22 – 23 May: A visit to the Cinque Terre (five lands)

Author: Mrs A

Location: La Spezia and Cinque Terre

Wednesday: We had seriously thought about missing out a visit to the Cinque Terre, given how popular they are and so much on the tourist trail, but given we were so close and travelling out of peak season we thought we’d head over for a day.

Leaving San Rocco, we headed back on the E80 and drove an hour or so along to La Spezia, where we parked up in a secure sosta along with about 40 other motorhomes. The site we were on looked more like wasteland than a camping area and was located in the docklands area of town, surrounded by containers and ships. It was not a great first impression to our visit.

A boat returning from a day out at Cinque Terre, looking back towards the port

Regardless, we jumped on a bus and headed into town. La Spezia is actually a very pretty town, with a lovely pedestrianised shopping area with a mixture of small boutiques and designer stores.

A very smart and affluent town
Giant pots welcome you into the shopping district
No (squashed) flies on Garibaldi….

We had a great afternoon wondering around and Mr A managed to get a haircut too.

Plenty of yachts awaiting a day out on the water

We enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner in the evening at a great little bar in a side street, a customer and the owner jamming to blues music, and providing entertaining conversation – La Spezia has a lovely feel.

Thursday: Cinque Terre (pronounced Chink-we Terrer) are five Unesco-listed villages painted across the steep Ligurian coast, stitched together by a great piece of railway engineering connecting La Spezia and Genoa. If you can build tunnels, then Italy is the place to work, as the scenery calls for many to link the towns. We cannot imagine how people coped before the transport networks were developed.

The five villages comprise of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. We decided to start our day at Monterosso, the furthest away village and jumped on the train from La Spezia.

Monterosso al Mare is probably the most resorty of the five villages, with a large beach set up with sun beds and umbrellas. It also seems to have the greatest amount of flat area, with market stalls set up selling wood carvings, clothes and fried food. We had a wonder around before setting off to do the hike across to Vernazza.

A vibrantly coloured village with flowers everywhere
Looking down across the beach – grey pebbles, no sand here
Looking along the coast and the hilltop walk we are about to embark on
Feeling blessed with incredible sunshine after a few days of cloud
Look at the colour of that water!
Heading off on the hike….

The hike between Monterosso and Vernazza is described as challenging and requires purchase of a card and agreement to wear the appropriate footwear and take water. It’s a great way of doing things – we have been on many hikes around the world and seen people stumbling along in flip-flops with no sticks and no water, ultimately putting the lives at risk of anyone who is then sent out to rescue them from injury or issue.

This hike is tough, particularly if breathing is a challenge. It climbs steeply up along the coast, following a rough rocky pathway. In its favour, it follows alongside many of the terraced vineyards and olive groves you look at from the villages, wondering at the fitness and agility of the farmers who tend the lands – I can assure you they were not breathing through an airway the size of a straw when they did it!

Incredible views from up here along the rocky coastline
Mr A tackles one of the old stone bridges with gusto
Our first glance of Vernazza as we climb down the headland

It was a hard climb over, with some amazing views along the way – it was a busy walk too, with occasional groups of people marching on past, unable to utter ‘thank you’ in any language for letting them past! But within two hours we were descending into Vernazza.

The village of Vernazza
Of course there’s a cat waiting for Mr A’s treat bag!
As always, a gorgeous maze of little stairways and streets to explore

Vernazza’s a smaller village set around a lovely little fishing harbour. We sat by the water’s edge and enjoyed a gelato – banana and kiwi fruit on the recommendation of a young Melbourne lady we happened to sit beside!

View from our harbour wall resting area

From here, we caught the train our next destination, choosing to skip the village of Cornoglia and arriving in Manarona. This village sits high up on rocky cliffs, seemingly impossibly perched above the turquoise waters.

A wonderful colour palette awaits us
Lunch is calling – we head to Nessun Dorma for bruschetta

We climbed up to a restaurant with incredible views, expecting it to have ordinary service and overpriced food and drinks…but no, Nessun Dorma served us some delicious refreshments and freshly made bruschetta which satisfied our post hike hunger, with great service. Fabulous, and totally in line with all of our Italian experiences so far.

We had a bit more of an explore around the streets after lunch, before heading back to the train to head to our final village for the day.

Riomaggiore allowed us to escape the crowds and find ourselves a few moments alone to sit and enjoy the views. There is a walkway which links all five villages, but only the segment we hiked is still open. Apparently a combination of heavy rain in 2011 and abandoned terraces on the cliffs led to major landslides, plunging the path into the sea. We could see evidence of the path being restored in a few places, particularly Riomaggiore, but it looks like slow and difficult progress.

Down at Riomaggiore’s harbourside
Rooftops galore, looking out to sea
Looking across at terraced gardens that have been tended for centuries
Finding some solace high up in the village
Quiet….
Looking out towards the closed walkway, the train station to the right

As the crowds began to leave, taking their boat trips or the train back to their hotels, you could almost feel the sigh of relief as the locals reclaimed their home streets for their own, and the lapping of the water on the boats in the harbour became the prominent sound.

We had our final look around before heading to the station and our short journey back to La Spezia. By the time we got back to Truffy at 7pm, we had walked just under 15km (9 miles) and climbed more than 100 flights of stairs. We were appropriately tired!

We’re pleased we got a chance to see Cinque Terre, but do appreciate there are many other places which are perhaps equally as beautiful, and certainly less frequented by tourists. When we look back at the spectacular places we have seen in the past week, we feel very fortunate to have experienced those without coach and boat trips blocking our views and interrupting our peace.

21 May: Camogli – what a gem!

Author: Mr A

Location: Camogli and San Rocco, Italy

Every so often when you’re exploring new ground, you come across a place that you know will be etched into your memory for ever. The little port of Camogli ticked that box in spades.

We planned a stop over between Genoa and the Cinque Terre coast at a car park that was described by one reviewer as having “a nice view”. What an understatement! This unassuming bit of tarmac overlooked a chunk of coast that took our breath away.

Our view from our sosta – not bad for a free night!

Our first view of the small fishing town of Camogli on the Italian Riviera, about an hour’s drive east from Genoa on the E80, a road that we had been on and off for a few days.

As an aside, what a spectacular feat of engineering the European route E80 is. We didn’t realise until we did a bit of research that in fact it travels through 10 countries as the ‘Trans European Motorway’ from Portugal to the border with Iran. It then joins the Asian highway which continues all the way to Japan! We looked at this freeway in a new light. Living on a rather big island for so many years it really made us think what is possible in Europe.

So this car park was on the outskirts of a small settlement called San Rocco, with a path that led down to the sea, as well as many others which criss-cross their way over the peninsular to Portofino on the eastern side.

The views keep on coming
Blown away by the beauty of the scenery
Looking west from the peninsular – better known Portofino is on the eastern side

Loving where our little Truffy is bringing us….but the bikes weren’t right for this location
Breathtaking!

Firstly, we cycled as far as we could on the bikes before encountering steps, then packed away the bikes and donned walking shoes.

Feeling happy here…can we move in?
Our wooded walk was accompanied by the sound of water

San Nicolò di Capodimonte, a church along our walk – it officially dates back to 1141, but legend has it there has been a church here since the year 345
A well constructed pathway down to the wharf – quite steep with many steps

Wish we could share the scent of these roses….Devine!
Warmed up in the afternoon sunshine
Spying the ferry we run to the wharf

Without much of plan, we headed off down along this fabulous coastal path, then as we got to sea level noticed a ferry coming in. We both looked at each other and went “why not” so we jumped and were carried around to the harbour of Camogli in style.

Twelve euros later we have bagged ourselves a couple of spots on a boat trip
Portofino Promontory in the background
Love a good boat trip!
Coming into Camogli harbour

The moment we saw this place from the water we loved it. It had a genteel calm, without tour buses, and with a real authentic air of still being a working town. Some guys were just heading off to fish as we landed. I’m amazed there’s any left to catch!

We strolled around and immediately decided this is somewhere we could happily spend as week relaxing in. When I started to write this blog and read about the town, so many people described it as “undiscovered”, well by non-Italians anyway. It sure felt that way.

Exploring the town
Castle della Dragonara, built in the early 13th century, a fabulous entry to the harbour
Looking back out towards our home for the night – the clouds looking like they are descending

Feeling such an affinity with this village
Bagni Lido – the public beach

Reluctantly we headed back up to our car park, via 896 steps…we were ready for dinner by the time we climbed that lot.

A noisy Bean Goose shouting in the stream through town
Up and up the path went…

Fat pheasant in amongst the olive groves on our climb up
May I have some treats?
Yes…Mr A does carry cat treats in his bag!
We discovered Italian cats know the universal sound of cat treat bags…

Camogli, thankyou for giving us such a great memory to take away. I hope you don’t change too much too quickly.

19-20 May: Gorgeous Cervo (You won’t find it in the Lonely Planet)

Author: Mrs A

Location: Cervo, San Bartholomo al Mare & Diane Marina, Italian Riviera, Italy

Sunday: With just an 18km journey between locations, it was one of our shortest journeys yet, but not without its challenges! We followed a busy stream of traffic and our Google directions down a one way road, which appeared to get narrower and narrower with a line of parked cars down one side and a wonky stone wall on the other.

We pulled to one side to assess our options. With traffic constantly coming down the road, reversing was going to be impossible without significant help…and going forwards looked equally daunting without potential damage to Truffy and/or parked cars. Not a fun situation.

One of the cars passing us slowed and wound down his window. We half expected abuse for blocking the road, but no, the Italian driver told us that the road is not as bad as we thought, and that as a motorhome driver himself he was confident we could drive down safely. Mr A bravely took off, me walking in front, letting him know how much space was either way. To increase stress levels, a bus was following us, but amazingly was very patient. When Mark pulled over on a wider piece of road, the bus driver even indicated he understood the caution and gave me a thumbs up. Phew! Another skilful negotiation of a tricky road – absolute kudos to Mr A for excellent driving. We could not imagine such patient drivers in Sydney – they’d be much quicker on the horns!

So we arrived at our next destination with no damage done, a campground beside the beach 15 minutes walk from the village of Cervo. We immediately set off to explore.

Stormy skies over Cervo but we didn’t get too wet

Cervo has around 1200 residents, many of them artists, sculptors, wood carvers, painters and jewellers. The village largely built up around an initial Roman villa more than 2000 years ago. Like France, Italy has a ‘most beautiful villages‘ classification and Cervo has well deservedly achieved that recognition.

The streets are very steep, and at the moment I am not breathing too well…but made it with a little wheezing. Mark is suffering with tendonitis in his calf, so also struggled up the streets – not doing brilliantly between us! It was well worth all the effort though, with gorgeous views, interesting little alleyways and of course the friendly village cat there to meet us at the top!

Curvy cobbled steps lead us up into the village
A well looked after village, touches of colour and flowers everywhere
Trees growing on seemingly impossible surfaces
Even the snails are colour coordinated

Endless beautiful laneways enticing us down
You can almost imagine the lives that have taken place in these streets over the centuries
‘St George and the Dragon’ mural painted in the early 1900s after sailors from England shared the story with local artists

Fortified walls evident at the top of the village

Italian cats say ‘Ciao’

A fine view from outside the church

One of the key highlights in the village is the Romanesque Oratorio di Santa Caterina church. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the historical and artistic significance of this magnificent building, having pride of place looking out to sea and covered with incredible frescoes (mural paintings painted on plaster).

Heading up into the church

Incredible frescoes cover the walls and ceilings
A grand gold and marble alter
The equivalent of the church hall, all set up ready for a conference

Such a picturesque area, with plenty of exploring to be done. We can only imagine how busy it gets here in the summer holidays, despite the fact that Cervo does not appear in the Lonely Planet and has a pebbly beach.

All this exploring worked up an appetite and we went along to Pizza Pazza, the restaurant right next door for dinner in the evening. Yet another fabulous meal, and again at a fraction of the price we would pay in the UK or Australia, including a bottle of wine.

Monday: Glimmers of blue skies greeted us so we leaped on the task of washing first thing. Once everything was either hung out or dried we decided to go exploring in the other direction, biking our way to the next little settlement, San Bartholomo al Mare.

There are no bike lanes here, but the drivers continue to be quite respectful of cyclists, keeping their distance and no agression at all. This is all in absolute contrast to what we have been led to expect by the various blogs we’ve read – maybe our expectations have been lowered by our experiences on the road in Australia and New Zealand?

We took a random uphill road just to explore, and were soon making use of the motors on our electric bikes to take us up past gated villas with incredible views, meadows and Ligurian olive groves. It was all very picturesque.

Gorgeous views across to Cervo on our ride
Even ‘warm’ enough for shorts!

Garden like wildflowers along our cycle

Terraced olive groves are plentiful here with agriculture still a key source of income

Beautiful orchids growing by the side of the road

We then cycled up to the next settlement, riding up a cycle friendly pedestrianised area and finding a little pizza place for lunch – yes, they even did me a pizza without cheese! We both ordered the small portion, which ended up being absolutely huge. Despite the fact I only ate half, we had no need to eat for the rest of the day!

19-20 May: Gorgeous Cervo (You won’t find it in the Lonely Planet)

Author: Mrs A

Location: Cervo, San Bartholomo al Mare & Diane Marina, Italian Riviera, Italy

Sunday: With just an 18km journey between locations, it was one of our shortest journeys yet, but not without its challenges! We followed a busy stream of traffic and our Google directions down a one way road, which appeared to get narrower and narrower with a line of parked cars down one side and a wonky stone wall on the other.

We pulled to one side to assess our options. With traffic constantly coming down the road, reversing was going to be impossible without significant help…and going forwards looked equally daunting without potential damage to Truffy and/or parked cars. Not a fun situation.

One of the cars passing us slowed and wound down his window. We half expected abuse for blocking the road, but no, the Italian driver told us that the road is not as bad as we thought, and that as a motorhome driver himself he was confident we could drive down safely. Mr A bravely took off, me walking in front, letting him know how much space was either way. To increase stress levels, a bus was following us, but amazingly was very patient. When Mark pulled over on a wider piece of road, the bus driver even indicated he understood the caution and gave me a thumbs up. Phew! Another skilful negotiation of a tricky road – absolute kudos to Mr A for excellent driving. We could not imagine such patient drivers in Sydney – they’d be much quicker on the horns!

So we arrived at our next destination with no damage done, a campground beside the beach 15 minutes walk from the village of Cervo. We immediately set off to explore.

Stormy skies over Cervo but we didn’t get too wet

Cervo has around 1200 residents, many of them artists, sculptors, wood carvers, painters and jewellers. The village largely built up around an initial Roman villa more than 2000 years ago. Like France, Italy has a ‘most beautiful villages‘ classification and Cervo has well deservedly achieved that recognition.

The streets are very steep, and at the moment I am not breathing too well…but made it with a little wheezing. Mark is suffering with tendonitis in his calf, so also struggled up the streets – not doing brilliantly between us! It was well worth all the effort though, with gorgeous views, interesting little alleyways and of course the friendly village cat there to meet us at the top!

Curvy cobbled steps lead us up into the village
A well looked after village, touches of colour and flowers everywhere
Trees growing on seemingly impossible surfaces
Even the snails are colour coordinated

Endless beautiful laneways enticing us down
You can almost imagine the lives that have taken place in these streets over the centuries
‘St George and the Dragon’ mural painted in the early 1900s after sailors from England shared the story with local artists

Fortified walls evident at the top of the village

Italian cats say ‘Ciao’

A fine view from outside the church

One of the key highlights in the village is the Romanesque Oratorio di Santa Caterina church. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the historical and artistic significance of this magnificent building, having pride of place looking out to sea and covered with incredible frescoes (mural paintings painted on plaster).

Heading up into the church

Incredible frescoes cover the walls and ceilings
A grand gold and marble alter
The equivalent of the church hall, all set up ready for a conference

Such a picturesque area, with plenty of exploring to be done. We can only imagine how busy it gets here in the summer holidays, despite the fact that Cervo does not appear in the Lonely Planet and has a pebbly beach.

All this exploring worked up an appetite and we went along to Pizza Pazza, the restaurant right next door for dinner in the evening. Yet another fabulous meal, and again at a fraction of the price we would pay in the UK or Australia, including a bottle of wine.

Monday: Glimmers of blue skies greeted us so we leaped on the task of washing first thing. Once everything was either hung out or dried we decided to go exploring in the other direction, biking our way to the next little settlement, San Bartholomo al Mare.

There are no bike lanes here, but the drivers continue to be quite respectful of cyclists, keeping their distance and no agression at all. This is all in absolute contrast to what we have been led to expect by the various blogs we’ve read – maybe our expectations have been lowered by our experiences on the road in Australia and New Zealand?

We took a random uphill road just to explore, and were soon making use of the motors on our electric bikes to take us up past gated villas with incredible views, meadows and Ligurian olive groves. It was all very picturesque.

Gorgeous views across to Cervo on our ride
Even ‘warm’ enough for shorts!

Garden like wildflowers along our cycle

Terraced olive groves are plentiful here with agriculture still a key source of income

Beautiful orchids growing by the side of the road

We then cycled up to the next settlement, riding up a cycle friendly pedestrianised area and finding a little pizza place for lunch – yes, they even did me a pizza without cheese! We both ordered the small portion, which ended up being absolutely huge. Despite the fact I only ate half, we had no need to eat for the rest of the day!

18 May: Two wheels and the Italian Riveria

Author: Mr A

Location: Santo Stefano al Mare, Italian Riviera, Italy

We found ourselves a lovely little car park where motorhomes are allowed to stay overnight within earshot of those gentle Ligurian Sea waves. For those readers who are not motorhomers (yet!), they are called sostas here and aires in France. Italy has over 2,000 designated spots like this. Sometimes they provide services, others like this one just a flat space to park up.

Parked at the marina by Santo Stefano Al Mare

We had chosen this spot as it was right alongside the “Cycling Riveria” cycleway – 24km of rail trail stretching from Lorenzo al Mare to Ospedelettti, passing through St Remo. Just our cup of tea.

Donning full waterproof gear (what happened to that famous Riveria sunshine?) we set off to explore this little corner of Liguria. What a perfect way to see the coast cruising along on the bikes.

Perfect surface for cyclists
Beautifully restored rail bridges

Slow enough to smell the roses, but fast enough to cover some ground and see lots more than walking. Along the trail we spotted a lady feeding stray cats, a sight to warm our feline appreciating hearts.

Very cautious cats and kittens all living in this building site

Given this area is squeezed between the mountains and the sea, ground for housing is at a premium, so we saw very few detached homes and mostly apartment buildings.

As we were finishing the ride the towns along the path were starting to come alive, as the afternoon siesta time was finishing and the locals were coming out in force for a Saturday night stroll (la passeggiata).

Moving bronze sculpture commemorating the resistance fighters killed during WWII
Calm waters at the marina in San Remo…these are just the small boats

We did our own Australian version, being almost the first in to dinner at a local restaurant that we liked the look off – thats right no research this time! We got lucky – it was absolutely fabulous – Il Sandolino it was called – it was so new we were able to give them their first review on Google.

I’ll Sandolino invites us in
What a feast…and two more glasses of Chianti per favore!
Beautiful old town to stroll through
Our 10 minute walk home from the restaurant
Happy campers…again!

Our first meal in Italy on this trip set the bar pretty high, and such a reasonable price at around 30% less than the Provence prices we were paying last week. It isn’t an affluent area, with unemployment running at 10% currently, and has little of the glitter of its French Riveria neighbour, but that suits us. The only negative experience was a lady at the table next to us asked to be moved when we sat down, muttering something I couldn’t make out other than “Americano”!

This was a great introductory day to motorhoming in Italy. We overnighted for free and had a fabulous quality meal at basically half the price we would have paid at a Sydney restaurant. What’s not to like?

17 May: Benvenuto in Italia!

Author: Mrs A

Location: Ventimiglia, Italy

As we packed up to depart this morning we met two sets of interesting fellow campers. The first a British couple, fellow Hymer owners (also members of the owner’s group), Steve and Kathy, permanent travellers who offered many great tips for our foray into Italy. Secondly the German couple parked beside us who were travelling with their gorgeous camping cat, a friendly 12 year old tabby. It was almost enough to make us stop a second night.

We moved on regardless, onto the toll-road that was to take us along the coast into Italy. We filled up with diesel and then had the daunting task of filling with LPG gas. No two filling stations seem to be the same, and on this occasion I had to pre-authorise an amount in the shop before anything would start. Sensing confusion, an attendant came out to help Mark connect the French/Italian adapter and we purchased our €12 of gas – no nightmare fill up like our last experience in the UK, thankfully!

On we drove, the temperature dropping down to 15 degrees centigrade as we climbed into cloud. Before long we were back down by the coast and passing through the border in to Italy – no passports checked, but a few military vehicles around.

Crossing the border into Italy
The coastline winding along

We wound our way along the coast, spectacular views in front of us, and before long we were arriving at our campground in Ventimiglia.

It always amazes us how you can cross a border and instantly the culture and look of an area changes. Although there has been much Italian influence in the French Côte d’Azur it is nothing compared with the real Italy.

More than one in ten people in Italy is unemployed (compare this with 5% in Australia and just under 4% in the UK and USA) and it was immediately obvious with young men hanging around and our first sight of people begging for money. Reading the forums, it seems that Italy is also the location where many motorhomes are broken into. We felt safer leaving our Truffy parked up at a campground with good reviews on the outskirts of town and taking the shuttle bus in for a look around.

Friday is the day for the big market in Ventimiglia, and we had great hopes for picking up some fresh fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately there were few food stalls, mostly selling cheese, sausage, fresh pasta, sun dried tomatoes and pasta sauces. We bought some pecorino and sausage, Mr A trying out his Italian.

“Grazie signor!”
So much for the arts, crafts and flowers here…

The rest of the stalls were a repetitive mix of cheap clothing, shoes, handbags and homewares. Nothing unique or artistic…while this was on the scale of the market at Edmundi in Queensland, Australia, it was nowhere near the quality or variety.

After a good look around, we wandered over the river, deciding to explore the old town. It is high up above the water and dates back many centuries.

Looking dramatic against an alpine backdrop

It would have been great to have taken a tour, there are dozens of interesting doorways and clues to past building uses but for now those stories remain hidden.

Walls gradually dismantling their own history…

We were dying to know the story behind this hidden archway…
A gate worthy of Game of Thrones

When you can’t make it, fake it – spot the real balustrade…
Is there a rule on making your washing picturesque?
Few painted buildings, but when they are they stand out
Fabulous views from the top of the village

All this climbing makes you warm up!
Love the use of colour
Blackbird on a fig tree
No post complete without a colour coordinated cat

After a good explore, we called our campground shuttle bus and they were there in 5 minutes to collect us and take us back to Truffy for the evening.

Of course our first meal in Italy was pasta, together with pesto, vegetables and some of the delicious spicy sausage we’d purchased. But no wine. No, we are still recovering after the excesses of France!

16 May: A ride-by past the Cannes Film Festival

Author: Mr A

Location: Cannes & Mandelieu-la-Napoule, France

Thursday: Truffy our motorhome was all prepped and ready to hit the road. We pointed him south to the coast and the Côte d’Azur, which was looking especially glitzy as it happened to be hosting once again this week the Cannes Film Festival.

A stop en-route at an Asian grocery store recommended by our local hosts enabled a massive stock up on all the ingredients Catherine likes to use in her cooking, and we know from previous experience here they are not easy to source in the French and Italian supermarkets. We miss our spicy dishes here when eating out so create our own.

We decided on a whim to stay at a campsite we spotted in the first town we reached, Mandelieu-la-Napoule. It looked very scenic on a small canal, so we were shortly tucking into the fresh produce we had picked up on the way down. Ah the joy of France to get such quality veg everywhere you shop.

The e-bikes were quickly unloaded and we set off without much of a plan as to where we were going to explore. We found ourselves wandering along the coast towards Cannes, and realised we could actually ride all the way in.

A short bit of off-road cycleway

So we decided to check out what was happening around the Film Festival. It was heaving of course, with all the beautiful people parading around their floating gin palaces.

Constant sound of popping champagne corks here
A sparkling day in Cannes
All the stars are out…

It was really quite entertaining for us to hear so many languages and accents, see people so dressed up. Something we miss in Australia. And we even got to see the (empty) famous red carpet ready for the premier of the Elton John story, Rocketman (see news story and resultant images here). Amusing to see some hopeful young ladies all dressed up in skimpy outfits with signs saying “ticket wanted”. I wonder how their evening will go!

Step ladders at the ready for the paparazzi to photograph the arrivals
Red carpet at the ready…

Would have hated to be driving though the traffic chaos, but our e-bikes make it so easy to really cover some ground and weave in and out. We are so pleased we lashed out for these little beauties. Ideal for this type of outing.

Looking back along the coast
Many cruise ships in town for the big event

It was a great day out, capped off by a veggie Pad Thai courtesy of Mrs A. An episode of Peaky Blinders and the day was ended perfectly.

We have now ten days to wander into Italy and down to Florence, where Catherine will then fly home for a quick hospital visit leaving me to take care of Truffy. Italy here we come!

14 – 15 May: Endless gorgeous villages

Author: Mrs A

Location: Bagnols-en-Forêt, Saint-Paul de Vence, Fayence & Tourettes, France

Tuesday: Curious about the joys of riding an e-bike, we took our friends out for a cycle along some of the forest paths where we were staying…we can safely say they approve!

David & Mr A head off down a woodland path on a ride
Jenny admiring the view down to the coast

It was just a short ride in the morning before we headed back to wind our way by car across the mountain villages, past Fayaence, Tourettes and Grasse across to the small walled town of Saint-Paul de Vence.

Nestled among the olive trees and overlooking Nice
Cat sculptures

Approaching the walled village

Saint-Paul de Vence is a perched village located about 12km north east of Nice. It was originally settled in about 400 bcd and then was renamed in the year 120 when the Romans called it Castrum Sancti Pauli (interpreted as St Paul’s Fortress). In the late 1800s and 1900s the village was discovered by impressionist artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Marc Chagall (who is buried in the little cemetery there). The poor artists enjoyed the clean light and spectacular views – to the coast in one direction and the snow capped Alps in the other.

The Colombe d’Or restaurant and inn started life in the village in the 1920s and had a great reputation for good food and dancing on its terraces. It became a popular place amongst the artists, who often exchanged a painting or two in return for food or accomodation.

Today the whole village remains full of artists and galleries selling everything from today’s modern art to older Chagall and Picasso paintings and prints.

The Colombe d’Or restaurant – we didn’t lunch here
Entering into the village

Lunch was our first port of call, having forgone breakfast for a ride. We found a little terraced cafe with a fabulous view. It was a little tourist trap really with overpriced average food and wine from a sack, but the views made up for it!

Lunch with a fine view

We continued our exploration of the village, visiting Marc Chagall’s grave, covered in stones in the Jewish tradition and admired the views down to Nice and across the mountains. We wandered around the little lanes, admiring paintings with high price tags (€65,000 for an original Picasso artist’s print thank you very much – that’s around AU$106,000 /£57,000 /US$73,000 for our international readers).

A cemetery with a view
Exploring the village…So much to look at here…oh for an endless bank account!
The Alps in the background

Perched with a view

Beautiful multi-toned roses blooming
Front row seat at this hotel with a view down to the Mediterranean

Every alleyway entices you down
Di admires an artwork from a prize winning Macedonian artist

An Apéro Spritz on the terrace concluded our afternoon before returning back to Colin’s feast of fish and prawn gumbo – delicious!

Cheers…though I think Di is sad we’re all leaving

Wednesday: Our final day with our friends in France – it was time to give Colin and Di back their peace, serenity and healthy livers and Chris, Karen, Jenny and David were to be off back to Australia. The weather greeted us with appropriate sadness with a fine rain falling, and the morning was spent sharing stories, photos and doing the final packing and washing.

Di then took us up to the little village of Fayence, which had overlooked us on our Monday night farm meal. Mark and I visited here with Diane three years ago – then it had been sundress weather and the streets were bustling with the Saturday market. This time, it was jacket weather and other than the odd cat, the streets were largely abandoned.

“I might have fleas but I’d still like you to rub my tummy s’il vous plait.”
Cheese!

The cats rule the streets here
Closed today…looks like this cat had a run in with a slamming door

We walked across to the next village of Tourettes, enjoying the unique doorways and artworks on the walls, and admiring the views down across the valley towards the coast.

The evening saw us get suited and booted for our final meal together.

Our final glass of champagne from Epernay

Dinner was held at Moulin de la Camandoule an old olive mill with a history that dates back to Roman times.

The old Roman aqueduct – tiles have been found suggesting a villa was located here too

It was a delicious meal and a fitting end to our time together in Provence. Many thanks to Di and Colin for putting us up for the past few days and being such fabulous hosts.

12-13 May: Spring on the Côte d’Azur

Author: Mrs A

Location: Bagnols-en-Forêt, Provence-Alps-Côte, France

Our wonderful hosts have lived within the community of Bagnols-en-Forêt for about four years now. It’s tucked up on the hinterland behind the sparkling Mediterranean, on land which traditionally has been used to grow olives and grapes, but these days is more profitable being subdivided to house terracotta tiled villas with swimming pools.

Sunday: We joined them for a walk around the neighbourhood with Genie, their little poodle-cross rescue dog, and got a good feel for the area. Many of the houses are on half acre plots with lovely gardens. Just 100 metres from the back of Diane and Colin’s property the forest stretches on for miles with views out to the foothills of the Alps.

Genie enjoying her neighbourhood stroll
View out north over the forest to the foothills of the Alps
Wildflowers blooming in the meadows
A spray of purple flowers
Insect feeding on the nectar
Ruby poppies are everywhere
A perfect poppy
The delicate mauve flowers on the wild garlic

Later, we drove on down to the village for a lazy Sunday lunch, enjoying salads and a glass or two of local Rosé.

Colin and I awaiting our lunch

Diane brought along her lap warmer
Miss Genie wondering why we’re taking away her attention!

Towards the end of the afternoon a rental car arrived bringing Jenny, David, Chris and Karen to the house, here to enjoy their final four days in Europe before flying back to Australia. Colin cooked us all up a delicious feast and we had a good catch up.

Monday: We awoke to a beautiful morning and so Mr A and I decided to jump on our bikes and see a little more of the area. We rode up into the area behind Colin and Di’s house and explored some of the tracks leading into the forest. It’s great fun riding our little e-bikes and we were grateful for them on the steep uphills back out of the valley.

The area is stunning, and as we rode through the area full of wildflowers we marvelled at how parklike the area was. We reached a clearing along the road and with views that took our breath away – looking south towards the Mediterranean, Saint-Raphael gleaming in the distance, and north up into the beginning of an alpine environment.

Looking south across the Esterel Mountains (Massif de l’Estérel) to the French Riviera
Our little Tinker e-bikes

Looking inland towards the Pré-Alpes
Gorgeous wisened old trees admiring the views too

Our kind of pathway – we could ride forever on here

Bees collecting pollen on the wildflowers
Yellow, white, pink and purple the prevalent colours

We clocked up 20km and returned to get ready to head out with the group. We piled into two cars and headed south towards the coast. Our first stop was the little town of Fréjus.

The town is on the site of an ancient naval base founded by Julius Caesar in about 50 bce and known originally as Forum Julii. Its Roman ruins include a late 1st-century amphitheatre, an aqueduct, and ancient fortifications.

As we arrived in town we saw a parade starting – it turned out it was the saint day for saint François de Paule, the Italian monk who arrived on the day the plague ended in the town – and henceforth was praised for being the town’s saviour.

Parade about to commence

We ambled through the little streets, checking out the architecture, arriving at the main square and the cathedral.

Wandering along the streets
Quiet laneways in this off peak period
A couple of new hats for Chris

David and Mr A chilling out on the steps

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame et Saint-Étienne (13th century) has a 5th-century baptistery, gradually being excavated. 

Heading into the cathedral
Many artworks on the walls
Exploring the interior
Baptistery
Spot all the new hats!

After lunch in the square we drove a short way along the coast to Saint-Raphaël. A €4 ferris wheel ride gave us the perfect opportunity to enjoy views along the coast and get our bearings in this resort town.

Looking along the coast – Diane’s favourite sandy beach below
Up and away – Karen, Chris, Jenny & David in the other capsule
A windy view

We explored the streets before ice creams and returning back for the evening. Di and Colin had booked us a unique experience, a private dinner prepared and served at a local farmhouse, La ferme Constantin in nearby Fayance.

It was a fabulous rustic setting, as we enjoyed wine and appetisers outside overlooking the fields, before heading in for food as the sun set.

Arriving at the farm
Miss Genie had to join us of course
Appetisers with a view
A fine glass of rosé

Our private dining room

Every dish is beautifully presented
Our fabulous main course
A dairy-free dessert

It was a great experience, one we will never forget.

The village of Fayance up in the hills behind us

9 – 11 May: A dash through France – Champagne to Provence

Author: Mr A

Location: Beaune, Mirmande and Bagnols-en-Forêt, France

We had three days to travel just under a 1,000km through the centre of France in order to reach our next get together with friends in Provence. That meant the freeways – expensive, boring and fast would be my summary. We spent around €100 on tolls, but arrived early enough at our stopovers to at least see something of the country.

Thursday: The first night we returned to the town of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgandy. We had been here a few years ago and loved it, staying at a great free parking spot within walking distance of the town centre.

The old hospital from the 1400s
Mr A strolling through the wet cobbled streets
Basilique Notre-Dame de Beaune – 13th century church
Founding date of the hospital for the poor
The most magnificent cheese shop

It rained on and off but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for ogling the amazing selection of food and wine shops that cram into the tiny centre. A very classy place is Beaune. We escaped with our wallets intact, only giving way to our desires with a round of washed rind sheep’s cheese, a type of cheese Catherine can tolerate small amounts of with her dairy intolerance.

Friday: We were up and off in the morning and hitting the freeways again. We managed to get to Mirmande, our stop over, early enough to have a good explore on the bikes.

Camping in a meadow full of daisies – we’ve been in worse locations!

Around 4km from our delightful little campsite (La Poche camping) was a village a friend had recommended as it is in the category of “one of the most beautiful in France” – along with hundreds of others I think, as there seems so many. In fact I looked it up, there’s 156 that an association formed in the early 80’s recognises as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France“. There’s some criteria they need to meet and a branding they can use. All very noble.

Our trusty little e-bikes powered us up right to the 12th century church at the top of the village, with outstanding in views right down to the Rhone river.

Built in the 12th century, the church of Saint Foy – now hosts an art exhibition rather than a congregation
A wall with a view

Magnificent 360 degree views across the countryside
A fabulous art exhibition space within the old church
Beautiful views around every corner
Lots of reminders of the ancient past
The village is as famous for its gardens which complement the views
Ivy covered buildings with fabulous views
Passing the old ramparts on our slow passage down through the village

It’s the little details that count

The village also has an award for the best roofs in France
Riding up to the Church, we can hardly believe the residents bring cars up here

Mr & Mrs A in front of the village

After snapping away for a while I dragged Mrs A away and we headed down to the Rhône through some lovely countryside.

The Rhône – a strong current and a very long river

The climb back up to our camp was 4km straight up – thankyou Mr Bosch we love your pedal assist technology!

Saturday: The final day of the drive into Provence was completed without incident. There was no tailgating, or middle lane hogs, drivers are almost all respectful to others on the road. A pleasure to experience, coming from Australia and New Zealand. So we finally reached our destination at our friends’ place just outside a small village called Bagnols-en-Forêt in the hills behind Cannes and St Tropez. And what a place it is! They have created this private oasis of a garden, and a house of eclectic, exquisite taste. Colin is an awesome master of his domain, the kitchen, and dinner a sumptuous affair. The rest of the mob arrive tomorrow, so we enjoy the time to ourselves catching up with these guys.

It’s fascinating to get their perspective on French life, as Australians who moved out here 8 years ago. I think the best phrase I heard them use was that the French life in a “bubble”, where the world in some ways doesn’t seem to touch them too deeply. Traditions are maintained, micro-agriculture common, family life still central to their lives it seems. The finer and often simpler moments in life are still treasured. A long lunch with friends (where mobiles seems less prevalent than at home), a walk through the woods, choosing the weekly shop undertaken with such care at the local market. These are the things we observe and love about France.

Rescued dog Genie is slowly getting used to us
Blue skies and a tempting looking pool (though at less than 20 degrees, not ‘that’ tempting!)