Thursday, September 30, 2010

Day 26 – Exploring countryside Perigord

Happy birthday Bruce! Alan volunteers to drive again, much to Sue and my relief, and we head off for Sarlat. We drive through acres and acres of walnut trees – one of the main staples of the area. Of course we get lost a few times but by late morning we are wandering the fresh produce market – agog with all the fabulous cheeses, sausages, olives, and walnut products. We taste chocolate and caramel walnut pieces – mmm.

Sue and I have a little shop before we take toute directions around and around a few times and head off towards Lascaux caves. At Montignac, a town bizarrely festooned with plastic flower bunting for the local Miss Periogord 2010, we have lunch at a corner spot. Over to Sue our food writer:

“Lee and I have a duck salad - cured duck and duck gizzards plus walnuts and croutons on a bed of greens. Surprisingly tasty for 7.50 euros. Alan has endive salad with duck and a couple of cheeses.”

The caves are reproductions of the original caves discovered in 1940, which have animal illustrations over 17,000 years old. All rather mind boggling but a little claustrophobic for me.  We buy a present for James here.

Back at the farmhouse, with a few more meandering detours, we debrief with Larry in the courtyard before taking off for dinner at a restaurant below our local Hautefort castle.

Over to Sue again:

“We have complimentary pieces of cured duck with an aperitif (peach, apricot and pear). Lee chooses a bottle of Chateau Barotte – a light merlot style red. We all choose the 3-course formulae meal for 19 euros.

“We share the three entrees of pate de foix, rillard of duck and rabbit terrine. All are served on top of greens with little berry and citrus preserves. Excellent start to a great meal. Alan and Lee choose the lamb with a sauce of mushrooms, chestnuts and cream and I choose the confit duck leg. All served with jacket potatoes with vegetables including lightly battered zucchini.

“Alan and I choose the mixed plate of apple tart and walnut, chestnut and almond cake for dessert. A very light cake served with vanilla ice cream. Lee has fig and plum ice cream but thinks she would have preferred our dessert. The exquisite meal is completed with a complimentary raspberry liqueur.

“The total cost is 81 euros.”

Four English people are at the table opposite. They remind us of the crew from the English tv series 'New Tricks'. They are very jolly and have a chat with us before they leave. “ I love it here,” says one of the men, “I am constantly full of duck and goose fat.”

Day 25 – Hautefort farmhouse, Perigord

Our car and accommodation at Hautefort
Alan is very stressed as we drive the hire car, with Sue now on board, out of Bordeaux airport and around and around a few toute directions until we finally get heading in the right direction. We can't chat much about the news from home because Alan needs us all concentrating on navigating …
We relax though when we hit the country roads and pull in at St Emilion about an hour later. The picturesque stone town seems devoted to selling the local wine, which we taste and it's wonderful. We have lunch in the square below the church tower and toast the three of us finally being here in south west France – a dream we've had for 13 plus years.

After lunch and a spot of shopping we head towards our farmhouse. We get lost a few times, which adds to the anticipation. When we finally get here, Les gites fleuris is everything and more than we had imagined it would be.

Our building is a couple of hundred years old and has a big open fireplace in the lounge room. There are rickety steps going up to the bedrooms on the top floor where you have to dip your head at the top.

The gardens and view are lovely – overgrown flower gardens, vegie gardens, barns, pool, jacuzzi. Our hosts Renata and Larry are a fabulous and very hospitable couple originally from America. They bring us over some of their home-made walnut wine to have before dinner. That plus a bottle of excellent Bordeaux claret, some foie de canard, cheese and bread, plus a meal we cobble together from the local supermarchet, then a nightcap of limonchello sees us all sleeping soundly be 9.30pm.

Our lunch spot at St Emilion


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day 24 – a day spent in the Provence countryside

Carolyn, an attractive young French woman, is our tour guide on our tour for the day. Our companions are six Canadians – one couple speak English and the other two French – so Carolyn does her commentary in both languages. First stop is Cannes where we walk the promenade past the red carpet of the Film Festival building and the huge elegant hotels that overlook the waterfront. It is a lovely sunny day and one can imagine the buzz of this place in May when the film festival is on.

Up into the hills behind Cannes we drive to Grasse, the historic town which is the centre of the perfume industry in France. We tour the Fraginod perfume factory and I am cursing my cold which has dulled my sense of smell. Undeterred, I buy several bottles of perfume and even Alan buys a cologne.

Onward we drive up to another historic hilltop town built in the 12th century, Gourdon. I am constantly amazed in Europe that just when you think you have been to the most beautiful place on your trip so far you come across yet another exquisite place. We have lunch on the third floor of a quaint restaurant with superb views right down the valley to the Cote d'Azur.

The air is clean and fresh and we drive onwards on windy roads through forests of cork trees and waterfalls to St Paul. Carolyn extols the virtues of living in this part of the world: the beautiful coastline for swimming and yet within just twenty minutes one can be in the countryside. Less than an hour and a half from the coast there are ski fields and Carolyn says that Oui she has swum and skied on the same day.

St Paul is our final stop for the day – another fortressed stone town – even more beautiful than the last. Here there is a labyrinth of alleyways, boutiques and many art galleries. Shauna would just love it here. The area is renowned for being a mecca for artists with Chagall, Matisse and Picasso being just a few of the big names who have lived for a while in this part of the world. As one of our Canadian companion remarks “I am saturated. I can't take another photograph – there's just too much darn beauty here.”

Back at the same very average restaurant close to our hotel we spend another meal with our 80+ year old American chums. Jimmy tells us that he shares his birthday with Mickey Mouse –28 December, 1928. For his eightieth birthday his family took him to Disneyland where he was given a giant commemorative Mickey Mouse badge.

Day 23 – half way through our holiday – en route to Nice

Today is one of those blah travel days. On trains most of the day from Levante to Nice and a cold coming on for me. Some dodgy characters get on the train at Genova, which makes me feel nervous for a while. Alan and I do our too-impatient thing again and jump off one train one station short of our destination – this time without being able to jump back on the train again. Adds a bit of excitement to the day and an extra bus journey. We arrive in Nice around 5pm and go straight to our hotel, which is out near the airport. Over dinner in the only restaurant available for miles we chat with a very wealthy American couple in their eighties who travel constantly.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 22 - Levanto

Our place in Levanto -
top floor with our washing out the window
I could live in this town. I love the lush forested hills in the background, the beach in the foreground, the old houses and apartments, vegie gardens everywhere, washing hanging from verandahs, family life going on. It feels like a safe place where nothing untoward could ever happen. Saturday morning is a slow start in Levanto. We take parcels to the post office and bags of dirty washing to the laundromat. In the park opposite the laundromat children play as dads read the paper. Women ride by on push bikes or push shopping bags on wheels into the bakery, then the pasta shop, the fruit shop, the butcher, the cheese shop...

In the early afternoon we catch the train to the last of the five Cinque Terre towns we haven't visited yet – Monteresso. It is a pleasant temperature but cloudy. The beach has a public area where the beachfront consists of sharp pointy little rocks and private areas which have been raked to create grey sand, lined with striped beach umbrellas and sun lounges. We tackle the public part first and it is like a comedy routine as we both try to negotiate our way into and out of the sea. Ouch ouch ouch.

After lunch we decide to live it up and pay for the luxury of soft sand and sun lounges in the private areas. Ten euros – extortion – twice what we ever paid in Santorini but pleasant for a relax for a while. The sun keeps dipping in and out behind clouds and it is almost too cool to swim but we do - we are Hobartians after all.

Dinner is in a very traditional Italian restaurant. I have some amusing interactions with the grandmotherly lady who serves us. I point to the red on my sun glasses case to indicate rare for the beef and when we refuse the bread because it is making us too fat, all indicated with sign language, she returns with crackers determined to make sure we eat enough. We wander home for our last night in La Gerbera – back to the sounds of the town's clock dinging at very strange intervals all night long and the trains coming and going.

Alan attempting the in and out rocky swimming procedure

Me negotiating the same

One of the cute little one person trucks driven all around the Cinque Terre

Monteresso beach - the paying end!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Day 21 - Cinque Terre walk - the more love you make, the more love you take

I am sure this day is going to be one of the days we remember most of this trip - a magical day. We catch the train to Riomaggiore, the first of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre. This little town is renowned for 'amore' and as we start the coastal track for the next village there is colourful graffitti lining the cliff face walls. There are also thousands of locks of all sorts, shapes and colours hanging off wire fencing all along the walk - apparently put up by people in love 'to lock their love for posterity'.

The walk is a great introduction to the Cinque Terre - it is relatively short at only one km to the next small town of Manarola and hugs the cliffs with spectacular scenery. We enter a tunnel with windows looking out to sea and a wonderful sound of a piano accordian playing a very upbeat melody, very much dance music, greets us. Fantastic acoustics in the tunnel and to hear it made everyone smile. This was one busker who was on to a good thing and we stopped to put money in his hat.

We explore Manarola, which unfortunately is packed with tourist groups - I thought we had escaped all this - before getting on the train to take us to town number three: Corniglia.

Here we climb 382 steps (and they are hard steps) up to the town perched on top of a hill. As we climb the zig zag steps I can smell the most wonderful smell. There are yellow wildflowers everywhere - I think they are a common weed - and suddenly I think of honey. Later in the town I buy some of the local honey and it smells just like the flowers. Ligurian honey - very different and delicious.

The small town is enchanting. Despite an influx of tourists walking the Cinque Terre walk it still functions totally as a small rural village. The cheese shop, bakery and delicatessen are so rustic I realise that all the delis we have in Australia are imitations trying to capture the authenticity of what I am seeing - the real thing. Dinky little one person trucks arrive in the village square with boxs of grapes in the back.

At the small pizzeria/restuarant we have lunch and order lemonata. Unlike Rome and Florence where we were used to getting something resembling Sprite - here we get just pure lemon juice and ice - no sweetening at all. Very much a liver cleansing kick to start our walk on the trail to the next town of Vernazza.

The walk takes us uphill through olive groves and vineyards and then around the clifftop. More spectacular scenery. It is tough going though - the hips complain a lot. There are a lot of people on the walk and we all laugh as we pass each other, all grateful for the opportunity to stop for a moment.

By mid afternoon we reach Vernazza, a delightful town, perched on a rock - not much flat ground, but atmospheric with narrow streets and colourful houses close-knit together. There is a small bay with a circular marina and lots of boats and people. Alan and I do the cozzie changing thing with a sarong and slip off rocks into the Ligurian Sea.

We return to Levante about 5pm worn out but happy. We find a great little restaurant and have one of the best meals we have had in Italy. We try the traditional Gattafin for our antipasto course and love it. It consists of pecorini cheese with crushed basil and other herbs in pastry. (Ligurian cuisine is renowned for its pestos, anchovies, wines and honey.) Alan has scallopine in a white wine sauce, me grilled beef, both accompanied by ratatouille and delicious roasted and herbed potatoes. We end the meal with a basilico liquer. Perfecto.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 20 - Florence and Levanto

At the Uffizi Gallery at 8.15 am we are in the queue you have when you are not supposed to be having a queue. We are in the queue for people who already have a reservation.

Half an hour later we are in and spend several hours gazing at paintings. So amazing to see so many paintings I have looked at in art books, studied in art history (wish I could remember some of things I was told at art school!). For a brief moment or two as I gaze at the many portraits I contemplate all these lives, now over.

We are about to exit when I say to Alan that we haven't seen any of the Boticellis or works by Leonardo da Vinci. We buy a guidebook and discover some rooms we haven't even been to – thank goodness we do. The Boticellis are exquisite – Alan taken with how beautiful his women are. I especially like 'Spring'.

We do a last minute look in some shops, have lunch and make our way to the train station.

The trip to Levanto is uneventful – we both nod off a bit like old folk. There is a little excitement at the end however when we hop off the train one stop too early and have to quickly jump back on the train – no mean feat with our heavy suitcases - and then at Levanto we can't find our bed and breakfast.

As Alan remarks travel is a great thing for teaching you that when things go wrong there is no use in stressing. There is always an outcome, usually positive, you've just got to go through it. We ask a few people in the supermarket, then on the street, and finally find Le Gerbera, which is very tasteful and pleasant – apart from the building site behind and the train noises.

Levanto is a small seaside town, at the end of the Cinque de Terre, and it is nice to be at a place where there are not so many tourists. There is a cool nip in the air at our outdoor restaurant just back from the beach. We have our best meal in Italy so far – octopus and fresh fish.

Day 19 - Alan is transformed in Florence

The plan is to walk over to the Boboli Gardens where I am told you can see a view of the whole city, but when we arrive – with several shopping diversions along the way we are confused by the ticketing system and buy tickets to see the Gardens and the Pitti Palazzo. So glad we have as the palace and the artworks in it are magnificent.

The palace is enormous with several floors and rooms of grand proportions – each room a work of art in itself – rich baroque colours, lush furnishings and floor coverings and each room filled entirely of artworks, including the bedrooms. We have seen nothing to compare with it this trip. There is a Caravaggio exhibition in one part of the palace and we easily spend a few hours in the palace before even venturing into the gardens.

The Gardens are wonderful – on the grand scale – with the early part being a very classical style garden with mazes, fountains etc. whereas the top area (with the magnificent view of the Florence) being the setting for many modern sculptures and pieces by Bardini.

It is mid afternoon when we finally leave the palace and make our way back over the Ponti Vecchio bridge for lunch and some shopping. What fun - we buy beautiful leather handbags, scarves, books, posters, gloves. I can see we will shortly have to have another visit to the post office.

Alan has his haircut at a barber shop near the Ponti Bridge. The barber takes quite some time with his 'transformation'. The cut is very Italianate – with feathering at the back, a bit of boof on top, sharp sides, oiling etc. He looks fantastic. I have always thought Alan is very Roman in profile and now especially so.

Latin lover and I have dinner in a restaurant overlooking a plaza and musical carousel. I try the chianti with my meal of pork and vegetables. Alan has mushroom pasta. We eat gelatis as we wander slowly back to Hotel Hermes savouring the wonderful bustling street scenes of Florentine life.

Day 18 of our trip - Florence

Ah it is so nice to be here. Florence is much quieter than Rome and today is the first day I don't feel hot. Our hotel is just by the railway station and pleasant enough. Patricia the hotel owner came to Rome from Texas to do her Masters in Art some 40 plus years ago but ended up getting her Mrs qualifications instead she says with a big hearty laugh. Hubby obviously not alive any more. Rosie, her offsider, makes a mean cappuccino for Alan.

We wander down the cobbled pedestrian streets remarking at how different the architecture is here – not all ruins like Rome but very distinctive buildings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance period. It is easy to see why Florence is known as the 'Jewel of the Renaissance'.

Architecture aside there is shopping! Leather bags, beautiful paper products, scarves, art works....

We spend a great day exploring, shopping a little, nice meal, gelati – what more could one want.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day 6 Rome - our last day in the eternal city

I am glad it is the last day here. I am overwhelmed by this city. Shauna sends a rallying text message in response to my text to her that we haven't seen everything we had set out to see. 'Walk faster, drink less limoncella and visit the Vatican.' We take heed. By 8.45am we are at the Vatican and signed up for a tour to beat the queue.

The Vatican is extraordinary. Words cannot describe the experience so I won't even try apart from saying I am so glad that I have been lucky enough to visit it in my lifetime. For me it is one of my most memorable experiences in Rome. We are told that there is so much artwork in the Vatican that if you spent just one minute looking at each it would still take you 15 years to see it all.

We write postcards and post them at the Vatican post office then eat the lunch Alan made this morning outside in the square with the pigeons.

Alan has a burning desire to visit the Forum and the Palatine area. It is incredibly hot now and I am flagging. The site is extraordinary as are so many other things we have seen in Rome but I am completely wilted. I lie under an umbrella pine (I am quite taken with these trees) while Alan roams around taking pictures. I don't feel too bad as there heaps of other people doing just the same thing as me.

I am feeling like I want to go back to our apartment for a lie down but the thought of the metro and then five flights of steps is as much to put me off as just continuing on. We still have to visit the Travestevere area Shauna has recommended. We take a taxi. I am glad we do as it is a pleasant change from the rest of Rome. We wander cobbled streets with interesting shops and have a late lunch at a nice restaurant overlooking the piazza.

We return to our apartment feeling like we have conquered Rome. Phew.

Funny moment of the day - At Termini station we both want to use the loo. We find one, and you have to pay a Euro to get through a turnstile. I am a bit worried when we get inside as there are only men in the queue but there are two toilet attendants in there who they don't say anything, they are busy arguing with one another, gesticulating wildly. I assume it is one of those unisex loo stops. After several minutes one of them finally notices me and ushers me rudely out: “NO SIGNORA.” When I finally pay another euro and get into the ladies loo I find a bewildered old bloke in there who has managed to get past the toilet attendant in this one.

Day 5 Rome – Day 16 of our trip when we lose the plot

Our first mistake of the day
I suppose when you travel you have to have a day when nothing goes right. We arrive at the Vatican and are overwhelmed by the queue. Just way too long – picture a queue from Hobart waterfront to North Hobart and you get the idea. A bit despondent we wander off for lunch. The restaurant we choose looks a bit classier than a pizzeria but we need a bit of cheering up. The waiter insists we have a refreshing cocktail. Hmm, I am thinking no breakfast this morning - could be a bad idea - but Alan has already agreed.

The cocktail is delicious, the meal reasonably so, the bill exorbitant compared to our usual meals.

We leave aiming for the metro station to take us to another part of Rome but after about forty minutes of walking around we are lost, hot, a bit cranky and needing a loo...

Aha I see a large M sign way off in the distance and we have hope at last – a metro station finally. It is a terrible irony when we finally make it to our destination to find we have arrived at a large McDonald's. The golden arches of Maccas instead of a metro stop. Don't tell anyone this Alan says but of course here I am telling you now.

The only achievements of our day are to find an Internet cafe, a bakery for some bread, and to finally see the interior of 'our' church opposite where a mass is going on.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day four beyond Rome - the Amalfi coast and Pompeii

A 6.45 am start, Max our driver picks us up outside our apartment. We are a party of eight on the tour – four Americans and two Canadians plus us. The woman beside me tells me she has just retired at 50 from being a prison guard for 28 years in Springfield, Missouri. "They let you off early because the job is so tough." The long tall daughter travelling with her is on leave from US army service in Kuwait. A highlight of their trip is going to be the beer festival in Munich.

The other American couple are middle-aged Virginians who live in a middle class area at an equal distance of 100 miles respectively from the sea, the mountains and Washington DC. He is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cream shorts which I assume to be the opposite of his usual apparel as a lawyer for an international security company. His wife has problems with her back and feet which inhibits her getting around easily - but she is determined to enjoy herself.

Max breaks speed records as we hurtle along the three lane highway in our minibus. We are soon flying along the Campanian Plain until we strike the magnificent sight of the Amalfi Coast far below our first lookout point.

The roads are narrow and windy but we eventually arrive in the town of Amalfi - Lee falls in love with the place especially the shop where she buys a 750ml bottle of Lemoncello.

At Positano we have a fine lunch at a restaurant adjacent to our first swimming beach since Santorini. Onwards we go until we drive into the Pompeii site about 4 pm and meet 'Tano', a local tour guide, whose powers of lively presentation are so impressive that he has appeared on BBC television and other networks. And yes, Tano delivers the most entertaining and instructive two hour tour that we have ever been privileged to experience. Thanks to Tano, Lee now feels that she has some grasp not only of Pompeii but also of the essence of Roman civilisation itself.

About 8.30 pm we are back in Rome – a happy but weary bunch of travellers.

A sign on a cobbled street in Pompeii indicating a brothel
The typical tourist shot at Pompeii with Mt Vesuvius in the background