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Nine Weeks in France and Italy, 2010


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I am posting this with the France trip reports even though it includes Italy because most of our time was in France.

Trip Description
September 11 to November 13, 2010. One week in Paris followed by a week in Briancon, two weeks in Italy and another five weeks in France.

Week 1 - Paris
After months of planning D-Day finally arrived and we bid au revoir Australia and bonjour France. We had a good flight (as much as 21 hours sitting on a plane can be), and arrived on time (6am). At 8am the Air France bus dropped us at Gare de Lyon and we were finally in Paris for the first time. Fortunately we were able to get into our apartment on Ile St Louis early, and after a shower and a cuppa we felt almost human. We usually stay up all day and go to bed early on our first day.

Paris lived up to all our expectations and we had a wonderful week. We walked everywhere and loved everything - the iron lace on the buildings, chancing on a little square, walking in gardens and along the river and seeing all the amazing things we had read about.

We gazed in amazement at the opulence of the wonderful Opera Garnier, walked (yes!) up to level two of the Eiffel Tower, climbed the Arc de Triomphe, visited Les Invalides. We did not go into the Louvre this time but marveled at the wonderful buildings (DH has some great panorama shots) and did enjoy our visit to the Rodin Museum. Walking everywhere really allowed us to absorb the magnitude of this wonderful city and see the different areas at our own pace. Did lots of other things of course - river cruise at dusk so saw the Tower light up, Notre Dame and many other beautiful churches, the Luxembourg Gardens, walked the Promenade Plantee, Place des Vosges and Place Vendome (another great panorama), the Marais and of course the islands.

Had a Berthillon ice-cream and our first macarons and several pastries.

So much to see. We might have to come back!
Week 2 - Briancon in the Haute Alps
Saturday saw us up early to catch our 9am flight to Lyon where we collected our Renault lease car. Soon we were on our way to our first rental - a comfortable apartment below the owner's residence in Briancon.

Several years ago I read "A Wild Herb Soup", the English translation of Emilie Carles story of life in the Claree valley near Briancon' so was keen to see the area. What amazing scenery - we don't have mountains that high in Australia.

We spent a day exploring the old town and then drove up the Claree Valley, and it was here that we started to see the sundials that are a feature of this area. Also recognised the work of Vauban in the fortifications of Briancon.

One day we drove over the mountains into Italy, past the ski resorts and along the Chisone Valley. We stopped at the fort at Fenestrelle (not open for tours that day), which is a great feat of engineering. You get a good view from the road. We also stopped in the lovely small village of Usseaux with lots of murals painted on the houses and narrow streets to explore.

Another day we headed into the Queyras national park. Once again the scenery was spectacular - barren in places but beautiful. It was great to drive over the passes and through the Casse Deserte and down into the valley. We saw some pretty villages including Chateau Queyras with its imposing fortress and the interesting St Veran (a plus beau village) with its stone houses topped by ramshackle wooden structures.

The weather was great - clear and warm. We had a lovely day driving around the Lac de Serre Poncon - a great view from Le Sauze du Lac. On the way back we stopped at the hilltop town of Embrun - lovely views and a wonderful cathedral.

Other days we drove around the countryside stopping in villages, on top of mountains and beside streams. It's a hard life!
Week 3 - Fivizzano in Lunigiana (Tuscany)
On the road again for our first stay in Italy. Our rental this week was a cosy studio in an old mill in Verrucola just outside Fivizzano. Not a big tourist area, but we enjoy that. There was not a lot of English spoken,but the locals were very patient with my feeble attempts at Italian.

What narrow winding roads - very scary at times! Had a couple of showery days but it did not stop us visiting some lovely towns and villages such as Fosdinova, Bagnone, Comano. One day we drove over the Lagostrelle Pass, stopped at the impressive Ponte di Lugagano and also visited the castle at Torrechiara. Another day we went across to the Garfagnana and stopped at Castiglione in G. and home via the Orrechiella national park.

One big day was spent at Cinque Terre. We walked a couple of stages (not as young as we used to be). Very picturesque villages and what views over the water. It seemed very busy to us (it probably wasn't though) and quite a warm day. So it was nice to return to the peace of the hills.

We don't eat out a lot (on a budget), usually once a week. We had a great meal at the family restaurant in the village - no English, no menu but heaps of food and an acceptable house red for €64.

All in all we enjoyed our first week in Italy - lots to see,lovely country and friendly people.
Week 4 - Montefioralle (Greve in Chianti)
Our next week was spent in Montefioralle, a small hilltop village outside Greve in Chianti.Our lovely apartment was below the owner's house (they were busy picking their grapes) and we enjoyed a bottle of their Chianti Classico. Montefioralle is a charming village with a couple of restaurants.

On the way, we stopped at the old town of Barga and walked up to the Duomo on top of the hill and up and down the narrow streets. We love bridges and we delighted to discover a small bridge and very old church at Loppia after leaving Barga. We were actually on our way to see the impressive Ponte della Maddelena at Borgo a Mozzano so this was a bonus.

This was to be a busy week where we did several of the day trips people will be familiar with. We visited Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra (not all on the same day!). One day we caught the bus into Florence and walked around the heart, admired the Duomo and Baptistery, David, drooled at some of the shops and dodged tour groups. Of course a day is not enough and I will probably amaze lots of people, but we were not charmed by Florence as we had expected to be but still pleased we went.

We went one day down to the Abbazia di Oliveto Maggiore and on to Sant Antimo - both havens of peace. We enjoyed a walk around Montalcino and have lots of photos of lines of cypress trees and the landscape of the Crete Senesi.

The countryside was just as we pictured Tuscany - maybe a little hillier than we expected. It is easy to see why people love to visit. We also had a very pleasant day pottering around the closer villages such as Panzano, Radda and gorgeous Volpaiea. All too quickly another week was over.
Week 5 - La Brigue in Alpes Maritime
We drove along the busy Autostradas and turned of after Genoa and up through Piedmont, then back into France via the tunnel at Tende. We stayed in the old village of La Brigue in a comfortable apartment overlooking the town square. There are a couple of shops and restaurants (good pizzas). The village itself is worth visiting.

To some the area would seem a bit isolated, but we had a lovely week. The old towns of Tende and Saorge are really quite amazing in their settings on sides of hills. We drove one day down to the plus beau village of St. Agnes with views of the coast and then onto the wonderful town of Peille and Peillon. I know why French women don't get fat after hours spent walking up the steep streets of these beautiful old villages.

Another day we drove through the town of Sospel again on our way to Luceram. Both are villages worth visiting even taking into account all the hair-pin bends!

The autumn colours were starting to appear and on Sunday afternoon we walked up through the forest (and I do mean up!) to Notre dames des Fontaines. Hard work but worth it when we popped out on the road and there it was. The frescoes are very special. Downhill all the way home past the right angle bridge, Pont du Coq.

We had no TV or Internet this week, so were unaware of the strikes. We had planned to catch the train de Merveilles down into Nice but of course they were not running. So that was disappointing. But we still had a great week. Next stop the Drome.
Week 6 - Clansayes in the Drome
This week our gite was on a lavender farm near the very small village of Clansayes. The owners were very friendly and several chats during the week really stretched my school-girl French (strikes and fuel shortages!). The Mistral was making its presence felt at times but we still went out and saw lots.

One day we drove along the Gorges of the Ardeche and stopped at every belvedere. Nice to be here when it is quiet. Another day we visited the village of character, St. Montant in the Ardeche. Perhaps it is too big to be a plus beau village, but we thought it was. There are a few in the area and we went to La Garde Adhemar and Le Poet Laval. Also visited Grignan and the chateau.

Lots of goats cheese here and we bought several from various markets we came across. A lot of this week was spent pottering from village to village and stopping to walk around. Doing this you find some wonderful places that never make it into the guide books - wonderful old churches, towers, gates to villages, lavoirs and fountains, pretty squares and the list goes on.

On our last day we drove down to Avignon. We were always able to find fuel and kept the car topped up. We spent a pleasant day touring the Papal Palace and exploring the old part - not a lot of tourists around.

Time to move on with happy memories of the Drome.
Week 7 - Lurcy-Levis in l'Allier
We had a long but scenic drive through the Ardeche and the Auvergne to the bourbonais region. Our gite was in a restored barn near the small village of Pouzy-Mesangy and larger town of Lurcy-Levis. After weeks of mountains, hills, winding roads and more rugged country, this area is very restful. It is really La France Profonde - almost the geographical heart of France. After six weeks we were looking for a quieter week but still had lots of plans.

Having a GPS has allowed us to travel more confidently into larger towns, although we have done it in the past. We spent a morning in Nevers with its attractive position on the Loire and wonderful Cathedral. Another day to Moulins and a walk around the old part.

One of the things we like about this area is just chancing on a lovely chateau as you drive along. Some look to be fortified farms and others are more ornate. There are also a lot of Romanesque churches. We spent a lovely day spotting chateaux and visiting churches - St. Leopardin dAugy, Menoux, Souvigny to name a few. Another day we went to the markets at Sancoins and then drove around that area with the donjon at Menetou Couture, several chateaux (La Cours, Villiers with its mill), the very pretty village of Charly and the impressive chateaux of Sagonne and Bannegon. All were closed but still good views.

We drove along the Cher to Chateauneuf sur Cher. What a wonderful basilica (Notre Dame des Enfants) and a pretty town. The colours were beautiful and on Friday we drove through the Troncais forest before going to Bourbon l'Archambault where we had a very pleasant lunch.

The weather was starting to cool down as we packed up to move on. How quickly a week goes.
Week 8 - Varzy in Burgundy
Not a long drive this week so we took the round about way and stopped at Briare to see the canal bridge. We had a lovely little cottage in Varzy and a great welcome from the owner. Pots of her homemade jams and quince bon-bons, a cake and other goodies. In fact on our last night she arrived with a tarte tatin for us! We found Varzy a good base for exploring this region. It has some shops and a couple of cafes, bars etc. You already know we don't eat out much so that does not worry us.

On Sunday we drove to Druyes les Bellefontaines and on the way stopped at the fete de pommes in a tiny village. A man had an incredible mound of pumpkins in all shapes, sizes and colours. We bought apple treats and a bottle of fresh pressed apple juice. If there is a justification for slow travel an experience like this is it. After this Druyes was lovely.

The weather was cloudy most of the week but not too many showers. We toured the chateau at St Fargeau and visited Auxerre. One misty morning we went to La Charite sur Loire. Very atmospheric. We came home via Donzy with its half timbered houses and Menou with the chateau and chapel on the hill overlooking the village. Another day we discovered the pretty village of Arthel with two chateaux.

On our last day we toured the chateau at Bazoches, which we found interesting as it was the home of Vauban. We have been to several towns he fortified in our travels. We then revisited Vezelay where we had lunch (nothing to rave about) but did meet a young Italian couple with a gorgeous baby, Madeleine. They were there to have her baptised in the basilica.

We were sad to leave our cosy cottage because it meant we were heading into our last week.
Week 9 - Chissey les Macon (near Cormatin) in Burgundy
This is a very small village with no shops. We had a comfortable cottage with an efficient wood fire and plenty of wood which was lucky as it was very cold and wet. Many times we said "Wouldn't this be lovely on a sunny day." Still, we love France even in the rain.

We did have some nice mornings though and we made the most of them. We had a lovely day over in the Brionnais region and visited Charolles (some great pastries) and saw the chateaux at Dree and La Clayette. We spent a day visiting lots of wine villages and caves (note to self - next trip make a wine area like this at the start and not the end!). Snapped DH leaning on the Chardonnay sign.

Of course a visit to the abbey at Cluny was a must do, and we also visited Macon. We enjoyed a visit to St Gengoux le National. Yet another day spent in some wine villages further south. This day was fine and we took the opportunity to climb the Roche de Solutre for some impressive views. Also visited the nearby villages of Brancion and Chapaize, which has a marvelous Romanesque church. While visiting Chapaize we discovered a restaurant to visit for dinner on our final night.

We booked and when we arrived the very charming host told us we were the only ones (another couple did come off the street later). He did every thing and we had a wonderful meal. This will be the only restaurant I may review.

Of course our last day was fine and warm. We had the day to fill in as we did not leave Lyon until 5pm. So we drove down through the picturesque Dombes region to the plus beau village of Perouges. We had a final picnic of cheese, pate and baguette before dropping off our car and starting the long trip back. Lyon to CDG, five hours at CDG, seven hours to Singapore, two hours in Singapore and 14 hours to Brisbane where our daughter and her husband met us and drove us the two hours to home. It is a long way. Will we do it again? Of course.
Well it is over for another time. We had a fabulous time and would not change anything. Our way of traveling would not suit everyone but that is what it is all about - doing what you want to do. We had a wonderful time in Paris and despite all the hype on other forums about pickpockets, scams etc. we never once felt unsafe or threatened. We enjoyed our time in Italy and may go back, but I think I must have been French in a past life and it will always be my first choice.

We ate way too much cheese. How can I pick a favourite? And of course the wine. We bring home what labels we can get off and frame them. After nine weeks we will need a very big frame!

I'll end now as DH wants the computer to start researching gites in Brittany.

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