Written by Travel Beyond Consultant Ann Coleman
Two of my specialties at Travel Beyond are Italy and France. I recently had the oh-so-awful task of spending a month exploring some areas in each country. Tough job, right? I wanted to share with you a bit about my travels:
My first stop was Venice, Italy. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightfully so. Venice is comprised of 118 islands connected by a maze of canals, and people get around on foot or by water. (Side story: If on foot, I suggest you get a really, really good map. I pride myself on my directional skills, however I got so lost one morning while on a run that I almost cried. Almost. Especially when I almost got hit by a car, which is interesting because there are not cars on Venice Island, so where I was exactly, I’ll never know… It didn’t help that when I finally got up the guts to ask for help, the nice lady didn’t speak English! Cue the tears…) I had just two days in Venice to explore, which is a perfect amount. I arranged for a private guide to really help me make the most of my time there. Now I am not a museum-goer or all that interested in churches, but I absolutely loved St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doges Palace. Learning how and why the church was built and the history of the Venetian Government fascinated me. I recommend dedicating some time to each attraction, both of which sit right off of the Piazza San Marco. I spent the remainder of my time wandering the twisting streets, popping in and out of shops and seeing a few of the other sights Venice has to offer before I departed.
To be honest, I didn’t love Venice, I thought it was too touristy. I get why people want to go there, I really do, however it wasn’t my favorite stop in Italy. Florence was. Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world (according to Forbes) and the capital of the famous Tuscany region. Anyone travelling through Italy should make a two or three night stop in this city. Florence has so much history that it’s hard to sum it up into one little paragraph! It was the center for medieval European trade and one of the richest cities at the time, something that you can still see to this day. Florence houses so much art that it can be overwhelming. I recommend breaking it up into two days with one museum each morning and afternoons spent wandering the cobbled streets. My guide took me on a craftsman type tour where we visited the old–but still very much in use–workshops of tradesmen. We saw clock makers, watch fixers, cobblers, fabric makers, etc. It was really a fascinating tour and something that I find so atypical to normal city tours. These men and women have been taught these trades passed down from generation to generation and really rely on their neighborhood residents to utilize them. It is a dying art as most of the current tradesmen’s children go to college these days and work in finance and marketing and computers and don’t want to learn the family skill. It’s quite sad that all of this is fading out, however this tour was just so neat as it really gave a glimpse into the real lives of local residents and sort of took you back in time. I think a tour like this is a great addition to the standard tours of the typical sights. Also, my guide taught me how to spot real and authentic gelato which proved to be quite a problem for me for the rest of my trip. I had to stop at every authentic shop I passed to taste test! I now have a list of the best!
On to Rome! Rome is a city that blows me away every time I visit. The place is just SO OLD! Everything is thousands and thousands of years old, and I have the hardest time wrapping my head around it! We stayed at a great little hotel near the Plaza Barberini. Having a private guide really allows you to learn more about the aspects that are of interests to you and make the most of your time in Rome. I met my private guide early in the morning and we set off on foot to cover a few of the sights; the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, etc. etc. etc! While I love to walk and prefer walking tours to driving tours, Rome can be tough to cover on foot in a day, in fact nearly impossible. I recommend two days of tours to really make use of your time in Rome because there is so much to see. Also, a private guide is a must. There is an endless amount of history and so many stories and details that you really can’t get from a book; only native guides really hold these anecdotes. I spent my late afternoons and evenings wandering aimlessly, without a map, popping in and out of shops and cafes, trying to get a feel for local life. Another must do!
From Italy I popped over to France, a country with which I am obsessed. (Note to the boss man- if you ever need an office on the ground over there, I volunteer.) My first stop was Paris. I have spent a lot of time in Paris and have never been bored for a second. One of the first things I did this time was a bike tour with a small group. I had reservations about it because I don’t like to tour with other people very often, but the group was 15 passengers max and traveling in this group made me feel a whole lot safer as we cruised the streets in a pack. The guide was adorable and spoke perfect English. We rode at a leisurely pace for about 4 hours, stopping along the way at monuments, government buildings, and other historical sites. It was a great way to stretch my legs and get some exercise while traveling. (Something has to combat all that gelato!) The following day I did a really neat walking tour with a private guide for about 3 hours in the Montmartre neighborhood. I learned all about the artists who called this area home and what life was like for them in the early 1900s. Along the way, we took little breaks at three different cafes for a wine tasting and snacks. It was one of my favorite tours that I have been on anywhere in the world. And not just because French wine tasting pours are a full glass…
On to Megeve! Megeve is a popular little ski town near Mt. Blanc. The scenery is amazing, and I hear the skiing is as well. I personally can’t wait to visit in the summer months to do some hiking. If you go to, stay at the Ferme de Mairie, one of the best properties in the area. The atmosphere is amazing with little nooks all over, full of comfy chairs, games, books and fireplaces. The town itself is charming with lots of shops and restaurants. You can walk right into town from the Ferme and take a sleigh ride home!
Lyon is located a few hours southwest of Megeve. Lyon is the gastronomical center of France, so if you are a foodie, even just a little, you need to go to Lyon and eat! Lyon is the second largest city in France so it’s big and offers a lot! The Rhône and Saône rivers converge to the south of the historic city center, forming a peninsula or “Presqu’île”. There are two large hills, one to the west and one to the north of the city centre, as well as a large plain which sprawls eastward. West of the Presqu’île, the original medieval city (Vieux Lyon) was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière hill. This area, along with portions of the Presqu’île and much of the Croix-Rousse is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both Vieux Lyon and the slopes of Croix-Rousse are known for their narrow passageways (named traboules) that pass through buildings and link streets on either side. The first examples of traboules are thought to have been built in Lyon in the 4th century. The traboules allowed the inhabitants to get from their homes to the Saône River quickly and allowed the silk workers on the Croix-Rousse hill to get quickly from their workshops to the textile merchants at the foot of the hill. There is a wonderful walking tour of Lyon that showcases these traboules as well as the some of the more historical sites. Lyon is a great base for exploring the Burgundy and Rhone wine regions.
The second-to-last stop on my trip was Provence. This is an area made famous in part by the iconic lavender fields and amazing wines, not to mention charming little villages and beautiful scenery. I based myself in Avignon for three nights and explored the area from there. Avignon itself is such a cool city. It has a walled-in old village with winding cobbled streets and small squares surrounded by cafes. The famous Pont Saint-Bénezet (“on the bridge of Avignon…”) and the Palais du Papes (one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. One time fortress and palace, the papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century) are two of the most well-known attractions in Avignon. The next day, I took a private village and wine tasting tour. A comfortable little minivan picked me up at my hotel at 9:30 am, and we were off! We visited Roussillon, famous for its red and yellow ochre cliffs and unusual natural landscape and Orange, where one of Europe’s best preserved Roman theatres sits built into the side of hill. (Side note: I found this as neat, if not neater than the Roman Colosseum. We stopped in many other little towns along the way, and it made for a delightful day! One of my favorite days in my month-long travels.)
The next day was quite an adventure for me. I made my own way to Nice-just me and my trusty rental car (a large diesel powered minivan with a French speaking GPS). Hilarity ensued. At least it would have had I not been by myself… By major highway, the trip is about 2 hours. My version was about 6. I took all back roads through the Verdon National Park. It was beautiful. I could see the small Alps in the distance as I made my way through village after village, all of which were situated within the confines of the park. At one point I was on the edge of the Grand Canyon du Verdon (Google it. it’s awesome). I know France is beautiful, but I had no idea this existed. One of the highlights of the drive was a cute little town called Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, or simply Moustiers. It lies on the western edge of the Gorges du Verdon. The village has long been a center of the pottery trade. Moustiers clings a hundred or so metres up the side of a limestone cliff. A spring flows out of the cliff, creating a waterfall that runs through the center of town. It was a great place to stop for a quick lunch before I continued on.
I arrived in Nice at about 5:00 pm. I dropped of my rental car and switched to my running shoes. The Promenade des Anglais is an amazing, extremely wide sidewalk that runs for several miles along the Mediterranean Coast. I was shocked by the number of people out and about on this promenade on a Sunday night in December. It made for some excellent people watching! Nice is a great city with a lot to do other than lie on the beach. It is a great base for exploring other cities along the Cote D ’Azure such as Cannes, Monte Carlo and Juan Les Pins. The area is full of great shopping, dining and fabulous hotels and is a great destination year-round.
After about a month of traveling in Italy and France I was excited to head home but also very sad to leave (France especially.) These countries have so much to offer every sort of person with every sort of interest from food to fashion, history to wine, art to active adventures; the options are endless. Both countries are must-see destinations!