TRAVEL ITALY AND FRANCE 2014– TRAVELOGUE
I am running this same tour in September 2016 and I hope you will join me !
There were seven of us on this journey, myself and six others from different places within Australia. Five of us had the stopover in Singapore and we met two of the girls on our first day in Rome, as they had used their own Frequent Flyer points.
We started our first day in Singapore in our hotel on the banks of the Singapore River with a sumptuous breakfast and time to get to know each other. Late checkout meant we could take advantage of the pool if we wanted to or just relax, before we took off for our afternoon tour, following the footsteps of ‘Raffles’. We enjoyed a Bumboat ride along the Singapore River, with spectacular views of all the buildings that circle Marina Bay .The most spectacular being the Marina Bay Sands, which looks like a boat sitting atop a huge skyscraper. We ended the day at the Tiffin Room in Raffles enjoying High Tea, beautifully presented delicacies, in gorgeous surroundings, served by attentive waiters, fantastic! Back at the hotel we sat around the pool and got to know each other better and had time for a last drink at the bar, before it was time to head to the airport for our flight to Rome!
We were all in pretty good shape when we got to Rome and ready and rearing to go out and explore. We met up with our other two travellers and went out to my favourite little cafe, for some coffee and sustenance. We then strolled back to St Peters Square a stone’s throw from our hotel, to watch the Pope marry 20 couples ,which was shown on big screens in the square and stayed on to see him emerge from his window in the Papal Apartments, to do his weekly Angelus blessing.
We then took a few hours rest before we met again late in the afternoon, to visit my favourite place in Rome, Trastevere.
I am always beside myself with excitement when I get to Rome, so this time was no exception, for me it is like a giant Disneyland.
I love the way the light bounces off of the uniquely painted and distressed buildings, the streetscapes, ivy and wisteria covering the facades of the houses, the cobblestoned streets, the layers and layers and layers of history ,that pokes out here, there and everywhere, the majestic buildings ,the over the top churches, the culture, the language etc etc... Get the picture? So starting our time in this area, with its tiny streets and layers of history, beauty, medieval churches and the best Pizza in Rome, feels like the perfect way to start our time in Rome.
We started the next morning visiting the Campo de Fiore, the liveliest market in Rome, brimming with fresh produce, flowers, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Limoncello (and yes it is perfectly ok to taste Limoncello at 9 o'clock in the morning!!).
We spent the morning wandering the beautiful cobblestoned back streets, popping our heads into extraordinary Baroque Churches, exploring Piazzas and visiting the old Jewish Ghetto area. We spent the afternoon at the centre of Roman antiquity, exploring the Colosseum, The Roman Forum, The Palatine and the Imperial Forums, before finishing our day off eating Al Fresco in one of the many character filled restaurants that fill the streets, the weather was perfect and the piano accordion players were out in force, adding even more atmosphere to our surroundings.
Next morning we visited St Peters Basilica, before heading into town to spend the day exploring more of what Rome has to offer.
The Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain (now under repair) , we found the house that Gregory Peck lived in the film Roman Holiday
(Via Margutta 51), had coffee at the stunning Cafe Tadolini Canova, ate Gelato, wandered , laughed , ate, and drank the odd coffee, beer or wine! The piece de resistance and always the unexpected WOW! factor of the day, was the Pantheon, we finished the day at the Piazza Navona.
Next morning we were picked up by my driver Luca and transferred in his comfortable van to Florence. On the way we stopped for a time in Umbria's grand hill town, Orvieto, famous for its Duomo (Cathedral), Wine and Ceramics. Arriving in Florence, we headed out to once again be overwhelmed by their stunning Duomo, Belltower and Baptistery.
We visited the Bargello and swooned over their collection of statuary by Michelangelo and Donatello.
We explored back streets, and ended up in what I consider one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, the open air art gallery that is Piazza della Signoria. The weather still perfect ,we dined in a café in the Piazza, watching the sun go down, the sky turning the most magical dark blue with the stunning Palazzo Vecchio towering above us.
Next morning we visited the Uffizi Gallery the most important gallery in the world, I love taking my groups here, as I am passionate about Renaissance art and this place is filled with it! After a visit to the Ponte Vecchio, we all had some free time. We met again at 4pm for our visit to The Accadamia Gallery, which houses Michelangelo’s David. I first visited David in 1983 and have lost count of how many times I have seen him; I am touched by the beauty of him every time. Michelangelo, was the ultimate artist and it is mind blowing to think it is over 500 years old !! I am also happy to report that for the first time since the 90’s you are allowed to take photos of him, so I was snapping away like a crazy woman! After visiting David, we visited the San Marco leather market and ended the day (in what was becoming a bit of a habit) ,sipping the luscious orange coloured drinks to the right Aperol Spritzs !
Once again next morning we were picked up by our driver and taken in comfort to the magical land of Cinque Terre. We visited the Piazzale Michelangelo on our way out of town, for a stunning view over Florence. Also en route, we stopped and visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the surrounding Field of Miracles, with its stunning Duomo and Baptistery. As we were walking to see the Leaning Tower, we all noticed that is was getting rather dark and cold, the clouds that where approaching looked like a slowly invading monster. As it happens, it turned out to be a mini tornado, when it finally arrived all hell broke loose and it poured with rain. Needless to say the umbrella salesmen did a great business, however, quite a few of us ended up drenched but we also ended up in gales of laughter as well. No-one will forget Pisa in a hurry!
Cinque Terre (the 5 lands) is one of my favourite places on the planet, we checked into our hotel on the beachfront at Monterosso al Mare, and after a leisurely exploration of the old town, we tried one of the local specialities Trophie and Pesto, delicious. Some free time, after which we met for dinner at a cafe on the beach.
There are four walking trails connecting the five towns of the Cinque Terre, all of which are very popular. Two of the trails are reasonably easy and two are quite difficult. Owing to the delicate nature of the environment, landslides are quite commonplace, so the trails are opened and closed, depending on their condition. The two easier ones have been closed for some time now, so only the difficult and the very difficult one where open. Only one of the girls felt that she was fit enough to do these walks and was happy to take off on her own to pursue this.
It turns out that the track was very muddy and slippery and although she felt a great sense of achievement for having done the walk, she was unfortunately covered in scratches and bruises at the end of it.
The rest of us settled on my Plan B, for those who don’t wish to walk (The Ferry) , and spent the next few hours , visiting and exploring these gorgeous towns, that literally hang off the cliffs and tumble down to the sea. The ferry only works when the sea is calm and affords a fantastic view of this extraordinary coastline. Luckily, if the sea is rough there is a Plan C (The Train), which connects all of the towns.
By the afternoon the sun was shining and we returned to our hotel which has its own ‘ Bagnino’, which is a beach , but not any old beach!
A Bagnino has lounge chairs, umbrellas and a life guard, so we spent a gorgeous time relaxing on the beach, swimming in the clear Mediterranean and a few of us availed ourselves of a foot or back massage, or both !
The sea gets deep very quickly and it is heavenly to swim in, with views of the cliffs that descend down to the sea all around. Heaven!
Leaving Cinque Terre, we headed off to our next stop the beautiful little town of Varenna on the shores of Lake Como, this little town of only 800 people is known as the ‘Diamond of the Lake’. Our hotel, which is situated on the lake, has been in the same family for 3 generations and is run by Laura, a charming lady, who I have come to know and respect over the years and her hotel is one of grand old elegance, of a time past.
Our first afternoon was spent exploring the little town with its gorgeous water edge pathways, cafes and shops, followed by dinner in Laura’s restaurant, sitting out the front under an awning overlooking the lake.
Next morning we set off by ferry to Bellagio ‘The Pearl of the Lake”. The scenery of the Alps cascading down to the water’s edge, the dark blue very deep lake is spectacular.
We spent the morning exploring the many stone alleyways of Bellagio, enjoying the atmosphere and the views. Later in the day we returned to Varenna and visited the gardens of Villa Monastero. Studded with exotic plants and filled with statuary, follies and a grand view, it is a beautiful relaxing place to visit and we took out time there, enjoying the beauty.
Our time in Lake Como was very relaxing, the air is very clean and it doesn’t feel crowded at all. It’s a great place to stop, relax, slow down and regroup and it is easy to see why Lake Como had been popular since the time of the Romans and the choice of many famous people down the ages, with a need to get away from it all.
From here we travelled again with my driver to Venice, I also love the guys at the hotel I use in Venice, they are so friendly and bend over backward to make sure our stay is a good one. Our first activity in Venice was to take a Water Taxi ride all the way down the Grand Canal.
I love these water taxis with their sleek lines, beautiful woodwork and uber cool drivers. We had the coolest of them all, quite a character we named him Fabio, and he made our memorable. We visited the Doges Palace, crossed the Bridge of Sighs and explored the dungeons. We visited the unbelievable St Marks Basilica and explored St Mark’s Square.
Next morning I took the girls to the old Venetian Ghetto area of Venice, in which Jews were made to live under the Venetian Republic.
This was the oldest Ghetto in the world, which was started in 1516. The word Ghetto actually comes from the Venetian word Ghetto, which was used in reference to a foundry, which was in the area. I then took them for a walk to the quieter part of Venice where the real people live. The streets are quiet, not a tourist in sight.
We finished the morning off with morning tea at a canal side cafe, followed by a relaxing Gondola ride.
The rest of the day was free for the girls to shop, explore or rest.
We were meant to fly to Nice the next morning; however there was a huge month long Air France strike that has been affecting many fights, unfortunately our flight to Nice next morning was on the hit list. However, thanks to my extraordinary wing-man Nathan, he managed to get us another flight, the only hitch was that we had to go via Paris!
My travellers took this in their stride and enjoyed having lunch in Paris (even if it was only at the airport!). We were just grateful that we got a flight and arrived in Nice on the French Riviera late in afternoon. The weather was perfect and we took the opportunity to stroll along the esplanade (Promenade des Anglais), we explored the Old Town of Nice that is very much like being in Italy. In fact, Nice was part of Italy until the unification of Italy in (1871), when it was given the choice to join France, which it did.
Next day we were picked up from our hotel by our driver Carolyn and taken for a great day out to visit all the top spots of the French Riviera. The view over the calm expansive sea of the Mediterranean was spectacular.
The bay of Ville-sur-Mer, filled with its huge boats, is very beautiful. Our first stop was the pristine hilltop village of Eze, where we had time to explore the tiny little village with its pretty buildings and alleyways. We continued along the coastline and visited Monaco. The vista of the buildings and the thousands of yachts, from the top of the hill near the palace where Princess Grace lived, is quite breathtaking.
We continued onto Monte Carlo and where blown away by the amount of Maserati’s and Aston Martins we saw driving around.
In the afternoon we visited Cannes, Antibes and drove along the seafront back to Nice.
Next morning we travelled by train to the gorgeous city of Avignon in Provence. Ringed by incredibly preserved 800 year-old stone ramparts, graceful Avignon was the seat of Papal Power for 67 years , which bestowed the city with a treasury of magnificent art and architecture, nothing grander than the massive medieval fortress of the papal palace, the Palais des Papes.
Our hotel was a stone throw away from here and we enjoyed the afternoon exploring this and the surrounding area, as well as visiting the Pont Avignon made famous in the childhood song.
The next day we spent a full day exploring Provence, with our private car and driver. In Orange visited the Roman Arch of Triumph and the extraordinary Antic Theatre one of the most well-preserved theatre of the Roman Empire .We tasted wine at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We also visited a series of stunning hill top villages, lunch in Rousillon, famous for its unusual red and yellow ochre cliff landscape, and Gordes, a perched village famous for its architecture with dry stones. Lastly, we visited les Baux de Provence, a village perched upon a rock at 245 metres high, a stunning place that was so interesting to explore.
It was one of the girls birthdays while we were in Avignon and we found the perfect place to celebrate it, great food, and great wine and terrific company!
Next morning we were meant to fly to Bordeaux, unfortunately the Air France pilot strike was going to affect us once more. Again, Nathan came to the rescue and got us a flight later in the day, which meant we had a lot more time in Avignon. Luckily, it was my birthday and the perfect place was found to have a great lunch. Thanks so much girls for making it a very special birthday I felt so special and it is one I will always remember!
We eventually arrived in Bordeaux late that day, and checked into our hotel in the centre of town. Next day we joined a full day tour that took us on a day of discovery of the most famous appellations in the Medoc-Margaux area. During the day we visited four Chateau (wineries), tasting fabulous wines with regional specialities. The three course lunch we were served in the village of Margaux was superb. On our return to Bordeaux we went exploring this beautiful town. The narrow streets of the 18th century city are lined with grand mansions, the whole of the city centre being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Next morning we caught a train to the centre of the Loire Valley, the town of Tours. The Loire River is absolutely stunning and we spent the evening in the old town. Place Plumereau is a wonderful square, a great place to visit and around its edges there are beautiful 12th to 15th century half-timbered houses.
Next day we toured the area in with our car and driver and spent the day visiting and exploring the superb Chateau that makes the area famous. Our first stop was the stunning Chenonceau Castle, which spans across the Cher River. The collections, furniture and decorations are superb and each room is filled with a huge display of flowers, picked fresh from the surrounding gardens.
We then visited the Royal Chateau of Amboise, set high on a hill with stunning views of the Loire River and the gorgeous town of Amboise. Leonardo da Vinci lived in Amboise, at the end of his life and we visited his tomb while we were there. After lunch, we visited Chateau de Chambord, with it’s very distinct and over the top architecture, we finished off the day at Chateau de Cheverny, which is an estate that has been in the same family for 6th centuries. Cheverney has always been lived in and every generation has made an effort to lovingly maintain it.
We drove from Tour to Paris with a private car and driver, and checked into our hotel in the fantastic Marais area.
Everyone was so excited to be in Paris, as soon as we checked in we headed out to explore this beautiful city. Our first stop was the fantastic Musee Dórsay, were we visited all of the Impressionist paintings, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Gauguin, Lautrec etc.
Welcome to Paris! We strolled along the Left Bank of the Seine and then joined a boat trip along the Seine, which lasted an hour and gave everyone their first view of the iconic Eiffel Tower. We visited the Notre Dame, its bells tolling loudly while we were there.
Our days in Paris were filled with exploration and enjoyment. We visited the Louvre and the Jardins de Tuilerie, strolled down the Champs Elyses and took the Hop on Hop off bus, just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. . We all had a free day in Paris while we were there, which gave everyone the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. A few girls visited Monet's Garden in Giverny, others shopped, had their hair cut, window shopped, and explored the Marais.
During our time in Paris we also joined a day tour to Mont St Michel, which is perched on a rocky islet in the midst of vast sandbanks, exposed to powerful tides between Normandy and Brittany. The mount is best known for the medieval Benedictine Abbey .A huge storm came in while we were up in the Abbey, it was extraordinary to see the power of it, as it arrived and I was glad to be inside watching it. The tide also started coming in with a fury during this time, it was easy to see how many pilgrims in the past had been washed away by the power of this tide, when trying to cross to and from the abbey.
Our last night in Paris, we visited the Eiffel Tower, one of my favourite things to do and a great way to end a fantastic trip. We visited the second level, from which the views are stunning and there is not a better way to see the City of Lights than at night, when it is illuminated in all of its splendour.
And then it was over, I always find it hard to say goodbye, although you would think I would be used to it by now!