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Italy and France

June 1999


This European trip consisted of a week of tourist sightseeing in northern Italy followed by a week of hiking in the Provence region of France.

Week 1 - Italy

The excitement started when we landed at Charles DeGaul airport in Paris too late to make our connection on to Nice, France. We had to have our baggage pulled out of the baggage system (fortunately most if not all of the French airport personnel knew English, we knew NO French).  Then we could hustle off and catch a shuttle bus to Orly airport in Paris for a different shuttle flight to Nice. The shuttle bus took about a hour to travel around the Paris beltway. Dave got to see the Eiffel tower in the distant city skyline while on the bus!. We eventually made it to Nice where we got our rental car and promptly zipped onto the French Autostrade heading for Italy. And I do mean ZIPPED! Europeans drive like rabid bats out of Hades. The speed limit is 110 kph, I'm doing about 120 to 130 to keep up with traffic and there's still people passing on my left. We finally arrived in the tiny village of Monterosso, Italy around 9:00 pm in the dark where we parked the car in a storage lot and hopped a train for the short ride to Corniglia (which is inaccessible by car).

The area around Corniglia is called "Cinque Terre" (5 Lands) because of the 5 small fishing villages along the coast. The idea is that you hike the coastal trail between the 5 villages: Riomaggiora, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. That is what we did the next day. It was a nice hike along the rocky coast, a little hot but with a breeze as we wound our way through the villages and olive groves. Along the way we snacked on sandwiches and ice cream we bought along the way. I was surprised the area was so dry, with large cactuses growing along the path. We'd stop and explore each village for a short while before continuing on to the next. The village of Vernazza was built   out on a penninsula. On the end of the penninsula was a small castle with a small tower. The castle was used as an art museum and the tower gave us a good overview of the village and the coastline to the north and south. By the time we reached the end of the hike in Monterosso it was early evening and the sun was getting low. It's hard to finish the hike by early evening and also spend sufficient time exploring and shopping in each of the unique villages.

> Here we are near the start of the coastal hike in Riomaggiore. The path is also called the "via dell amore".

^ The village of Vernazza from the castle tower. 
The hiking trail follows along the coast from the right to the left.

The next day we packed up, took the train back to Monterosso, took a quickie scenic boat ride along the coast, got back in the car, ZIPPED back onto the autostrade and headed for the airport at Florence. Got lost along the way due to missing a sign in HEAVY construction traffic near the airport (is there an airport anywhere in the world that doesn't have construction !?). At the airport we dumped the car (Dave was grateful !) and we took the bus into downtown Florence to our 1 star hotel.

In Florence we toured the Uffizzi museum (put Dave to sleep looking at all those dirty, old paintings of naked women mounted in large, tacky, gaudy, gold-gilded frames), climbed Giott's Bell Tower for an aerial view of the whole city (real nice!), toured Boboli Gardens (not much of a garden, there were hardly any flowers, it was more of a bush garden) and checked out the sculpture that Michaelangelo did of my great-great-grandfather David. Florence was hot, noisy, dirty, crowded, jammed with speeding cars and scooters. I might as well have been in downtown New York City. I was glad to leave the next day for Venice.

^ Here's an example of the tacky, gaudy
frames they use in the museum. This
looks like some religious painting.

^ Bored in the museum, Dave looks out an open
window and sees the Ponte Vechio (Old Bridge)
across the Arno River.

^ Here's a panoramic view of Florence from the top of Giotto's Bell Tower. The bell tower is right next to the Duomo which is prominently in the center of the photo.  Click on the photo for an enlarged view.

Venice was a welcome change from Florence. It was cleaner, nicer, NO cars or motor scooters trying to run you over. There are no motor vehicles allowed in Venice. The only traffic was boats in the canals. If you like boat rides, is this ever the town for you!. We took bus-boat rides all over, even to two of the nearby islands, one called Murano (known for glass making, where we got snookered into taking a tour of a glass factory which of course ended up in the $$$ gift shop) and the other called Burano (known for lace making, much nicer, quieter, lower sales pressure). We visited St. Marks Square (with all the ZILLIONS of pigeons), St Marks cathedral, and a local bell tower for Dave's now compulsory aerial view of the city.

^ A quiet side canal in Venice

^ There were ZILLIONS of pigeons at St. Marks Square, and just as many tourists feeding them.

^ The Grand Canal in Venice from the Ponte di Rialto.

The next day, we packed up again and hopped on the train to Milan and then on to the town of Como which is at the southern end of Lake Como.  From there we took a ferry boat up the lake to the quiet, peaceful lake-side village of Bellagio. Bellagio was our favorite spot in Italy. It was very quiet, peaceful, uncrowded, unrushed, friendly and scenic. Our hotel was in the back of the town up a hill. From our hotel room we could look out over the rooftops and see Lake Como and the mountains in the distance. During our one day stay at Lake Como we took ferry boats around to different lakeside towns, climbed up to a castle on a hillside behind the village of Varenna (for yet another aerial view) and just generally relaxed while walking around the small towns. Taht evening we walked over to the nearby small village of Pecallo (located behind Bellagio). We had heard there was a really good restaurant there, but they were all booked up. So we had to walk back to Bellagio for our supper. The next day we again packed up, hopped on the train and headed back to Milan and then west along the coast to Menton, France (southern coast of France, near Italy).

^ Here we are in Como waiting for the ferry to Bellagio.

^ The view of Lake Como from "Castello di Vezio", the castle on the hillside above Varenna.

^ The sleepy harbor of Pescallo, on the backside of Bellagio. There's a good restaurant nearby, but they were booked that evening.

Week 2 - France

In Menton we met up with our Washington, DC hiking club friends Duncan and Nora and together we joined up with our group from BCT (British Coastal Trails)  that took us up into the Maritime Alps for our 8 days of hiking. With the tour group we hiked about 10 - 12 miles every day. We'd get up in the morning, have a European style breakfast (namely: bread and water), walk into the nearest town, buy some bread, cheese, deli-meat and whatever for a picnic lunch and then head off into the mountains. The best part of the hikes was when we walked thru the old (medieval) villages perched high in the mountains. The tiny narrow streets and alleys between the tall old skinny houses jammed up against each other, perched precariously on the hillside were fascinating. The tiny homes in the villages were festooned with pots of brilliant hanging flowers and beautiful little pocket gardens tucked away in every corner. I wish we could get the flowers on our deck to grow half as nice.  Each village had several picturesque old stone water fountains that provided the drinking water for the residents. Every evening we'd return to our hotel where our post-hike hunger pangs were satiated with a 3 to 4 hour long, 6 course gourmet meals ( 1. Appertif drinks, 2. Pre-appetizer, 3. Appetizer, 4. Main course, 5. Cheese and bread course, 6. Dessert). However, as fancy as the food was, Dave would have preferred a nice simple meal. He was dying for a nice Pizza Hut pizza or a nice big bowl of simple Spaghetti and Meat Balls. Some of the other women on the hike asked for simple green salads because the meals were getting to be too much, but were told that would be a grievous insult to the chef. Dave also wished the meals didn't take so long so he and Diane could go into town and walk around a bit. Unfortunately the meals started at 7pm and ended around 11pm.

Every morning we'd shop for our lunch supplies in the small local bakeries and deli's.   Most of the baked goods looked fabulous. We regret that we didn't have the time to try them all.

Our hikes took us all over.  Some times we'd be walking thru golden meadows up in the hills, and other times thru groves of Olive trees.


^ Here we are looking back at the village of Saorge.  Our hike took us thru the old part of the town.

< Here we are approaching the village of Fanghetto in Italy. We had crossed the border only a short time ago. We enjoyed a lovely group lunch under a shady awning at a great little italian restaurant this day.

> One of the best parts of the hiking trip was walking thru the old quiet villages perched on the sides of the hills. Everywhere you looked in the towns there were flowers. From the widest main street to the smallest back alley, the walkways were "littered" with flowers. Everyone in France must have green thumbs.


One day our hike took us past a beautiful cool stream where we relaxed and dipped our feet in the water.  Two members of the party went swimming.

In every small town there was a beautiful church. One would never guess that the interiors would be so magnificent based on their ancient exteriors. This church had exquisite frescos painted on every available wall space.


^Looking down on the village of Briel-sur-Roya. Our hike started at our hotel on the otherside of town.  We then walked thru the old part of the city to buy our treats for lunch before we crossed the bridge below and ascended the hillside.

The last hiking day with the group was spent hiking along the southern French coast past the Menton beaches to Monaco where the bus picked us up and took us to Nice. In Nice, the group split and went their separate ways. Diane, Dave, Duncan and Nora stayed together in the same Nice hotel (that's Nice as in the name of the town, not nice as in atttractive/comfortable/roomy/well appointed room) and spent the afternoon on the beach in Nice. They have a lousy beach in Nice, all rocky, ranging from pebble size to fist size. It made walking to the water a trying, uncomfortable and painful exercise. The view of all the topless young ladies on the beach however, did help make up for the uncomfortable rocky beach (according to Dave!).

^ The beach at Menton, France. Our last day's hike started here and led us westward
along the coast towards Monaco.

The next day we packed up once again for the last time, took a city bus back to the airport, and enjoyed an uneventful flight back home.

Editorial Comments:

  • In retrospect, Italian restaurants weren't as great as Dave was anticipating. They always served you dry bread without butter first, followed by an appetizer, followed by a pasta dish (which was the best part of the whole meal) followed by the main dish (a piece of meat or a whole fish with the eye intact staring up at you as you eat it and only a speck of vegetables as a garnish) followed by a green salad and then last was dessert. It wasn't until the last night in Nice, France that Dave had his best meal of the whole trip, a great big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs!!! ( He had to wait till he got home for his Pizza Hut pizza !!). Italian ice cream, called Gellato, was OK. It was just like our ice cream only softer. However, that didn't stop Diane from gorging on it every time we passed a Gellateria (ice cream store). My favorite flavor was striachiatella <sp.> which was chocolate chip.

  • Getting money out of French ATM machines was very easy.

  • The best part of Italy was the quiet relaxing time spent in the Lake Como area. The best part of the hiking in France was exploring the ancient perched villages.



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