"What makes you think I wouldn't want to walk in the hills of Umbria?" she answered with a characteristic blend of defiance and opportunism. Which is how, almost exactly two years later, we came to be striding out of a lonely Umbrian hill town called Castelluccio into one of the most astonishing landscapes I have ever seen.
Officially, this was Liz's reward for getting through a year of Italian at McGill University rather than chucking it for The Art of Listening or whatever first-year slackers take these days. But who needed an excuse? Any 18-year-old who is willing to humour her father by leaping over sheep dung and eating lunch on a rock deserves the best in life.
And any reservations I had that Umbria might not match her mall-based idea of what is best disappeared with that first magic moment in Castelluccio. We were in the tiny main square of a village inhabited by shepherds and lentil farmers, and rising all around us on this serene 33-degree May day were bald mountains still covered in snow. We took our first few steps forward out of the square, and there before us lay the Piano Grande, a vast upland meadow -- the largest in Europe, we were told -- of grazing sheep, neatly tilled fields, sweet-natured sheepdogs cooling themselves in water troughs and poppy-filled pastures ready to receive the hang gliders who were floating through the highland air.
This was exactly what I'd imagined when I'd planned our trip through the British travel group ATG Oxford. All we had to do over the next five days was walk 90 or so kilometres together through calming emptiness to the ancient city of Spoleto, putting one foot in front of the other while savouring the views and working up an appetite for wild-asparagus bruschetta and wild-mushroom pasta. Hotels, baggage transfers, dinner reservations, advance word of fallen trees on the path and any other cause for worry were all looked after by Lara, our ATG tour manager.
Fortunately it didn't turn out to be that easy. In spite of dunking herself in high-end sunscreen, my white-skinned child got badly burned on that first day as we walked gingerly along the treeless mountain ridges -- a lesson for all young women who might think that low-cut tank tops and Umbrian uplands make a perfect fit. But it gave us an unexpected opportunity to explore the wonders of the Italian farmacia.
We had successfully made our way up craggy ascents and down just-as-steep stony descents from Casteluccio to the small town of Norcia, famous for truffles and prosciutto and St. Benedict, but not for its skin-care products. While my worn-out companion moisturized -- a verb that had never entered my traveller's lexicon until this point -- I went looking for the local equivalent of Shoppers Drug Mart and a tube of no-name sunscreen.
But in Italy, small-town Italy anyway, there is no such thing. You enter a small shop that looks more like a clinic, with a do-not-touch attitude to product display. A serious young woman in a white lab coat -- the kind you see on those solemn beauty-product infomercials -- approaches you and listens thoughtfully while you stammer out your needs in first-year Italian.
She then walks to a shelf, scans it professionally, deliberates with studious care and delivers to you a 50-millilitre container of French Riviera ointment that will last a day and a half and costs $25. You are not allowed to turn it down, or ask if there is something cheaper.
Fortunately my daughter is delighted by high-quality skin-care products, and was pleased that a small town in a remote corner of Europe was committed to setting its sunscreen standards so high. When the town optician, minutes before his 8 p.m. closing, patiently repaired Liz's sunglasses by searching through a drawer of tiny screws until he found the right one, and then refused to take payment -- "My pleasure," he said with great dignity -- she was equally impressed.
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