Like to follow my travels through France, Italy and Greece during the European summer of 2015? I’ll be updating this ‘diary’ every few days during my travels so you can see what I’m getting up to. You can also follow my travels on the Holidays to Europe Facebook page.
Languedoc region, south of France
Our trip to Europe got off to a delayed start (which I’ll tell you more about another day) so we decided to forego our stay in Paris and head straight to the south of France. We’re staying in the small town of Olonzac in a holiday house we’ve visited before, so it was great to return to somewhere familiar and unwind for the first few days of our trip.
After catching the TGV from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle station to Montpellier (4 hours), we grabbed a taxi to Montpellier airport where our lease vehicle was awaiting us. This year we’ve leased a Citroen C4 through the tax-free vehicle leasing program and when we collected the car it had only four kilometres on the odometer!! Just over an hour after picking up the car we arrived in Olonzac.
The first couple of days here in the Languedoc region of the south of France have been hot, hot, hot with temperatures reaching 36°C both days. We haven’t wasted them, though. We’ve been out and about in the Citroen – which thankfully has air conditioning – visiting a few towns and villages within about 45 minutes of Olonzac. Le Somail, Mirepeisset and Capestang – all on the Canal du Midi – as well as Narbonne and Gruissan have all been on our sightseeing agenda.
Tomorrow is market day in Olonzac and the town really comes alive, so we’ll be out and about shopping with the locals. Hopefully the temperature will be a little cooler.
13 June: The past few days have been busy but very enjoyable as we’ve visited some lovely places and enjoyed some delicious food and wine.
After the first couple of days which were really hot we were glad to see the temperatures drop a bit and a trip to the coast seemed like a good idea. We headed for Collioure, about an hour and a half’s drive from Olonzac and right on the Mediterranean.
I’d read a lot about how beautiful Collioure was – it has attracted lots of famous painters over the years – so I wanted to check it out for myself. With an inkling that it might be pretty special we decided to pack an overnight bag just in case we wanted to stay the night. It was a good move as it would have been a shame to leave after just a few hours.
I’ll write more about Collioure in a separate article but if you are heading to the south of France (or even Barcelona), I’d highly recommend you include Collioure in your itinerary.
After 24 hours in Collioure, we then drove to Villefranche-de-Conflent and Eus, two of the member villages of the “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” organisation, before returning to Olonzac.
Yesterday we tickled our tastebuds with a chocolate and wine tasting tour in Carcassonne. The three hour walking tour was a great way to learn some of the history of Carcassonne as well as sampling some excellent locally-made produce.
And no visit to Carcassonne would be complete without a wander around Le Cite, the fortified city which stands proudly on a hill overlooking the ‘new’ town below. We’ve visited Le Cite before but it is still an imposing and impressive site.
Today has been a day of R&R, catching up on some laundry, reading, blogging, etc. We’ve been here in France a full week now, so it was nice to have a relaxing day.
16 June: The last few days have flown by with no end of pretty villages to visit. We spent our last full day in the Languedoc region visiting the Sunday market at St. Chinian where we bought some supplies for a picnic lunch and then enjoyed a coffee in the main square whilst listening to a local singer/guitarist perform.
From there we headed on to Roquebrun, about 15 minutes away, on the recommendation of our friends from Olonzac. Stopping at a lookout just before arriving in Roquebrun, we enjoyed our picnic lunch with fantastic views of the town.
Once we reached the town itself, we spent a good hour wandering the streets and along the bank of the Orb River. It was a really nice, relaxing day and the drive from Olonzac to Roquebrun was quite picturesque.
It was then time to farewell Languedoc but not before we stopped at the 2000 year old Pont du Gard. Even though we’d visited the Pont du Gard last year, it left such an impression that we were really keen to return for another look.
A delicious lunch was enjoyed (with views of the Pont) before my husband had a swim in the river – cold but invigorating, he informed me! From there it was about an hour’s drive to our home for the next five nights, a stunning gite (holiday cottage) not far from Gordes in Provence, which I’ll tell you more about later.
Provence region, south of France
Our first full day in Provence was spent visting three villages that I’ve read a lot about. The first, Menerbes, will be familiar to anyone who has read Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” (or seen the movie which starred Russell Crowe), and it was absolutely beautiful.
A typical Provencal hilltop village with winding, narrow streets and houses built of pale stone, wandering the streets was like stepping back in time. After a couple of hours looking around and giving the camera a good workout, we enjoyed a delicious lunch in the garden at Le Bistrot 5 with views of the Luberon valley.
Next stop was Bonnieux, another hilltop village. It is a bit larger than Menerbes, and whilst still quite pretty, Menerbes had left big shoes to fill!
Our final stop for the day was Lourmarin, another really pretty town. There were more people around in Lourmarin and it seemed to attract a lot more wealthy visitors than the ‘regular’ tourist, but it’s definitely a town I could spend some time in. There are lots of boutiques, shops and restaurants and there’s also a Chateau you can visit if time permits.
With another three full days in Provence, the hardest thing we’re going to have to do is to decide which other towns and villages to visit! I’ll let you know which ones who choose in a few days’ time.
19 June: Provence has lived up to all my expectations – and then some! We have enjoyed four fabulous days in this lovely part of France exploring quaint villages, larger towns and some natural wonders. Not to mention the scrumptious food and the lovely surroundings of our holiday gite (cottage).
After visiting some smaller hilltop villages on our first day, the next day we headed to St. Remy de Provence and then Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, both larger towns but both charming in their own way.
The following day was all about more hilltop villages – the amazing, and lovely, Roussillon, famous for its ochre hills and then Lacoste, a quiet, less-touristy village – and hunting for lavender fields.
It’s still a bit early in the season for the higher altitude lavender fields to be in full bloom but down in the Luberon valley we did drive past some purple fields and of course, stopped for the obligatory photos.
Today we headed to Fontaine de Vaucluse, the source of the Sorgue River. The river seems to miraculously appear out of a large rock pool but within about fifty metres, it is a raging river. No-one seems to know what the actual source of the water is – perhaps an underground spring – but regardless, it’s well worth seeing.
Later we visited the Abbey Senanque, (unfortunately the lavender wasn’t yet at its best) and then Gordes. We arrived in Gordes later in the afternoon to take advantage of fewer tourists and whilst that worked, it was a VERY windy afternoon and it was actually quite unpleasant being outside, so we didn’t stay long at all.
We’d briefly visited Gordes last year so we weren’t too disappointed that our visit was so brief.
Our visit to Provence wrapped up with dinner at Le Veranda restaurant in Menerbes where we enjoyed a superb three course menu and impeccable service. The perfect end to a perfect stay in Provence.
Next stop ….. the French Riviera.
The French Riviera and the Cinque Terre in Italy
25 June: Wow, it’s almost a week since I updated you but boy, what a busy week it has been. We arrived in Villefranche-sur-Mer (a few kilometres from Nice) last Saturday for a short two night stay.
Our day of arrival coincided with the annual Festival of Music which is held all over France on the same weekend every year, so after checking in to our hotel we headed into Nice to explore the old town and the Promenade des Anglais. After dinner, we listened to a few of the performers (including Tina Arena!) at Nice’s live concert.
The following day we visited the Villa Ephrussi Rothschild Gardens which were lovely, before walking into St. Jean Cap Ferrat for lunch by the harbour.
Later in the day, after a swim at our hotel, we caught the local bus to Monaco for dinner – as you do! A couple of hours wandering around the harbour and inspecting the sports cars out the front of the Casino was enough for us and we arrived back at our hotel just in time to see a fantastic fireworks display taking place in the harbour.
From the French Riviera we said goodbye to France and moved on to Italy. Our base for visiting the Cinque Terre was Levanto, a really nice seaside town, and our ‘home’ for our four night stay was the lovely Villa Valentina.
Regional trains run between Levanto and all the Cinque Terre villages, making it really easy to get between towns so not staying at one of the five villages is no problem at all (and much easier if you have a car as parking in the villages is difficult).
Our days on the Cinque Terre have been busy but great. The first day we walked from Monterosso to Vernazza and then caught the train to Riomaggiore to look around. The next day we walked from Vernazza to Corniglia (our favourite of the five villages) and then went by train to Manarola.
On our third and final day we caught a ferry from Levanto all the way down the coast to Porto Venere. The ferry stopped at four of the Cinque Terre villages (Corniglia doesn’t have a harbour/seafront) so this was a great way to see the villages from the water.
We absolutely loved Porto Venere, though, and it was probably the highlight of our visit to the Cinque Terre. The town, because it can’t be accessed by train, is a little less touristy but oh so pretty.
Behind the main town, a couple of churches and a castle are perched on a steep hill offering wonderful views out over the ‘Bay of Poets’ towards the Appenine Mountains – it has to be one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen.
From the Cinque Terre we are moving on to Piemonte in the north west of Italy to stay with friends for a couple of nights and then to Varenna on Lake Como. I’ll let you know what we get up to in a few days’ time.
Piedmont and Lake Como in Italy
01 July: We’re now in beautiful Varenna on Lake Como where we will stay until Saturday but before arriving here we spent a very enjoyable weekend in Piedmont. Our son did an Italian exchange in December/January 2011/12 and we met his host family during our 2013 European trip.
This time, despite our son not being with us to translate (we speak NO Italian and his host parents speak NO English!!), we again decided to visit this lovely family. Luckily for us, their son returned home from university in Rome to be our translator.
After driving from Levanto, we arrived in Ceva (about an hour south of Turin) on Friday afternoon. Our first excursion was to the Sanctuary of Vicoforte which we had visited in 2013 however due to the Milan Expo currently being underway, the church was open for a special kind of visit.
We were kitted out in safety harnesses and helmets and guided on a tour up through the inside of the church to a balcony inside the dome – 60 metres up. For someone who has an aversion to heights (me!!), it wasn’t something I would normally do but it was well worth it.
The views, up close, of the church’s amazing frescoes were stunning. This close-up look at the frescoes has never before been available to the public in the church’s 900-odd year history, so we were amongst a lucky few who will enjoy the experience.
The following day we visited a Cantina (winery) in the famous Barolo wine region and were privileged to receive a private tour of the wine production area and a tasting, thanks to our host being a friend of the winery’s owner.
Later in the day we visited some of the local sights in Ceva – which boasts Roman ruins and a visit by Napolean – before heading to Cuneo, the regional capital, for a look around the historic centre and dinner.
On Sunday we headed to the hills to visit the mother of our hostess in her ‘summer house’. Situated in a remote settlement of just a few houses in what is known as ‘Hell Valley’ (named by Napolean after he lost a large number of troops here during his war in the area), we walked the last 30 minutes to reach Nonna’s house.
At 1213 metres above sea level, the village was much cooler than the towns below, and the mountain scenery spectacular.
After a delicious lunch at a local Osteria, we said our farewells to our generous hosts and hit the Autostrade for the three and a half hour drive to Lake Como. Our first glimpses of the lake were no less breathtaking than on our first visit to Lake Como last year and we happily settled into our lakeside apartment.
Our week here at Lake Como will include day trips to a few new places including Como and Milan and I’ll tell you all about them in my next update.
Lake Como, Italy
04 July: Well, Lake Como has definitely turned on her charm again this year although we weren’t expecting the heatwave temperatures we’ve been experiencing! It hasn’t stopped us from exploring new parts of the lake and re-visiting some favourite places, though.
After re-acquainting ourselves with our lakeside apartment and once again drinking in the amazing views, we headed to Bellagio by ferry the first day to ease ourselves into this relaxed lakeside life.
The following day we caught the high-speed ferry to Como which is at the bottom of the left ‘arm’ of the lake. The trip took one hour but seemed to go faster as every few minutes another village clinging to the steep hillsides along the lake came into view.
Como is quite a large city with a nice waterfront area and plenty of shopping opportunities and we spent a few hours wandering the historical centre and relaxing in the park by the lake before returning to Varenna again on the high-speed ferry.
We had to set the alarm the following day (never a good thing on holidays!) as we were to catch the 8.37am train from Varenna to Milan. After the one hour train ride, we enjoyed a fabulous three hour walking tour of Milan which included visits to the Duomo (Cathedral), Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and a viewing of the incredible Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
It was wonderful to see this famous painting and, possibly because I’ve seen the Mona Lisa before, I couldn’t believe how big it was. We returned home to Varenna by train to be greeted by 37C heat so a cooling swim in Lake Como was a must.
With another hot day forecast, we spent Thursday morning catching up on emails and laundry and just generally relaxing in our apartment. Later in the day we caught the ferry to Tremezzo where we enjoyed another visit to Villa Carlotta, an impressive 17th century villa with magnificent gardens of over 70,000 square metres, before heading to Bellagio for dinner.
Arriving home about 10.30pm, we were just in time to see a fantastic fireworks display over the lake.
The heatwave continued yesterday but we were determined to get out and about so a visit to Menaggio (a 10 minute ferry ride) was the order of the day. On our return we once again swam in the lake before a lovely dinner at a lakeside restaurant on our final night in Varenna.
We’ve loved our time here at Lake Como despite the really hot weather and are certain we’ll be back again in the not too distant future. For now, though, it’s on to Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, for a few nights.
Lake Garda, Italy
09 July: Oh boy, was it hot at Lake Garda. This was our fourth visit to Lake Garda and every time we’ve experienced temperatures in the high 30s so I shouldn’t have expected anything different this time. Before we reached Lake Garda, though, we made a wonderful ‘discovery’ – Lake Iseo.
Plotting our route from Como to Garda I was looking for a suitable lunch stop and came across Lake Iseo on the map. A bit of Googling told me it was somewhere worth checking out – and it was!
Our lunch destination was Iseo, the main town on the lake, and whilst we were only there for a couple of hours, we really loved it. Iseo was so much quieter than Lake Como, where we’d come from, and Lake Garda, where we were headed.
The lake is beautiful and the town had a really nice feel to it – and our lunch was delicious! Big brownie points were earned by me that day!!
As we did on our last visit to Lake Garda, this time we again stayed at Salo which is along the western shore of the lake. The town has a lovely lakeside promenade with lots of beautifully painted buildings and a nice historic centre.
Our stay at Salo was a short one – just three nights – as it was really just a stopover for us on way from Lake Como to The Dolomites, however we managed to visit a couple of new places and return to an old favourite.
On our first day at Lake Garda we took a cruise from Salo to Isola del Garda (Garda Island) where we enjoyed a two hour guided tour of the gardens and villa of this privately-owned island.
The fifth-generation family who own the villa still live there today so it’s a real home not just a ‘museum’ and their efforts to keep the small island family-owned and gradually restore the villa, are admirable – tourism is one way they can raise funds for this.
The tour was really informative and we followed it up with a nice lunch in Salo before returning to our accommodation for a refreshing swim in the pool.
The following day we set off early to visit Sirmione, about 45 minutes south of Salo. Having visited Sirmione before, we knew what to expect but wanted to renew our acquaintances with the pretty town.
The main attraction of Sirmione is the magnificent Scaligeri Castle and it’s via the old drawbridge that you enter the historic part of town. Inside the old town are a maze of narrow, winding streets lined with restaurants, gelaterias and shops selling everything you can think of.
Part of the old castle walls and tower are open to visitors so we paid our EUR4 each and headed inside and were rewarded with fantastic views over the lake.
From Sirmione, we decided to visit another lake we’d heard about. Idro, on the lake of the same name, is only about 40 kilometres from Salo so that was our destination for lunch.
Unfortunately we were quite disappointed with Idro, especially after ‘discovering’ Iseo a couple of days before. It was far smaller than Lake Iseo, which we knew, and much less touristy than any of the other northern Italian lakes – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but it appeared to us to be a little unloved.
It may have been because we visited on a very hot day and everyone was having a siesta but it’s not somewhere we’ll be heading back to in a hurry.
We rounded out our last day at Lake Garda with another refreshing swim followed by dinner in Salo. We then stumbled across two buskers playing on the promenade and stood around listening to them for an hour. When we headed back to our accommodation at 10.45pm it was still 32C!!
We’re now in the Dolomites in the very north of Italy and are enjoying some cooler weather. I’ll tell you all about our Dolomiti adventures in my next update.
The Dolomites, Italy
15 July: I must admit I was glad to leave the Italian Lakes and head for the mountains. We enjoyed our time at both Lake Como and Lake Garda but the super hot weather and the busy-ness had us yearning for somewhere cooler and quieter, and the Dolomites certainly delivered!
Despite visiting family in the Sud Tirol / Alto Adige region of northern Italy numerous times before, and viewing the Dolomites on our many walks in the mountains, we had always been on the other side of the valley and hadn’t really appreciated these magnificent mountains. As soon as we arrived in Wolkenstein / Selva Gardena, we were awestruck.
Firstly, let me give you a very brief history lesson. Before World War I, much of the region now known as Sud Tirol / Alto Adige was a part of Austria. After the War, Italy claimed the land as its own and after years of wrangling with their identity – Austrian or Italian – the region was granted Autonomy by the Italian State.
Most residents are bi-lingual, speaking both German and Italian, and roadsigns and menus and the like are also written in both languages. There’s also a strong Austrian influence in the style of houses and the local cuisine.
My husband’s family come from this region – with Austrian heritage – so I’ll refer to place names with the German version first.
After ooh-ing and aah-ing as we rounded each bend on the road from Bozen / Bolzano, we arrived in Wolkenstein mid afternoon and checked in to our hotel. We then spent the rest of the day at our hotel. The hotel is booked on a ‘half board’ basis meaning breakfast and dinner are included, so we knew we weren’t going to go hungry the next few days!
The next two days were some of the most enjoyable of our entire holiday. We explored the other towns in the Groden / Val Gardena region, doing some shopping and discovering the world’s largest hand carved nativity scene along the way. The highlight of our stay in the Dolomites, though, was undoubtedly our visit to Passo Pordoi.
I’d arranged with a friend, Sandra from Si Italy Tours, to meet in the Dolomites and she had suggested we do a walk on one of the mountain paths. After a spectacular drive over the Sella Pass, part of the Great Dolomites Road, we met Sandra and her husband at Passo Pordoi, which is basically a cable car station/restaurant/car park on the road to Cortina.
Already at 2239 metres above sea level, we caught the cable car to the top (2950 metres) from where we had the most fantastic 360 degree views of the Dolomites with the Austrian and Swiss Alps in the distance. Never have I seen a more spectacular sight!
An hour’s easy walk (over snow in a couple of spots!!) had us at a Rifugio (hut) where we enjoyed a hearty lunch and took heaps of photos. Not ready to get back down to ‘earth’ too soon, we decided to walk back down to the car park rather than take the cable car. The descent was steep, along a zig-zag track, and took about another hour, but was well worth it.
I’ve always been a sucker for mountains, the Swiss and Austrian Alps having stolen my heart before, but I have to say, if pressed, I think I’d have to name the Dolomites as my favourite mountains – and possibly my favourite place – in Europe. Big call but they had me awestruck and I’m desperate to return.
We then spent a lovely weekend with family in Ritten / Renon (on the other side of the valley to the Dolomites) before driving to Munich and flying to the island of Kos in Greece for the last week of our European holiday.
So far our time on Kos has been mostly spent eating, reading, swimming and sleeping, but I’ll tell you more in my final blog update.
Kos island, Greece
19 July: Guilty! It’s what I’ve been feeling (OK, only very slightly!) these past few days as our European holiday wraps up on the Greek island of Kos. When planning our 2015 trip to Europe my aim for the last week was to spend it relaxing somewhere warm before we head home to a chilly Victorian winter – and I’ve definitely achieved that!
We arrived in Kos last Monday and I’ll admit to feeling slightly apprehensive as our taxi drove from the airport to our hotel, the lovely Michelangelo Resort and Spa at Agios Fokas. The landscape was extremely barren, not that I didn’t expect it to be, but it was a bit of a reality check after our time in the chocolate box perfect Dolomites. For a lover of mountains and sparkling lakes, Kos was going to take some getting used to.
By day two, though, we’d well and truly become accustomed to (holiday) life on Kos. In the past week we have visited the main town of Kos island, also named Kos, a couple of times but have been content to stay at the resort for the majority of our visit.
Our days have mostly followed the same pattern: 9am Breakfast – 10am Reading/istening to music/internet for a couple of hours – 1pm Lunch by the infinity pool – 2.30pm More reading/music/internet — 4pm Head to the infinity pool for a swim/read/snooze – 7.30pm Dinner. Repeat next day!
I can honestly say I’ve never been more relaxed and whilst I wouldn’t include Kos in my list of favourite places in Europe, the Resort has been the perfect place to spend our last week. The weather has been perfect – a consistent 31C every day with a sea breeze – and it’s been such a stress-free week with the only decisions required being what to choose from the buffet at mealtimes.
So as I grab my towel and head to the pool for the last time this holiday, I’ll push that guilty feeling aside as I know I’ll be back to the routine of ‘normal’ life and a cold Victorian winter all too soon.
Thanks for following along on my travels through France, Italy and Greece – I hope I have inspired you to visit some of these places on your future European travels. I’ll be writing about many of the places we visited in more detail in the coming months, so please keep an eye on the website.
See you back in Australia ~ Carolyn 🙂