Friday, January 30, 2015

Road Trip in Southwestern France

White Camargue horses, one of the oldest breeds in the world
We are back from a lovely road trip through southwestern France. Our starting point was west of Draguignan, our little village of Salernes, and our goal was to join a rally of roadsters in the French part of Cataluña. As we wanted to break the journey we decided to stop off in the Camargue, west of Marseilles where we found a wonderful Mas (farmhouse) to stay in just outside of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue. Part of the charm was that we had to take a pont across the Petite Rhone every day to get to and fro from the Mas. A sign posted by this ferry which only took 8 cars, stated that horses and pedestrians had priority. The food was wonderful, shared with other guests around a big table with large slabs of meat cooked in the open fireplace, after drinks on the terrace including a sangria of Cointreau and rosé. Our room overlooked vast terrain with horses roaming and we woke up to the rooster crowing. Couldn't have been more tranquil and relaxing. It is considered a chambre d'hôte, rather than a hotel, but it felt more like an inn and definitely off the beaten track.

Pink flamingoes are just one of 340 bird species in the area
We rented bikes in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to get across the dike between the swamps and the sea, so we could see the pink flamingoes, wild horses and bulls cycling over beaches and little dirt track roads. The Camargue is basically flat swampland but a haven for birds and the famous horses and cattle. The "wild" part can be debated as we noted many fences even though the properties were vast, and the horses and bulls did seem to belong to somebody so I think the wild should be compared to free range chickens: they roam freely but are not for everybody to take, and definitely belong to people, however the setting is wild and vast.

Black bull roaming the Camargue marshlands
Given the fact you are right on the sea there were many restaurants offering seafood platters and the restaurant, La Cave à Huitres, lived up to it's name with delicious oysters, scampi, shrimp, cockles, mussels etc. It sits on the waterfront of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer named after the two Mary's, Mary Jacobé and Mary Salomé of the scriptures, who were believed to have arrived there by boat. One could go to a manade (bull farm) and learn how they raised bulls and watch a mock bullfight during dinner if so desired. The other popular (and worthwhile) attraction was the Ornithological Gardens full of birds in a very pretty setting.

Our drive further east took us by Aigues-Mortes ("dead water"), which is a charming town, originally a citadel retaining many of its old walls. We followed the road to Barcelona, turning off where it was marked Andorra, and started climbing into the mountains. There are many gorgeous towns along the way, Villefranche-de-Conflent (another citadel) and Prades with a lovely old abbey nearby, the Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. The annual Prades Festival (now named the Casals Festival) specializes in chamber music and was begun in 1950 when eminent musicians were invited to play with Pablo Casals to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Cave exploration in Fontrabiouse

Our final destination where we were meeting the other participants of the rally was Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via, a ski resort at 1800 metres (over 5,900 feet) in altitude. The mountains are beautiful with lovely windy roads over mountain passes past the Lac des Bouillouses and through quaint villages.  Of further interest to some was the world's largest solar furnace located there. We were more attracted to the nearby grotto of Fontrabiouse which was formed centuries ago by a raging river inside a mountain, and discovered perchance in the 1980's by workers excavating the blue marble quarries when they stumbled upon this deep hole that led them to the vast network of grottoes. The walk through the stalactites and stalagmites was well worth it.

Joining in the roadster rally
As we were a group of 80 people we stayed at a ski residence, but there were plenty of attractive smaller hotels and auberges nearby. One morning we drove to Andorra, which is a very small self-contained municipality, and some of the other participants drove over the border into Spain for some tapas. The food had a strong Catalan flavour to it, and everywhere the red and yellow flag was proudly displayed. We saw flamenco dance and an a capella concert of Catalan songs including Pablo Casals’ “Song of Birds” in an ancient little chapel. It was a very interesting mix hearing French spoken but being in Catalan country with its very distinct own identity. People are very friendly and all came out to wave to our cars driving by.

The drive back to Salernes took just under six hours, so it would be roughly the same to Nice, about 4 hours to Nice and easily done in a day.

- Petra Macintosh, Travel Consultant

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Taste of Tuscany

  An idyllic Tuscan countryside
Upon arriving at the Florence airport on a sunny day in May, we picked up our rental car and, with GPS in hand, we immediately set off on our three-day driving adventure through Tuscany. Soon after leaving the airport we were away from the city traffic and driving through the beautiful Tuscan landscape of olive groves, grape vines and cypress trees on narrow winding roads under blue skies.

Piazza del Campo, Siena
Siena, our destination for the day, was only about a two-hour drive through the rolling hills. We quickly dropped our bags at our hotel for the night, a former Palazzo that still had the feeling of a Renaissance palace, and walked to the town square known as the Campo. It was the perfect place for people watching, as well as for lunch at one of the many outdoor restaurants ringing the huge square. Should you be there in the summertime, you might be lucky enough to see the colorful neighborhood rivalry of horseracing around the square, known as Il Palio. It is said that the horses the young men ride are taken into their neighborhood churches that morning to be blessed before the races! Leaving the campo after a delicious lunch of flatbread pizza, we strolled leisurely back to our hotel. Of course, we took time to stop in some of the many shops lining the streets along the way, to be tempted by beautiful scarves and Italian leather shoes and handbags. And, yes, I did come home with a new handbag and scarf!

Exploring the charming Renaissance town of Pienza

Regretting that we couldn’t linger another day in Siena, we were up bright and early the next morning and on the road again. Our mission this day was to visit one of the Montalcino wineries that produce the famous Brunello wines of the region. We had booked a tour at the Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona before leaving home and it didn’t disappoint. Our tour, led by a young local woman, began in the area where the wine is aging in the huge wooden casks, and it ended in the tasting room where we were invited to enjoy samples of the three varieties of Brunello wine that they produce at the winery. Back in the car, our next stop was in the charming town of Pienza. Pienza is known for their pecorino cheese that was for sale by the ounce at nearly every shop in town. Small wine shops were also in abundance along the cobblestone streets and the shop owners were happy to invite us to a sample, along with a taste of pecorino cheese. Since we hoped to reach our home for the evening before dark, we had to refuse all invitations and press on. Our destination was Montepulciano, another Tuscan town famous for its wineries, where we stopped for an early dinner before beginning our search for the farmhouse B&B we had reserved for the night.

A view from inside our Farmhouse B&B
Happily, the farmhouse B&B was not as far out of town as we had imagined it might be. As our GPS directed us off the main road and down a country lane though, we were glad that we had arrived in daylight. As we arrived at the farmhouse, Ferenzio, the proprietor, appeared to be watching for us from the window and quickly came out to greet us and give us a tour of the property. Whatever the rustic farmhouse lacked in luxury it more than made up for in its charm, along with the friendliness of the husband and wife proprietors. If you were traveling in the heat of summer, their outdoor swimming pool would provide a very welcome place to cool off and relax after a day of touring.

A sampling of the many wines grown in this region
It’s now Day Three, and our plan was to return to Florence by late afternoon, stopping en route to see San Gimignano, the very popular Tuscan town known for its 14 medieval towers still standing. Ferenzio had kindly mapped out a very scenic route for us, and we reached San Gimignano by lunchtime. Fortunately for us, it was not terribly crowded in May and we found a parking spot as well as a place to sit on the square, where we could again people watch while enjoying a tasty ham and cheese sandwich purchased at one of the shops. Back in the car, and only an hour or so away from Florence, everything was going according to schedule, that is, until we reached the perimeter of the airport at rush hour. Now, looking back, we can laugh about flying by the rental car return sign upwards of five times, with each miss causing us to circle around again! Eventually the car was returned and we were in a taxi on the way to our hotel.

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
Having visited Florence before, we spent our last two days just strolling the city and revisiting some of our favorite sights; the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Baptistery with Ghiberti’s bronze doors, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Piazza della Signoria and the Ponte Vecchio. Late afternoons we would take a break from the crowds on the streets and refresh ourselves with a cool drink in the rooftop garden of our hotel near the Ponte Vecchio. Our evenings were spent enjoying homemade pasta or local specialties at the neighborhood trattorias recommended by our concierge. Afterward, we could always find room for a gelato or a cappuccino at a café on the piazza, while the street vendors good-humoredly coaxed us to buy their latest neon toy.

Florence, I think, might be my favorite city in the world and works perfectly as a starting or ending point for a tour of Tuscany. If the fun and adventure of driving yourself isn’t your cup of tea, a tour or a car and driver can easily be arranged from Florence. You could also make Siena your base, if you wanted to spend more time in the wine country. However you do it, I highly recommend that you put Tuscany on your list of places not to be missed in your travels. When the time is right, I would love to help you plan your trip.

- JoAn Anderson, Travel Consultant

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Three Days from Burgundy to Strasbourg

Vineyards of Crêches-sur-Saône
We drove to Mâcon a few days ago, which was an easy drive about 4 hours from our location in Provence (just under five from Nice) over well-marked autoroutes. We pulled off the main road at Crêches-sur-Saône, just south of Mâcon, and stayed in a charming Relais du Silence, a consortium known for quiet and charming hotels in the countryside. This one was called Hostellerie Chateau de la Barge. Our room rate included a wonderful breakfast of fresh eggs, fruit, croissants, juices and coffee. The eggs were so fresh they still had feathers on them. You boiled them yourself in a very interesting hot water device that had holders for eggs and a timer next to it. The room was sparse but very comfortable and extremely quiet.

I wasn't sure what to expect there in the way of food, but we had the best meal we have ever had in France, starting with the frog legs, a specialty of the region. If that is not your thing, they had wonderful other courses to follow and an old fashioned cheese board with a huge selection you could choose from, rather than the modern way of just presenting you with some slices on your plate. The best way to eat in France is to go for one of the menus rather than à la carte. Ours included 4 courses excluding the frog legs, which we ordered separately to try as we had been told it was a specialty in Burgundy.

Gorgeous scenery en route to Strasbourg
We were on our way to Strasbourg and chose this place to break the journey, not having any idea we would land right in the middle of the famed white wine region of the Pouilly-Fumés, -Fuissés, -Lochés etc. all made with chardonnay grapes. It was about five minutes off the autoroute, but you land in bucolic wine country so we spent the next morning exploring vineyards, tasting wines, and driving through charming villages full of ancient castles and churches before doing the additional 3½ hours to the Alsace region.

In Strasbourg we stayed at Hôtel Les Haras. This is in the 18th century building that housed the Royal Stud Farm and National Riding Academy according to the information provided, but felt more like a cloister built around a charming courtyard. It has been recently renovated and is very comfortable. The restaurant was charming but the food was disappointing and overpriced compared to our previous night's experience.

Stained glass cathedral windows
Strasbourg has a cathedral with wonderful stained glass, dating back to 1439. It has a very old and elaborate astronomical clock in it, with a procession of Christ and the twelve apostles when it strikes half past noon. Entrance to the cathedral is free, but they close it to sightseers during services and for the daily tour of the workings of the clock with a movie, which requires an entrance fee. We were touched to see a plaque right next to the clock dedicated to U.S. servicemen who lost their lives in the battle to free Alsace from the Germans during the Second World War.

Canals of la Petite France, Strasbourg
Strasbourg is built along the Rhine. Many houses have a Tudor feel to them with wooden crossbeams in their structure. The old part, called la Petite France, was an easy 5-minute walk from the hotel. It is charming as the Rhine splits up into several canals where the water cascades past the medieval buildings. There were many cafés and restaurants on the waterfront, and we stopped for a drink at a bar right on the edge of a dam. This area is known for the Gewürztraminer wine which is sweeter than a Chardonnay and is the classical drink to have with foie gras. 

Hostellerie de Levernois
Heading back to Provence we stayed right by Beaune in Levernois, again minutes off the autoroute, in a Relais & Chateaux called Hostellerie de Levernois. The grounds are beautiful with lovely old chestnut trees in bloom and right by a fabulous golf course. Again very quiet and a very nice restaurant, with an equally excellent cheese board. Their specialty was a starter called Oeufs aux Morilles, which are poached eggs with morel mushrooms. Absolutely wonderful. This hotel is very popular for its food, golf, and gorgeous settings, so the car park was full of German and Belgian visitors benefiting from the long weekend. Our room at the top had a balcony overlooking the grounds. With the French doors open we could hear the nightingales sing all night long in the chestnut trees right outside our windows.

Castle of Berzé-le-Chatel in Burgundy
Burgundy is really lovely and I recommend it to just drive around aimlessly and stop where you like. We visited Cluny and saw the abbey there, but on the way to get to the abbey we came through Berzé-le-Châtel by accident, which was even more breathtaking with a castle perched on a hilltop. They started building this in the 1300's and it is the most impressive and best preserved fortress in Burgundy. The surrounding gardens were wonderful with wisteria creeping up the walls, lilac flowering and lots of wild flowers in the fields below.

This was meant to be just a quick trip to Strasbourg and back, but ended up being a wonderful tasting of the Burgundy countryside, a truly beautiful part of France. Given the beauty, the wonderful villages tucked away with ancient castles and churches, the great food and wine, and outstanding golf, there is something for everyone. It is a photographic and gastronomic delight. We started this trip in Provence and ended up in northeast France but it is equally doable starting in Paris, driving due east and then south to Burgundy. The three days were unrushed and lovely but we plan on redoing it again next year with more days to wander.

I encourage you to contact Travel 100 Group in Kenilworth (847-256-7570) or Northbrook, IL (847-897-7000) to learn more about this destination and to plan your next vacation.

- Petra Macintosh, Travel Consultant