Sunday, October 21, 2012

Holiday in Europe Sept/Oct 2012

The days are flying. We arrived in Paris 29 days ago and were greeted with slightly cool weather and the occasional very light shower. After 3 days once more taking in the intoxicating Parisian ambiance of the city of Light, we programmed ‘Tilly” our new Garmin GPS to avoid tolls and motorways and set out in sunshine on our driving holiday in a very comfortable new Citroen Picasso C4. This is the first time we have not traveled Europe in a Peugeot vehicle!

Picasso Citroen after 3987kms
We visited Monet’s colourful house and stunning garden on our way to Bayeux, Normandy. Bayeux lies on the Aure River close to the English Chanel. It is a perfectly preserved charming medieval town with an imposing cathedral and the world-famous Bayeux tapestry. This amazing 75 yard embroidered masterpiece is said to commemorate the deeds of William the Conqueror and has survived since the middle ages. An audio guide tells the tales of every fascinating panel.

The liberation of Europe began near Bayeux on June 6 1944. A knowledgeable local guide led us on a D-Day tour of the area which is full of military history and battle sites and has the largest English war cemetery in continental Europe plus a very large magnificently presented American war cemetery. Bayeux town was spared extensive war damage as the Germans troops immediately pulled out to defend the town of Caen. Today it is cattle, apple cider and cheese country.

President Roosevelt's son's grave in American War Cemetery
German Cannon
The Loire Valley was our next stop where we stayed in an elegant Château which has been in the same family for 5 generations. Here we experienced true French hospitality by Bruno Clement, the handsome owner. Set on the family working foie gras farm 10 km south of Tours, the Château’s large guest rooms now have modern conveniences but otherwise is unchanged – bit shabby chic. It was fun to explore the farm fields, duck ponds and tree houses.
Château du Vau
Drawing room Château du Vau
We came to this garden area of France specifically to visit, among others, the famous Villandry Château and gardens. The architecture of the Villandry Château is stunning but the gardens the Château overlooks are absolutely breathtaking and have to be seen to be believed. Seven gardens in all set on three levels in geometric patterns:- the ornamental garden, the water garden, the sun garden, the maze, the Renaissance kitchen herb garden and my favourite, the vegetable garden AND not one weed to be seen!
Villandry Château and gardens.
Tilly followed orders and took us on a very scenic route to Bordeaux region, the largest wine growing area in France and the UNESCO World Heritage Bordeaux city which is the largest French city by area. We took the city open bus tour which was a great way to hear the city history and to view the most impressive classical and neoclassical architecture. Bordeaux has more than 350 classified buildings listed as historic monuments. The former wet docks along the Garonne River are now wide, clean and lively with cafes and gardens. Our hotel was a short ride on the tram to the relaxed historic city centre. I will never understand why Sydney got rid of the tramways. Such a pity!

6am Saturday 29 September, we powered up the computer and logged onto Triple M sport to listen to the live AFL Grand Final. What a thrill and the best possible result. Our Swannies indeed did us proud. Full of good cheer and excitement for the red and whites, we said bye to Bordeaux and took the picturesque scenic route to Spain, visiting the stunning seaside towns in of luxurious Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz in SW France on the way.

Based in the historic old walled town of Hondarribia in the far east of the Basque coast of Spain in a charming 15th century fort exquisitely converted to a hotel we wandered the tiny cobbled streets lined with aristocratic buildings in this declared Historic Artistic Site. During the next two days we explored the nearby villages including the spectacular beachside town of San Sebastian. You know the saying – when in Spain …… well we did! We strolled in the evenings and feasted on delicious tapas in the pubs where very little English was spoken.

San Sebastian - Spain
Hondarribia - Spain 
Tapas plates
Next - An overnight visit to Bilbao specifically to visit the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Guggenheim Museum. What a magnificent example of groundbreaking architecture by Frank O. Gehry to exhibit contemporary art; took my breath away. Can’t say I was overwhelmed by the exhibits (not my cup of tea) but to see the building itself was worth a trip to Spain. I did quite enjoy the large and interesting exhibit of the eclectic works of Egon Schiele; on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna.
Guggenheim Museum
Back to France with a lovely overnight in Maslacq, a tiny town in the Basque/Pyrenees countryside on our way to another UNESCO World Heritage listed site; the fortified doubled walled city of Carcassonne in south western France. Our hotel was actually in the modern city on the Canal du Midi where we took the canal cruise through the fascinating locks, at least one dating back to the 17th century.
Hotel Maugouber  in Maslacq village
View from Carcassonne walled city
Lock on Canal du Midi
Still avoiding toll and motorways, we continued travelling east to the beautiful Provence area. On route we called into Montpellier and this time found the beautiful centre of the city which is truly alive. I had only been to the beach side of this city before and was not too impressed. So glad I have seen the real Montpellier. We also visited Avignon again. I love this walled town with its wonderful shops and energetic atmosphere. Along with the rest of the town, we seemed get wedged in the middle of two very lively street wedding celebrations and enjoyed the music and merriment on this sunny Saturday afternoon.
Wedding celebration in Avignon
Our stay in Provence was about 60km east of Avignon in a beautiful family run hotel in the countryside near Apt. This hotel was a really good find and so central to visit the gorgeous little villages in the area. Bonnieux is possibly the better known village but my favourite was definitely Roussillon which has so much more natural beauty with its red earth.

 Mas De le Tour hotel - Gargas district of Provence
Roussillon Village
The drive north on the minor roads wandering through the lovely villages and stopping at the active town markets from Provence to Briancon, our last stop in France, was truly sensational. I really think France has the most beautiful scenery in Europe. I love rambling through the gorgeous small villages and shopping for baguettes, cheeses, cold cuts and fruit for our picnics in the rich fresh produce markets.
Beautiful road going north from Provence
Village market
 Picnic time
The fortress town of Briancon is the highest town in Europe and of course is a renowned ski area almost on the Italian border with amazing valley views from the old fort town.
Briancon - France 
From Briancon to Susa in Italy we drove through some stunning mountain scenery. Here we were guests in the hotel owned by our friend Daniela’s family where we have stayed before. We were once more welcomed warmly into this very Italian family. We were feasted and feasted and feasted (until we could barely move) with their family and friends with music, laughter and dancing with very little understanding of what anyone was saying to anyone unless Daniela was at hand to interpret. It mattered not. We spent our final day in the Piedmont area visiting gracious Turin with Daniela which was lovely.
Archway in Susa where Hannibal  rode his elephant
Susa - Italy 
Daniela & John at th bar
Welcome cake
Daniela, Guieseppe & Vanda
Because it was raining, we used the toll way for the first time on our drive to Chiavari in Liguria. Next day, the sun was out again and back to T-shirt weather. The seaside medieval village of Chiavari is just 30km from Genova and dates back more than 1000 years. The lower Cinque Terre walk was closed because of the recent landslide and rain. Luckily we had done this walk before, so not a disappointment to us. As usual Chiavari was bustling with markets. We browsed the beautiful shops and walked along the pebble beach. Many of our Interlude travelers have stayed in the historic centre of Chiavari at the Monte Rosa Hotel which has been in the same family since 1909. The hotel has undergone extensive renovations since we were last here in 2010. There is now a very nice large pool area and terraces plus the entire reception area has been altered.

Monte Rosa Hotel Chiavari - new pool
A stay in this area would not be complete without dropping in on Portofino. It is as sparkling and colourful as ever. We meandered to Sestri Levante, La Spezia and Porta Venere plus a lovely little secluded bay, Baia Dec Selemzio, which a local told us about.

We dined at the Rapallo home of a couple (Nadia and Ralph) we met and shared a safari with last year in South Africa. Ralph was actually born in NZ and has Veterinary practices in Rapallo and S Margherita. It was so good to see them again. Nadia cooked delicious Champagne risotto. Never tasted that before and it was yummie. Ralph told us about a couple of special places well off the tourist tract to visit on our way to Tuscany which we did. Great to have the benefit of local knowledge.
We are now in the Tuscan town of Lucca famous for its ancient defense ramparts which ring the gorgeous township. The top of these thick 16th century walls are a well-cared for wide pedestrian promenade with green grass and trees along the walls. This morning we cycled in brilliant sunshine along the entire promenade along with the locals walking their dogs and other visitors cycling and strolling. It was quite easy to cycle through the ancient Roman city with tiny lively streets lined with elegant shops, lovely piazzas with medieval towers, palaces, churches and restaurants. Lucca is a gem and a perfect place to base. Had the best pizza ever here!

Pedestrian walk on top of Lucca town walls
Yesterday we took the train to Florence for the day. Did a bit of credit card damage, re-visited the crowded Ponto Vecchio, rubbed the pig’s shiny nose and made a wish at the Straw markets and walked around the Duomo until suddenly on the way back to the station, the sky opened up and it teemed. Just as suddenly, dark skinned men with and arms full of colourful umbrellas and ponchos appeared from absolutely no-where. It was so comical to watch as they quickly and illegally peddled their wares on the run with the Polizia on their tails.
By the way girls - emerald green and burnt orange are the 'in' colours here for the coming winter fashions.

The lucky pig at Straw Markets Florence
Florence from  Ponto Vecchio
Tomorrow is Wednesday so we must be in Siena, then three nights in Rome before we fly to Thailand to be spoilt in the delightful Rembrandt Hotel in Bangkok and have a few foot massages, manicures and pedicures etc. That is my idea of a perfect way to finish a great holiday!

Ciao to all. Jeanette