, called A Mother’s Offering to her Children, back in 1841. Belinda’s latest book, The Golden Tower, is a timeslip/fantasy for young readers, set in a magical Italian Renaissance-inspired world.
When did you first visit Italy?
After university, when I was 22, I headed off to Europe with my boyfriend Rob (now my husband) for two years, travelling in a rickety orange Fiat campervan. Some friends were housesitting a gorgeous apartment in Rome during August, while their relatives were away for the summer. We stayed with them, pretending to be locals — shopping at the markets, wandering through piazzas and alleyways, exploring palazzos and Roman ruins, eating pasta and soaking up the incredible culture and history. Afterwards we travelled through Tuscany and Umbria, camping in our van, visiting tiny villages and castles, ending up in Venice in time for the Regata Storica in September, when everyone dresses up in Renaissance costumes and takes to the canals in decorated gondolas. It was the most magical experience. We’ve now been five times, three of those with our kids.
What do you love about Italy?
I asked my youngest son Lachie this question and his answer was almost identical to mine. He first visited Italy aged seven then again, twice as a teenager. “Everything! The history, the people, the food, the countryside, the little villages, the architecture!”
Why did you decide to set The Golden Tower in an alternative version of Tuscany?
Lots of kids had written letters, begging me to write another fantasy book. After a holiday to Italy with my family four years ago, I decided to write a story inspired by the folklore, fairytales and Renaissance history of Tuscany. The book is about an Australian girl called Sophie, who accidently stumbles into the magical land of Tuscia, following a troublemaking cat. Tuscia is full of mystery, magic and wonder, flying horses and talking cats – but also danger and evil plots. Sophie can’t go home until she unravels mysteries and undermines the Duchessa’s cruel plans, to help her new friends. She will need all the courage she can muster.
What do you love about Tuscany?
Exploring the stunning countryside, with its vineyards, olive groves, castles, walled villages, hilltop towns and of course towers! Our favourite thing is to walk everywhere, taking photos and soaking up the atmosphere.
What places in Tuscany feature in the book?
There are two key settings in my fictional Tuscia. One is Castello de Vorrona, which is inspired by a 12th century country villa at San Donato in Collina, outside Florence, surrounded by woods and farms. The villa has a crenelated stone tower, built in 1146, where we stayed, with our bedroom at the very top of the tower. My kids absolutely loved it. The second setting is a walled hill-town called Bellomo, which was inspired by my favourite Tuscan towns such as Monticchiello, Montepulciano, Poppi and San Gimignano and, of course, their golden stone towers.
When did you first visit Italy with your kids?
When my kids were six, eight and 10, my husband’s company was sold, so we took two years off to go travelling, while we home schooled them. This included six months in Europe and 18 months camping around Australia in a caravan. Of course, we took them to Italy, visiting Venice, Rome and the hill towns of Tuscany, staying in an old stone farmhouse outside Montepulciano. My kids loved everything about Italy: eating pasta, walking in the countryside, swimming in hot springs, exploring underground tunnels and caves, picnics, counting the cats of Rome, doing cartwheels in front of the Colosseum, playing hide and seek in the Roman ruins, learning to make pasta, visiting castles, and getting lost in back alleys. We’ve since taken them all over, from hiking the picturesque coasts of Amalfi, Sorrento and Cinque Terre; exploring tiny quaint villages in Tuscany and Umbria; wandering art galleries in Venice and Florence; to scrambling around the ancient archaeological ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum, imagining what life was like back then.
What were the highlights?
One of our favourite experiences on our last trip was spending a week in the walled town of Lucca, staying in a medieval tower. We cycled around the old city ramparts, watched fireworks from the tower loggia, climbed the Torre Guinigi, with its rooftop garden of oak trees, and ate in some of the lovely local trattorias.
In Venice, we stayed for a week in a crumbling palazzo, overlooking the junction of three canals. It was during the Acqua Alta, when the city floods and Piazza San Marco was calf-deep in water. Each morning we were woken by gondoliers singing opera as they paddled past. We loved getting lost in the back alleys, riding a traditional traghetto across the canals, sampling seafood where the locals eat, and island hopping to Lido, Burano and Torcello.
Another highlight was staying in a rustic farmhouse, high above the Amalfi Coast, so we could hike the stunning Footpath of the Gods, an old donkey track linking the mountain villages. Everything the nonna cooked was home grown and delicious, and my kids loved helping with the farm animals.
How is travelling in Italy different now compared to before you had kids?
Even more fun! I love travelling with my kids – they make me laugh! I love sharing my favourite places and experiences with them. Italians also love children, so they are very welcoming to families.
What is a good age to take kids to Italy?
We’ve always travelled with our children, from when they were babies in backpacks, for two years when they were in primary school, and all through their teenage years, so I think Italy is perfect for kids of any age!
Is the food in Italy kid-friendly?
My children love Italian food — pasta alla carbonara, lasagne, gnocchi, pasta al pesto, seafood risotto, beef ragu and simple pizza in the local trattorias, which are often cheap, family-run eateries. We shop in the farmers’ markets to buy fresh bread, cheeses, salami, tomatoes and salad for picnic lunches and breakfasts. Tiramisu and cannoli are gorgeous, sweet treats and, of course, gelato is the perfect reward after a big day. It’s lucky we do so much walking!
Any other advice for families considering a family holiday in Italy?
Avoid the busy summer months when it is hot, sticky and insanely busy with long queues for key attractions. Try spring, when the weather is cooler and the wildflowers are blooming, or autumn for lovely weather and fun festivals. We spent six weeks in Italy during late December to early February, when tourists are rare, and you feel like a local. We loved the Christmas markets, New Year’s firework festivities, snow in the mountains, hiking in the cool and eating hearty meals in front of roaring fires.