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Trip Report Photo Safari to the south of France, the Italian Rivera and the Swiss Alps

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This summer I spent 5 weeks in France, Italy and Switzerland. The first couple weeks I traveled with my daughter KC – to Paris, the Dordogne and Provence. KC got the travel bug on her first trip to Europe (which was also my first trip) back when she was in high school and since then has studied in Paris and then lived there for a year after college. But she’d never been to the south of France and I’d never been to the Dordogne so we decided on a few days in Paris followed by four in Sarlat and almost a week in Provence. After she had to go back to NY to work I went on to the Cote D’Azure, the Italian Riviera, Switzerland and Strasbourg.

The photos – which actually are probably much more interesting than the trip report – are here:

Paris - www.pbase.com/annforcier/paris_2013

Dordogne - www.pbase.com/annforcier/france_-_dordogne

Provence - www.pbase.com/annforcier/france_-_provence

Cote d’Azure - www.pbase.com/annforcier/cote_dazure_hilltown_-_vence_st_paul_tourettes_haute_cagnes

Italy – Liguria - www.pbase.com/annforcier/italy_-_cinque_terre_and_ligurian_coast

Switzerland - www.pbase.com/annforcier/switzerland_2013

Strasbourg and Colmar - www.pbase.com/annforcier/strasbourg_colmar

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    Sunday, June 23 – Day 1 - arrive in Paris - cool, cloudy with some impressive rain.

    The flight (Aer Lingus) was uneventful – which is always good. Food terrible, not really able to sleep, it’s a short flight from NY to Dublin. Dublin airport is small but has a few stores to poke around in and we got coffee and croissants, used the ATM to get more Euros (I always have some from the previous trip but of course would need more), and then it was time for the second flight to Paris. Also uneventful flight – both left on time, arrived early. There’s a ‘light rail’ between the terminals now at CDG and we took that to the RER and then the train to Paris. My AFCU chip and pin card worked great in the machine meaning we didn’t have to stand in the long line.

    Paris Hotel Saint Pierre, 4 rue de l’Ecole de Medecine www.saintpierre-hotel.com/en/chambres.php– Wonderful location, right between the 5th and the 6th but not in the touristy area, on a quiet side street. Steps from two metro stops, across from the Cluny, five minute walk to Place St Mich/ Notre Dame. Room size is average for Paris, even a bit larger than some. The double bed seemed to be a very tiny double though. The hotel is a tad run down but clean. Only weird thing was the bathroom door (to the room) was glass (barely frosted) (shower door also glass) so you better be OK with whomever you are sharing the room with basically being able to see everything. Wi-Fi worked great, there is a very cute, very tiny lift. I have now stayed in five hotels within about a ten minute walk of each other (yes I like this location – better than the 7th or 4th, the other areas I’ve stayed in), the St Jaques being the best but also the most expensive. I’d say this was about average value for price and I would certainly consider it again next time. 108€/double

    After checking in we just wandered all over – along the Seine mostly, just enjoying being in Paris. It had been drizzling and the rain got heavier and just as we were crossing Pont des Arts it really started to come down. We made it to the covered area of the Louvre Courtyard and waited out a really impressive thunder storm with lots of other people, being entertained by the musicians who always seem to be there, and just kept playing despite the thunder. When it let up a little we went down to the shops under the Louvre – what else are you going to do in the rain. Dinner was at Creperie Cluny which is one of our favorite restaurants and near the hotel. Two savory crepes and two glasses of wine for 30€

    Andrews Federal Credit Union Chip and Pin credit card – In anticipation of this trip I got this chip and pin credit card hoping it would save time and trouble at gas stations, toll booths, etc. Mostly worked great.
    Where it Worked: France-Train ticket machines (RER from airport, all other ‘regular’ train stations), Most parking machines (if they took credit cards at all), All gas stations (if manned I had to sign, unmanned enter code). Italy – all train ticket machines. Both France and Italy - stores/restaurants (but any American credit card worked in those).
    Did Not Work: never worked in any of the many toll booths I went through in France.
    Note: most machines for credit cards in Europe require that you insert your card and wait – what seems like a very long time for an American used to the ‘quick swipe’. Don’t take the card out till it tells you to.

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    Wow !
    I am so envious and continue to stand in awe of your photograhic skills. Your images are all wonderful but I especially fell in love with the shots ar Sarlat, Portofino, and Zermatt.

    You must work at it. It takes some work and patience to get to some of those vantage points---all the difference. And, it helps to get bright days---we seldom travel in the summer.

    Thanks again---you have made my day. Between you and the Go_ Family you allow me to travel to some of the best venues in Europe without leaving my office---well done !

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    Thanks for all the nice comments on the photos. I love traveling and I love taking photos so its nice that other people enjoy looking at them. As for the trip report, hopefully there will be some useful information in it. I know I depend on others trip reports when planning my own trips and after an awful lot of trips I have to say the info I've gotten from trip reports is usually more accurate than what is in a lot of guidebooks.

    Although I own both a Nikon and a Canon, my cameras of choice are Panasonic - mostly the FZ150. My backup is the FX5.

    Monday, June 24 – Day 2 – Paris – It was a mix of clouds and sun, cool (~18C). As KC has lived there twice, and I’ve been to Paris at least 8 times, we didn’t do any of the usual touristy type things. We had no agenda for our time in Paris other than KC had a date for drinks with one of the few friends who still live there one night. So we decided to just walk through our favorite areas, except neither of us could really say which was our ‘favorite’. Thus we walked ALL over. Across Ile de la Cite to Ile St Louis, through the Marais to Place des Vosges, then back. Had lunch at a café near Pompidou Center, then walked to Galleries Lafayette, stopping in some of the passages and Palais Royal on the way. There seemed to be a lot more construction going on than I remember from previous trips and there was more air pollution – maybe cause I’m usually not there in summer and maybe it was just the humid air but it just felt kind of ‘yick’. Also lots of smoke that I probably noticed more because of the cough I had developed. But Galleries Lafayette was still gorgeous, and dessert and coffee in the cafeteria with the view still a great way to end a lovely morning/afternoon ‘stroll’. Then back via Place de la Concorde and through Tulleries and back to the hotel in the 5th. After dinner we went to Amorina for gelato and walked around Ile de la Cite at dusk (which isn’t till 10-11pm). A full moon came up over the Seine. My pedometer said we walked 14 miles.

    Tuesday, June 25 – Day 3 – Day trip to PROVINS – mix of clouds and sun, cool (~19C).
    I’d been meaning to do a day trip to this town for several years so we finally did. We set the alarm for 7 to be at Gare d’Est by 8:30 for the train to Provins. Got a one day Mobilis Pass (16€ each) good for both ways (plus any metros in Paris that day). The train to Provins was about 1¼ hour. It was mostly cloudy though the sun did peak out from time to time. Cold enough for sweaters and scarves but took them off occasionally. Been wearing my boots daily. I've had warmer weather in March.

    Provins is a cute little town. Not one of the premier tourist destinations in France, (not even in most guide books) Provins is “a step back to the Middle Ages, one of the best preserved medieval cities, a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its walled fortifications and underground passageways”. We rated it a 6-7 on a 10 scale. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk from ‘la gare’ to the ‘ville haute’ on the hill. Around two sides are some pretty impressive ramparts and two nice gates. I’d read it equaled to Carcassone but it certainly is nothing on that scale. But in some ways just as interesting in that you get the impression that this is what the wall/towers/gates really looked used to look like. Lots of half timbered houses in both the old upper town and the newer lower town. There is one big square in the upper town, surrounded by restaurants, mostly creperies.

    We walked around the whole town, had lunch at one of the five restaurants. Walking back to the train station we stopped in a nice public garden and went past several nice churches so it’s worth seeking that route out and not just focusing on the fastest route to the upper town (or taking a bus). We were lucky in that there was a train about to leave, unlucky in that it was really slow and took a good 1¾ hr to get back to Paris.

    We rested a while and then KC went out to meet her friend so I headed out with no specific plans. It was SUNNY! That always invigorates me. It was close to 8pm but very light out so I walked to the Louvre and got some great shots of the building and pyramid reflected in the fountain pools, then through the Tuilleries – BTW there are great public toilets right before Place de la Concorde, 50 cents but they are very nice.

    The sun was now mostly gone so I walked along the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. It always takes longer than I think it’s going to walk that stretch – and more boring than other areas. I got there just as the the lights were coming on and the tower glowed golden against a deep blue sky – just gorgeous. I took the bus back along the Seine (right bank) to Ile de la Cite and walked home from there. Only walked ten miles today, somehow it felt further.

    Wednesday, June 26 – Day 4 – Paris – sunny and nice (22C). Slept till 8:30 and had breakfast at Brioche Doree and then walked to the Marais where KC wanted to go to a specific tea shop to get something for a friend. Then we remembered we were going to do our thing where we eat a Lauderee macaroon in as many different locations as possible. So we walked back to the 6th and got a box of 24 (for 40€!). Took a bus to Montmartre and had lunch there. Place de Tetre was jammed with tourists but we actually found a sandwich shop with a few tables in a little enclosed terrace, covered with grapevines and geraniums, so we could see out but were not actually in the crowds. It was really quite charming. All around the side and front of Sacre Cour was mobbed but just a few steps away towards the back was quiet and peaceful and practically deserted. We had our first macaroon in the park behind Sacre Couer that I don't think had one other tourist in it(18th arrondissement).

    Walked to the Abbesses Metro (KC corrected my pronunciation – it Abes – literally half the letters are unnecessary) and back to the Cluny Stop. We went to the park behind the Cluny for our 2nd macaroon (the 5th arrondissement) – I love that building, both the back and the front entrance, I could just hang out there forever. Then onto the Luxembourg Gardens where we did more people watching (3rd macaroon, the 6th arrondissement). Then a siesta in the hotel. Went out again around 7 and walked back to the Marais because KC really wanted to go to her favorite falafel place. There are about five on that street – Rue de Rosiers – but this was the only one with a 15 minute long wait to get in – a sign that it really is the best. I had the lamb pita instead of falafel as I’m not a huge chick pea fan – but both were good. Then we walked to Place des Voges for a 3rd arrondissement macaroon. Then home via Ile de la Cite to have one in the 1st arrondissement 12.6 miles today.

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    How fun having coffee while viewing your stunning photos of Paris & The Dordogne---saving the rest for later.

    So what time were you up to get the streets of Sarlat, Beynac, etc. with no people in them?

    We stayed in Sarlat last Sept. for a week and even at 6am there were people all over.

    Anyway, fantastic photos =D>
    The lovely bridges of Paris and the charming architecture of The Dordogne never looked better.
    I also like the format you use.

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    I too was amazed at the lighting and the lack of people. I loved the close up photos of the flowers with the slightly blurred background. I know there's a proper name for the technique but it escapes me at the moment.

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    I really did not get up very early for the Sarlat/Beynac photos - not before 8 or 9 anyway. Beynac was almost empty both the days we stopped there, Sarlat was pretty busy but only in the main squares and only after noon or so. Most of the time even if there are a lot of people around if you just stand there five minutes or so you get a break. Now I know lots of people don't like standing in one spot even for five minutes just to get a photo but to me it's worth it. Hard to do when traveling with other people. My various traveling companions are pretty good about letting me 'ditch' them for a while to go shooting (daughter will go shopping, husband will sit in a cafe, sister-in-law will park herself on a sunny bench). The only place (on this trip) that I purposely got up and went early was St Paul de Vence - I knew that would be impossible after the tour groups showed up (which they did promptly at 9) - but the down side to that was the lighting was not great on those narrow streets so early in the day. Of course in some places the early morning light is really nice and in those cases it's a double bonus - interesting light and lack of people.

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    Driving around the Dordogne and Provence for ten days without a GPS and never getting (terribly) lost!

    The Driving Part - Most of my recent trips to Europe I’ve used trains rather than renting a car, and only one other time did I rent a car when I wasn’t with my husband. So I was slightly apprehensive. The price of the car rental itself was not bad, at least compared to renting a car in the US. For this trip, which included lots of small towns and out of the way places, a car was really required. Some of the places we went you absolutely could not go by public transportation, and they were so worth it. But for a trip that is mostly major towns/cities I think train travel is probably at least as economical.

    Most of the time I found driving in this part of France fun; I loved my little Fiat 500 – (we named her Fifi). But a few things: The roads tend to be considerably narrower than in the US, in some cases not much wider (if any) than in Ireland, with no shoulder. People pass you even when you are going the speed limit, and what seems to be pretty fast. Of course when it’s your home turf you know every turn and can safely go faster than someone not familiar with the area, trying to watch for signs and all but they do seem to be pretty fearless. As bad as Italy. When you follow signs for a town, it will take you the absolute shortest route, even if it’s a really secondary road (there are driveways wider than some of these roads). So you do also need to pay attention to route numbers because it’s really easy to get off the route you were planning on taking just by following the sign for the town you are headed toward. Sometimes these secondary roads are so slow that the longer, but better, route will be considerably faster. And while I drove so slow that I almost always had a line of annoyed cars behind me, I’m sure there were times, like when first entering a village area with reduced speed limits, that I may have been going a few km over the posted speed. So I guess I’ll just wait and see if in six months I get a ticket in the mail like many fodorites have posted about.

    Driving in Europe is expensive. There is almost no free parking, and some of it is quite expensive, lots of places were more than 2€/hour. We spent 78€ on parking (2 weeks). Gas is expensive, ~1.6€/L , the car got 39 mpg, so not bad on gas usage, but not great either. And tolls are really expensive (55€ to drive from about Cahors to Arles, and Avignon to Nice). Out of about six or more tool booths I went through only once did I see a person manning the booth. And never once did my AFCU chip and pin card work. But they all took bills as well as coins, and they give change (at least small change). So for example if your toll is 17€ you could put in a twenty and get 3€ back.

    We used Europcar, rented through Kemwell, was easy to deal with. I got the zero deductible CDW insurance and I’m so glad. The first day I got a scratch (just a scratch, but a significant one) in the hotel parking garage which I’m sure will cost hundreds. I used to always use the credit card insurance or gamble with a high deductible, but no more. My only complaint is that it would be helpful if Kemwell/Europcar would inform renters how/where the drop off is. The Nice train station area is large and finding the little sign directing you to go to the sixth level of the parking garage is easy to miss. I wish I had known what I was looking for.

    Day 5: to Sarlat In Paris it was cloudy again but we didn’t really care as we’d be on a train for most of the day. Got to Gare D’Austerlitz , train was on time, just showed them the printed confirmation and they scanned it and that was it. The ‘walk-up’ price for a ticket is about 90€ but I had gotten 25€ PREMS tickets, 90 days ahead. Very comfortable (but full) train. Got in right on time at 12:59 and saw the Europecar office right across the street but it was closed till 14:00 (which I think I knew). Brive train station and the area around it were hot, dusty, run down, and largely deserted. We went to the bar/café across the street and had Croque Monsoirs and Orangina for lunch. Brive has seen better days, there was what looked like it had once been a really nice old hotel but now could be the scene of a slasher movie. They seem to be renovating the train station. Europcar stores their cars on the street (no lot). We got a Fiat! So cute! Just like the one in the commercial where it drives off the cliff in Atroni and comes up out of the ocean under the Brooklyn Bridge. I love that ad. It was a Fiat 500 and was black with white leather steering wheel/dash and I want one. Figured out how everything worked, although reverse took a minute or two. Then just as I was about to reverse -up hill ! to get out of the parking place a guy comes along and parks right smack behind me leaving me no room. KC got out and talked to him and he backed up. The drive to Sarlat after that was easy.

    We took a wrong exit off the round-a-bout in Sarlat and ended up driving around a bit but eventually found the hotel, wonderfully located just outside the pedestrianized area. KC ran inside while I double parked and got directions to the parking garage two blocks away.

    Sarlat-la-Canéda Hotel Les Remparts 48 Avenue Gambetta www.hotel-lesremparts-sarlat.com Great location right outside the pedestrian zone, in a beautiful building. Room was good size, everything clean. Wi-Fi worked great, there is a lift, staff were very nice. We did not take breakfast as there was a cute little coffee shop right across the street, plus some days we preferred to have breakfast on the main square in Sarlat. The hotel is pretty easy to find. There is street parking (good luck with that) plus several free lots but they a few blocks away so we paid for the garage (€8.50/night) which is a block and a half away. The garage is tiny and tight but gated – although Sarlat doesn’t exactly strike me as a high crime kinda place. Driving in and out of this area of Sarlat to get to the other towns in the area is quite easy once you’ve done it once. 68€/double

    Sarlat is gorgeous, I can certainly see how this has been a movie set, just get rid of the people and post card stands and you wouldn’t need to change a thing. It could be hundreds of years ago. It has the highest concentration of medieval, Renaissance and 17th Century houses of any town in France. Perfect size – ten minutes one end to the other (of the main part of the ‘old town’) but then lots of little winding stone streets, especially on the other side of the main street and almost no tourists on that side. Tons of stores selling local products and miscellaneous tourist stuff. Obviously foie gras is huge here and every other store has a goose in the window. Almost all the restaurants feature the same ‘menu’ including foie gras and canard.

    The sun had come out, the sky was bright blue and the color of the stones a rich golden – doesn’t get any better!
    After exploring for an hour or so (which covers the main streets/squares) we went back to the hotel for a pre dinner nap, then had dinner in the most charming courtyard (the menus were literally all the same so unless you knew one restaurant was superior to another it didn’t make a difference other than what your table view was). And cheap. Most of the ‘menus’ were about 12€. We had fois gras, confit du canard, and a nut cake for dessert. Including wine it was 28€ for both of us. I do love duck, especially confit but can’t say I’m a fan of fois gras. Tasted it but both the taste and the idea of it is pretty disgusting to me. Extremely greasy feel, felt like eating flavored lard (which it was). Dinner is fairly early in this region, places crowded at 8, but closing up by 9:30. After dinner we explored the ‘other’ side of town and found wandering at dusk on the deserted stone streets just what we needed.

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    With your great photo ability next time try Sarlat during Herritage weekend(mid Sept. every year, around the 15th in 2012.) They have many extra activities and light the town with 10,000 candles after dark--stunning!

    Loved all of your photos. Tourettes-sur-Loupe was our favorite unplanned, out of the way towns on our drives around the south.
    Your photo #256 made me smile. I wonder how many photos have been taken of that charming blue door. We had 1 framed.
    #263--Tom's. Absolutely the best lavender ice cream ever.
    #274--adorable sleeping cat. I do love cats.
    You make me want to return.

    I must hurry and get to your Italy photos.

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    There is almost no free parking, and some of it is quite expensive, lots of places were more than 2€/hour.

    But travelers should keep in mind that public parking is generally free from noon to 2 p.m. and overnight, and that money put in the meter that goes beyond the charge time is carried over to the afternoon (in the case of the free lunch hour) or the next morning.

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    What a fun report, and pretty pictures. We've been to many of those spots, and yes they look just as wonderful in person, if anyone wonders! Still need to get to Switzerland. Looking forward to more of your report. :-)

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    Wonderful photos. I was especially happy to see the ones from St.-Geniès, a favorite village from our trip in April. Unfortunately, I have no pictures from our visit there.

    Also, loved the photos from Rapallo, Santa Margherita and Portofino. It's been too long since I've seen these lovely places.

    Thanks!

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    While there were plenty of cicadas on this trip I sadly wasn't able to capture any - either on film or video. Oh well.

    Day 6: Beynac, Castlenaud, Marqueyssac Jardin, La Roque-Gageac – cool and cloudy, AGAIN. But not to be deterred, we had castles to see. Slept late (9:30), got coffee from the coffee shop across the street and brought it back to the hotel to eat with the rose nut bread we bought the other day in Provins. Then drove to Beynac. Getting in and out of Sarlat is quite easy, especially after the first time; there are a few lights and quite a bit of traffic but great signage and short distances.

    BEYNAC CASTLE is a perfect little castle. Very atmospheric, with its austere appearance, is a true castle not a palace (both are called ‘chateau’ in French) and clearly built for defense not a place for royalty to live. The structure itself is very impressive but there is not much inside...no exhibits, just a few pieces of (reproduction) furniture to give you a feel for how it might have been furnished, no information about what is there. But they allow you to explore and climb and look around all the rooms, courtyards, ramparts, towers. Great views of Castlenud and the Dordogne. There was hardly anyone else there, and while I do love blue sky, I can’t say the clouds were really a negative here, kind of added to the ambiance (trying to be positive here).

    One of the Cathar castles, it’s a Middle Ages construction, built on a strategically high location, perched on top of a limestone cliff, dominating the town and the north bank of the Dordogne River. The castle was built from the 12th century by the barons of Beynac (one of the four baronies of Périgord) to close the valley. The sheer cliff face being sufficient to discourage any assault from that side, the defences were built up on the plateau: double crenellated walls, double moats, one of which was a deepened natural ravine, double barbican. [7€]

    We had followed fodorite instructions and driven through the town and past all the possible car parks (tiny) till we got to the top and parked there. After touring the castle we drove back down to the village and parked in the main lot next to the river (some nice people just leaving had time left on their parking ticket and gave it to us so we didn’t need to pay). The village is quite pretty – quintessential stone hill town. Loved it.

    Then on to CASTLENAUD – a bit larger, and it has lots of displays of weaponry from rooms of swords and armor, to giant catapult things on the side of the hill. Several rooms had large TV screens playing videos of the history of the castle. Although far from crowded there were more people here than Beynac (where we were essentially alone), mostly families with kids (who I guess love the weapons – I know my now grown son Jeffrey would have loved it, and in fact my husband and brother in low would have loved it as well for- guess all that weaponry is a guy thing). More great views.

    We spent about an hour and a half in each castle. Castlenud had several gift shops and cafes between the castle and the car park (big dirt lot but the ticket machines took credit cards) but we didn’t really see a ‘village’. We came back another day and looked for the ‘village’ again and still didn’t really see what I envisioned it to be (or anything like Beynac) which was frustrating because I was reading the book “A Castle in the Backyard” (which I highly recommend for anyone going to this area) about an American couple who bought a house here and from their description it seemed there should be more ‘village’.
    Anyway, we found a café and had crepes and coffee.

    Then on to MARQUEYSSAC GARDENS (combined ticket with Castlenud, 14€). I wasn’t really sure it would be worth doing this formal garden (formal hedges shaped into balls and such is not really my gardening style) but I am so glad we did – it’s quite extensive, nice long walk through woods to a belvedere with a truly ‘to die for’ view. Now the clouds really did make a difference. Grrrrrr Would have been bloody fantastic with blue sky and sunshine. The ‘gardens’ are mostly boxwood with a few rose gardens, there were some caged doves, and some free peacocks, one of which delighted at spreading his tail for the tourists. The house was small but pretty.

    Next stop, La Roque Gageac – gorgeous from a distance but less interesting up close. One long street along the river with houses on one side of the road and the river on the other, so the houses reflect in the river (if you can get to a vantage point where you can see that). A few stepped streets lead up to another long street and that’s about it. Then it’s cliffs straight up. Troglodyte Caves are built into the cliffs but currently are not open to the public. They were also doing construction along the river bank which detracted a bit.

    At this point it was after 6pm so we returned to Sarlat, stopped at a large grocery store on the way into town and got a picnic dinner– Brie (1.70€ for a wedge the size that would be 10$ at home, baguette, strawberries, salads and a tin of cookies. Getting into the assigned space in the parking garage proved close to impossible as I had to reverse going uphill and around a tight corner with a big metal sign protruding. We had not yet gotten in the habit of flipping in the side view mirrors, which got stuck on the sign and Fifi now has a large scratch on her door. Well, I did buy the zero deductible insurance. I felt better when KC said I handled it well, she said she would have been crying at that point.

    Day 7: Domme, Saint-Geniès, Saint-Amand-de-Coly – cool and cloudy AGAIN – OK this is getting depressing. We had coffee and nut bread and strawberries in the room for breakfast (they make the café crème with super high fat cream, with whipped cream on top; I think I will start ordering café au lait from now on although KC assures me it will be the same thing). Then since it was market day we went to check that out. It covers every inch of the town, not just a square or two. More than half is rather cheap clothing and household stuff, the rest is food with foie gras featuring heavily, as well as truffles, produce, cheese, salamis, honey, etc. Most of this stuff can also be bought in the various stores in town as well. I’m glad we were staying several days because the market really changes the atmosphere in the town (and I prefer it with out the market). So when I have a choice, if I am only going to a town for one day, I would avoid, rather than seek out, market days. But that’s just me.

    After an hour of wandering the totally congested town we left and went to DOMME. It’s larger than the other three towns in the area and has a few impressive gates and some remnants of town walls, rather crumbly. Several streets reminded us of Cotswold villages. Nice view of the river and the valley from the belvedere (nowhere near as good as the one at the Marqueyssac gardens). But a couple hours was more than enough. We got lunch at a little café on the main square and ate it in the park/belvedere, then went back and had coffee and croissant at one of the two tables.

    With its trapezoid city plan, Domme is a bastide (a fortified medieval town) but adapted to the surrounding terrain, and thus falling short of the rectangular city plan characteristic to bastides. The village is classified as one of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" which sounds impressive until you realize there are over 150 of them! (according to google) . In 1307, Knight Templars were imprisoned in Domme while during the Hundred Years' War, it was coveted by the English who first took the town in 1347 and repeatedly changed rulers throughout the war until 1437 when it finally fell under French rule again.

    We had planned a boat ride on the river for this afternoon, but the clouds and drizzle made us decide not to. As it was still only 3 p.m. we decided to try the two towns north of Sarlat. St-Geniès, is adorable, a picture perfect village of golden stone and lauze roofs beautiful old church/chateau ensemble in the center of several large stone houses, all in a cute setting. You can walk across the whole town in ten minutes. There were about five cars in the little parking lot and we saw no other tourists. There were essentially no stores, tourist or otherwise (except, unexplainably, one store selling modern kitchen and bathroom equipment). On the edge of town is a chapel, all by itself on a tiny hill. The dilapidated door looked closed and no one was anywhere around but we had read (on fodors, thank you much to the person who mentioned it) that it had frescoes. I was going to just try to peak in the keyhole but the door was unlocked so we went in – incredible! Beautifully well preserved frescoes on all the walls and ceiling. Just a small space, but as amazing as any big ‘important’ church. St Genie is 13k/20 minutes from Sarlat.

    Another 8k/10 minutes is Saint-Amand-de-Coly. Not as ‘cute’, but has a massive church, intact but very ‘forgotten’ looking with some ancient crumbling town wall behind it. It used to be an abbey which explains it’s massive size relative to the village. This town did have a couple of hotel/restaurants and one open shop selling local produce. But we counted about 6 other tourists the whole time we were there. Climbing the hill/wall behind the monastery was the best part.
    Perhaps it was the grey/drizzly day but it was surprising to us that there were so few people in any of the three towns. And really the castles were very uncrowded yesterday as well. On the other hand Sarlat seemed to be hopping.

    For dinner we choose a different restaurant and didn’t get any pate this time, but did have the canard confit again – this time for an entrée I had a hot cherve salad – much better.

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    There were essentially no stores, tourist or otherwise (except, unexplainably, one store selling modern kitchen and bathroom equipment)

    St. Geniès has a butcher shop off the main square and a boulangerie on the road coming from D704 that sells its own version of a flat bread, usually all sold out by 11:30. Its market day is Sunday.

    Saint Amand de Coly has a dinandier who has been declared un des meilleurs ouvriers de France. He also used to sell at the Sarlat market, but I do not know if he still does.

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    I am enjoying your trip report and I loved your photos of France, which are the only ones I've had time to view so far. I especially loved your photos of the Dordogne and Strasbourg, two places I can't wait to visit someday. I thought your photos of Domme were awesome despite it sounding in your report like you were less than enthusiastic about your visit, but I love drizzle and clouds which I realize is not the norm.

    I also loved your photos of Ceret and Carcassonne from what looked like a previous trip.

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    Day 8: Monpazier, Chateau Biron, Chateau Bonaguil - Awoke to clouds at 7 am. Major bummer, I went back to sleep. But by 9 it was partly sunny and the rest of the day: Sunshine and 24C – AT LAST! Being Sunday the coffee shop across the street was closed so we walked into town and had coffee and croissants at the restaurant on the main square that has a Rick Steves guidebook on its sign. But I have to say it was a great breakfast and reasonable price and the atmosphere with all those gorgeous buildings around was a wonderful way to start the day. Took some sunny morning photos and headed out. Beynac Castle was beautiful in the morning sun as we came upon it driving towards Monpazier so we stopped and walked along the river and through the town again for a while.

    MONPAZIER was a bit disappointing though. It is one of France's best-preserved and most photographed bastide (fortified) towns, built in ocher-color stone by English king Edward I in 1284 to protect the southern flank of his French possessions. It has three stone gateways (of an original six) and a large central square. It is one of the few places where the center of town has no building less than 400 years old, is regarded as the prime example of a "bastide" among the 300 in South-western France, and of course is a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France association.
    But overall we were underwhelmed. Only spent about 45 minutes there. I think so much has to do with expectations, I had high ones for this town but it wasn’t any ‘better’ than any of the other towns we visited and didn’t have a fantastic setting like most of them.

    We got sandwiches, éclairs and Orangina to go and drove on to CHATEAU BIRON. We were undecided if we wanted to do this castle or Bonqguil if we only had time to do one, but this one was so close. And OMG!, we LOVED it. KC and I gave it 4.9 turrets on our 5 point scale (Beynac got 4.5 and Chatenud got 3.4). We had a lovely picnic on the grounds outside the castle, then spent a really enjoyable hour or two touring it. Lots of rooms, spiral staircases, views. It’s quite ‘complete’ (actually about ¼ of it is currently undergoing renovation, it will be really, really good when that’s done). They weren’t working on the renovation while we were there so we barely noticed that parts of it you couldn’t go through. In the chapel there was a sign saying that a statue from there was currently in the Met in NYC.

    I thought CHATEAU BONAGUIL looked to be fairly far on the map, and kind of in the middle of nowhere, but there were signs for it right in front of Chateau Biron so we started following them. The sign said 30km. Well we got within about 2 km of it and the road was closed; “deviation”. So now of course there are no more signs to follow since the signs were pointing down the closed road. So we had to do some major back tracking and ended up on a tiny road and what should have taken about 45 minutes from Chateau Biron took more like an hour and a half. The drive was pretty enough – fields and woods – looked just like where we live. Maybe if you live in a suburb somewhere this would have been a worthwhile drive in itself but for me it looked like my commute to work (which I guess makes me pretty lucky).

    Bonaguil Castle – huge, more impressive than any of the others as you drive up to it. But not as complete – it’s older and some of it is in partial ruins. But there’s tons of towers, walls, dungeons, stairs, caves, nooks, crannies, spiral steps – and a few finished rooms. So yes, worth the drive. We gave it 3.8 turrets.
    The drive back was pretty long, about an hour to Castlenud. We looked again for the ‘village’ but couldn’t find it. There are houses going up the hill towards the castle but not really any ‘streets’ – even what passes for streets in much of rural old European towns. Castlenud is better in the morning sun so we pushed on towards Sarlat which takes you through La Roche – and the sun was great here so we stopped and got some good shots.
    Back in Sarlat it was another dinner of – duck! (When in Rome….) Then back in the hotel we watched “Death on the Nile” on TV in French.

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    Okay! Chateau de Biron was on my "maybe" list...I will move it to the "to do" list. Thanks for the heads up! We leave tomorrow. First week in Aveyron, second week a return to the Dordogne. How lucky you were to spend five weeks traveling.

    Nice trip report, too!

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    Day 9: – Sarlat to Rocamadour to St Remy – Another sunny day, wow two in a row! Since it was a beautiful sunny morning we wanted our last breakfast to be in Sarlat center so walked to town and ate at the same café on the main square. At 8:30 they were just setting up.
    Then drove to ROCAMADUR – an easy, well sign posted one hour drive. Got our first fill up of gas and the machine took my AFCU chip and pin card with no problem (only problem was figuring how to unlock the gas tank cap on the car – turn the key one way and the cap the other, while pushing).

    Rocamadur is pretty amazing built up on the cliff like that – we viewed it from the town (l’Hospitalet) across the way, then drove the 2 minutes to the top and parked in the Chateau Lot (free) and walked down. First half the walk is a series of switchback ramp like paths (with stations of the cross at the turning point of each if you are into that sort of thing). Then you enter the top of the church complex and it’s a series of tunnels, courtyards, side chapels and stairs (at least 200 of them) down to the little town which is laid out along one main street with a town gate at both ends. Now it’s all tourist shops but it’s not that hard to ignore them and just appreciate the way the whole thing is built up the cliff like that. No it’s not tranquil but it’s still well worth seeing I thought. We spent just about an hour there, got some ice cream and then decided we were tough enough (and needed to work off all that ice cream) so we WALKED back up (there are two elevators/lifts you can take if you want, I think they were about 4€ for each of them).

    The next six and a half hours was the boring drive on the highway to St Remy. Going around towns (Mauntbaun, Toluse, Montpelier, Arles) you pay a toll and then get a new ticket a few exits later (you don’t have to exit the highway, you just pay the toll for the one portion, then get a new ticket for the next). Well the AFCU card which has worked everywhere I’ve tried it (train ticket machines, gas stations, stores) did NOT work in any of the tolls. Fortunately I knew to have lots of coins, although the toll machines do take bills and give change. I did not see a human in any of them. It was over 30€ for all the tolls that day.

    Gas was going down way quicker the second half tank than the first so I stopped at a highway gas station but got in the wrong lane and had to exit the place without getting gas. There had been stations every 30 km or so, so I figured no problem, we’ll stop at the next one. Of course now there wasn’t one. We got off at the Arles exit that we were aiming for and found the route we wanted towards St Remy but of course there were no gas stations. Now we were on empty, the light had come on and then it started to beep at us! Panic. So we turned around and headed into Arles center since there was no way we were going to make it to St Remy. Found some gas stations but that was unpleasantly close.

    Got the rest of the way to St Remy with no problem and found the hotel right after the round-a-bout. The street is kind of dull/ugly but once inside the gate of the hotel property it is heaven. There’s parking for about 12 cars (that’s how many rooms there are) around a fountain in a little courtyard, then a walk through an oleander tunnel, past the pool and rose bushes and lavender to the little chalet style hotel – little patio with white tables and chairs and lights for sitting out any time of day or evening. Just charming. The house is where the owners live and the guest rooms are in kind of modern extension but you don’t notice it from outside, where you just think you are in a lovely garden.

    Saint-Rémy-de-Provence Hotel Hostellerie du Chalet Fleuri 15, Avenue Frédéric Mistral www.hotel-lechaletfleuri.com/
    Great location right off the round-a-bout of the D99 and D5 (there’s the base of an old windmill so you can easily spot ‘your’ round-a-bout) so day trips in any direction were very easy. Free gated parking (but almost impossible to make the turn when coming from that round-a-bout, fortunately there’s a handy parking lot almost across the street to turn around in). It’s a five minute walk to the center ville, although that street is not much to look at, but there’s a sidewalk and it’s only five minutes. Worth it for this hotel as it’s really a very charming place, with beautiful grounds and a pool and a very nice owner. The room and bathroom were spotless and good size, there’s AC but it was cool enough at night that we choose to leave the window open and smell the Linden Tree right outside our window and feel the gentle breezes. Free Wi-Fi. The breakfast was good but at 10€ per person we didn’t take it every day. Seems breakfast in the south of France runs about this price which seems pretty steep, this hotel was not out of line with the others but hotels in other countries either include breakfast or it’s half that price. You need to drink a lot of coffee and juice, eat a lot of yogurt, fruit and bread/croissants to eat 10€ each worth. If you just want a croissant and coffee there are places in town where you can get that for three or four euro. But breakfast aside, this is a wonderful little hotel and we are very glad we stayed there. And St Remy is a perfect base for the places most tourists want to visit in this part of Provence. So much within an hour in all directions and St Remy itself a perfect size for a base – small enough to get in and out of easily, large enough to have choices of restaurants and things to do at the end of the day. 95€/double

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    Day 10 – AVIGNON Sunny and warm, three in a row! After the hotel breakfast we headed for Avignon. Less than half an hour away, and it was easy to find the road around the ramparts and the big underground parking garage on the far side of town. (12.80€ for 10:30-5:30). We started just wandering all over Avignon, looked in a few of the antique markets that were going on. We toured the Pope’s Palace. It certainly is impressive. I actually think it’s more impressive from outside than inside- I find this to be true of many palaces/churches/etc. We walked across the bridge – well as far as you can go, it stops part way.

    Avignon is surrounded by 4.3km of superbly preserved stone ramparts that were built in 1403 and for those and the Popes Palace alone is worth visiting. But the town itself was a little more disheveled than I remembered it (I was there 13 years ago on my first trip to Europe)– some streets have seen better days – especially considering it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Rue des Teinturiers - the street with the canal and water wheels - was run down but quite atmospheric. KC got several books at a used book store (she needs to brush up on her French I guess, seems to be speaking it just fine, several people have asked her where she is from and told her how good her French is). KC went shoe shopping – I figure she waits around an awful lot for me to take all those photographs, I can stand around while she shops. But it was really hot.

    We had a lot more trouble getting out of the city than getting into it. Traffic was horrible and signage confusing. Not that we were ever lost, just had to go around a few times to get in the proper lanes to get to the road we needed. The drive home once we got out of Avignon was easy. Back in St Remy there was a little craft fair going on, lovely evening. I got some interesting sandals (which I have worn for miles on this trip, I wish I had the woman’s email to tell her how well they have held up). Of course we had to have ice cream for dessert. Rose Petal and Chestnut.

    Day 11 Aigues Mortes, Arles, Abbey Montmajour – Back to clouds (and a bit of sun later). We woke to rain but it had stopped by 10 but remained cloudy most of the day. Few breaks of sun but pretty short lived. We had breakfast at the café on the main square. Wednesday is market day in St Remy and it’s supposed to be one of the better ones so we wandered around for a while in the light rain. It filled the main square and most of the streets leading off it. Primarily food – local produce, fish, meats, cheeses, etc. but also some clothes and touristy things. I got some lavender sachets and napkins – how original.

    We then drove to Aigues Mortes, a good hour and a quarter from St Remy through the Camargue – extremely flat and marshy. We saw some very muddy wild horses and some egrets and KC thinks she saw some bulls. But I guess you have to get off the main road to really see much good up-close wildlife. But it was easy driving.

    AIGUES MORTES is a walled Medieval town sitting on the flat marshes of the Camargue, and is considered a pure example of 13th-century military architecture. The town of neatly rectilinear streets is surrounded by a crenelated wall with 5 towers and 10 fortified portes. It was originally a port but access to the sea has long since silted up. I’ve seen photos of the impressive walls reflected in water, but on closer inspection I think that was a big puddle. There is a canal along one side.

    Aigues Mortes is larger than the guide books make it sound. It has an “ok” main square and lots of streets – all dead straight and 90 degree angles to one another, flat and a bit shabby. It was seriously crowded, with several tour buses. Rick Steves says “Antiques Mortes means dead waters and it should stay that way”. I wouldn’t go that far but it was not exactly a highlight of our time in Provence either. They did have a very god ice cream shop with lavender, rose, lilac, etc. ice cream. I got a great flavor that I think was called Rochecocco, that I have not seen anywhere else. We were pretty much done with the place in an hour, didn’t bother paying to walk the walls as the view didn’t seem like it would be that great either into the town or out.

    About a 45 minute drive back to Arles. Lots of local produce stands along the road – cherries and apricots. Tons of vineyards. We stopped and got some fruit.

    Had a hard time finding parking in ARLES- people were making up their own spaces in the large lots outside the walls, and also parking in the tour bus area. Then all of a sudden the lot right next to the main entrance to the town opened up – there was no one in it and suddenly cars started pouring in. So we parked there.

    Central Arles is pretty small – can walk across it in 15 minutes. The arena dominates the center. It’s in very good condition but tightly surrounded by buildings – no large square like in Verona, so hard to get a good view of it. And Arles is much shabbier and less colorful, but still nice. The old theatre is not well preserved but the park behind it is pleasant and all the streets are ‘average interesting’ – mostly local stuff, crafts. Lots of stores selling garden stuff, porcelain or metal chickens are big. The main square, Place de la Republique is nice with a large fountain in the center (and a big dog playing in it). The front entrance to the cathedral is on this square along with the Hotel d’Ville. We paid the 2.50€ to go into the cloisters, described by some as the best they’d seen. Well, even not considering that half of it is under construction and there were loud sawing and drilling noises, I wouldn’t say it was anywhere close to the best I’ve seen – not even just on this trip. The ground floor was pretty dirty, not at all beautiful or peaceful (it was also fairly crowded, for a cloister) but you can go upstairs and that was better, more peaceful, prettier and some nice views of the rest of the cathedral.

    Place du Forum where Café Nuit, subject of one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings is, was crammed with restaurant tables so a little hard to see what the square actually looked like. The famous yellow awning was there and there was no shortage of people photographing it. It actually does kind of look like the painting – probably as much as anything looks like his paintings.

    We had lunch at a restaurant next to the arena. The view while I’m eating is more important to me than what I’m eating (within reason). In this case it was pretty magnificent. The sun also happened to be out so things felt more cheerful. After lunch KC bought a hat.

    We decided we really wanted to see the Abbey Montmajour which is just outside of Arles and we only had about an hour and a half left before it was to close so we skipped going into the arena. KC wasn’t that interested and I could tell from outside and peaking in that after Verona and Rome it wasn’t going to be that great. The abbey, on the other hand, was fabulous. Huge, with lots of parts – church, cloisters, ruins, tower (more like a castle than an abbey with stone spiral stairs [128] to an impressive lookout over the camargue – we could see some white horses. We gave it a 4.9. The cloister at St Trophine in Arles was a 2.7 at most.

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    >>St Remy is a perfect base for the places most tourists want to visit in this part of Provence. So much within an hour in all directions and St Remy itself a perfect size for a base – small enough to get in and out of easily, large enough to have choices of restaurants and things to do at the end of the day.

    I couldn't agree more. We've based there twice.

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    Thanks. The next two days were among my favorites of the whole trip. Seeing the Pont du Gard has been at the top of my 'must see' travel list for several years. And it didn't disappoint. And the Luberon towns when the lavender was absolutely at it's peak - well there just are not enough adjectives to describe it.

    Thursday, July 4 – Day 12 – Uzes, Pont du Gard, St Remy – Sunny and warm. Walked into town and got coffee and croissants at the café on the main square and took a few photos. Then drove to Uzes – about an hour. The drive from St Remy to Tarascon on D 99 is beautiful – lined with giant Plane Trees on both sides of the road making a big ‘alley’, goes on forever. Plane trees really say “France” and especially Provence to me. At the hotel there are plane trees but also a few linden trees and they are in full bloom and smell fabulous. I realize I have missed my linden tree at home blooming for the past several years because I am always over here in Europe. There was even a drunk bee in the room last night.

    Uzès is a very pretty town – well kept with a small castle in the center and several church steeples. A huge (relative to the size of the town) main square with arcades all around and giant plane trees all over it – so it’s all shady all day. Of course in July there are also the ubiquitous pavement café umbrellas as well. Lots of tourist shops and restaurants. Lots of curved streets like any good European town, all paved in stone and most too small for cars. The castle was a bit of a disappointment. 13€ just to climb 150 very steep, very narrow spiral stone stairs to the top of the Donjon – nice views of the town (windy as hell up there). There are some furnished apartments but that’s another 5€ and by guided tour only. Nothing compared to the Dordogne castles but it does add to the profile of the town from a distance. We spent about 2 hours in Uzes but didn’t have a meal – I would think you’d need a half day if you were going to have a leisurely lunch. We did pick up sandwiches and drinks since we wanted to have a picnic at Pond du Gard.

    The PONT DU GARD parking lot is massive, there’s a huge ‘info center with shops, café, ice cream, WC and museum. Then it’s a ten minute walk (boring, sunny, paved) to the aqueduct itself. But then, WOW. The downstream side is where most of the people were (well except for those that don’t even both to cross it and just take a look and leave, I think the tour groups do that). But the best views by far are from upstream on the side opposite the museum/info center (I think that is rive droit). On the down stream side there were hundreds of people, mostly teens, swimming and jumping from rocks. A few zillion kayacks coming down the river. We had a picnic lunch and just gazed at the magnificent aqueduct for a while. Then KC went for a swim. I got a great shot of her with no other people in sight, swimming under the 2000 year old aqueduct. My next shot was of a few hundred kayaks heading our way.

    St Remy was very lively at 5 pm – lots of open restaurants and shops and people. I’ve decided there are both positive and negative aspects to basing in a town and doing day trips. If a place is very touristy with masses of tour groups during the day it’s nice to be gone and enjoy the relative peace and quite of early mornings and evenings. But sometimes you do miss the activity that occurs mid-day. I don’t think St Remy gets hordes of people day-tripping in and mid-day there can be really pleasant. We went out again around 8 for dinner and went to the creperie in Place Favier, the small square the picture of which has been on my bedroom wall for 13 years. Excellent tapenade crepes. Then we walked a bit and got ice cream (chestnut and rose petal).

    Friday, July 5 – Day 13 – The Luberon and Lavendar: Abbey de Senanque, Gordes, Roussillon, Goult, Pont Julien, Bonnieux, Menerbes – Sunny and very warm (but cool enough in the shade). We had breakfast at the hotel and then left by 8:45 for Gordes. We drove past GORDES and went straight to Abbey du Senanque. There were a few tour buses and a couple dozen cars in the lot but they must all have been inside the abbey cause outside wasn’t bad – although certainly not tranquil. But still beautiful with the lavender all in bloom. The ticket area for the monastery looks like Disney world – major money making endeavor so can’t imagine it would be very ‘evocative’ and you have to take a tour, and they are only in French. They have made the road from Gordes one way so to get back there they route you a different road that is 10k (it’s 4k on the short road).

    I can’t help but keep comparing the places I went on my first trip to how they are now. These are the places that made me fall in love with Europe, and have made traveling to Europe an important part of my life since then and I was so excited to show them to KC – who also fell in love with Europe on that trip (and has spent most of four years living there since then). She didn’t come with me to Provence on that trip though. Anyway, 13 years ago the only other people at the abbey were an Austrian family with the children all dressed in matching red checkered dresses – I got a photo of them that looks like The Sound of Music meets A Year in Provence. The abbey and the lavender fields were just as lovely this time even if the atmosphere was not.

    Gordes was also crowded but the 2nd parking lot had plenty of space and the town wasn’t overrun. It’s pretty, but not outstanding, as French hill towns go, and did feel much more touristy than most of them.

    From there we went to ROUSSILLON – the ‘red’ town. On the way there we passed two really nice lavender fields. One of them we were the only people there, the other one had a couple other cars stopped but it was much more tranquil than the one by the abbey.
    Lot’s of space in the first parking lot we came to, five minute walk up to the town center. We really liked Roussillon, interesting and not just because everything really is various shades of red (most French hill towns in Provence are light gold/tan/grey). Fantastic views and some of the hillsides are also red/gold and look more like New Mexico than France. We hiked all over the town, and of course got more ice cream.

    Next town – GOULT – the most ‘un-touristy’ of all that we visited this day. It’s not even in most guidebooks. Fodorite Stud Dudley talked about it, otherwise we might not have even stopped. Very pleasant, small, a little chateau near the top and behind it a gorgeous view which included a small house with a garden I absolutely loved – tiny but centered around a little fountain. I want that garden. Only one or two restaurants and a few shops.

    Decided we were getting low on gas (gauge is in increments so it jumps from looking pretty full to almost empty). Drove to Apt as it was the largest town in the area and most likely to have gas. It did. But I will say we really didn’t see much in the way of gas this whole day so good idea to gas up in the larger towns when you are there.

    On the way to Bonnieux we stopped by PONT JULIEN, a three tier bridge from Roman times over a mostly dry stream. Quite impressive. We had gotten fruit and tabuli salad at the grocery store next to the gas station so had a lovely picnic viewing the bridge.

    BONNIEUX is very hilly. Found plenty of free parking at the foot of town, really strenuous walk way to the top. Less touristy than Roussilon (also it’s grey stone) – more impressive from afar than up close, but it’s still a very pleasant little town. It seemed very ‘real’ (as in the majority of the people we saw lived there, at least part time, as opposed to day trippers). We stopped at a café for an ice tea and glass of wine.

    We decided we had one more town in us for the day and choose MENERBES, the town Peter Mayle made famous in “A Year in Provence”. Interestingly, this seemed like the least touristy of them all, quite pretty and clearly affluent.

    Got back to St Remy around 6 pm. Driving was overall very easy. We always knew where we were by the map and directions and signage was mostly good. Except we have come to realize that following the town names will take you on the shortest route, even if the shortest route is a crappy secondary route, so you do need to also watch which route number you are on.

    For our last dinner together we went to a restaurant in the Hotel de Ville square. Had poulet, frites and salde. Excellent. KC had quiche, supposedly tomatoe and cheese but it did have ham in it. Clearly being a strict vegetarian is difficult in France. Very reasonable at 12€ each. Most restaurants in St Remy seemed more expensive than in other towns we were in. But the creperie the night before and this were both fine, and the two nicest squares in town.

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    Day 14 – Les Baux to Aix – Sunny and hot. The last day before KC had to go home to NY to work. So sad. We had breakfast in the hotel and checked out, leaving our bags there. We walked into town and did some shopping. Then drove to the St Paul Monastery just south of St Remy. Really nice, interesting to see Van Gogh’s room, the monastery building itself is quite pleasant, the cloister is small but lovely and the lavender garden behind is gorgeous. Lavender was in full bloom with the pretty monastery building in the background. There was a small patch of sunflowers, and a (now past) area of irises. So they make a point of growing all the flowers Van Gogh painted. There were lots of plaques with Van Gogh history, including information I didn’t know despite having read several books and been to the Van Gogh museum (in Amsterdam). Mostly about his mental illness. The driveway into the monastery has groves of olive trees on both sides that immediately remind you of his painting – this is one case where the trees really looked just like he painted them.

    Just across the road from the monastery are the most impressive of the Roman Ruins. These are free and just sitting there by the roadside. We didn’t have time (or inclination) to pay to tour the rest of the ruins (Galumn).

    LES BAUX is pretty impressive on a huge hill sticking up from the surrounding flat ground. There were numerous on street parking areas but we kept going and ended up with no option but to use the paid lot – which was essentially full, I think we got the last space (5€). While I’ve never noticed ‘rude’ French people as are always being complained about on Fodors, I will say French drivers are pretty rude – no one ever ‘lets’ anyone else in, and whenever I did I’d get strange looks.

    Les Baux is clearly a tourist attraction. I heard one person ask a shopkeeper if people really lived there anymore and the response was “about 10 old ladies”. Everything else has been transformed to shops and eateries. But it’s fairly large, several side streets as well as the one main street leading up to the top where the entrance to the chateau is. It’s visually very appealing and certainly a very dramatic setting. It’s blindingly white, especially in the 95 degree sun. Even with sunglasses on you have to squint.

    We had ice cream then decided to do the chateau ruins and were pleasantly surprised – it’s quite extensive with lots of places to explore and climb up and down (mostly up). It’s interesting to see how they used the rock outcropping to build on/into. Reminiscent of Mesa Verde and of Roman ruins. We climbed all the way to the top – which is VERY high. And it was VERY hot. And if you have any fear of heights you would be VERY scared.
    Back to St Remy we had about an hour to wander one more time, got one more ice cream.

    Then back to the hotel to pick up the bags and drive to Avignon. Found the TGV statin OK and had a tearful goodbye. Now driving by myself (first time solo driving in Europe) I followed signs for Aix and the A7 but at some point realized the signs to Aix were taking me on another road! Retraced my steps the 1-2km I had gone and got on the A7, found my exit and the hotel easily.

    Aix-en-Provence Hotel Le Mozart 49 Cours Gambetta www.hotelmozart.fr/ Decent location for what I needed – easy enough to drive to from the A8, yet close enough to walk into town. The hotel is sign posted once you get off the highway and are headed into town. There about a dozen free spaces in front of the hotel plus an underground garage you can pay for. It’s a ten minute walk to the (mostly) pedestrianized center, not a very visually pleasing street but not sketchy or anything. The hotel itself is a fairly modern building, very clean, room is good sized, modern spotless bathroom, free Wi-Fi, lift. Breakfast was 9€ and not really worth that much unless you eat a ton of croissants and yogurt and coffee for breakfast, but it’s the going rate in this region. Not a ‘charming’ place to stay, but more than comfortable and suited my needs just fine. 63€/single

    Sunday, July 7 – Day 15 – Aix-en Provence – Sunny and nice. Definitely a ‘petite’ Paris – Parisian street lights, cafes, squares, lots of fountains, buildings. The side streets are more south of France though. On Cours Mirabeau, a beautiful street with broad side walks on both sides of a narrow two lane car street there was a major craft fair going on the whole length. Every square had something going on – modern art in one, fruits and veggie market in another, local foods in another, flowers in another, books in yet another. And of course all the stores selling tourist stuff were open although being Sunday the regular stores were mostly closed.

    Aix seems cleaner and more upscale than Avignon. There is no major ‘site’ like the Pope’s Palace. There were a number of tour groups though but they were not too obtrusive. The town definitely has that university feel to it with lots of cheap food and take away and all the stores from H&M and monoprix to Hermes and Longchamp and all chains British, Italian, French. Spent the whole day just wandering around shooting photos and soaking up the ambiance.

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    Day 16: THE COTE D'AZURE HILLTOWNS – Started the day with a beautiful walk through Aix, lots of people out and about, stores were opening up. I had breakfast in the main square, Place de Hotel de Ville, right next to the clock tower. The café had red umbrellas and was called “Aix-presso” and for 6€ I got fresh squeezed OJ (on ice), a bowl of fresh strawberries and sliced bananas, a small baguette with butter and two kinds of jam, a pain-au-chocolate and café au lait. WHAT-A-DEAL! Read my kindle, people watched and then walked back to the hotel photographing all the beautiful fountains along the way. It was 25C when I started, 30 by the time I got back.

    Checked out of the hotel and easily got onto the A8 and made the less than 2 hour drive to Exit 47 just before Nice. I stopped for gas (AFCU card worked) and lunch – a chicken sandwich and the best chocolate éclair of the trip - at a motorway rest stop. I found the exit fine but then missed the turn for Vence, (there was construction and detour signs all around). Anyway, after driving through the mess that is Cagnes-sur-Mer I found myself at the Nice airport, so turned around and headed back through butt-ugly Cagnes-sur-Mer till I saw a sign for St. Paul and took that. After that my maps/directions were easy to follow and once in Vence there were signs for the hotel.

    The hotel door was locked so I pushed the intercom button and was told to wait on the terrace. Which is gorgeous. But not as gorgeous as the view from it. In five minutes the owner/manager (not sure which was which, the two guys I saw during my stay were both very nice) checked me in. The hotel is old but lovely with lots of charm, plenty of space. At first I was afraid the lack of AC would be an issue as it was quite hot (mid 30s by now) but every evening it cooled off and the gentle breezes were plenty. And since my window was open a branch of bougainvillea was creeping into my room. I’ll take bougainvillea over AC.

    I was a little stressed with having to drive to and find the hotel without a navigator and knew I didn’t have to drive again except to return the car if I didn’t want to, but of course my desire to see other towns got the better of me and I actually drove around quite a bit the next two days and it was fine. It’s better with a navigator, plus when you are the one doing the driving you don’t get to do that much ‘looking’, but the roads in the hills of the Cote d’Azure are really quite easy and driving my little fiat on them was a lot of fun.

    Vence Hotel Miramar, 167 Ave Bougearel www.hotel-miramar-vence.com/ There is a glorious view from the hotel’s very nice, large, shaded terrace/garden and there’s a pool which makes the location - about a five minute walk from the old town- worth the walk (which is boring but safe, and only five minute). The building itself is also charming. It’s a former villa made into a small hotel (18 rooms or so), a tad run down but quite clean and the room was plenty big, bathroom very nice, free Wi-Fi (worked most of the time). No AC so the room was a bit stuffy sometimes late afternoon, but even though the days were quite warm when I was there it always cooled off at night and I probably wouldn’t have used AC even if it had been there. At 12€ I did not take the breakfast so can’t comment on that. There are about 8 free spaces for parking (reserved for the hotel) and quite a few more if you don’t get one of the free ones but you have to pay. 88€/single

    The walk into the old town of VENCE from the hotel is only five minutes, past a soccer field, apartments, a school and a hospital – so boring but probably pretty safe. Vence is still as charming as I remember it, a little quiet as a lot of stores and restaurants are closed on Monday afternoons. I had a great crepe for dinner (emmental and tapenade).

    Day 17: St Paul de Vence, Haute Cagne – You have to get up early to beat the crowds in St. Paul, but 7:30 does it. I had the place to myself for the first couple hours. Then it was like someone opened the faucet and in poured the crowds. Actually felt like Disney World. The drive from Vence to St Paul is easy and I (stupidly) passed a small parking lot that was 1€/hr (6€day) and went to the parking garage which was much more expensive. This was the site of my first European parking garage-pay-before-you-get-back-in-your-car experience. Now we have those all over the US but I had never experienced it before so had the horrid experience of getting to the exit gate without my ticket paid, getting yelled at in French over the intercom, and having to leave my car and find the ticket pay machine. An experience I remember vividly to this day. But this time I knew the drill. I will say it is a very poorly marked place, even knowing I needed to find the pay machines it still took forever to find them.

    Anyway, parking garage aside, ST PAUL – the ‘bones’ of the village – is very beautiful – the stone buildings, cobbled streets, archways, flowers pouring out of pots on every balcony, on every stoop, cute churches, a substantial tower, walls around the whole town with fabulous views, and the most picturesque fountain in the most picturesque square. Ahhhh And with no one else around, just the sound of birds singing, church bells ringing, the water bubbling out of the fountain. Heaven. The only place open at that hour was a tiny café with three tables under an archway. I had my croissant and café au lait accompanied by a little cat that looks like my cat Em rubbing against my legs. Then a guy sits down at one of the other tables with three yorkies who look like my dog Henry (who is only part Yorkie). And they give you a piece of chocolate candy with your coffee.

    Promptly at 9 am the first tour group shows up and by 10 as I was leaving it was a zoo. That and the fact that every shop is an art gallery or tourist shop can really combine to ‘ruin’ St Paul. I’m sure glad I didn’t stay there (although early mornings are wonderful so maybe evenings would be too, but you’d have to be gone all day to escape the crowds).
    After 13 years I’m pretty good at navigating confusing labyrinth medieval street layouts, but I can see how I got lost the last time I was there, my first ever European hill town.

    The drive to HAUTE CAGNE was not bad, fortunately there were plenty of signs. There are actually three “Cagnes”. The horrid mess of dirty concrete buildings that is Cagnes-sur-Mer, the substantial sized hill town of Haute Cagne, and the Medieval hill top ‘burg’. That’s the one I wanted. But driving through the middle one wasn’t bad. I actually found a free parking space on the road just before the parking garage and managed to get little Fiat in there thanks to my (if I do say so myself) impressive parallel parking skills. There are some benefits from taking drivers ed in the NYC area where parallel parking is a requirement.

    There were essentially no tourists – I kept passing the same three or four others. It’s not as large or pretty as St Paul, but the chateau at the top is a nice touch. Very few shops or restaurants. It didn’t take long to see what there is to see.

    Back in Vence, with Fifi safely parked at the hotel, I went back into town. I’d been dying for some prosciutto and melon the whole trip so when I saw a sign listing several elaborate salads, one of which include the worlds ‘Iberian jambon’ and ‘melon’ I stopped there for a late lunch. Well it was a good salad; it did have ham, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, olives, and several other tasty things I couldn’t quite identify, but it did not have any melon. But it came with good bread and plenty of cool water so it was worth the 14€.

    Having walked the medieval center of Vence a few times now, I decided to walk out to the Matisse chapel. It’s about a 20 minute walk, through the ‘new’ town of Vence and along a busy road, but the views back to old Vence on the hill are beautiful. This evening, a Tuesday, Vence was hopping. There were craft tents set up everywhere and all the stores were open, the main street was closed to traffic, lots of small groups of musicians (all pretty awful, but the atmosphere was nice). There were signs all over saying ‘soiree shopping’.

    Day 18: Turrettes-sur-Loup, Nice ‘Hinterland’ drive – Another gorgeous sunny day. I walked into town and got a café au lait and a chocolate/almond croissant that was so huge I couldn’t even finish it. It was at a little café just across the street from the Main Gate. Back to the hotel to collect Fifi and start our last day of adventure together. Since the manager was at the desk (there was never anyone around when I came and went) I checked out since I knew I’d be leaving early the next day. He offered me free breakfast. Swell, I get offered free food when I’m so stuffed I couldn’t eat a thing.

    Drove to TOURETTE-SUR-LOUPE. Really enjoying driving a Fiat 500 and the roads around this area are great once you know them. Tourrette is only a ten minute drive. Parked in a small lot near the soccer field/tennis court, but the ‘official’ free parking lot is just past that. Five minute walk into town with a drop dead gorgeous view of the little perched town glowing in the morning sun. It’s another ‘bastide’ town, meaning the houses are all joined together forming a defensive wall around the outside of the village. I loved Tourette! Just as cute as St Paul, just as clean, with just as many flowers and with only a tiny fraction of the tourists and only a few of the buildings house shops/galleries and the ones that do sell things that are actually made right there, by the people selling them. I saw potters, painters, jewelers, weavers, seamstresses – all actually working on their crafts.

    The weekly market was going on in the main square – a mix of fruits and veggies, locally produced foods (olives, jams, honey, etc.) and crafts/clothing. One woman makes clothes out of parachute material so incredibly lightweight.
    Tourette is probably my favorite little French town – clean as can be, lots of winding alley ways with stone steps, flowers everywhere, lots of cats, views out over the valley. I can’t believe guidebooks don’t say more about this place. But then I’m glad they don’t. I’d hate to see a tour group here. Got some very good gelato and decided to see what other ‘undiscovered towns’ there were around.

    I followed some of Stu Dudley’s driving tour but only got as far as St Jeannette and Galleries. St Jeannette looked pretty busy and I couldn’t find any place to park. Galleries is much smaller. There is a SuperMarche at the edge of town and I found a free parking space near that so walked up into the village. Definitely not on the tourist map. Great profile of the town from afar but kind of boring once you get in. One nice fountain, but no shops and just not that pretty or interesting. While I sort of wanted to keep going, I realized that it was probably not a good idea. I kept wanting to stop to take photos, and being as I was by myself, I knew this could get dangerous. Even with someone else diving it would have been challenging to find good places to pull over, but solo it was impossible. Decided not to push my luck and just go back to Vence.

    Really, can’t get much better than relaxing on that terrace, with a cool breeze, looking out over the valley and hills in the distance – right to the Alps far off. Surrounded by huge pots of geraniums, lavender, agapanthus, with bougainvillea and oleander and palm trees and giant cacti. Blue sky, warm sun. A pool, a fountain. Heaven.

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    Great stuff---we seem to enjoy the same places.

    Many years ago I spent a morning in Tourette and said then that it was my favorite village in that region.

    Your TR is a classic and a wecome addition to the archives. And, your images are superb. Thanks again.

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    Your report about parking and HAUTE CAGNE reminded us of the most unusual parking experience we've had anywhere.

    After driving to the top of Haute Cagne to see the Grimaldi Museum the parking was car to car full until we arrived at what looked like a car wash garage door.

    You drove your car into the 1 stall garage, got out and entered a small booth on the side and got a ticket. Then another garage door at the front of your car opened and a gigantic fork lift slid under your car and took it away down into the mountain where the cars were parked like in shelves.

    We thought sure we'd never see this rental car again. In returning to another booth later, sure enough, the garage door opened and the huge fork lift returned our car-------
    absolutely amazing!

    Has anyone else ever experienced this kind of parking?

    Maybe it's normal and we're just wide eyed tourists from a small town in Wisconsin, but it was definitely the most unusual parking we've ever see.

    I posted before but must say again how amazing and informative your report and photos are---thanks for taking the time to post the details.

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    TPAYT - I read about that parking garage - not in as much detail as you just gave, but I was a little apprehensive as I entered the town, that's why I was so determined to fit into that tight space, I was kinda scared about what the garage would be like. But now reading your description it actually sounds like it might have been fun.

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    From the South of France to the Italian Riviera

    Italy Day 1 (but trip day 19)
    – Travel can be hell. I said good bye to my idyllic hotel terrace with the view of the hills west of the Cote d’Azure and left just after 7am, more than enough time I thought to get to Nice and return the car and make the 9am train (and really, even the 9:30 which I thought would have been plenty early to make the train to Genoa). The first 15 minutes from Vence were fine, light traffic, gorgeous view of St Paul in the early morning sunlight. Followed signs for the A8. Until apparently I missed that last one and ended up driving around Cagnes-sur-Mer. Traffic got heavier, the sun was in my eyes, every time I’d find a sign for the A8 it was either in the wrong direction or I’d follow it and end up back where I started. Urrrrrrr. Eventually I found the road I’d been ‘lost’ on when I first arrived three days before, and knew it led to the Nice airport, which I knew was near the road I was aiming for so I followed that. Then I could SEE the Promenade des Anglais but couldn’t get TO it. Eventually did, but going in the wrong direction, which I had to follow for about 5 km till I could turn around – and even then it was probably an illegal U-turn but people in front of me were doing it, including a rather large truck, so what the hell.

    Now I just needed to find Boul Gambetta – good thing the hotel guy had told me it was just before Hotel Negresco, and good thing too that I had been to Nice only a few years ago and therefore knew where the Promenade des Anglais and Hotel Negresco (and the train station) were. Found the train station OK but where to return the car? Eventually had to ask as it very easy to miss the tiny Europcar sign directing you to the 6th level of the parking garage which is where you return cars.

    Ticket machines in the Nice train station had no English option (that I could find) and did not accept my card. The woman at the ticket window could only sell me a ticket as far as Ventimiglia. So I grabbed a café and croissant and just made the very crowded 9am train. In Ventimiglia I didn’t bother with the ticket machine as there were only about 8 people on the line and I had 58 minutes till my train for Genoa left. Good thing I hadn’t missed that 9am train and taken the 9:25 cause I never would have had time to buy the next ticket. Who knew it could take almost an hour for 8 people to buy train tickets. One family took 15 all by themselves. They opened a second window just when I was next in line (which now extended out the door). Get to the ticket window and she tells me ‘the train is full, I can sell you a ticket but not a seat’. It’s a two hour trip. I decide to take my chances since the next train wasn’t for several more hours. I did end up getting a seat but the train was pretty crowded.

    In Genoa the ticket machine DID take my credit card and it was a short wait for the last of my three trains, to Rapallo. This train was the most crowded of all – I, and lots of others, had to sit on the little jump seats in the outside aisle.

    RAPALLO
    I liked RAPALLO the minute I stepped off the train. Even before. The train station, for a town of 35,000 is smaller and scruffier than the one just before it, for S. Margherita L/Portofino with a third the population. Even the five minute walk from the train to the hotel/castle (on the main route, which is far less interesting than other routes I took over the next few days) made me glad to be in Italy. I really loved my two weeks in France, but Italy has a certain buzz (and it’s not just the vespas).

    Rapallo has a waterfront (lungomare) every bit as gorgeous as all the other towns on the Italian Riviera but it’s a real town, not just a tourist destination. It’s more of a working class/ family destination than its neighbor Portofino but I loved it. Large enough to have a nice sea side promenade (with the castle), plenty of boats (sailboats, small yachts – there were cruise ships way out past the harbor in the mornings (they seem to be half way between Rapallo and Santa Margherita, which by water are basically right next to each other), lots of restaurant choices, several shopping streets (with real stores, not just tourist places, but not a Hermes in sight). Rapallo’s harbor/marina is actually nicer than Santa Margherita’s since the boats are all at one end, then the beach area, and then the promenade with nothing between it and the sea.

    And there was the hotel, right on the water, right next to the incredibly cute 16th century castle, and then I opened the doors to my private balcony and I was right on top of the castle!!! What a view. What a reward for the travel day I’d just endured. Certainly makes it worthwhile.

    Rapallo Hotel Italia e Lido Lungomare Castello 1 www.italiaelido.com/eng/ Loved this place! It is right on top of the 16th century castelo which juts out into the sea. I paid extra (10€/night) for a ‘sea view’ and what a view it is. Private balcony over-looking the castle. The hotel itself is wonderful, clean and modern throughout, decent amount of space, AC, lift, free Wi-Fi, mini-fridge. The included breakfast is substantial: yogurts, cereals, breads, juice, fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, scrambled eggs and bacon. Rapallo was not my first choice for a base for my five nights on the Italian Riviera but I’m so glad that this seemed to be the best hotel deal (it was) so I decided to stay in Rapallo. I’ve often wondered if booking through booking sites rather than with directly with the hotel gets you a less desirable room but I really no longer think so and this place proves it – room 412 has to be one of the best rooms in the hotel. 88€/single with sea view

    Of course at 4pm no one is serving either lunch or dinner and I’d not had anything since the croissant in Nice over seven hours before. I got the worst piece of pizza I’ve ever had in Italy. Oh well. Later, for dinner at one of the seaside promenade pavement restaurants, I had an excellent Pansoti Noci (ravioli stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a walnut sauce).
    I also stopped at the TI and got boat options – from Rapallo you can take a boat (hourly almost all day every day) to Santa Margherita and Portofino, but the boat to the CT/Portovenere is only a couple times a week. However taking the train to any of the CT towns (about 45 minutes, 4.7€ each way) then lets you get the boat the rest of the way (goes every couple of hours or more, daily). So between the train and these boat options Rapallo makes a great base to see the Liguria region.
    As I went to sleep, with my castelo glowing golden just under my terrace, “le onde andavano sussurrando” – the waves were whispering.

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    Italy Day 2 (but trip day 20 – Portovenere, Vernazza, Monterossa: This day was ALL heaven. Sunny and warm (cool and breezy in the shade, hot in the sun). After a wonderful hotel breakfast I got the train to Vernazza where I had determined (correctly) that I could get a boat to Portovenere. MUCH better than taking the train to La Spezia and then finding a bus. I found the boat ticket seller at a little table by the harbor and got the 25€ all-day pass – stops at all the Cinque Terre towns and Portovenere and includes a 45 minute boat ride around the three islands near Portovenere.

    I had almost an hour till the next boat so I explored Vernazza – looked pretty much the same as I remembered it from 11 years ago. At 9 am it was un-crowded and pleasant. I started up the trail to Monterossa, just intending on taking a few shots of the castle side of town which was bathed in early morning sunshine, but the trail head is pretty close and I didn’t want to buy a ticket since I had the boat to catch. The boat ride was heavenly, stops at all the CT towns (well except for Corniglia) and takes about 45 minutes to get to Portovenere. For photographers, the light is much better in the afternoon. Between Monterossa and Portovenere the coast is steep cliffs running right down to the water. That four towns (the other CT towns) could be built on this terrain is amazing, and of course what makes it: a) a UNESCO world heritage site and, b) crowded as hell since it IS fascinating to see and so hoards of people come to do just that.

    PORTOVENERE is delightful, charming, lovely, adorable – pick an adjective. And just gorgeous in the late morning light – The land rises quickly from the water and the town consists of two rows of houses – colorful, 7 stories tall and thin (called terratetto) they date from as far back as the 11th C and are connected in a wall-like formation (to protect against attacks from Pisans and local pirates). There is a sea side promenade, one or two streets running parallel to it (a few stories up) with shops – the main street entered by an impressive town gate, the Gothic Church of San Pietro (built in 1198) sitting at the end of the promontory on a mass of rock above the Grotto Arpaia where Lord Byron used to swim with Shelly, and the Andrea Doria Castle high up behind the town. Couldn’t design a more picturesque or interesting little town. Larger, and with far more to see and do than any of the CT towns, it still doesn’t take long to see. I’d climbed all the possible steps to churches, castle, tiny streets and taken several hundred photos, had lunch (focaccia with tomatoes, olives, eggplant, and basil – basil is King in these parts) and a gelato (lemon – lemon is Queen) and took the 45 minute boat ride around the islands (which together with the town of Portovenere are a UNESCO world heritage site) all in about 4 hours. While Portovenere is a wonderful place to visit, and I could see staying there if you just wanted to chill for a while, it isn’t as good a base as Rapallo if you are interested in seeing more than it (and possibly the CT, during summer when the boats run).

    CINQUE TERRE – While certainly popular (thank you Rick Steves, Fodors, Frommers, etc.) I wouldn’t call it totally over-run. I’d been here 11 years ago and it looks pretty much the same – certainly not built up or anything. Vernazza and Monterossa train stations were kind of crazy in the late afternoon (the ticket machines all didn’t work, trains were full) but unless you are looking for total solitude it was fine. Gotta say, the way to see these towns, at least from a visual perspective, is by boat. That’s how they are the most picturesque. Vernazza is the most interesting with the castle topping it on one side of it’s cute little harbor, and the church on the other side. Monterossa is mostly beach town – a good ten to fifteen minutes worth of beach between the train station and the entrance to the ‘old town’ – which is just your ‘average’ cute little Italian town with a bunch of tourist shops and restaurants. I think its best feature is that in the late afternoon sunshine you can look down the coast and see all the other towns.

    I got off the boat back in Vernazza because I wanted to photograph it in the afternoon light. Much more lively at 5pm than 9am but still wouldn’t call it ‘overrun’. I climbed (255 steps) to the top of the castle (my second castle climb of the day) – gorgeous views of the town and down the coast. At the train station none of the ticket machines worked, and I couldn’t find the ticket window immediately and a train for Monterossa was in the station so I just hopped on and stood in the back (with several others, the train appeared full) for the 3 minute trip to Monterossa where I got off to buy a ticket to Rapallo. I decided since I was there I’d take a quick look around, but as I said above, it’s really the least interesting of the CT towns (unless you want to beach it). I had planned another whole day later in the week to more fully explore the CT towns.

    Back in Rapallo had dinner at another restaurant along the promenade – a ‘ravioli with fish’ – the fish being mussels, clams (in the shells) and those interesting Italian things that area a cross between shrimp and lobster. Then a sunset walk to the far end of the promenade (it goes quite a way, to where the sailboats and yachts are parked).

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    Some thoughts on Italian Trains: Regional trains you just buy a ticket; some have a time and date, some are just generic, but none have seat assignments. If no date and time on the ticket then you have to stamp it in the machine before boarding. IC (inter city) trains do have seat numbers, but if the train is full they will sell you a ticket anyway, without a seat number and you can: a) stand, b) sit in a seat till someone with that seat tells you to move (and that doesn’t always happen), or c) if it’s the kind of train with compartments, then in the hallway there are ‘jump seats’ you can sit on.

    The smaller stations are in varying degrees of decrepitude. You can consider this charming. Medium size stations tend to be pretty dirty looking, but have more services – like escalators and WCs. Big stations, like Milano and Roma are clean and modern and have shops, left luggage, etc. All stations have big posters (behind glass) listing all the departures (partenza) from that station each day along with the bin (binario/platform) # that it will (probably) leave from. Most stations, even small ones also have electronic displays listing the upcoming several trains and the bin #. I’d say about 90% of the time the train actually leaves from the bin it is supposed to, but when they change it, it’s at the very last minute- they make an announcement (usually, but not always, also in English) and everyone runs to the other platform. So if you hear an announcement, even if you don’t understand it, but everyone waiting for the train moves, you should too. Italian trains have gotten better in recent years but many are still 10-15 minutes late, especially in the afternoon (unless you are running late, in which case they will be right on time).

    All stations have ‘biglietto’ machines (‘fast ticket’) but many only take credit cards and they only work with Chip and Pin cards. My AFCU card worked in all of them. In small, heavily used stations (e.g. Cinque Terre towns) all the machines are often broken. There are manned ticket booths but the lines can be long. Using the fast ticket machines is best, especially if you have a chip and pin card or are in a station where there are some machines that take cash (in which case have plenty of Euro coins).

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    Isabel, I agree with bobthenavigator, this is one of the best trip reports I've ever read. I have a lot of the same likes and dislikes that you do when traveling, and I love your writing style and tone. I am looking forward to the rest of your report. Thanks again!

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    Thanks. I'm glad people are finding it useful. The more trips I plan the more I realize how I depend on other's trip reports so I hope this one will come in handy, if not now, eventually, for people going to these places.

    Italy Day 3 (but trip day 21) –Santa Margherita, Camogli - Woke to clouds and drizzle, then some thunderstorms so spent the morning doing travel catch up work (on a five week trip you need a down day every once in a while for organizing your stuff, laundry, writing up notes, downloading photos) – so the weather imposed that on me this day.

    Still cloudy but only spitting rain, I left the hotel around noon and took the train to SANTA MARGHERITA, whose train station (a 4 minute ride from Rapallo) is up on the hill above town, both steps and a street lead down to the beginning of the marina. The train station end is mostly beach cabanas (empty even though it was a weekend, I assume because it was still cloudy). The marina is rectangular, and a promenade and colorful houses line three sides, although a busy street runs between the promenade and the buildings. The harbor is positively crammed with boats, mostly medium sized yachts, a few rusty but colorful fishing boats, some skiffs, and a few sailboats. Mostly yachts. Docks extend out into the water with boats tied up to both sides so that the effect is like a parking lot for boats. You can barely see the water. Actually not really very pretty. Santa Margherita harbor looks better from a distance, coming in by boat than when you are waking around it. No shortage of pavement restaurants – the restaurants themselves across the street from the tables.

    The old town is set back behind all this. There’s a tiny castle, but it’s across the street from the water and nowhere even close to as cute as Rapallo’s. There are a few arcaded buildings, a couple churches, a few streets of stores, and not all upscale as I thought they would be. So SML is both literally and figuratively at a cross between Portofino and Rapello – in size, cuteness, and price.

    Still cloudy so I had a long lunch (pizza – how they figure a pizza that size is for one person I don’t know, I saw lots of other diners sending back plates with almost half the food left). By then (4pm) it was sunny so I walked around taking photos but SM faces so that pictures are better in the am. So I took the train to Camogli. It’s only a five minute trip but the next train wasn’t for 30 minutes, and then it was 15 minutes late, and then they changed tracks at the last minute.

    CAMOGLI – We stayed here on our first trip to the CT, 11 years ago. The town is larger and better looking than I remembered. The train station is up on the hill but 110 steps down and you are on the seaside promenade, which runs just above the very large beach. Colorful tall houses line the whole waterfront, with the church and castle right next to one another at one end. And past that, not visible from the main beach part of town, accessible through a small arcaded passageway, is the tiny boat harbor – not a yacht or even sailboat in sight, all tiny open boats. Tightly enclosed by a rock jetty extending out from the castle to the lighthouse and lined with the colorful tall houses, mostly painted with tromp d’ole decorations. Is ‘utterly charming’ to cliché? There are a couple of shops selling jewelry and paintings and tourist junk, but no real stores. Not sure if there even is much of a ‘real town’, I didn’t see one, and don’t remember one from when we stayed there before, just apartment houses and a few hotels, the restaurants along the water. Took tons of photos and had the best lemon granite.

    Back in Rapallo at 7pm it was really lively, all the stores open and a produce and flower market in several of the small squares and along some of the main streets of the town. Got some fruit, some great cookies at a bakery and that was dinner – between the massive breakfast and an entire pizza for lunch at 4 pm that was all I was hungry for. And I had that beautiful terrace overlooking my castle to sit on.

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    Italy Day 4 (but trip day 22) – Woke to blue skies again, that’s more like it. Too early for the first boat to SML (9am) I took a walk in the shopping streets and was amazed at how much was open at that hour, on a Sunday, in Italy! The produce market was back open and so were a lot of stores, especially food stores. Got the day pass for the boat for 17€ – stops at SML (15 minutes), Portofino (15 more minutes) and Santa Fruttuoso di Camogli (another 20 minutes), and back, you can get on and off as often as you like. Boats go hourly in both directions. At SML I just got off for the one hour since I had been there the day before, but wanted to shoot it in the morning light.

    PORTOFINO – too cute for its own good is how I’d heard it described and that’s pretty accurate. Just the way it sits in its little protected cove, with colorful houses coming right down to the water, a church on two hills, a castle and a lighthouse. Much smaller than SML and nowhere near as pretentious as I’d feared (although I had the world’s smallest gelato, an ice tea and a bottle of water, all to take away and it cost nearly 10€!). The walk up to the castle is not too arduous, and the view so fantastic that I would have gladly climbed twice that far for it. The castle itself has a little art exhibit but it’s the view you go for (and pay for, 5€). If you continue on past you eventually come to the lighthouse. The views from there are nowhere near as good, and the lighthouse itself is more interesting looking from the water. There’s a little ‘mini bar’ where I got the gelato (the ice tea and water I got down near the harbor). But unless you want to have meal, or shop at one of the handful of designer shops, there’s not much else to do in Portofino. Somehow I had envisioned a much larger, livelier place. And I’m actually glad I was wrong.

    Santa Fruttuoso di Camogli – sitting at the far end of the peninsula, half way between Portofino an Camogli, and accessible only by boat (or a three hour hike), it’s referred to as a ‘fishing village’ but there really is no village. There is a tiny beach (which was completely, totally covered with people), a little rock promontory where the boats ‘dock’ (and I use that term loosely), two small restaurants and a shack that serves as a bar. There might have been a house or two behind the Abbey. The main thing here is the Abbey, which would only be ‘mildly’ interesting if it weren’t for the fact that it is around 900 years old, and anything still in decent shape at that age deserves to be more than ‘mildly’ interesting. There was a tiny cloister, some cellars, a chapel. Although I’m not unhappy that I went, I would say there are more interesting things to do in the area. It was really confusing where to get the boat (boats come from both Portofino and Camogli) and where the boat from Portofino dropped off is NOT where the next one leaves from and that point (just around the big rock that serves as the dock) is not visible so a large number of people (including me) missed the boat we were waiting for and had to wait another hour. Since there was no place to sit on the beach, and I had already toured the abbey, there was nothing to do but sit in the hot sun on the rock.

    The boat ride back to Rapallo from Santa Fruttuoso takes about an hour and is utterly enjoyable, pulling in and out of the harbors of Portofino and SML and just cruising up the coastline.

    Back in Rapallo I rested and then went out for dinner to another of the restaurants on the lungomare, and then walked through the old town streets where I was surprised that so many stores were open. I got a gelato three times as big as the one I had in Portofino for only 2.50€. Which I finished eating on my terrace watching the sky turn dark blue and the castle turn golden as the lights came on and the harbor reflected hundreds of tiny lights.

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    Italy Day 5 (trip day 23) – Cinque Terre - I could really get used to these breakfasts – fresh squeezed OJ, bacon and eggs, fresh pineapple and watermelon, chocolate croissant and the BEST cappuccino. Today was my official Cinque Terre day (the other day was just stops on way to/from Portovenere).

    VERNAZZA – with ‘to die for’ views from both directions, a castle and an interesting church, Vernazza wins the ‘best’ single town in the CT award. And I’m not the only one who thinks so, it’s the most crowded. It’s also the only town in which I saw actual tour groups. The train station is right at the top of the main street (5 minutes max walk to the marina). I started up the trail to Monterossa (church side of town, through a tiny arcaded walkway next to the church, little tiny sign) even though I never intended to walk the whole way but found it was closed for the week for maintenance. The dude in the booth said I could go a short ways for the best views back to town (at least 250 steps, plus lots of non-step incline). In this case the best views are past the trailhead booth (where you need to have a ticket). I had already climbed the castle the other day (275 steps), so next I started up the trail on the other side of town (castle side) towards Corniglia. At least 300 steps up, but before you get to the official trailhead booth, more to die for views of the town. It was only 10 am at this point but hot and humid so I decided to skip Corniglia again as it seems the least interesting to me, not being on the water. You get pretty good views of it from both Vernazza and Manarola.

    MANAROLA – Got the train from Vernazza to Manarola (exactly half of the ticket machines in all the CT towns that I tried to use were broken, but there are manned booths). Getting out of the pedestrian tunnel that leads from the train station to the town I followed the first sign I saw leading to Corniglia, figuring I’d go a short way for the views. Well after half an hour, hundreds of narrow, steep stone steps (think goat path) I realized I was not on the main path, but on the upper one that goes waaaay up high. Not only was it hot, really steep (some of the steps were at least 18” high and only 5 or 6 “ wide) and slippery, but the views were not that great. I slipped and slided my way back down and went towards the marina where I found the nice, paved, only slightly sloping path with not all that many steps which leads to the ‘to die for’ view of Manarola. You can see all the way to Corniglia train station and it looks pretty short and easy (apparently the hard part is the very end where you have to climb up to the town, but if you only wanted to walk from Manarola to the Corniglia train station it looks really easy.

    I think Manarola is my favorite CT town. It’s got a bit of stuff back from the marina, a little church, a terraced piazza, then another one down closer to the water. It has the most interesting waterfront – a huge rock that some people were climbing up and then jumping from, several other rock promontories people were lying on. Not much of a beach, or place for boats (Vernazza has the only thing you could call a harbor, in both Manarola and Riomaggiore the ferry boats basically pull up to a big rock and put the gangplank on that, not for anyone with any real mobility issues that’s for sure). It also has a much more laid back, and less crowded atmosphere. I had lunch at a place just back from the water. The waitress was saying she had lived for a couple of decades in Brooklyn, but now that there were jobs back here she wanted to return. So I guess the tourism really is a double edge sword – totally changes the character of the towns, and the residents give up a lot of privacy and quiet (at least in summer) but does provide jobs and incomes.

    RIOMAGGIORE – the main street of the town rises up from the train station – five minute walk to the top, lots of little shops and pavement cafes. In the other direction, through a long pedestrian tunnel (with musicians playing, just like in the NY or Paris metros) is the waterfront – can’t really call it a marina, a harbor, or a beach cause it’s none of those. Just an indentation with houses on both sides. The area where the tiny fishing boats come in is so small that most of the boats are ‘docked’ on the street. There are no ‘from up high’ views of Riomaggiore. The only path (it’s the bottom most of the towns), the one to Manarola which is a paved flat path, is closed, having to be, I guess, completely rebuilt from the floods of 2011. Riomaggiore is not as pleasant as Manarola since the town and the waterfront are separated.

    I decided to stop again in Manarola on my way back north. If I were to stay in any of the five towns I think this would be it, but actually I’m very happy with my choice of Rapallo. But the light would be better now, later in the afternoon and I wanted to see it again so I stopped for another ice (ciappio). And then did the same again in Vernazza. Vernazza was definitely the most crowded, almost a theme park feel to it at this time. But then just as I was photographing some of the boats in the harbor the church bells started ringing, but it had a different sound than just marking the time. And then a slow peal and I looked up and saw the tiniest hearse leading a procession of at least a hundred mourners walking behind it. I felt sorry for them having to have their funeral procession through a bunch of tourists. Though I will say the tourists were all very well behaved, all standing off to the side, no one talking or taking photos. It is a reminder that even with the hoards of tourists, these are still real villages, with people who live, and die, here.

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    Trip day 24 Switzerland Day 1– Rapallo, Italy to Lausanne, Switzerland – Another three train travel day, but no where near as bad as the last one. Good thing I had a seat number for the train from Rapallo to Milano cause it was full. Someone was in my seat but she had to move. That person was fine with it, but there were lots of yelling Italians moving about the cars looking for seats. Only half an hour to Genoa (glad I didn’t need to change trains here) – perhaps on my next trip to this part of Italy I’ll explore Genoa – I think these big southern European cities are best visited when the sweat isn’t pouring into your eyes by 10 am. After the several Genoa stops the train was bursting.

    The train left Rapallo on time at 8:36 but was 15 minutes late getting into Milano Centrale (11:05). I saw my next train was on Bin 3 and remembered that the Swiss trains are always stuck way over at the end of the station. So saw I had enough time to run downstairs and use the WC (1€). The Swiss train was only about a third full when it left Milano but full by the time we got to Brig (13:06). Brig station seemed easy enough to navigate – escalators and ramps, a nice big clean ticket office where I bought my exorbitantly priced but very useful Swiss Pass (393 CHF/ 317€/ $416). But it was nice to just jump on the next train (13:28 to Lausanne, arrived 15:15). Blue sky and we passed some pretty impressive mountains.

    LAUSANNE (pronounced Low-zane) – once I figured out which side of the station to exit (duh – look at the signs: city or lac) the metro was right there. OK, this is the best thing about Lausanne – the adorable metro. Goes from the waterfront (Ouchy) few stops to the Gare, one more to Flon, then a couple more higher up in the city, then a few suburbs. Lausanne is not a cute hill town, but it does sprawl up a pretty steep hill so walking up is strenuous, otherwise you probably wouldn’t need a metro, the distances are not that far. It’s clean, comes every 4 minutes during the day. Place d’Europe where the hotel and metro are located is just a big boring square. There are escalators and steps up to the next level of the city but the square itself is totally boring. Actually the whole city is pretty boring, none of the charm or ambiance of Bern, Lucerne, or even Zurich. A few moderately nice buildings, and nothing really wrong with the city, just not visually interesting. The lakefront is by far the most pleasant part. There are boats (big lake steamers, plus a harbor of sailboats), fountains, gardens, swans, lots of places to walk, ice cream and crepe and hamburger places. The mountains across this narrow end of the lake are impressive when they are not covered with clouds or haze (but that seems to be most of the time).

    Lausanne L Hotel, Place de l’Europe 6 www.lhotel.ch/uk/index.php The hotel is actually in an old building but everything else about it is ultra-modern. It is smack next to the Flon metro stop, so very convenient to La Gare and to Ouchy, the waterfront where the boats leave from (and which is the most pleasant part of Lausanne). And to get to the center of the city you can walk up the stairs to the elevated walkways right in front of Place d’Europe where the hotel is located, or take the glass elevator. The metro from La Gare is one stop, it’s the world’s cutest little metro (looks like a cross between a real metro car and a funicular), they come frequently (except when it breaks down and then it’s either a very long uphill walk or a very crowded bus ride- hopefully that doesn’t happen frequently, though it did when I was there). You get free metro/bus pass when you check in (I think this is the case with most hotels in Lausanne). The lobby of the hotel is also an upscale bar, but the noise didn’t reach my room on the first floor at all. The room itself is also ultra-modern; all white everything but decent size, extremely comfy bed/pillows/towels and an interesting WC/Shower arrangement that works well. At 12CHF I did not try the breakfast. Wi-Fi worked great, there was no TV, there was ‘climate-control’ but you couldn’t regulate it; most of the time I was cool enough but the room was a tad stuffy some of the time (30Cs/80Fs). My only complaint was a fairly strong smell of cigarette smoke much of the time. 100chf/single

    Of course everything in Switzerland is super expensive, especially compared to the areas of France and Italy I had just come from. After checking in I went out for an exploratory walk. None of the restaurants looked at all tempting. Stopped at a grocery store and got a sandwich (freshly made and substantial; chicken salad on really hearty bread), ice tea and three chocolate bars and it was 17chf. After dinner I went down to the waterfront and explored there.

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    You've opened my eyes to some other potential spots to visit on the Ligurian coast. When we were in Cinque Terre we stayed in Riomaggiore, primarily because we could get parking, but it was a lovely place to stay. In your photos, you can see "our" yellow building, the second building from the coast looking over the harbor. Probably the best romantic, sunset view from a room we've ever had. (actually it was an efficiency apt.).

    Later in our trip, we did a daytrip from Bellagio to Lake Lugano, just to visit Switzerland. It was a charming city, but after a month in Italy, we ended up at a very attractive McDonalds for lunch! $20 for two "Big and Tasty" meals.

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    Yeah, especially compared to Italy, Switzerland is incredibly expensive. I really enjoy Switzerland but I think the next time I get a craving for the Alps I'm going to try the Italian and French Alps - they are probably just as gorgeous and more affordable.

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    Trip Day 25, Switzerland day 2 – Montreux, Chateau Chillon, Geneva, Nyon, Yvoire (France) – Woke to blue sky over the lake, but clouds over the mountains. Took the train to MONTREUX (20 minutes). Montreux has a nice huge lake side promenade that stretches all the way to Chateau Chillon, lined with flowers and trees, including palm trees (this is the “Swiss Riviera”). The view across the lake is of some medium impressive mountains (although pretty hazy with clouds over them). There are a few really nice turn of the century (19th) grand hotels, but mostly Montreux looked to be a lot of boring hotels, apartments and shopping.

    I walked the pleasant 45 minute walk to the Chateau, under mostly cloudy skies. Got there just as it opened at 9 am so had the place to myself for the first hour which is the way to see someplace like that. Crowds would totally change the atmosphere . My Swiss Pass got me in free (12chf otherwise). It doesn’t look that big on the outside but there are many levels to explore – dungeons and cellars below ground, several floors of rooms – many with impressive fireplaces, frescoed walls, etc. There were also some interesting displays, and not just of weaponry which seems to be what European castles mostly like to display. There were displays on bathing and hygiene in medieval times. I spent an hour and a half there and the tour groups only showed up the last few minutes. Unfortunately the classic beautiful view of the castle jutting out into the lake was ruined by scaffolding.

    At the ferry stop the sign looked like it said the next boat wasn’t for a few hours but one was pulling in and it was going to Montreux so I hopped on. Ten minutes later I was back in Montreux. Given that it was still cloudy over the mountains, and the train to Rochers de Nay is an extra 25 chf in addition to the Swiss pass I decided to do the lake instead. Got the next train to Geneva.

    GENEVA is a pleasant enough town but also lacks any real ambiance. The setting on the lake where it goes back to being the Rhone is lovely, several bridges connecting the sides of the city. The famous giant water fountain, Jet d’Eau is impressive – especially against blue sky, which there was. The old town has some nice buildings and squares and streets, but still nothing on a scale of Bern/Lucerne/Zurich. It’s mostly a modern, 20th C city. It’s an easy, obvious walk from the train station to the lake and the old town on the other side, and the old town is pretty small. The promenades along the lake seem to go quite a ways. After walking around for a couple hours there was nothing that enticed me to stay.

    Took the train to NYON. There were no signs (at least that I saw) to the ferry but it was pretty obvious which way the lake was. It’s a larger town than I had expected and actually fairly pleasant with a cute little white chateau, some vineyards right in the middle of the town. It was still sunny but as the ferry was pulling out to Yviore I could see ominous dark clouds over Nyon.

    YVOIRE, France is ‘picturesque’ to be sure. A tiny castle jutting into the lake, a bit of town wall sticking up over a tiny village of stone buildings. There were really only 3 or 4 little streets, all filled with tourist shops/restaurants/ice cream and crepe shops. And everything was back to affordable prices in euros. A ham and cheese crepe could be had for 3,90€, in Lausanne it’s 9chf (which is 8€). The ‘thing’ that Yvoire does (besides cute buildings/castle) is flowers. There were window boxes and pots everywhere – mostly geraniums, hydrangeas, and petunias.]
    It was still sunny but here was thunder rumbling in the distance. I got lucky and there was a boat going to Lausanne which was way better than the shorter boat ride followed by a hike up the hill in Nyon and a train ride.

    But my luck ran out when I got back to Lausanne and the metro was having an ‘incident’ and after waiting half an hour everyone (and by now it was a substantial crowd) went across the street to the bus. Which did indeed take me to the ‘city’ but not any part of it I had explored the day before so it was really confusing finding my way to the hotel – and of course it was now raining and I had no umbrella. Urrr. A shower and dry clothes and I went out to look for dinner. Nada - streets empty, stores closed, no inviting restaurants. Went to McDonalds – and it was actually quite good – a chicken caprese wrap, fries and coke for 11.90chf.

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    Trip Day 26, Switzerland day 3 – Gruyeres – The weather forecasts in Switzerland change overnight. Now the forecast for the rest of my time is mostly clouds with some rain and possibly a little sun. Grrrrrrr

    I decided GRUYERES would be the least bad on a rainy day so headed there. The first part (after Montreux) of the train is the Golden Pass Scenic train. It was actually not totally cloudy at this point and it was a pretty ride, the train climbs high out of Montreux with good views down to the lake (the regular train heading in that direction stays much lower I guess). Some decent mountains but they were pretty cloudy. In Montbovon you change to the ‘Gruyers Express” train.

    Gruyeres is very cute. The approach shows walls and turrets and houses on one side, bastide style. Fifteen minute walk from teensy train station up to town, with the sound of cow bells in the distance, through a nice bit of wall/gate and then it’s one wide cobbled street with a fountain in the middle and the chateau at one end. All the shops are souvenir or restaurants and of course gruyeres cheese figures heavily in everything sold. I walked around the town including out the other side and down for a better view and then went to the Chateau. Which is also quite impressive considering how relatively small it looks on the outside. Lots of rooms, ramparts, spiral stone staircases, nice garden. Very well laid out, some rooms furnished, nice views down the hill out of the windows (which would probably be even better if the mountains in the distance were not covered in clouds). I liked it about the same as Chillon (which is larger and on the lake, but this one is more interesting). And it has a really interesting display of paintings scattered throughout the entire chateau, a kind of lord of the rings / fantasy theme, some featuring this castle. It actually was really impressive.

    Had lunch at the Hotel d’Ville Restaurant in town – Beignets au fromage with salad – little croquet like triangles with lots of gruyere in them and then deep fired. Pretty good, especially the salad which was mostly iceberg lettuce – I was starting to crave fruits and veggies. In the grocery stores I noticed things like tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, apples, etc are two to three times the price they were in Italy and don’t look anywhere near as good. The lunch was 16chf but of course the drink was 5. But still, it was a pleasant place with outside tables but under cover from the drizzle with good people watching. By this time it was starting to rain and thunder so I headed back to the station.

    I have to say that except for that metro ‘incident’ yesterday, I do love Swiss trains and having the swiss pass. I just hopped on whatever train was next going where I wanted to go, didn’t have to buy tickets, or wait for specific trains. Between the map they gave me when I got the pass and the departure board at each station it was easy figure out where to go (eg there are two possible routes from Lausanne to Gruyeres).

    Trip Day 27, Switzerland day 4 – SION – Finally sunny! To the train station and got a sandwich for later at the Coop and a crossant/café to eat on the train. Some decent mountains on the way to Sion, nothing spectacular. You get a fleeting glimpse of the two hills in the middle of the fairly flat town of Sion (which is surrounded by more impressive mountains) as you pull into the station. A chateau/church on one, a castle ruin on the other. Sion is a medium sized city (28,000). The walk from the train station is through the benign but boring ‘modern’ part of town. The old town is really very nice. A few narrow streets and one larger main street with some very nice buildings, fountain. There was a major market going on.

    I headed straight for the hills and climbed the shorter one first – with the church and few buildings giving it a little chateau look. I walked way out behind it for some fantastic views of the church itself, and the snow capped mountains in the distance. The church itself was OK. There was a little café up there as well. Back down to the flat area and up the other hill – considerably higher (over 500 steps) but what a view – of the town, the mountains, the smaller hill with the church. Just great. Not much up there but the ruined walls of what looked to be a pretty impressive castle. And I was basically alone. There was one woman reading a book out behind it, and I passed one man on the way up, and a family on the way down. But clearly not a big tourist draw (no admission fee).

    Then I walked around the market – one of the best- every imaginable food including produce, all kinds of meats, bacons, etc., lots and lots of cheese, locally made ‘products’ – things like syrups, jams, etc. And many of these vendors were giving out free samples. One cart was making raclette, which is a big chunk of cheese put under a super hot burner to melt some and then it’s scrapped onto a plate with one small baby potato and a small gerkin pickle. There was even a guy with a portable pizza oven on wheels. And all sorts of crafts, clothes, antiques, flowers, etc. Probably the most interesting market of my whole trip.

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    Trip Day 28, Switzerland day 5 – Zermatt, Matterhorn – The forecast was for sun, even in Zermatt (I checked three websites), and it looked sunny when I got up so hurried to the station (I was getting the idea that sunny mornings turn into cloudy afternoons in Switzerland). Got the 7:20 to Visp and only had a 15 minute wait for a train – having pretty good train karma, rarely having to wait long. The trains are pretty frequent.

    The train from Visp to Zermatt goes slower as it climbs higher into the mountains and the views are much better – high snow capped mountains, deep green valleys. Still sunny on arrival in ZERMATT at 10:13 so just went across the street to the Gornergratbahn cog railway station. It’s 41chf round trip with the SwissPass (82 without one) but worth it. This train really creeps along, the walking path visible much of the way and the views are incredible. The MATTERHORN around every corner – and set against blue sky! Of course the views at the top were just beyond words. With the sun out it was blindingly bright – all that snow/glaciers. The Matterhorn itself didn’t have all that much snow but you are up close to several other peaks that are all glacier. You can really see the glacier itself, how it’s receding. There was even still some snow at the GORNERGRAT summit. There’s a large building that is a hotel/restaurant/cafeteria/shops/ and observatory. By now there were ‘banner’ clouds surrounding the Matterhorn but they move around so the view keeps changing, and the tip was usually above the cloud. Got talking to a couple of Americans and they took my photo. Don’t usually do that but how often am I at the Matterhorn.

    Had my lunch outside (glad I had my pretzel bread/ham and cheese and pickle sandwich and apple with me as the prices were outrageous for what did not look like terribly good food)– it was actually warm in the sun (sign said it was 13C). They have big bins of blankets to I guess sit on or wrap yourself in while you are sitting out there. But didn’t need it today.

    Then I took the train one stop down to the Rotenboden stop and got off. It’s a ten minute, pretty steep walk down to the lake (which is not visible from the train). At first the Matterhorn was covered in a cloud, and the sun was behind another cloud and there was a breeze so the lake was not reflective. But then – both clouds moved and the wind died down and the lake turned to glass and OMG ! Incredible. Once I was able to tear myself away I got back on the path – at the train stop it said 35 minute walk to the next stop, but now it said 50 minutes. Apparently there are several trails.

    So I just kept going and in a few minutes there was a second lake! And this trail is the less traveled one cause there were almost NO people here (not that the first lake was crowded or anything, obviously most people just take the train in both directions). The views here were just as good. Took even longer to tear myself away from this spot (these times that the signs all over Switzerland give for how long it takes to get to the next place obviously don’t take into account stopping to stare at the view).

    I kept going. The views from the trains, even the expensive cog railways, and from the top – they just can’t compare to the views from the trails. At least this portion of the trail is not difficult. Granted I was going down. The few places where I went up (from each of the lakes back up to the trails) I could feel my heart pounding and I’m sure glad I wasn’t climbing up the whole way. But going down does not require great stamina or anything. I was even wearing sandals (Teva, and the good ones, not flip flops – but point being you don’t need real hiking gear to do some segments. The goat paths that serve as trails on the Cinque Terre are much worse).

    At one point I couldn’t see any other people. I was all alone with the Matterhorn! OMG! OMG! An incredible experience. So quiet. So beautiful.

    By the time I got to the next train station it was mostly cloudy so I took the train the rest of the way.
    Zermatt is pretty boring. Not really quaint or picturesque like towns in the Bernese Oberland area such as Wengen or Grimmelwald. Most of the buildings are apartments or hotels and are five or six stories high, so even though built in the ‘Swiss Chalet’ style they really aren’t ‘chalets’. Of course the main streets are full of restaurants, tacky Swiss souvenir stuff, every sort of hiking gear shop (Timberland, North Face), Rolex watches, etc. Lots of places to get coffee and sweets. I had a chocolate éclair and an ice tea. I could see staying in Zermatt for a few days if you wanted to do a lot of hiking although I suspect there’s not that much variety and once you’ve hiked with the Matterhorn right in your face I can’t imagine other trails being much of a draw. While there are no cars allowed in Zermatt there are bikes, and lots of little electric taxis to take people and their luggage to all the various hotels. But I certainly wouldn’t stay there if I wanted a quiet mountain experience (would pick one of the OB towns). I had considered staying a few days in Zermatt on my way to Lausanne since the way I did it did involve some extra train time. But my reasoning turned out to be valid – if you lock yourself into one or two days (by having hotel reservations, obviously necessary in mid summer) and then you get cloudy days you are out of luck. I cannot imagine the experience to be even a fraction as wonderful if the Matterhorn was covered in clouds the whole time. This way I had six days to choose from and was able to wait till there was a sunny day.

    On the train back to Visp (I was there 6 hours) I fell asleep (as did just about everyone else on the train). It was very cloudy at this point so the scenery wasn’t much of a draw. On the way back from Visp to Lausanne I decided to stop off in Sion (there are trains on that route every half hour). It was nice to see the town without the market (even though that was a very nice market). Back in Lausanne it was mostly sunny so I went down to Ouchy and shot a few pic. Didn’t get home till after 9pm (I had left at 06:30 in the morning).

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    Thanks

    Trip Day 29, Switzerland day 6 – Golden Pass Train to Interlaken, Speiz, boat to Thun, Bern – Sunny again! Although seem to be a lot of haze/clouds over the mountains again. Couldn’t make up my mind about the cog rail up to Rochers de Naye. When I got off the train in Montreux there was a Golden Pass train just about to depart, and almost empty, and had the ceiling windows, so I hopped on that.

    Golden Pass from Montreux to Zweisimmen is a pleasant ride, great views of the lake as you climb. Then it goes through some nice Alpine scenery, a few impressive peaks in the distance. From Zweisimmen to Speiz (you have to change trains) is much gentler terrain, little villages. (7:45-10:15). Then got the connecting to train to Interlaken.

    Interlaken was a bit confusing from the train station. I had no map as I wasn’t planning on going there this trip and also I thought I’d remember, having spent 5 days there 8 years ago. Actually found the hotel we stayed in right away (wasn’t even looking for it) and then walked down the main street. The Jungfrau was clearly visible in the middle of town (was cloudy the whole five days we were there last time, only seeing the peak in the really early sunrise the last day.) Watched the hang gliders landing for a while, walked around the streets behind the main street for a while where there is a very pretty church complex.

    In Speiz I walked from the train station which is up on the hill, down to the lake front where both the ferry landing and the castle are. Had just enough time to look around the outside of the castle and get on the next boat (13:30). It was a lovely 45 minute ride in the hot sun. Cool breeze, incredibly turquoise water, snow capped mountains in the hazy distance. We went past Oberhofen Castle (loved visiting that on our last trip). Was so thirsty I spent 5,60 CHF on a small bottle of ice tea (water was the same price).

    Thun is great. More beautiful than I remembered (but then it was a cloudy weekday, this was a sunny Sunday, but both in July). There was a huge festival with a Ferris wheel and an organ grinder competition – there were a couple hundred of them with the people dressed in ‘old’ costumes. So obviously lots of music. But the whole town is really lovely, great architecture, turquoise river with covered bridges lined with flower boxes filled with geraniums and petunias. I walked up to the castle (>300 steps) and then climbed all the stairs inside the castle (which is really just the big tower with four corner turrets, but great views and a few mildly interesting displays). [8chf, covered with Swiss Pass]

    The train trip back to Lausanne requires a change in Bern so I decided to take a walk. So much nicer than Lausanne. Couple of main streets run from the train station down to the loop of the river (and the side of the river lined with promenades). The streets have arcades on both sides, in some cases they are two stories – all filled with stores and eateries with everything from Rolex to H&M. Lots of interesting fountains all along the streets. And of course the huge clock tower. At the end of the town by the river is where they keep the Bern bear, who was looking pretty hot and tired (about like I looked by then).

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    Trip Day 30 – Travel to Strasbourg – The most convenient train required changes in both Bern and Basel but both stations are large with escalators and plenty of places to buy food. In Basel I had to buy a ticket as the Swiss pass would no longer be valid in France, and then you walk through a door marked “France” to the platforms where the French trains leave from. I did this last year en route from Milano to Luxembourg and found it quite funny that there is actually a door as the border between two countries. There was a booth, now empty, that must have been border control back in the day.

    Strasbourg: Hotel Maison Rouge 4 rue des Francs Bourgeois www.maison-rouge.com This is a four star hotel a 15-20 min. walk from the train station, on a tram route, and 5 minutes from the cathedral. The posted rate is 139€/night single and my booking.com rate was 70€. What a deal! Very posh lobby and common areas. Room was nice, mini-bar, Wi-Fi and all the usual you would expect from a 4 star hotel. I did not take the 15€ breakfast as there was a Brioche Doree and several other options within a two minute walk. Extremely pleasant staff.

    Strasbourg is great! (Even in 95 degree heat). The ‘old town’ within the circle of the river is quite large. In many European cities, the ‘old town’ is quite small with the modern city sprawling but this old town goes on and on. Tons of half timbered houses reflecting in the river and the little canals that make up the most picturesque area (Petite France). The cathedral is massive, incredibly tall. Lively square around it and a couple other squares. Despite looking very German, it’s obviously French – speaking French, all the French stores (Paul, Brioche Boree, Monoprix, Galleries Laffayette, Amorino, Pylone, patisseries on every corner). And things are sooooo cheap – not just compared to Switzerland, though that’s a major difference, but pretty reasonable even compared to Provence and the Dordogne.

    I walked around taking zillions of photos, despite it being so hot. After a rest in the hotel I went out to dinner and choose a place in the Cathedral Square – the ambiance is always more important to me than the fact that the quality might be ‘touristy’. Had a salad the size of a house with fresh veggies and salmon, shrimp and tuna. Really good. And the sun was just setting (8pm) and making the cathedral glow very orange and bringing out details I hadn’t even noticed just before. Then walked around and got more ice cream (lemon and kiwi – 1.50€ per boule). I love Strasbourg – the swallows swooping in the dusk, the sound of foot steps on the cobble stones, church bells ringing.

    Trip Day 31 –Colmar – Sunny and quite warm even at 7 am. Breakfast at Brioche Dorree – hard to believe but I’m tired of croissants so had a baguette (still warm) with butter and jam, OJ and café au lait (and only 4€). Took a walk – some areas were nicely lit with the morning sun but too early for much good light. But no people around, that part I like about the early mornings. Made the 8:21 train to Colmar (thank goodness that my AFCU card worked in the ticket machine or I would have to wait at least a half hour for the next train).

    The old town of Colmar is about a 15 minute walk from la Gare but once in it it’s pretty small. Certainly a profusion of colorful half timbered houses and a few other very interesting buildings but not really any better than Strasbourg. Plenty of food choices and very good prices. Lunch menus of quiche and salad for 7.50€, etc. I had lunch in a rather modern place (dark purple decorated with giant rubber duckies) but they had poulet cordon blu, pomme frites, and broccoli plus a raspberry tart with PINK Chantilly for desert for 10,50€. Did more walking around, a little shopping, of course took lots of photos. By then it was mostly cloudy and starting to rumble and drizzle so headed for the train station.

    Evening in Strasbourg is very pleasant. The Petite France area was quite pretty lit up, and the cathedral of course. There was an ‘illumination’ show at 22:30 so I sat at a gelato café right in front of the cathedral and since I HAD to order something in order to sit there I got two boules with Chantilly. The show was amazing – I thought they would just shine colored lights on it but they lit it up from inside as well and coordinated it to classical music, it was really very cool and an incredible way to spend my last (real) night of the trip.

    Trip Day 32 –Strasbourg and train to CDG hotel – My last day. Five weeks went so quickly. It was mostly cloudy in the morning, completely cloudy by mid day. Oh well, I guess that will make it easier to leave. After breakfast at Brioche Dorree I walked around but the light wasn’t great for shooting and there wasn’t much tempting in the shops. Went back to the hotel to pack and check out and left my bag there for the afternoon – but by now it was raining so there I was with no hotel, and not much to do on a rainy day. Hmmm And the cathedral was closed. Had lunch at ‘Bagelstein’ (slow re-entry into the cuisine of home?). By then the cathedral was open. It’s huge, and as with most cathedrals I like it better on the outside than in. Very high, some nice stained glass and the astronomical clock is unusual. Had a gelato at the café in cathedral square so just sat and took in the incredible intricate carving on the front. The sun came out and I took one last spin around the Petite France area before collecting my bags and heading to the train station.

    The train was less than half full and it was a painless couple hours trip. I was very glad KC had done the airport to hotel shuttle trip a couple weeks ago when she left cause she had given me detailed directions of where to go. It was a zoo up on the top level of Terminal 2 where the airport shuttles leave from, and I must have just missed one cause it was a long wait (over half an hour).

    CDG Campanile Roissy Le Mesnil Amelot, Rue du Stade Sauvanet mesnilamelot@campanile.fr This was the least expensive of the hotels that have free shuttle service to CDG, I paid 79€ for a single. The room was quite large and actually probably the most comfortable bed of my trip. It’s a standard chain style hotel but has everything you’d need. The shuttle only runs once per half hour though, takes 15 minutes and only goes to Terminals 2 and 3. For Terminal 1 you need to connect to the CDGVAL free train, taking another 15 minutes. The shuttle stop at CDG Terminal 2 (where the TGV station is) (keep taking the escalators all the way to the top, follow signs for Hotel Shuttles) is a bit of a zoo with four different shuttle buses serving about 10 hotels.

    Trip Day 33 – Sunny and nice in Paris. What a waste that I will only be at the airport. Flying away it was beautiful and clear but there was a haze hanging over Paris itself and I could just make out the Eiffel Tower.

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    Isabel, thanks again for your report. I loved it! Strasbourg is definitely moving up my list of places I most want to go as I continue to hear great things about it!

    You covered so many places in just a few weeks, and I thought you did a nice job of conveying both your positive and negative impressions. That being sad, it would be good to know what your favorite places were that you visited on the trip and what were your least favorite places? I know much of it is already implied, but I love lists and it would be interesting to see how you would rank the places. Thanks again!

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    Thanks YankyGal ( sounds like you must be from the northeast - as am I).

    Blaise - Favorite and least favorite - hmmm - that's kind of hard. Well, probably Italy was my favorite - I love the coast and I love Italy so the combo is hard to beat. Provence was also way high up on my list - especially St Remy, the Lavender Fields and the Pont du Gard. But I'll qualify that by saying that the Luberon Towns themselves were not anything special compared to similar sized towns in other parts of Europe. No worse, but no better. But being there in early July with the lavender in full bloom was amazing. And the Pond du Gard was incredible and I'd wanted to go there for so long. But it's not the kind of place I'd want to go back to again and again (not that I woundn't go back, just that it wouldn't be as wonderful once you've seen it.) So in terms of where I'd want to return to again - for that I'd have to say the Cote d'Azure ( and Italy). And Paris isn't at the top of my list because I've been there so many times, had it been my first or second time there I guess it would be higher on my list. And the Dordogne - well it was very pleasant but the area is fairly similar to where I live (except I don't have the castles) so it wasn't as 'special'. And then Switzerland - well probably the one single most memorable moment of the entire trip was hiking near the Matterhorn. But between the cost and the generally less good weather, Switzerland overall would be lower on my list. And Strausbourg - oh so hard to rank them. They are ALL wonderful.

    I guess bottom line, it depends on your perspective. Sorry I couldn't just give you a list.

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    Isabel, I understand what you are saying about a place being different than where you live. I actually really understand it because I don't really care for where I live so places that look similar are way down or not on my list. So yeah, perspective is huge. But it's still interesting to see how you differentiate between all the wonderful places you went. Of the places you went, the places that appeal most to me are the Dordogne, Switzerland and Strasbourg. I hear what you're saying about the cost in Switzerland though, and like you say, you can see similar scenery in other nearby places for half the cost. I love Italy as well but I don't care for the beach at all so Liguria is not as high on my list. It does look very nice though.

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    I have enjoyed your report so far and am bookmarking it to go back to later. Just sampled your pictures and want to look at all of them.

    I loved some of your terms such as "average interesting". I suppose that is redundant but I just love the way that it sums up a place. Your ranking of castles by turrets made me laugh.

    Your description of smelling the linden tree from your bedroom at night reminded me how much I love this fragrance. There are two lindens in front of my sister's house, and I love their smell when they bloom in July.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    Dear Isabel, your photos and information are wonderful. I am just finishing the last of my reservations for my trip in September. The Hotel Saint Pierre is full. Can you recommend another hotel in Paris in the same area? Thank you, Julie

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