Monday, June 27, 2016

Road Trip!

Living in Europe is challenging in many ways; bureaucracy, strange regulations, stranger store closings....but it definitely has its rewards.  First of these is how close we are to other countries, other cultures, other languages.  Unlike in the States where we have to plan a full day of travel complete with passports and long trips to airports, visiting other countries here is a matter of a 90 minute flight or a bit of a road trip.  This year we opted for the latter.

Our good friends and habitual travel buddies arrived at 6 am on June 8 and we were there to pick them up and head out onto the road.  Poor folks....they endured 8+ hours in an airplane, only to move into a car for another five hours of driving.  We pulled into Chiavari, a seaside town outside of Genoa and settled in for our first night.  This was just a stop on the way to our final destination of the south of France. 

Next morning we were back on the road bright and early, enduring dozens of tunnels, switchbacks and traffic jams.  We eventually made our way into France, via Monaco.  A brief visit to the Monte Carlo casino was our first stop, one that we could have done without, imho.  Lots of glitz, not much substance. 

We eventually arrived at our B&B in Antibes, Bastide de la Brague.  What a lovely spot!  Isabelle and Franck were wonderful hosts and our three days there passed all too quickly. 

Day trips to Nice, Gourdon, St. Paul de Vence, Biot, Antibes Vieille Ville, and others filled our time and our cameras with wonderful sights. 

We left the Bastide and headed off to Avignon, with an interim stop in Aix en Provence.  This was a Sunday and the town was very quiet, with a great little market set up along the Cours Mirabeau.  This street is a simpler, southern version of the Champs-Elysees, and we certainly enjoyed strolling in the shade of the plane trees and admiring the craftsmanship of the local artisans. 

Arriving in Avignon that evening, we were met with a few shocks.  Our apartment, which was our home for the next week, was not one flight up as we had been told, but two, plus one more internal flight to get to the upper sleeping areas! Two flights of curving stone steps that were a challenge for us all, but especially my husband and me, and the internal steps with no handrail!  Thank goodness for our good friends who did the bulk of the heavy lifting to get us settled in.  We travel light, but carrying anything up those steps proved challenging all week long.

That said, this apartment was in a superb location, right on the Place des Corps Saints.  I didn't realize it when we booked it, but Rick Steves talks about this place in his France book, saying it's really the best place for aperitifs, dining and enjoying local life.  Indeed, we were able to get everything we needed at the little markets in the area and we enjoyed several nice meals sitting outside enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. 

Avignon itself is a lovely city and we certainly had nice walks through the old streets and markets, but we also took advantage of its location in the heart of the Luberon to visit everything from Roman ruins, medieval abbeys, ochre hills, lavender fields, great wineries and even driving to the top of Mont Ventoux, the highest mountain in the area and one that left us breathless as we drove higher and higher on narrow roads with no guardrails.  We were all a bit on edge at the end of that day!  We saw a lot, but there was so much more we could have seen and I hope that before too long we'll be back in Provence to take in more of what it has to offer.

Our next stop was in the Haut-Savoie where we were meeting up with an old, dear friend of mine.  Josie lives in a tiny town, about 15 minutes outside of Geneva.  Her house is a former barn and she graciously offered us her two bedrooms while she moved in with her daughter who lives about 50 yards away.  Our first night there, Josie prepared a raclette for us and for all her family, a group of about 12 including three of her grandchildren.  Raclette is a traditional dish from this area, consisting of slices of cheese that are heated up on little triangular pans, then scraped off onto boiled potatoes, charcuterie and cornichons with pickled onions.  Very hearty and usually reserved for chilly winter evenings but it was certainly welcome on that unseasonably cool night.  Afterwards we went to a music festival at the local cafĂ© and enjoyed two hours of American blues, sung in France, by an Italian singer and his band.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that provided us with some fantastic memories!

We also toured the medieval town of Yvoires which is right on the shores of Lac Leman and where we had a lunch of lake perch at a waterside restaurant, we visited Geneva and walked through its old town, and we drove up the Saleve mountain to view Geneva from on high.  Supper there consisted of "potence", a local dish of chunks of meat stuck onto an iron mace and then doused with whiskey and set on fire tableside.  Quite the spectacle!

Alas, it was time to go and we eventually found ourselves back in Italy after going through the Mont Blanc tunnel, truly an amazing engineering feat.  The views we enjoyed as we drove to and then from Mont Blanc were breathtaking.  Neither photos nor words are capable of describing the majesty and beauty of this area. 

Two more days on the road, with overnights in Parma and Orvieto completed this trip.  We discovered new foods and drinks (Aperol Spritz anyone?), reconnected with old friends and made new ones, and we made many deposits of glorious sights, both manmade and natural, to our respective memory banks. 

It's not easy traveling.  The strange beds, the crazy surprises, the packing and unpacking, the traffic and driving challenges all serve to make it a sometimes stressful event.  But would I change it, or quit?  Never!

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