1 Mth in Europe Trip Report

Old Jul 4th, 2005, 08:40 AM
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1 Mth in Europe Trip Report

Here is the trip report of my month long "whirlwind" trip to Europe: 3 nights in London, 3 nights in Paris, 3 nights in Barcelona, 2 nights in St. Remy, 2 nights in Gordes, 1 night in Aix-en Provence, 2 nights in St. Tropez, 3 nights in Nice, 3 nights in Bellagio, 2 nights in Santa Margherita Ligure, 2 nights in Florence and 1 night in Milan. I will post by location so hopefully it won't be too overwhelming!

The link to my photo album is:

http://www.imagestation.com/album/pi...il-AlbumInvite

Friday, May 20th /Saturday, May 21st

Travel day so nothing exciting to report. Tried to get an earlier connecting flight to London from Amsterdam or perhaps upgrade to business class but both were not possible because it was a full flight. Oh well, no harm in trying!

Flight was smooth and we arrived in Amsterdam at about 7:30am and our connecting flight wasn’t until 1:00pm. We contemplated taking the train into town, but figured there wouldn’t be much to do at 8:00am so decided to wander around the airport instead. Wandered around the shops and then looked for a quiet spot to take a short nap while Colin read up on London.

Amsterdam to London flight was on 45 minutes long (wish we could have gotten on an earlier flight). As we landed, we saw outside it was pouring like crazy! But when we got off the plane and went to get our baggage, the sun was coming up. I thought we left Vancouver to get away from the crazy weather we have been having!!! No such luck I guess. It’s now cloudy and about 14 celcius, typical London weather. Arrived in Terminal 4 and they are upgrading the tube line in that terminal so we had to take a shuttle bus to the station that was for terminals 1-3. Was going to buy a 3 day pass but because it’s the weekend and not peak hours, the lady recommended just getting a day pass everyday for the 3 days we would be here. Our day pass was only 6 pounds whereas taking the Heathrow Express would have been 14 pounds (only saves you about 15 minutes anyway) plus we would have had to change to the tube to get to our hotel, and ending up having to spend money for the tube anyway. I had already gotten instructions on how to get to our hotel from the hotel staff and from people who have previously stayed at the Copthorne Tara that posted on Tripadvisor. Great resources! It is posted as a four star hotel but knew well ahead to not expect more than a 3 star. Yup…I wouldn’t classify it any more than a 3 star but for 110 US a night for central London, you can’t complain at all.

Brought our laptop with us for the first time so I decided to bring my ipod mini and we brought a cd burner with us too. We’ll see if it was worth it. Well, at least I am for once able to type my trip journal. I still would be at my first paragraph right now if I was handwriting it because I handwrite so slow. So that alone is worth it. Plus I am able to hook up my ipod mini to our laptop we finally have music in our hotel room!!!

After a much needed shower, we are both refreshed and ready to explore our neighborhood.

Decided to start by taking a stroll along our neighborhood on High Street Kensington. First stop…the Marks and Spencer Food Floor!!! OMG….huge selection of yummy gourmet treats. I could easily spend hours there. We ended up buying a bag of four cheese and onion chips, a mango/coconut/yogurt smoothie for me and a bottle of orange and lychee juice for Colin. So tasty! The next shop we stopped in was H&M….which Colin remembered my friend Lillian telling him was a place to get great cheap clothing. We went in and it was indeed cheap by London standards. Lots of stuff for like 10 to 20 pounds. Tried on a few things but didn’t end up getting anything. Gap had some nice stuff too but too expensive. We window shopped a bit and then went to Kensington Gardens for a brief walk around the park and continued on to various museums such as Victoria and Albert, the Science Museum, but they were closing up soon so we didn’t go inside. We decided to make our way to Harrods so walked towards the Knightsbridge area and window shopped some more and saw lots of great little restaurants along the way. By the time we got to Harrod’s, it had just closed its doors as it was 7pm. It would be closed on Sunday so we will have to wait until Monday to make our visit. So we continued walking and decide to go to the Soho area. We took the tube to the Oxford Circus stop and wandered around. We landed on Oxford Street where there was a whole lot more shops. Did some more window shopping. Then eventually got into Soho and Picadilly Circus and the Theatre District. There were people everywhere (it was Sat night after all) and it was a great atmosphere. Lots of pubs, restaurants, found the area with all the sex shows (looks like an alley from Amsterdam), then all the different theatres showing all the different shows. It was a great atmosphere and fun to people watch. It was getting late so we decided maybe we would get a bite somewhere. I was thinking maybe some Indian food because we saw so many Indian restaurants along the way. Then we passed by Wagamama, a noodle restaurant that was featured in one of Rick Steeve’s episodes and looked pretty good. It’s a chain and they are all located in basements at a few locations around London. No separate tables…just four huge long community tables. The guy who sat next to us was from Boston and it was his first day in London too. We ordered a large sake, duck gyoza (sooo good), I had the Chili Chicken Men and Colin had the Wagamama Ramen. OK…I thought the bill at Noodles at Bellagio was steep…but this broke that record. Our meal ended to be 35 pounds. Acceptable if it was in Cdn dollars but multiply by 2.5 and that’s like $80 for a simple noodle dinner! Mind you, it was very good and we really enjoyed it but still!!!! And the scary thing is, that’s probably as cheap as you can eat in London. Our other option would be to go to places like Mark and Spencer and get stuff from there. So after dinner, we walked along some more and stopped by a discount theatre ticket booth and picked up tickets for Lion King on Sunday. I don’t know what regular price is, but we paid 38 pounds for our seats so it’s still expensive, but cheaper than what Mamma Mia cost in Vegas. Looking forward to it because I’ve wanted to see it for so long but it hasn’t come to Canada yet. We wandered a little bit more until we hit Covent Garden and decided to head back and called it a day. We have been up for essentially two days and we need a good night’s rest. Tomorrow will be a full day for sure. First stop will be the London Eye (weather permitting of course).

Sunday, May 22nd 2005

A little jet lagged so we couldn’t get up as early as we wanted to. Got up at about 9:30am. Looked out the window and it was cloudy with little sunny patches. Good! At least it’s dry! Oh forgot to mention that we picked up a free umbrella while sitting at one of the Kensington Garden benches yesterday. We sat there for about 10 minutes and no one came to collect it so we took it as we forgot to bring an umbrella with us. It has London Business School on it….hey, our first souvenir!!! We knew London would be expensive and since it was our first stop, we brought instant noodles, snacks and bottled water with us on our luggage knowing that we would consume it within our first few days. It would prove to be a smart move and saved us a lot of money. Luckily there was a hot water kettle in our hotel room! After a breakfast of kimchi noodles, we were off. Our first stop was the London Eye. Bought another day pass (only 1-4 zone this time, costing 4.70 pounds each). Took the tube to Westminster Station. We would have to cross a bridge and on the map, it looked big, but we thought we would check it out first. When we got off at the station, the first thing we saw was Big Ben greeting us. It would be the first of many “WOW” moments of our trip. It was huge and beautiful. Clicked a few pics and tried to find the direction of the Thames River. Found it very easily and then we saw the London Eye. Very cool. The bridge turned out to be very short and walkable. Passed by the Saatchi Museum and joined the very long queue to get tickets for the London Eye. It was very long, but it went very fast. We got our tickets in about 20-25 min or so. Cost 12.50 pounds each. After getting tickets, there was another line for boarding which was another 20-25 min. The whole entire process before we got on board was about 45 min so not bad. The ride is about 30 min long and gave us some great views of London. Couldn’t help but wonder where the Amazing Race flag was posted when looking at all the buildings. Took lots of pics. After getting off, we grabbed a quick snack of at a couple of vendors around that area.

We then wandered over to Westminster Abbey for a short while but realized we couldn’t go in on Sundays. So after a few exterior shots, we decided to head over to Leicester Square as our Lion King show started at 3pm and we weren’t sure where the theatre was. Turned out it was a little further than we anticipated but we got there on time. Even had time for a pre-show drink at the bar. The show was spectacular. I already knew it was going to be a great production. But just looking at the set and the costumes…it was so original and imaginative. The casting however I thought could have been better. Being a big fan of the original Disney cartoon and owning the soundtrack, I thought some of the cast were a little weak in terms of vocal talent. But overall, it was a visually stunning production and was so glad we went to see it.

After the show which was about 3hours including the intermission, we went to wander some more and stumbled upon the Covent Gardens Market. It was very lively and fun to wander around with a lot of nice stuff to look at. Unfortunately, they were close to closing down for the day so didn’t stick around too long. We then wandered to the Jubilee market and caught the trail end of that as well.

Started looking for a nice pub to get our London “pub grub” and settled on one that was close to the Lyceum Theatre where we watched the Lion King. I am usually not a beer drinker but Colin convinced me to have a beer (I am in London for heaven’s sake!) so we both ordered lagers and I had the fish and chips and Colin had sausage and mash and split a side salad. The food was pretty good…not the best fish and chips but it was good. Colin’s dish was very good and the mashed potatoes were to die for. I never seen Colin eat so much mashed potato before! Meal was very reasonable and only came out to 20 pounds.

After a huge meal, we decided we needed a walk! Did more wandering and ended up at Trafalgar Square where we did some climbing to get some good shots with the lions. More wandering along the Leicester Squre and Soho areas. Found Chinatown and it was very cute and clean. All restaurants looked very appetizing and clean. Looks like they take much more pride in their appearance than Vancouver Chinese restaurants.

We were planning to find a bar to hang out at, but we were both still very tired so we decided to call it a day. Tomorrow will be a full day.

Monday, May 23rd

Today we woke up early and was prepared for a full day. We got the metro station about 9am and wanted to buy a couple of day passes. We were informed that if we bought a day pass and used it prior to 9:30am, it would cost 6 pounds (because of peak hours) and if we waited until 9:30, it would only be 4.70 pounds each. So we bought the after peak hours one and decided to just walk to our first destination. We hadn’t decided what our first stop would be…so we decided to walk to the Victoria and Albert Museum. We got there about 9:30 or so and noticed people sitting on the benches so guessed it was not opened yet. And yup, it wasn’t set to open until 10:00am so we decided to walk to Harrod’s instead. So we walked over to the Knightsbridge area again and did a little bit of window shopping…looking at a few real estate offices posting flats for sale. 600 sq feet flats in Knightsbridge were going for like 400,000-500,000 pounds and they were only for 125 year leases! Yeesh! It actually took us less time than we thought to get to Harrods and it was only about 9:45 or so at this time. You could see there were lots of people hovering around Harrods, waiting for it to open as it didn’t open until 10:00am. We wandered around the area and found out that the Gap opened at 9:30 so looked in there. Some nice stuff but the discount stuff was 19.99 pounds as opposed to us at 19.99 Cdn….big difference!

Finally it was 10:00 and in a matter of minutes, Harrods was packed inside. If only all department stores had that kind of business! The food hall was most impressive, selling anything and everything that you could think of. We only wandered around a little bit, picked up a couple of things for a snack later on in the day, and went to use their washrooms. I remember having to pay a pound or so to use their washrooms several years ago when I went there with my mom but there were the “luxury washrooms” on specific floors and just the “toilets” that Colin and I chose to use so maybe that’s why we didn’t have to pay. It was still nice and clean and there was about 5 different designer perfumes/cologne to use and a luxury hand lotion. I chose Vera Wang and Colin chose Chanel. We didn’t stay too long because there was still so much to see. Next stop was Westminster Abbey.

We took the tube to Westminster station in hopes of getting into Westminster Abbey. However, the line up was so long and it looked like it wasn’t moving quickly. We didn’t want to waste time so thought maybe we should check out another sight instead. We checked our map to see what else was in the area and choose to find Buckingham Palace. On our way, we walked through St. James Gardens and chose to stop and sit in the park bench and enjoy the tranquil surroundings while we enjoyed the croissant and raisin cinnamon bun we picked up at Harrods. In the distance, we heard some music and noise and knew that it must be for the Changing Of The Guards and that Buckingham Palace was not far away. We made it to Buckingham Palace just in time for the Changing Of The Guards…great timing!!! It was a sea of tourists all hovered around the area. The palace itself is not so impressive….rather a dull building, but the gates were guilded in gold and were very elaborate. It was neat to see. We stayed for a while and then headed back through the garden and went to take a peek again at Westminster Abbey to see if the queue had died down at all but it hadn’t. We decided to move on to our next stop….St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We took the tube to Mansion Hill, which is in the financial district and followed the signs to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I just absolutely love it when I turn the corner and there it is….you become absolutely awestruck at its size and beauty. It was 8 pounds per person for the admission. They were doing some refurbishing on the dome and the highest level of the dome was not available, but we went anyway. We lit a couple of candles for us and our friends and family. It was very beautiful inside. The highlight was climbing the 259 steps to the whispering gallery. You are supposed to be able to whisper something to the wall and someone sitting on the other side of the gallery is supposed to hear you. There were some school children there and they seemed to be successful in this whisper exchange but I don’t think we were so successful. Colin said he heard me but I couldn’t hear him. Oh well, it was fun anyway. Then it was another152 steps to the
Stone Gallery where you could stop out and be able to see all of London. It gave us a perfect view of the Millenium Bridge and the Tate Modern Museum on the other side of the Thames. It would have been another 152 steps to the Golden Gallery but it was not accessible by public today unfortunately.

After leaving St. Paul’s Cathedral, we walked to the Millenium Bridge, a very cool and modern metallic bridge, and went across to reach the Tate Modern museum. Surprisingly, there was no admission fee for the museum. In addition to the well known artists such as Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, and Andy Warhol, there was also a lot of modern, abstract art by much lesser known artists. One actually called a simple glass of water “an oak tree”. There is a whole interview displayed with regards to the artists’ argument about his “artwork.” Yeah, right….. There were definitely some artwork better than others. We grabbed a quick bite at the café on the 2nd floor that gave us a great view of St. Paul’s and the Thames, just so we could rest our feet a little as we have been walking non stop. We have been walking all the stairs too instead of using escalators or elevators so we are definitely getting our exercise in!!!

We thought our next stop would be the British Museum. But it was already 4pm when we left the Tate, and the British Museum was supposed to close at 5:30pm. We still had to get there, so that wouldn’t leave us with too much time. We checked the tube map to see how many connections it would be to get there and we would have to make 3 line changes so we decided to forget it. We decided to head over to the Tower Bridge instead.

We were already at the Tube station so Colin checked his map and said it would only be one stop so we got off at Canon Street. I was wondering why there were no signs pointing us to the Tower Bridge. We decided to take the walkway along the Thames anyway just so we could see where we were going. I told Colin I can’t believe there is not a tube stop closer to the bridge so he consulted his map again….only to find out he screwed up on the bridge names and he was thinking London Bridge when he should have been checking Tower Bridge!!! Needless to say, we ended up walking a long ways to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. I made him give me a foot massage when we finally sat down for a rest when we got there!

We walked across the Tower Bridge and once again got some great views of London from there. Walked over to the other side of the Thames and walked around the area. Colin’s next great suggestion was to find Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Of course, he said it was really close. I think we walked for another 45 minutes back towards to the Tate Museum. We finally got there….and found out it was essentially next door to the Tate Museum!!!! So we did a whole circle! That was a whole lot of walking! The Globe Theatre was putting on Pericles tonight and they were advertising seats for only 5 pounds. We thought, why not…only to find out they were standing tickets only. Normally I would have been ok with it, but my legs were too tired to stand for another couple of hours so we just looked around the theatre and gift shop and then decided to look for some pub grub. Found one by the Thames and it was very busy inside. Colin had the steak and ale pie, smothered with gravy and served with mashed potatoes and I had the rump steak with fries. It was a good thing Colin had a lot of gravy that I could use for the steak. I should have ordered fish and chips again, but what they hey…figured we should try all the traditional pub food since we were in London after all. There are tons of French brasseries, Italian restaurants and Tapas bars but we figure we are heading to Spain, France and Italy after London so there would be plenty of opportunity to try that stuff later!!!! The food service was slow, but that was ok…gave us time to soak in the atmosphere and for Colin to order more beers. He was enjoying going up to the bartender and ordering stuff.

After a huge meal, it was a good thing we still had a bit of a walk to get back to the tub station and head back to the hotel. We are contemplating going back out to a jazz club, but with only 20 pounds left to our name, it might be best to just have another early night and buy some souvenirs before we head out in the morning. We have plenty of opportunity to check out nightlife in France and Spain.

Tomorrow we would head to Paris.
italybound01 is offline  
Old Jul 4th, 2005, 08:51 AM
  #2  
ira
 
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Interesting start, IB.
ira is offline  
Old Jul 4th, 2005, 09:31 AM
  #3  
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PARIS

Tuesday, May 24th

Woke up this morning and the sky was a dark grey. Looked like it was going to rain. We decided to take a walk along Kensington High St Station to see if we could find any souvenirs but realized there weren’t any souvenir shops so we decided we should just head back to the hotel, pack and head out to Waterloo station as our Eurostar train departed at 12:09pm. We knew we had to pack light for this trip and we only have one suitcase each and we shared one carry on. But man, our luggage is so heavy due to all the hardware we took with us. Colin couldn’t stop complaining and basically said we wouldn’t bother with a laptop next time.

The Eurostar booking went very smoothly. I booked on the internet, there were self serve kiosks to get your tickets printed, check in was automatic (you just insert your ticket), there was a baggage check and a passport check, and that was it. You were told your cabin and seat numbers so we just went to look for that when boarding. Just our luck we were stuck with a bunch of French teens, about 13-14 that occupied half our car. They bugged Colin but I kept on telling him that it could have been much worse had they been American and we could understand what they were saying. At least they were speaking French and we could block it out. The ride was very smooth. We went to the food cart to get a couple of sandwiches and drinks and at there as Colin wanted to get away from the kids. We were going at top speed and our drinks weren’t even shaking on the table. Very cool. The ride to Paris from London took only 3 hours.

We arrived at Gare du Nord at about 4:10pm, factoring in the one hour time change. We had to take two lines on the metro to get to Chares De Gaule Etoile stop and find our hotel. Our hotel was on Rue Carnot and it was not even a block from the Arc de Triomphe. Very easy to find. I hadn’t read any reviews on Tripadvisor or anywhere about this hotel so I was a little worried. I had booked it through Hotel Club or one of those discount internet sites. The check in lady was very friendly and it was a snap for check in. Just gave her our voucher and she gave us a key. No need for credit card or passport or anything else. Breakfast would be included during our stay so that is a bonus.

Our room on the other hand could be the same size as our bedroom at home. It was absolutely tiny. Cozy, but tiny. The bathroom was newly renovated and was very nice (especially compared to the London Hotel). Our bonus was having a balcony that gave us a view of the Arc de Triomphe. What a treat and it made up for the small room. We were very pleased with the balcony.

Freshened up a bit and headed to the Arc de Triomphe and did what we missed last time…which was to go up top and see the views of Paris from there. It would cost us 7 euros to go up. We could have gotten a 3 day museum pass for 36 euros each but it was already 5:30pm and they said they have stopped selling them for the day because you would essentially lose out on the day which made sense. I had started using French with the lady and she just continued on in French until she must have seen the blank look on my face trying to compute in my head what she was saying. Then she switched to English for me. So embarrassing. Anyway, the views were beautiful and we tried to locate all the landmarks but had trouble spotting the Notre Dame Cathedral. We finally found it with the help of the map.

We then decided to stroll along the Champs Elysees and look for the Laduree shop that I had been hearing so much about. Apparently they make the best macaroons. We went down the left hand side first (back on the Arc) and couldn’t find it and crossed the street and went up the quieter side. We finally found it and they have a restaurant too that functions like an afternoon tea house with drinks and desserts/pastries etc. We decided to just get a box of six macaroons for 10 euros. Funny thing was that all the customers seemed to be locals as everyone was ordering in French. I felt funny to speak in English so joined in as well. Luckily it was easy one liner conversations with the sales clerk and he was very friendly so it went fine…..I wonder if he knew?! Anyway, we found a place to sit and indulge in these macaroons. And wow….were they ever good!!!! They are definitely what you imagine macaroons to be….they are kinda like a biscuit/cookie sandwich with a filling. We had chocolate, strawberry, raspberry, lemon, vanilla and butter caramel. They were all so decadent and so worth it. We are contemplating going back to try their hot chocolate and pastries!!!

We then head back to the hotel to shower and dress up to have our first nice meal as we basically stayed rather conservative in London. We first stopped at an internet café right next door to the hotel to write some emails to let everyone know we were ok. Turns out we were using a French keyboard and boy was it ever hard to type fast. All the keys were switched around and they had all these extra spots for all their accents, etc. I don’t know how long we were there for but we ended up paying 5 euros for the session.

We asked our front desk clerk to suggest a place for dinner and he pointed out to a spot at the end of the block that had very reasonable prices but perhaps not the best atmosphere for a first night in Paris so we wandered though a few streets until we came across Brasserie de Lorraine. There was a little wait but the hostesses screwed up on us and eventually forgot about us. Thank goodness the waiter out front where we waited was attentive enough to realize this and let them know we were still waiting. They seated us promptly and gave us each a champagne cocktail as an apology. We didn’t have a problem with this but appreciated the gesture. One funny observation so far was that everyone has assumed that we speak French until we have our blank look on our faces. I guess because we start off with our French greetings and I can usually ask my first question. Problem is, I can’t always understand the response unless it’s two words or less. The waiter handed us the French menu and started going on in French about the specials etc and I didn’t even get a chance to tell him that we couldn’t speak but I guess our faces said it all. Pretty hilarious. Anyway, Colin ordered the escargots and steak tartare and I had the scotch smoked salmon and rack of lamb. And of course a bottle of red. Everything was absolutely divine. They even brought us melon balls of cantaloupe and watermelon and bread to cleanse our palate. Everything was so tasty and tender. We ended with crepes flambéed in Grand Marnier. Can we say a perfect dinner??!! It was too good to put into words. The meal came out to 127 euros not including tip. With tip, it came out to about 150 euros or so. Colin gave 5 euros to the hostess in appreciation of her efforts and service. We know mistakes happen and she had done her best.

It was a perfect first night in Paris. It was shortly after midnight when we left the restaurant. We walked back to our hotel and enjoyed a bottle of red wine on our balcony while gazing to the full moon that rose above the Arc de Triomphe.

Magnifique!!!

Wednesday, May 25th

Colin woke up early this morning and went for a long jog. He jogged down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre, to the Eiffel Tower, along the Seine and back to the hotel. He said it was the most surreal experience he ever had.

Had breakfast in our hotel which was included. Was a standard European continental breakfast that included baguettes, pain au chocolate, danishes, ham, brie, yogurt, cereal and mixed fruit cocktail. And of course strong French coffee! We had a good breakfast and headed to the Louvre. Bought a one day metro pass which cost us about four euros each. Then we bought a one day museum pass for 18 euros as we figure we would visit a few museums today. Getting into the Louvre itself was 8.50. So if we hit 3 museums, it would pay for itself. The Louvre is just massive and it really is sensory overload with all these masterpieces all put into one spot. You just can’t absorb so much amazing artwork. Colin was happy to see his few references from Da Vinci Code and of course we saw the Mona Lisa. We were trying to find Venus De Milo but somehow Colin screwed up looking at the map so we past it and kept getting further. We never did find it. Oh well, another reason to come back to Paris! We gave ourselves to noon and knew we had to move on. Our next destination was Notre Dame.

We wanted to see Notre Dame again because we wanted to climb the towers which was closed last time we were there. And the museum pass covered the 7 euro admission fee so that was perfect. It was a total of 422 steps to the top. And boy am I glad we did it! What a great view it was up top and plus to see all the gargoyles, and architechture up close. And we got to see one of the bell towers. It was very exciting and a true highlight for me. After spending quite some time up top, we had to come down. It was about 2pm by then….lunch time!!! I think it is time to go visit a certain pig!

We took the metro to Les Halles where we knew where St. Eustache was, and we knew Au Pied de Cochon was very close to it. We weren’t sure which exit, so we just guessed and came out of the mall. Well, turns out that Au Pied de Cochon was right in front of us!!! Must be a sign! We decided to go for the express menu. Colin choose an appetizer of 6 fresh oysters (so fresh and tasty with just a vinaigrette), grilled pig’s feet with béarnaise sauce (very rich but oh so tasty) and finished with a La Vie En Rose parfait/sundae. I had the French onion soup (which was perfect…not too salty like many and so delicious) and the steak tartare (very good, but not as tart as the one at La Lorraine from the night before). Of course we had a few glasses of white wine to accompany this fantastic meal.

We definitely had to go for a walk after that great meal so we checked our museum pass to see what other sites we might want to go to that we haven’t been yet. We decided to go see the Pantheon. We walked instead of the metro so we were not 100% sure of our direction for some parts, but we eventually got there. It was a church and its architecture was influenced by St. Paul’s in London so the dome inside looked very similar. There was a crypt downstairs and Victor Hugo, Madame Curry, previously Voltaire and many others’s tombs are there. I find it creepy but Colin finds tombs very fascinating.

As we left, we realized it was closing time for the church…great timing! We heard lots of noises and loud music and realized there was some sort of parade happening right in front of the building. Turns out it was a bunch of university students parading the streets with cars all decorated either in their faculty theme or fraternity theme. They were celebrating the school year being over. Pretty funny.

Walked along the St. Germain area and finally took the metro back to our hotel for a rest before heading out again.

Read much about the Buddha Bar being the “it” place so we decided to check it out. I guess it was kinda stupid for us for not making reservations prior. We did find it. It was close to Place de la Concorde but there were booked up until 11:30pm. We put our names on the waiting list and had a couple of drinks there. Drinks and martinis were about 12 euros so let’s say you couldn’t get drunk there. The cuisine was overpriced asian fusion so Colin wasn’t overly eager to stay and eat there as we could easily get this type of food at home. It was a cool atmosphere though with beautiful décor and a huge gold Buddha in the restaurant. But I agreed so we decided to leave and go somewhere else instead.

We ended up going back to the Etoile neighborhood and ate at a brasserie that we visited last time we were here. It’s not super fancy or anything, just a modest neighborhood restaurant. Colin ordered what he thought was tripe sausage but turned out that it was a translation error and it was actually intestine sausage instead. Thank goodness he is ok with internal organs and all that stuff. I had no interest in trying that. It was getting late so I just ordered some escargot and a seafood salad that had shrimps and smoked salmon on it which turned out to be very light and healthy. It was all that I needed. We contemplated about going to a jazz club but it was getting late by then and we decided we would do it tomorrow since we don’t have much on our “must-do” lists. We plan to do some shopping and just some wandering tomorrow so we can get to a jazz club a little earlier and enjoy our last night in Paris.

Thursday, May 26th

Our last full day in beautiful Paris. After breakfast at the hotel, we decided to go to another area we didn’t have to check out last time---La Defense…or as Colin calls it, “the big box.” It is located at the other end of the Champs-Elysees so the Arc and le Grande Arche are facing each other. It is located in their business district. Our day pass only covers zone 1 and zone 2 which is central Paris. The Grande Arch is located in Zone 3 because it goes through Pont Neuilly. But since we’ve noticed that the Metro station is a little different than the London tube station, in that they don’t check your tickets at the end of your trip in addition to the beginning of your trip, no one would notice we had taken the trip past our allowed zones. We just wouldn’t be able to return to central Paris at that station. So we rode it to the end and glad we did because it was a very beautiful station. Very new with many little shops and restaurants. Found the exit to the Grand Arch and once again, it was another “wow” moment as we rode the escalator up and saw it up close. It’s huge and wow, was it ever hot! I guess the area was all white concrete and the sun was just beaming down. It felt like it was 30 degrees. The area was beautiful, especially for such a bright sunny day. Great to wander around in. You can go up glass elevators for a panoramic view and Colin contemplated it, but I think we already checked out enough view points from Paris. Plus as we contemplated, a huge group of elementary school children went to line up for the view elevators. That helped decide that dilemma…..next stop!!!

We would have to walk back 3 stations to get within our zone, so we decided to head back and check out the neighborhood while doing so. It was a great walk…the area is very modern and decorated with very interesting and modern artwork. There were pedestrian walkways all along over the bridge and over all the chaotic Parisian traffic beside and below us. We saw some emergency vehicles on the bridge that was slowing down traffic on the way in….could this be the first traffic accident we have witnessed?! We really didn’t see anything…no vehicles being towed so we can’t really confirm that.

Next stop was to do a little shopping. I knew we couldn’t afford expensive designer or boutique shopping so it was off to Galleries Lafayette in the Opera district. One of our guide books says that the monthly amount of visitors to this department store total to the population of Paris. That’s insane!!! There were indeed an insane amount of people there…and not just tourists….lots of locals. And no sales. Last time we came, it was July and everywhere signs were posted SOLDES but we didn’t see any today. And as a result, it was essentially more window shopping than actual shopping. I did try out a lot of nice shoes in the shoe department but everything was like 100 to 150 euros. We checked out most departments and then decided to wander around the Opera district in search for a nice lunch spot. Decided to shy away from the ones right smack beside the Opera House because they were just way too overpriced. 15 euros for a croque-monsieur? I think not! After a couple of fancy meals that past couple of days, we wanted something a little lower key and less expensive. Checked a few blocks and came across Leon, a Belgium restaurant chain that specializes in moules-frites (mussels and fries) and went in there. The had a lunch special that included a nice green salad that included olives and green beans, a choice of mussels/steak/fish and fries, and a choice of dessert for 10.30 euros, which is a great price in our opinion. Colin had the mussels and I had steak. You get a huge pot of mussels which I guess to be about 3 times the size of what you would get as an appetizer at home or something like that. And every single one was plump and delicious. Colin really enjoyed them. For dessert, he had a sugar waffle and I had the crème caramel which was a lot heavier and creamier than what I am used to, but still very yummy.

It was about 4pm by the time we finished our lunch (yup, we’re having super late lunches and super late dinners now). We decided to head over to Montmartre to walk around the neighborhood. Colin was hoping to find some souvenirs but we didn’t really see too much. It was getting to be super hot and muggy and I think we were a bit tired from all the walking we have done all day, so we found the metro station and decided to head back to the hotel for a little rest.

After a rejuvenating nap, we headed out to Le Marais district to have a nice dinner and find a jazz club. Le Marais is a very lively area and there were lots of people out and about. Lots of restaurants and bars to choose from. We are avoiding any Italian restaurants and Spanish Tapas Bars as we will be in both locations very shortly. We found a jazz bar that would would like to return to so made a mental note of where it was and finally settled on a steakhouse appropriated called L’Entrecote. There was a perfect two person table available outside for us and it was the perfect evening to be dining outdoors. It was 10:30 at night and it was so warm. The prices were very reasonable and the food was great. We shared a nicoise salad that was very fresh and tasty. Colin had a sirloin with a shallot sauce and I had a prime rib grilled with provencal herbs (both only 12 euros) and had a litre of rose wine that was very drinkable.

After the very enjoyable meal, we headed back to the Sunrise – Sunside Jazz Club. The cover was 20 euros each and the featured group would be performing til 1am. The trio consisting of keyboard, contrabass and percussion had a special guest vocalist joining them and she was absolutely fantastic. Colin said she sounded like Sade but even better. They were great and it was so enjoyable. We stayed until they finished at 1am which meant the metro stations were closed. We had to walk all the way back to our hotel from Le Marais to the Arc de Triomphe. It took us a little over an hour. We didn’t get back to our room until 2:30am and we would have an early morning to get to the Orly Airport to catch our flight to Barcelona.

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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 10:04 AM
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BARCELONA

Friday, May 27th

We left our hotel shortly after grabbing a bite in the breakfast room at 7am and headed off to the Metro station to get ourselves to Orly Airport. At this point, we still did not know how to get there, but we guestimated it would take about an hour or so. We asked the lady at the Metro ticket booth and it turned out to be 17.70 euros for two tickets to Orly. She told us to first take Line A to Chatelet and then change to Line B to Antony. Sounded simple enough, except that we get so excited to see a train on our line, that we always quickly jump on without even checking which direction it’s going in. Sure enough, we went in the wrong direction. We had to drag our luggage up and around to get to the other side of the station to go back to where we were. Then when we changed to Line B, we didn’t realize that Line B forks out into two lines and of course we went on the wrong one. So before the fork, we had to change trains again. So our mistakes cost us about an extra 20 minutes. We got to Antony station about 8am. From there we followed the signs to Orly Airport and there was a special shuttle train that took passengers to Terminal Ouest and Terminal Sud. So, if you did everything right, we should have gotten there in about 40 minutes or so. It was very convenient and much cheaper than taking a cab that would have cost at least twice as much. Plus I always feel uncomfortable seeing the taxi meter ticking away.

We found the Easyjet check in counter easy enough. Unfortunately, our luggage exceeded the maximum allowed of 20kg each. We were over by 3kg and we had to end up paying a surcharge of 20 euros. The airfare was only 45 euros so that was quite steep but we really didn’t have much of a choice. Oh well, at least we know we are not taking anymore Easyjet flights so we don’t have to worry about that issue.

At our gate, there were work stations that had electrical outlets so while we were waiting for our flight, I had a chance to work on my journal so that was a bonus. They were a little late in boarding, but the flight was quicker than anticipated. It was unassigned seating and we choice to seat close to the back so we got a whole row to ourselves as it wasn’t a full flight…sweet! We basically slept on the plane as we were pretty drained from the lack of sleep. Next thing you know, we have landed in Barcelona and it was beautiful blue skies. Picked up our luggage and proceeded to find the Aerobus that would take us to Placa Catalunya for 3.60 euros per person. Once at Placa Catalunya, our hotel would still be about 10 blocks away so we decided to take the metro just so we knew exactly where to go. It was only 1.15 euros one way and the metro was very easy to take. My feet at this point are killing me because of the blisters I got from the previous day in Paris. Too much walking on flip flops. We took the metro to Diagonal where it would be 3 blocks to Paris Avenue where Hotel Astoria was.

The lobby of Hotel Astoria was a lot bigger and grander than our Paris Hotel. The reception desk clerk checked us in and took our luggage up to our room. Our room is very spacious compared to our Paris hotel (which was smaller than our bedroom at home!).

We had to take a nap because we were just too tired. When we woke up, we gave ou friend/former coworker Claudia a call on her cell to see if we would be meeting that night. Both she and Dave were heading home from work so we decided to meet for lunch on Saturday instead. We would meet at Tapa Tapa on Passieg de Gracias at 1:30.

So we decided to go look for a place to eat ourselves since it was about 7:00pm and we hadn’t eaten since 7 this morning. Went through our guide books and notes and decided to try a restaurant called El Trobador that was recommended that was very close to our hotel. We found it pretty quickly and it turned out to be a great meal at very reasonable prices. Colin had a grilled red pepper and aubergine salad with anchovies, a mixed grill plate and an ice cream dessert and expresso. I had a grilled red pepper salad with garlic roasted shrimps, grilled lamb chops, and crepes with ice cream. Colin had a beer and we had a bottle and a half of a Spanish Gewurtztraminer and a bottle of water. All this totaled only 75 euros which I thought was very reasonably priced.

After dinner we just went for a walk around the neighborhood and called it a night.

Saturday, May 29th

We woke up rather early this morning as we had an early night. We don’t have breakfast included…well, we could have a breakfast buffet included for an additional 13 euros per person but we figure we could find something less expensive. We went outside and saw that La Trobador had people sitting at their tables so we decided just to go there. Observed what other tables had on their tables and it was usually just a coffee and a pastry….some had juice and/or a sandwich. They didn’t have breakfast menus so we just ordered what we saw would be good. Told the waitress we wanted two “lattes” and two “sandwiches”. She seemed to understand and we thought we did ok. Haha…turns out I assumed too much. Said “latte” but not “café latte”. I am too used to my Starbucks lingo that I didn’t even think. So what we ended up with was two glasses of steamed milk. It was not what we expected but it sure tasted good, especially with the sugar they served it with. The hot ham and cheese baguettes were very yummy too. Total was 8.50 euros and we were stuffed.

We were planning to do the Touristic Bus (the hop on/hop off buses) this morning and the closest loading stop would be at La Pedrera/Casa Mila (the Gaudi designed apartment turned museum) on Passieg de Gracia, the Barcelona equivalent of Paris’ Champs-Elysees. That was about 6 blocks away from our hotel so we just walked there. Once we arrived, we decided we should go into the La Pedrera before hopping onto a bus. Gaudi’s style of architecture is definitely unique with his free forms….the roof top of this building look like it is adorned with various sandcastles. Everything is soft and curvy, no angular sides at all. I loved it!

After leaving the museum, we contemplated jumping on the bus, but we knew we had limited time as we would have to meet Claudia and Dave for lunch at 1:30. So we decided we would head over to Sagrada Familia on our own as we could see it wasn’t too far away when we were on the roof. We decided to go to the Metro and buy a day pass. It was only a few stops away but it would have been a long walk, plus I still had blisters on my feet.

Once again, it was another “wow” moment when we came up the escalator from the metro and saw the Sagrada Familia. What an amazing piece of architecture and it is still under construction. Cranes and scaffolding everywhere. They anticipate that the building will not be completed for another 30 years. You are able to go up one of the towers. You can take the lift for 2 euros or you can walk up the stairs. However, the lines for both were long and we had to go meet Claudia so we couldn’t do it. I know Colin was disappointed, but we would definitely be late had we done it.

We took the metro to Passieg de Gracia and started looking for Tapa Tapa. It ended up being a few blocks away and we still had about 20 minutes to spare so we walked around the area and found “the 3 houses”. One was by Gaudi and the other two were designed by his rivals. Beautiful designs. Of course, only the one by Gaudi gets any real recognition.

Time to head over to Tapa Tapa and Colin spotted Claudia walking up the street. Turns out they decided we should try another restaurant instead a couple of blocks down the street so we head down to meet Dave who is already there. The restaurant is called Txapela and it’s also a tapas restaurant. There are pictures and descriptions of all the tapas on the placemats so it’s very simple to order. We let Dave order and he chose 10 different ones (x 4) that included meat ones, cheese ones, seafood ones, one was even like an omelette which they call tortilla (not to be confused with the Mexican version of tortilla). The boys had beer and Claudia and I shares a pitcher of sangria. OMG was the sangria every good. I have tried sangria a few times back in Vancouver and it’s never been very good and that’s why I have never been a fan but I was immediately addicted to the one in Barcelona!!! We had a great time with Dave and Claudia just chit chatting and enjoying all the tapas! Turned out to be a very long lunch. Met at 1:30 and we left around 5pm. I wanted to do some shopping and Claudia recommended we check out Zara as it is a Spanish company and has reasonably priced clothing. We ended up finding a few items there as well as at H&M across the street. Who knew we would end up shopping at Barcelona?! Our next plan was to check out La Ramblas but we didn’t want to carry all our stuff with us so we headed back to the hotel for a shower and drop off our stuff before we headed out again.

We took the metro to Placa de Catalunya where La Ramblas started. It was Saturday night around 10pm so the area was just packed. There were people selling all sorts of stuff on the streets and all your typical street performers…even one guy dressed as a gorilla and scaring people. What we thought we most funny were all these people holding six packs of beer and selling them to people. Here we are thinking, who on earth would buy beer like that? But actually they were getting a lot of business, primarily from young people. I wonder how much they were selling it for?

We walked all the way down to the statue of Christopher Columbus, and down to Port Vell. By this time it was 11:30pm and we debated whether to have dinner or just forget about it. I did want to try some paella while we were in Barcelona so we finally decided to go to a restaurant in Port Vell. We ordered seafood paella and a jug of sangria. It was huge! Served in a huge frying pan and it was very tasty, with prawns, shrimps, mussels, calamari and fish.

After dinner, we decided we needed to walk all that rice off so we walked all the way home. It took a little over an hour and we didn’t get home until 1:30am or so.

Sunday, May 29th

We slept in a little this morning because we went to bed late last night. Today we were planning to do the tour bus. We went to a café on Passieg de Gracia for breakfast that was right outside the bus stop. Today I knew exactly what to order: Dos café con leche and dos croissants. Yay! I got two lattes and two croissants. The lattes were to die for. So good! What really confuses me here is that they don’t speak Spanish as what we know it. They speak Catalan here, their own dialect which is essentially it’s own language because it is so different from Spanish. What I know and what is own my guide book are two different things and I am confused as it is! Although I am proud that we have gotten by with many waiters and service staff speaking to us in Spanish/Catalan and we act like we know what they are saying based on their facial expressions or actions.

We started off with the red route going to Park Gueill, which was the most amazing park designed by Gaudi. Then to Tibidabo peak where we rode the trolley and then the funicular up to the highest point of Barcelona. There’s an amusement park up there! We then basically rode the rest of the red route and then switched to the blue route and took a lazy bus ride around the whole city. It was a great way to see Barcelona because when we use the metro, we miss everything. Went to Port Olympic and saw the beach. It was packed with people! Then strolled along the dock and found a nice restaurant to have a nice meal in. some fried baby squids and a seafood salad for me and some anchovies and a seafood spaghetti for Colin. We ordered a litre jug of sangria de cava (made from sparkling wine as opposed to red wine). Colin finished with a huge ice cream sundae and I had a tiramisu. On the way back to the bus stop, we partook in some of the street entertainment. Colin was especially intrigued by one who was playing the guitar and singing some Spanish classic love songs. He enjoyed it so much he ended up buying 2 of his CDs. Colin is always supporting the local arts.

Tomorrow we would be off to the South of France….


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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 10:46 AM
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PROVENCE

Monday, May 30th

Goodbye to Barcelona. It was a lot of fun. Definitely a city for the younger crowd. Our train to Montpellier left at 8:45am so we had to leave our hotel by no later than 7:30am. We left our hotel at 7:30am and walked to the Diagonal station. There were people servicing the ticket stations. One lady was yelling at them and looking at a watch telling them she had no time to wait for them to finish and she just ducked under the turnstile. He had pointed somewhere else and we thought he meant for her to go across the street to the other entrance so that’s what Colin and I did, thinking it would lead to another set of machines. Instead, we went up the stairs with our luggage, ran across the street, went down the stairs, only to find ourselves back at the exact same spot. So much for smart thinking. Luckily, they were rebooting one of the ticket machines so it took about a minute before it came back. I was panicking a bit because I thought we were running late as it is. Never fails that there is always something that goes wrong. Luckily, we didn’t screw up on the direction this time once we were on the train.

Barcelona Sants is the main hub where there are metros and the RENFE trains going out of the country. I couldn’t figure out where we had to go so we had to ask the information desk. The guy told me we were too early (it was about 8am at this point) and they wouldn’t post which gate to go to until about 8:20 or so. So I walked around looking for a place to grab a quick pastry for breakfast. We weren’t sure whether we would get a meal on out train ride even though we were riding first class. There was a pastry/bakery shop nearby so I bought a couple of ham and cheese croissants and bought a huge 1.5 litre jug of water out the vending machine. I was surprised how big it was for only 1.40 euros! The train turned out to be ancient compared to our Eurostar train. There was nothing special about first class, except that the seats are a lot wider. They fit 3 seats to a row instead of 4. I recall first class only being marginally higher than second class and that is the reason why I bought them. But the train was really old and creaky and luckily Colin and I were very tired so we slept most of the 4.5 hour ride to Montpellier.

Once we arrived, we had to find Hertz to pick up our rental car. My Autoeurope voucher only stated that the Hertz office was located at the Montpellier TGV station on Rue Grand St. Jean so I assumed it would be in the same building, but couldn’t be sure. Couldn’t find anything on the information board so decided to go out the Rue Grand St. Jean exit where the parking lot is, thinking that perhaps the rental car office would be located there and sure enough it was. We initially planned to get a manual transmission car because an automatic would be twice the price. But we knew we would be driving in a foreign land so we decided it would be smarter to get an automatic. So when we went to pick up our car in the designated slot, turns out we were given a Mercedes-Benz!!! Not a tiny Peugeot or Renault like we assumed we would, but a Mercedes 4 door E220 equipped with a GPS system that would be a lifesaver. In France, you would almost classify it as a boat because it is so big! The roads and driving spots are so narrow that it is so difficult to drive that big thing! I am so glad I am not driving. But it drove so smoothly on the highway.

We took the A9 and went to Nimes first as it was on the way. We had to go through a couple of toll booths, one before we got to Nimes which cost us 2.30 euros and one afterwards on our way to St. Remy for 1.30 euros.

Nimes: a very cute little town and the centre can be down in an hour. The key monument in the centre is the area used for bullfighting. Home of denim (De Nime), this little town has a whole lot of fashion boutiques! Wonder how they can all stay in business as it looks like a very small community.

We only stayed in Nimes for about an hour and a half and decided to head to St. Remy. I asked the hotel for directions and they told us to drive to Arles and from there to follow the signs to St. Remy. You can’t reach St. Remy by the big highways but it was very easy to get to following all the signs. However, once in town, we weren’t sure where the hotel was so we stopped at the Tourism Office to ask for directions. The town is actually very tiny and there are signs to most hotels posted around the town. We found it within a couple of minutes.

Hotel Sous Les Figuires is a small bed and breakfast type hotel, comprising of 12 rooms, all different. We have our own little terrace and fig tree full of fruit. It’s very quiet and quant, very relaxing and very different from the hustle and bustle of the 3 huge cities we just came from so it’s definitely a nice change. We were greeted by our host “Coups” and shown into our room. Very cute and cozy, no tv, and there is a small pool. Breakfast is not included but is available for an additional 11 euros per person. It would be a typical provencal breakfast so we decided we would do it tomorrow morning. After taking a bit of a rest and a shower, we asked her for a few recommendations for dinner. Apparently, most restaurants were closed today as it was Monday. Funny, most museums were closed on Sunday and Monday in Barcelona as well. She highly recommended one called Grains del Sel and another one. We decided to check out Grains del Sel.

It was only about a 5 minute walk from the hotel into “town” and the restaurants. Took a look at the menu posted at the restaurant and it looked reasonably priced and decided to go it. Loved the décor of the restaurant. Very modern. The waiter presented us with a menu and we noticed that they had some sort of sampler menu of some sort but couldn’t make out all the courses so asked if they had an English menu but they didn’t. He tried to explain the best to his ability of the sampler menu and there were two of them so we decided to each try one and ordered a bottle of Saint-Emillion 2001 which was great. Our waiter said that there would be small portions everything so we were thinking tiny, tiny, portions but it turned out to be a beautifully presented display of gourmet food with very generous portions. We enthusiastically tried a bite of everything and it was all to die for. We couldn’t believe St. Remy would have a restaurant like this. This restaurant belonged to a big cosmopolitan city like Vancouver or New York. The sampler plates only cost 25 euros each and we both agreed a trendy place in Vegas would easily charge $100-150 if they separated all the food and served them separately in courses. We couldn’t even finish it all! Colin had a lime sorbet and vodka dessert (7 euros—absolutely amazing) and an expresso and I had a café au lait. Total bill came out to 88 euros…..what an absolute steal. And the two waiters were great. We had such a wonderful beginning to our Provence part of our trip!

The wind was picking up…maybe tomorrow it will be sunny as it was kind of cloudy today. There is so much to do in this region. We want to visit Arles, Avignon, Pont du Gard, Les Baux…..I also want to see when the market days are so I check out a Provencal market day. So much to see so little time…………..

Tuesday May 31st

What a wonderful sleep. Our room was so cozy and comfortable. It felt like spending a night in Whistler. We had breakfast in our hotel this morning which was a typical provencal breakfast: fresh squeezed orange juice, homemade yogurt, fruit salad, coffee, and a variety of pastries and breads with preserves. So yummy as everything was so fresh and homemade. When we were asked what we wanted to drink (café, the, or chocolat), we both said café au lait. She brought our carafe of coffee and a small jug of hot milk to us, but did not bring any mugs nor were there any mugs on our table….just the big bowl and a plate. We asked for cups/mugs for our coffee and she did bring us a couple of mugs, but also explained to us that people in France just drink their coffee out of the big bowls and not mugs. We then took a look around and realized that everyone else was doing just that. We found that amusing because no one did that in Paris, but realized maybe this was a Provencal thing or just something the French people did in the countryside. Hey, when in Rome….

We decided that we would go visit Les Baux first as it was only about 10km away. Les Baux is a very cute village perched on a hilltop. We had to drive through a windy uphill drive to get up there. Parking was 3 euros. The wind had not died down overnight and was still strong. It was even stronger up top. The village of Les Baux was so cute and quaint. It reminded us of the tiny medieval villages such as Orvieto and San Giagmano that we had visited in Italy. Lots of little shops selling local favorites such as olive oil, fabrics, lavender soaps, pottery and provencal herbs.

Of course, Colin wanted to visit the spot with the best views so we went to the Chateaux. Entrance was 7.40 euros I believe. It was so extremely windy that there were times I swear I was scared I would be blown away. The views were great though and it was great looking around the whole chateaux area. The wind just made it a lot more challenging and difficult to really enjoy it all though. There was a point that I was just trying to fall forward but the wind was so strong that it was keeping me up!

After Les Baux, we headed towards Arles. Arles was a larger town, and was the home of Van Gogh for many years. We went to see the arena)where they are still holding bullfights, the amphitheatre, saw the St. Trophisme church and town centre, and walked along all the cute streets to look at the different shops. Once again, it was a very walkable town that could be completed in a couple of hours. We were lucky and found a free parking spot near the area (we didn’t see any parking meters and prayed to god our car would not be towed when we got back).

We contemplated whether to go to Avignon, but the wind really tired us out so we thought we would head back to St. Remy for a nap and perhaps head over to Pont Du Gard before dinner. Of course, we got too comfortable and obviously didn’t realize how drained we were from fighting the wind. We ended up just hanging out in our room and asking the staff for a recommendation for dinner. Our host made a reservation for us at La Salle and we went to look for it.

Honestly, we would have never found it on our own, nor would we have gone in because you couldn’t see much and the sign was not very attention grabbing. All you can see is just a bar when you look in, but the restaurant is actually in the back in an indoor courtyard. It was very beautiful, and the walls were covered with artwork from local artists. Our server was very personable and charming, and spoke good English and asked if we wanted any drinks to start before dinner. Colin ordered a martini (was asked red or white and he chose white). It obviously is very different from what we think is a martini but it was so good! I tried a kir with cassis….it wasn’t bad but a bit tart. Once again, the menu was in all French and I should really brush up on my menu terminology as there were many I couldn’t make out. Luckily, our guy was very helpful and explained anything we didn’t understand. Colin ordered the foie gras (again…..but it turned out to be a very different texture from the night before and was really good) and the seabass and an apple tart with raisins. I had some sort of seafood mouse with scallops accompanied with a green salad, and the rack of lamb (possibly the most tender and delicious I have ever had), and a strawberry and cream dessert served with a strawberry sorbet. We ordered a Cotes Du Rhone wine which was very good but definitely much lighter and less full bodied than the night before. It was still very good. We ended up with an expresso and a café au lait for me. The waiter made a comment when he gave me my café au lait that he was sorry he did not have a croissant for me (making fun of me for ordering a breakfast drink!). I like my café au laits though so I’m not stopping ordering them.

Tomorrow is going to be a market day at St. Remy so I am very excited about that! We don’t plan to have breakfast at the hotel tomorrow morning as I told Colin I plan to eat my way through the market tomorrow. Hope it won’t disappoint. On to Gordes in the Luberon region tomorrow!
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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 10:49 AM
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PROVENCE continued

Wednesday, June 1st

Today is market day at St. Remy and I was very excited about seeing a Provencal market day. We left our hotel room about 9:30am and checked out, but asked if we could leave our car at the hotel while we went to the market. It wasn’t a problem. The market was literally all over the entire town. There were stands everywhere selling everything you can think of….clothes, shoes, jewelry, soaps, perfumes, flowers, fabrics, cd’s…..and of course there is all the food stands! Everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood, a butcher, lots of cheese and cured meat stands, tapenades and preserves, extra virgin olive oil and then there are ones selling cooked foods such as rotiserrie chicken, seafood paella, one that was selling grilled sausages and chicken. We bought a grilled chicken sandwich from them that was made on a freshly baked baguette, sliced tomatoes and some dijonnaise. How can something so simple taste so good!!! You could sample from all the various food stands so we were just having a blast tasting everything. There was a stand that was selling jams and preserves and they were sooo good. The orange/lavender marmalade was to die for! I had to buy some. We also bought some lavender soaps as souvenirs because they smelled so good. We also ended up buying a salad from a Vietnamese food stand and 2 euros worth of cherries. I ended up getting a lot! It was 3.50 euros for a kilogram. It didn’t take too long before St. Remy to be completely full of people out and about for the market. Locals came out and brought their own baskets to buy fresh ingredients. It was such a wonderful experience.

We then decided to get away from the crowds and wander off in search of the Vincent Van Gogh walk. Van Gogh checked into an asylum while in St. Remy and in a matter of a year, painted 150 works. There were signs along the walk that showed the inspirations for specific paintings. We also went into the part of the hospital that was open to the public and got to see a reconstruction of Van Gogh’s bedroom. That was a highlight for Colin and he loves that painting. The area was just beautiful and you can totally just imagine just sitting in front of the beautiful landscapes and painting away (if you had the talent that is). The moment just couldn’t be captured on film. We found a nice spot and enjoyed the salad and the cherries we bought from the market. Just unbelievable and so surreal. We loved St. Remy and it was representative of exactly what you would imagine and hope a Provencal town would be. It was so cute and beautiful and full of charm. No big commercial stores of any sort.

We didn’t end up leaving St. Remy until shortly after 2pm. We weren’t sure if we could fit in Avignon because we should check in at our next hotel before 6pm. So we decided to head over to Gordes first and we could always visit Avignon tomorrow morning. We had to go through a few villages such as Cavaillon before reaching Gordes but they weren’t anything special. As we were approaching Gordes and turned around a corner, we saw another wow moment—Gordes was this gorgeous little village perched on top of a hill and it was amazing. Our hotel is not in Gordes itself, but a couple of kilometers away from it. I got instructions from the hotel prior to leaving Vancouver but there were clearly marked signs leading us to it so it wasn’t too difficult to find.

La Ferme De La Huppe is another converted farm house turned hotel. We got room number eight but there are no room numbers posted. Our room is very spacious and well decorated with a very nice bathroom (shower only once again). However, walls seem to be very thin or else sound echoes very loudly because we can hear other noises from other rooms very easily. Nice toiletries including two toothbrushes and eau de toilette as well. Our host (I assume he was Gerard) took us to our room and advised us breakfast was from 8:30am to 10:00am. They have a restaurant in the hotel as well but they close on Wednesday and Thursdays (which are the two days we would be there) so I asked him for recommendations for dinner. He recommended Auberge de Carcarilles (just down the street from us) for tonight and another for tomorrow which is closed for today).

We got settled in our new surroundings and decided to spend a little time at the pool. It was really warm today (compared to last couple of days when the wind was going insane) and there were some people by the pool so we decided to do some suntanning. It was very nice to hang out by the pool and soak up some rays. Colin said the water was cold so I didn’t even bother going in. I just wanted to get some color. We both didn’t bring a watch with us but we guess we spent about an hour there and decided we should go into the village of Gordes.

We drove and followed the signs into Gordes but the roads were so narrow and going up the hill that we weren’t 100% sure we were going the right way. However, we knew Gordes was on the hill so decided to continue going up. Once we got up pretty high, we saw a bunch of cars parked along the side of the road and people getting out so we assumed that this was where you parked to get into the village and decided to do so as well. Our hotel host told us that the Tourism Office was located inside the castle in Gordes so that was our first stop. However, most of the brochures they had were in French only so they weren’t much help. Although we did get a city map of Gordes and the town is even smaller than St. Remy! We decided to just wander around. Gordes is such a lovely little town. Every corner you turn looks is a perfect postcard shot. With its cobblestone little streets and stone houses with its red roofs, it was just absolutely lovely. Although both Colin and I thought Gordes resembled more of a medieval Italian hilltop town such as Orvieto than resembling a French town. The views up top were amazing though and we were honestly visiting Provence at a perfect time. It was still not crowded and overrun by tourist groups yet. We were still able to take pictures and it would look like we were the only ones there.

Gordes didn’t take too much time to complete and then we headed down and went back to the hotel to rest for a little bit and drove next door to the Auberge for dinner. We started dinner with an aperitif once again. I ordered a Kir and Colin had a martini (red this time). Both were very good and for dinner, we had a bottle of a Cote du Luberon 1989 which was very good.

The hotel/restaurant offered 3 prix fixe menus: 18 euros, 29 euros and 42 euros. We figured we would go mid range. Before we went to the restaurant, I went through my Michelin glossary section to familiarize myself with any menu words I should know. Unfortunately when we got to the restaurant, I realized that I knew most of the side dishes and accompaniments, but couldn’t make out what the main meats were. We had to ask our server for help and it turns out there were mostly unusual game meats such as guinea fowl, sea bream, and baby goat. No wonder I couldn’t figure out those words! Nothing simple like beef, chicken or pork. We decided to both choose the 29 euro meals and Colin started with the rabbit sausage and followed by the baby goat. I had (once again) the smoked salmon and tuna carpaccio and it was very good. For the main course, I had the sea bream which was super fresh and the texture was fabulous. Colin’s courses were excellent as well. The rabbit sausage was essentially another pate but it was on the lighter side and was wonderful. The baby goat was surprisingly tender and cooked to perfection. It tasted like a very succulent piece of pork. We also had a cheese course and had a cheese cart pushed over to us and we could choose a selection of cheeses. I choose a few that resembled brie although none of them were. Colin asked the girl to give him a selection so she chose one made with goat’s milk, one with cow’s milk and one with sheep’s milk and he enjoyed the choices very much. Mine were great but I was too full to finish them. And for dinner, I had the chocolat fondant (which essentially meant chocolate mousse) and Colin had the ice cream which he enjoyed very much. And of course, he finished with an expresso. Once again, with tip, it came out to 100 euros. Very reasonable for once again, a fantastic meal. We can get used to this kind of lifestyle.

Thursday, June 2nd

Another beautiful morning in Provence. I had a little trouble sleeping last night, I think because we didn’t have the air conditioning on, so I was hot and was tossing and turning. Then at 4:30am, I took an allergy pill because I was also sneezing up a storm and Colin turned on the air conditioning. From then I was able to fall asleep. Who would have thought?! Love Provence but it looks like I’m allergic to it! I guess it’s all the pollen from all the plants and flowers around the area or something like that. But it looks like the Claritin pills we brought aren’t really helping too much. Anyway, we slept in to about 9:00am and couldn’t sleep in too much later because breakfast is only served until 10am.

Breakfast is served poolside and the surroundings are so beautiful. Our breakfast consisted of choice of “café, the, ou chocolat”, orange juice, prunes, a selection of fresh breads, pain au chocolat and danishes, and fruit preserves. Additional breakfast items such as eggs, yogurts, fruits, etc could be ordered at an additional charge but we were fine with what we had. It was more than enough.

After breakfast, our plan was to go see Pont du Gard and Avignon. However, due to my poor map reading skills, I directed Colin to go to Avignon first and realized it would have been a lot faster to go to Pont du Gard first though St. Remy otherwise we would have to double back. As a result, we headed to Avignon first. It was definitely a larger town than the other ones we have visited in the past couple of days. Lots of traffic circles and lanes to get into town. We just followed the signs to the Centre Ville/Office du Tourism, knowing that it would usually lead us where we want to be. We found the Office du Tourism but had troubles finding parking and kept on driving until we finally found parking at the parking lot for the Palace of the Popes.

Since we were parked there, we went to visit the Palace first and spent a good few hours there as the admission also included the audio guide that gave extensive commentaries. Plus, the property was huge so there was lots to see. We bought the admission that also included admission to the Pont D’Avignon so we went to see the bridge afterwards. It turned out to be a super hot day in the mid 30s so we didn’t hang out on the bridge as long as we would normally because it was so hot.

Afterwards, we wandered around the Place De L’Homard (the main area) and did a little shopping. We contemplated having lunch at one of the many brasseries or cafes in the squre, but we both weren’t in the mood for a long sit down lunch and rather looked for a place to grab a quick bite. We finally settled to grab a donair/gyro at a Greek take out stand. Quick, cheap and tasty. After the late lunch we did a little more wandering to get a good view of the town before heading out.

We must have left town right at rush hour because there was a whole lot of traffic in the area and took us a lot longer to get back to Gordes compared to how long it took to get there. We contemplated going to Pont du Gard but I think we will just leave it for another time or else we will just get a postcard of the aqueduct. We were a little tired from the heat and all the sun and thought it would be nice to just head back and hang by the pool.

On the way back, we stopped at a fruit stand to buy some cherries. 3 euros for a box. We debated whether we wanted to do another fancy dinner tonight because we have had a number of nice meals in a row, but then we figured how often are we going to be in Provence and we should enjoy the experience while we can so we asked our hotel staff to recommend another restaurant for us and make a reservation for us. Tonight we would go to a place called L’Estellen. We also asked about laundry service too because we were running out of underwear and our day to day clothes needed a wash. She said they could wash and dry a bag of clothes for 10 euros. Done. Beats having to find a Laundromat and having to wait for the clothes to wash and dry and also fold. Our laundry would be done for us before we checked out tomorrow morning

L’Estellen turned out to be another great restaurant in a beautiful setting. Our reservation was between 7:30 and 8:00 and we arrived around 7:50pm or so and there were lots of tables available. But once we were seated, there were tons of people that came in all within 15 minutes of each other and next thing you know, the restaurant was filled (on the ourside….no one is dining indoors these days). Once again we had a fabulous meal. Colin had beef carpaccio, rabbit (!) and a pineapple fruit and ice cream dessert. I had a nice appetizer that consisted of a roasted egg (!), roasted asparagus and bacon is a light cream sauce (so tasty!), breast of duck served with some sort of French toast side (very good, but not the most succulent duck I have had) and in addition to our typical appertifs, we ordered a red wine that was suggested on the blackboard under wine of the month. It was a Vin Pays de Vaucluse 2004. A red wine, light and fruity, and it would be served on ice. We enjoyed it very much. Once again, the bill came out to be 92 euros so it has been a 100 euro dinner the last few nights.

On the way out, there were a basket of meringues. There was a sign something along the lines of help yourself for a sweet journey back. Ha, my translation could be completely wrong. Regardless, we took two meringues with us and will enjoy it possibly tomorrow.

Tomorrow we are off toe Aix En Provence. Before heading there, we might go visit Rousillon or Bonnieux. We’ll see what the day brings.

Friday, June 3rd

Another beautiful morning in Provence. Breakfast once again was eaten poolside. This morning, in addition to the included continental items, I ordered a fresh yogurt and a fruit salad. Love that fresh yogurt with some marmalade. And I’m getting used to drinking my café au laits out of a big bowl too. I made sure I didn’t drink too much this morning as I had to go to the washroom way too many times in Avignon yesterday.

After breakfast, we packed up the rest of our stuff and checked out of La Ferme De La Huppe. It was a very nice property. It was too bad the restaurant was closed on the two nights we were there because I have heard that the restaurant is very good. But we have had two great meals while we were in Gordes so absolutely no complaints whatsoever.

Our first stop this morning was to look for Abbaye de Senanque. I didn’t want to go there to specifically see the Abbey….I wanted to go there to see if their lavender fields were in full bloom because the abbey is supposed to be lined with lavender. I knew it was still early as they are usually in full bloom in late June/early July but I thought we should try anyway. My predictions were unfortunately correct. It was too early. You can see all the lavender lined up, but it just wasn’t lined in purple. Too bad. We took a couple of pics and left. Our next stop was Rousillon. We would get there by going through Gordes. On the way down from Gordes, we drove by a must-stop picture stop for an amazing shot of Gordes.

Rousillon was supposed to be a very pretty village and known for its ochre (red clay/dirt). It turned out to be a very picturesque village indeed. Every corner we turned was a postcard picture. It was so pretty but no matter what, you can’t capture all that beauty on film. Just isn’t the same.

Then went to Bonnieux, which is another hilltop town. The drives today to each town were so beautiful. We didn’t get a chance to see lavender fields, but we did get to see a couple of amazing poppy fields and a field of everlasting yellow flowers with poppies. There were butterflies fluttering all over the field….it was so beautiful. I made Colin stop the car and ran out to take a couple of pics as there was no place to pull over and the roads are narrow as it is so it we couldn’t stop for very long at all. More beautiful beyond words.

Bonnieux was cute. We arrived around 1:30 and there were all these stands packing up. Yup, looks like we just missed market day. Too bad! There wasn’t too much going on there, we just wandered around and walked all the way to the top where there seemed to be an abandoned church/fort of some sort. We stopped by a café and had a couple of salads: I had a salade nicoise and Colin had one that had all sorts of seafood: smoked salmon, squid, mussels and raw octopus! He had an Orangina and I tried an orange presse. Very refreshing. It was super hot today. Our car showed the temperature to be 32 celcius outside.

Speaking of our car, it has been very comfortable and it is great on the road…runs so smoothly. We still have not filled up despite having been driving around for many days now. I guess it is a huge tank. The car has a GPS system which is activated. Unfortunately it is in French so I haven’t figured out how to use it. But it does recognize every single street and freeway we have hit. Actually came in handy today when we were trying to figure out which road we were on as we were trying to figure out the easiest way to Aix en Provence after visiting Bonnieux.

Took us about an hour to get into Aix. Our hotel is located right in the heart of downtown, right by Cours Mirabeau. I thought that the location would be ideal, and it would be had we not had a car. Traffic was absolutely insane. I booked a parking spot in our hotel’s garage but the garage is tiny and the hotel staff had to come and repark two different cars before we could fit ours in. It was quite the sight and it would only be the beginning of our Aix experience.

Our hotel room is pretty standard, didn’t expect too much as it was a 2 star hotel and we were only paying 87 euros for it. The washroom is fine enough, but there is no shower curtain in the bathtub! As a result, you end up getting everything in the bathroom wet! The hotel reception wants to hold your car keys (in case they need to repark your car no doubt) so not too happy about that. We had already decided once the parking ordeal was over that we were not going to be taking the car for the rest of our stay in Aix.

We each took a shower to fresh up from a long day, enjoyed the rest of the cherries we bought yesterday, and then decided to walk into town and see what Aix was all about. We both went through the guide books and Aix is the capital of Provence, birthplace of Cezanne, and Cours Mirabeau is the main boulevard of downtown. There are market days on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings so tomorrow morning would be a market day. We just decided to go walk and see where it would take us. Our goals were to find an ATM machine and an internet café as we haven’t checked in our emails for about a week. Cours Mirabeau turned out to be pretty disappointing, a bunch of cafes and a few shops, nothing too exciting. We wandered all around but concluded rather early that Aix was so in between everything we had seen so far. It can’t compare to a big city such as London, Paris or Barcelona. The architecture and churches can’t compare to what we have already seen. And yet, it’s not small and charming as the tiny little towns we just visited. It was in between, and the town lacked charm and energy. Both of us just didn’t get a good vibe, even though it was a Friday night. Fortunately enough we did find an ATM and a cheap internet place so that was good. We wandered into a restaurant district (not sure where) where there were tons of restaurants all lined up. We came across a lot of Asian restaurants too so we thought maybe we would do something different tonight as we have had all these elaborate Provencal dinners for the past few days. We chose one that had English and Chinese translations on their menu with reasonable prices. Boy, did that turn out to be such a mistake. Turned out to be one of our worst dining experiences ever. The staff were incompetent, the food was horrible, and service was so slow. I just couldn’t wait to get out of there. We already didn’t have a good feeling with Aix, but this totally ruined it. We thought maybe we would find a nice café to have a drink to try to erase the bad experience but once we got back our neighborhood, we both agreed that maybe we should just call it a night, head back to the hotel, get up early and get the heck out of Aix. We wouldn’t even bother with the market because we didn’t want to ruin the experience of the St. Remy market.

So with that….off to bed….we hope that St. Tropez will bring a better experience.
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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 12:13 PM
  #7  
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SAINT TROPEZ

Saturday, June 4th

Woke up and got the heck out of Aix and onto St. Tropez. We had some troubles locating the correct highway. We say the sign to A7 towards Marseilles and just took it, not really thinking Marseilles was south and we were heading southeast. So we had to try and take some other routes that would eventually get us to N7. It took us a while, but we eventually got on the A8 (the big highway that charges tolls). As soon as we were able to switch to N7 we did and we were fine after that. It took us about 2 hours to get there. We struggled a little to find our hotel Mas Bellevue because the hotel only gave me instructions such as turn left, left, right as opposed to actual street names. Plus we thought it would be closer to town than it actually was. But we did eventually find it and it’s a very nice property. Gorgeous pool area and restaurant under a solarium. We only paid for the cheapest room available (standard room) so we don’t have a view but it’s still a very nice room. Kinda reminds us of our hotel room in Paros during our honeymoon in the Greek Islands. Very mediterranean feel. All the beds we have had so far have been very comfortable.

After settling in, we asked reception for a map of the area and asked where a good place for dinner would be. She suggested Café de Paris on the Port so we decided to head down there and into town to check things out. We decided to take the car because we would other waste at least a half hour walking down into town. We parked on the street instead of one of the big lots and it cost us 5 euros for 2 hours. We first headed towards the port and our first instinct was that it reminded us of Mykonos and a bit of Nassau with all the boats and pastel colored buildings. It was very cute. Lots of people dressed in rather outrageous fashion…absolutely bright and bold. As we walked into the port, a yellow Lamborghini pulled up and just parked illegally on the corner of the street. Out popped an older man with a younger lady companion. It was so hilarious to see how many tourists starting taking pictures of themselves with the Lamborghini. I told Colin we should take a picture of the people taking pictures. We stopped at a bakery to get a couple of sandwiches since it was 3:30pm and we hadn’t eaten anything at all except for the beef jerky in our car (probably a big mistake). We got a couple of sandwiches, a beignet (which had a chocolate filling and was so good….it kicked Krispy Kreme’s ass any day!) and a strawberry/banana granite. We later found out granitas and ice cream were sold all over as it was soooo hot. Everyone had an ice cream in their hand. We had to stop by a Hagen Daaz afterwards. I had lychee-ginger (yumm!) and Colin had coffee and raspberry panna cotta. We walked along the port and into town. For such a busy place, the town was very clean (unlike Aix). I’ve never seen so many boutiques that solely sell swimsuits! Lots of interesting shops and lots of little bakeries and shops with lots of treats. As Colin said “his kind of town.”

We wandered until our parking meter ran out (about 5:15pm) and headed back to the hotel to spend some time at the pool. A wedding was taking place at the hotel tonight so there were people busy decorating the place but it wouldn’t start until about 8pm or so, so we had time to do some swimming and suntanning. The pool area at our hotel is just gorgeous. Colin played in the pool like a 3 year old while I contently suntanned away on one of the deck chairs. Spent about an hour or so there. When the sun no longer felt hot, we decided to go in and shower and get ready for dinner.

We would drive back out and parked in the port parking lot (huge) this time. First two hours were 2.10 euro each and then it was 1.80 euro afterwards. Checked out all our options and I was thinking of going to this seafood restaurant called L’Escale that looked very chic with its all white and tan décor but they were completely booked up for the night. Then we went down a couple of restaurants and saw another seafood one that looked very nice as well. It was called Le Girelier. Asked the hostess if they had a table for two and she said yes, but it would be further into the restaurant which we had no problem with. She was extremely nice and sat us down and came to check on us to see if we needed any translation or explanation of any kind. The waiter and servers also were extremely professional and friendly and efficient. What a difference from last night! We hadn’t even had tried any of the food yet and we were impressed. I had a pastis as an aperitif tonight and Colin had another red martini. We still have yet to figure what is in it but they do taste good! The pastis is the one that tastes like licorice and you have to add water to your preferred liking. I’m not a big licorice fan, but it was very good. We both ordered from the fixed menu since it made most sense. A 3-course meal was 38 euros whereas most appetizers were in the 15 euro range and entrees were in the 25-30 range. And the portions were huge!!! The biggest we have seen. I knew things would be expensive here but didn’t expect the portions to be so generous and the food was fabulous. We both started off with the fish soup. We were both given soup bowls and out comes this huge bowl with a ladle and they fill up your soup bowl. There was enough for 3 bowls each. We only had two as we didn’t want to fill up. It was so good….it was even better than all the lobster bisques we have ever tried. Colin had the grilled sardines and I had the beef filet. This is the first time I can recall when our side dishes had to come on a separate plate because our entrée filled up the entire plate. Colin had seven huge sardines on his plate in addition to baked tomatoes with cheese and roasted garlic. His side dish was a risotto with a seafood sauce…it was to die for. My beef filet was so tender. They gave me a knife that was almost equivalent to a butter knife and I was wondering if I would have troubles cutting it but no problems at all. I had a side dish that was like scalloped potatoes but it tasted Italian style with cheese and tomato sauce. It tasted like a vegetarian lasagna and it was huge. I could only have a few bites but it easily could have been four portions. It was too hot for a red wine night so we decided to go for a rose tonight. Colin picked a Cote du Luberon 2004 and it was very nice. Turned out 80% of the entire restaurant ordered rose that night. For dessert, Colin ordered a Tart Tropezianne which was a pastry with light cream inside, a crunchy sugar topping and served with raspberry coulis. It was sooo good. I ordered a crème du caramel but it was a little too egg based for my liking so Colin and I switched desserts. Colin convinced me to switch to expresso instead of my café au lait so we both finished off with expressos. Damn, what a fantastic meal. The weather was perfect outside and we had a perfect table to people watch inside the restaurant as well as outside. All the yachts that were out for the day had come in and many had people gathered outside in their perfect furniture and having dinner. It was just so much fun to watch. I was just having a great time.

After dinner, we were so stuffed so we had to take a walk. The port area was so different at night. So many people out and about and had a great vibe. It was interesting walking along the promenade and seeing all these huge yachts so close up and seeing all their beautiful décor. It was so unreal. Did a little shopping in the shops that were still open…didn’t buy anything but always fun to look.

Tomorrow would be a beach day!!!

Sunday, June 5th

Breakfast by the pool was very lovely this morning. A buffet breakfast consisting of various breads, pastries, cheeses, cold cuts, yogurts, fresh fruits, fruit juices, tea and coffee was served.

Then it was off to the beach! We went to Pampelonne Beach, which is a huge beach that stretches over 5km. We parked at the Tahiti Plage parking lot. They were renting bright orange colored beach chairs and umbrellas for 17 euros. We decided to just keep walking along the public beach area to see if there are any spots we liked. The first section we didn’t like too much so we kept on going past a few more “private beach clubs” with their color coded beach chairs. We found a nice spot that was public with not too many people and settled in. It didn’t take me long to decide to start tanning topless. 80% of the women were suntanning topless and it was so common that nobody cared. It was very liberating and was great that I wouldn’t be getting any tanlines! The day was just perfect for the beach. It was warm, but there was a nice breeze so we weren’t sweating our asses off like in Mazatlan. The water was so blue and we were in heaven. This was a vacation from our vacation. No running around sightseeing. Just doing absolutely nothing but soaking up rays. And if we wanted a drink or snack, we would just go to the nearby bar belonging to one of the clubs and just order stuff and bring it back to our spot. We brought our ipod with us too so we had music and everything. It was true paradise. We stayed there for like 5-6 hours. We definitely came back to the hotel with nice color.

As soon as we got back to the hotel, we headed over to the pool. The water was a little cold to swim in at the beach so we waited for the pool. Very refreshing to jump in the pool and cool down a bit. It was 30 degrees again today. We hung around the pool area for about an hour or so and headed back to our room to shower and head out for dinner.

We went back to the port and settled for a more casual spot tonight. I just ordered spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, parsley and proscuitto and Colin had the prix fix menu with a seafood salad, the fish soup with mussels and fish, and a strawberry tart for 22 euros. No wine tonight. Colin had a beer and I just had a Coca Cola light (diet Coke). I have been so dehydrated today from being in the sun so I have been drinking liquids non stop. Dinner was good and was less than half of what we paid last night (only 47 euros) so I can’t complain at all. It was still bright so we decided to wander the town a bit. We walked up the hill and saw the Citadel and got great views of the sunset and the town. Then we realized a whole area that we had not discovered yesterday behind the port and found all these incredible little restaurants all tucked away. Oh well, it was fun to dine at the port and we did have a couple of good meals so no complaints here. We walked around until we were certain we checked out all the streets and then went back to the port and had a drink at the Bar du Port and people watched for a while. There was at least twice or three times more people last night out and about because it was Saturday night yesterday and today was Sunday. Big difference. We finished off with a granite and ice cream for Colin and headed back to the hotel.

St. Tropez was so much fun and I loved this town. It is so pretty. Off to Nice tomorrow.

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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 12:15 PM
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NICE AND FRENCH RIVIERA

Monday, June 6th

Our hotel is pretty popular. First they have a wedding, and now Levi’s is holding a conference/sales meeting of some sort. We were a little late in waking up this morning and when we went by the pool for our breakfast, there was already a sales meeting happening in the restaurant and they were wrapping up the breakfast buffet. We were able to get a table set for us right by the pool and managed to get a decent selection of food before they took the stuff away.

Checked out about 11:30am and headed for Nice. We chose not to take the A8 highway, but the coastal highway N7 instead. Must be some sort of Harley get together or something around St Tropez or the Riviera because we have seen an insane number of bikers with really nice Harleys in St Tropez and also as we drove out of town. Turned out to be a beautiful drive, and we got to drive through a lot of the coastal towns such as Antibes, Juan Les Pins, Cannes. Some really nice beaches along the way. We didn’t find any of them worth stopping in, but it was nice to see them anyway. Contemplated stopping in Cannes for lunch, but because we took the coastal route, the drive towards Nice took us longer than expected so we decided we would continue on driving. Heard that aside from the film festival, there is not much going on during the rest of the time in Cannes. Drove by some of the fancy hotels that the celebrities stay in though and drove by the main strip which was pretty cool to see.

It ended up taking us close to 3 hours to get to Nice. There was some traffic congestion along the way, especially in the Antibes area. After all the traffic, we weren’t too keen on going back there again even though I heard it was a nice town.

We didn’t have a map of Nice, but had directions from the hotel to find the spot. Once again, we had a little trouble but eventually found it. Unfortunately there is no parking lot, so we have to park at one of the public parking lots at a rate of 15.50 euros per day.

Hotel Le Grimaldi turned out to be a lovely hotel. We were upgraded from a classic room to a superior room. Very nicely decorated with various shades of blue and we have a big terrace. Lots of nice touches such as a free litre bottle of Evian in your mini bar, free internet service, and supremely helpful staff.

Asked our reception to recommend a hotel for dinner that night and they recommended a nearby restaurant for us. We freshened up and took a walk around our area. Our hotel is very centrally located, right next to the pedestrian area full of restaurants and shops and right next to Vieux Nice and close to the beach as well. Really no need to move the car.

Dinner was at a small, nicely decorated restaurant called Luc Saledo. There was a fixed menu consisting of amuse bouche, a kir, appetizer, entrée, dessert, and a glass of wine for 40 euros. Very reasonable. Everything was fabulous. We both had the stuffed grilled squid, followed by grilled chicken breast marinated with provencal herbs, and Colin had some sort of apple pie with caramel ice cream dessert and I had a chilled strawberry soup with vanilla ice cream. Colin finished off with an expresso and I had a glass of dessert wine. And the wine they served with the meal was excellent. It was a Cotes du Provence and was full bodied and very tasty. Fantastic meal once again.

Tuesday June 7th

We arranged to have breakfast at our hotel for an additional 10 euros because we were too lazy to get breakfast elsewhere. Had the usual selection of breads, pastries, cheeses, cold cuts, yogurts, and had eggs this time.

We thought we would wander through Vieux Nice and check out the sights listed in our book. We went to the Senyal square and they had a market going there. It was extensive but not as nice as the one in St. Remy. We went up to the Castle Hill which is now a park, but has some fantastic views of Nice. We saw the Palace of Justice and another church, and then just wandered all along the streets of Vieux Nice and grabbed a quick bite at one of the many boulangeries. Nice is definitely nice! After our break, we decided to get our car and head to the Matisse Museum. It was not close to where we were, it was much further North so we had to take our car. Had to actually do a little bit of navigating on the map to get there, but we did. It looked rather quiet and then we found out that the museum is actually closed on Tuesdays. No wonder. We took a few pictures of the exterior and left.

We decided to head over to Monte Carlo. Took the N7 coastal freeway and it would only be about 16 km away. On the way is Villefranche and Eze. Eze looked very pretty so we decided to stop there and we are so glad we did. It was a beautiful perched village with lots of cobblestone and cute little shops. We loved it. We had to pay 4 euros each to get to the “exotic gardens” and to also get access to the amazing views of the Riviera. It was definitely worth it.

Then onto Monte Carlo. We followed signs to the Casino and there it was. The town was still taking down stands so we think they are still taking down the viewing stands from the Grand Prix which was only a couple of weeks ago. We first looked around the area and it reminded us of a Beverly Hills type area. Very clean, all high end clothing boutique stores, nice architecture. The Hotel de Paris right beside the Casino looked very grand…I wonder how much it is a night for a room?? Took some pictures and went into the casino. There is a 10 euro entrance fee to get in, and you have to check all your bags and cameras at the cloak check. We went in, and the casino itself is as grand and beautiful as you would imagine it. However, it was disappointingly quiet, because it was a weekday and in the afternoon I guess. There were only 3 roulette tables going when we got in with a 5 euro minimum bet (I’m used to seeing 0.50 to 1.00 chip minimums). We had to go to a different section for the Black Jack and it was only one table going with a 25 euro minimum, a little rich for us. Our taste of gambling was limited to the slot machines. Minimum machines were 0.50 euros so you can imagine that a roll of .50 pieces (20 euros) can go pretty quickly as well. We lost our first 20 euros, then went out and watched the Roulette tables for a while. It was very interesting watching. There were 3 guys working at the table. One that takes the bets, one that gives out the winnings, and one that essentially observes everyone’s bets and then there is the pit boss as well. In North America, every single player gets a different color so it is easy to track who wins what. But here, they all get various denomination chips and just bet wherever. The dealers have to monitor and remember who places what bet and pay accordingly. Of course, it’s a bit on the honor system as well as you kinda have to remind them which bet is yours, etc. We were tempted to place a few bets, but noticed that there is a lot of interaction between player and the dealers so with our limited French skills, it would be pretty hard so we just decided to keep watching. We then went back to the slot area and played 30 euros in virtual poker at 1 euro per game. Hey, at least it lasted longer than the regular slots and it felt that you had some sort of say in your destiny by getting to choose which cards you wanted to hold etc. Ah, we had a good time nevertheless. Monte Carlo and its casino was exactly what I envisioned it to be…Colin says he prefers the Vegas atmosphere and says its too serious here, but that is how I imagined it to be. I just wish it was a lot busier so there was a bit more action. The Opera House that was on the side of the casino was being renovated and so were parts of the casino so we weren’t able to see everything in its grandeur….Oh well….

We stayed in Monte Carlo for about 3 hours and then headed back to Nice. I guess everyone was heading back to Nice because traffic was a lot heavier and we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 8pm or so. We took a shower and then just went out to the pedestrian zone and decided to have a more casual meal tonight. All of the brasseries/restaurants in the area essentially serve the same kind of stuff (salads, pasta, meats, fish, etc) so we just picked one that we thought had the best looking atmosphere. We shared a bottle of red (ok, but not as good as last night’s red) a mixed salad to start, I had a seafood spaghetti and Colin had a penne with tuna, capers and anchovies, we split a nougat glacee for dessert, and finished with two expressos. The meal wasn’t bad, but it definitely wasn’t one of our “OMG” gourmet dinners. Yup, you get what you pay for. Tonight’s dinner was 64 euros. Last night was 100 euros.

Tomorrow, I think we plan to have another beach day.

Wednesday, June 8th

Well, so much for our beach day. The winds have come in and blown the clouds in and the temperature is considerately cooler. Looks like it will be a museum day instead.

Funny….heaven much be watching us and needed to provide us with a cloudy and cold morning so we wouldn’t head to the beach. Because the weather wasn’t ideal for the beach, we decided we should head over to the train station to see exactly where it was, and to see where the Hertz car rental place was and where we had to return the car tomorrow so we would be prepared. It was good that we did as we wouldn’t have known where to park the car otherwise and it would have wasted time. After we had that figured out, we went inside the train station to pick up tomorrow’s international train ticket from Nice to Milan (we would change trains there for another one to Varenna and then take a ferry to Bellagio.) We were given a ticket to wait in line and you could see a ton of people waiting…it was like the passport office! Our number was 314 and there were only on 251 so we had a long time to wait. We eventually waited over an hour before our number was called. The clerk tried to punch up my reservation number with no success. She asked one of her colleagues and they informed us that because I had booked the reservation through Trenitalia and not SNCF, I had to pick it up at a Trenitalia station….meaning I had to pick it up in ITALY. Otherwise, a train ticket agent might be able to access the booking and might be able to print out the ticket for us. It definitely wasn’t what I wanted to hear after waiting for over an hour! My initial instinct was to go back to the hotel and see what reception could find out for us. As we walked out of the train station, the Tourism Office was actually just next door. There was no line up so I went up to a lady and asked her if she could give us any advice. She essentially said the same thing, that because I booked it through Trenitalia, that means I need to go to Italy. She told me that we would have to pick it up in Vertimiglia. It suddenly dawned on us that we are actually very close to the Italian border, and that we had a car, so in fact we could actually drive across the border to pick the ticket up. We asked her how far a drive it was and she said it was only about half an hour! OK…so that’s what we ended up doing. We asked her the best way to get on the freeway and how to head to Italy and went on our way back to the hotel to pick up our passports. We were driving to Italy!!!

We took the A8 highway which also lead to Monaco but we had chosen the scenic route yesterday. Yup, the A8 is definitely less scenic but also so much quicker! We were in Monaco within minutes of hitting the highway. Mind you, we were going at 150km/hr easy. We did hit a couple of toll booths along the way (the price of taking the big and quick highways). It cost 1.90 euro on the France side. It was pretty cool. It was an automated one and they tell you ahead of time on the highway that it is 1.90. You can pay by coins or credit card. But for the coins, you can just throw your coins in the coin container and it can read exactly what coins you put in and will either automatically give you change or just let you proceed. We had 1.90 exactly so Colin just threw them in and the gate lifted. We would go through many tunnels on the way and there was one that you went through and when you come out, you are in Italy. Pretty cool. No border officials checking passports etc. We followed the signs to Ventimiglia and once entering, you had to pay another 1.80 toll. We kept on following signs until we entered the city. Very small, very cute but looked very old. Suddenly, no more French and all signs were in Italian. My brain had to switch gears. Looking at all signs seeing if anything resembles train station and finally saw signs pointing “Stazione” with a little train logo beside it so it had to be it. Luckily, it was a small town and we found it rather easily. Found parking easily and then walked into the train station, hoping we will be able to get our train tickets. There was only one automated ticket booth and then a few ticket booths with agents working in them. I knew my other internet bookings would be ok so I told Colin to go retrieve the regional tickets through the automated system while I waited in line to talk to someone about our international ticket. Luckily, they were able to retrieve it based on the screen print I had because Trenitalia never did email me any final confirmation as they said they would. And Colin was successful with getting our other tickets printed so the trip was worth it, even though it did cost us almost 10 euros in tolls. Had it not worked out, we could have always forfeited those tickets and spend another 60 euros on new ones but of course we would rather not. Colin wondered if we were actually able to take the car into Italy and I assumed we would but later that evening when we cleaned out our car and looked through the car rental agreement, it was clearly noted that luxury rental cars such as Mercedes, BMWs and convertibles of any sort were NOT allowed into Italy. Oooops…..it was a good thing we didn’t linger around and decided to head back to Nice right away! It was a neat experience though, getting to drive into Italy and seeing another town that we would otherwise never have a chance to see. Although I better learn some Italian tonight as I could hardly make out any signs I was reading on the road. And all I know is Buon Giorno and Grazie.

We headed back to Nice and put our passports and train tickets away at the hotel before heading out again. The hotel staff must be wondering why we were going back and forth out of the hotel today (as we give our key to reception before going out). After dropping our stuff off, we headed out to get something to eat. It was about 4:30 and I was hungry. We chose a place that looked like they made really good pizza. But after looking through the menu, for some reason I really wanted steak and fries. Colin ended up ordering gnocchi siciliane with tomatoes, mozzarella, eggplant and capers. The gnocchi was really good. My steak wasn’t bad either. It wasn’t the most tender, but it was well grilled. The French have not overcooked my steaks once yet. Always a perfect medium rare. Had a bottle of red, a Cotes du Provence from St Tropez and it wasn’t bad. It was a very enjoyable meal and it was great for people watching as there was a whole lot of pedestrian traffic going through and we were sitting outside. There was some crazy woman talking to herself or maybe something for the longest time and was blocking traffic. She provided a whole lot of entertainment to all the diners and people nearby. We finished the nice meal with two expressos. Yup, I’m starting to get addicted to expressos after dinner and café au laits with my breakfast. Probably will be a coffee addict once I get home.

And guess what, after our enjoyable meal, the sky was once again clear blue and the sun was out. Like the heavens were telling us that we had done our chores, had our meal, and now we can go out and play. It was too late to go to the beach and plus it was still rather cool…about 22 degrees so we decided to do some shopping instead. Colin ended up buying a pair of Kangaroo runners for 20 euros (half price) and I bought myself a pair of really cute Converse sneakers adorned with daisies for 65 euros. Yes, a bit steep, but I figure it would last a lot longer than a dinner so why not. Plus they are very unique. We went to the Virgin megastore to check our CDs and they have a huge selection but CDs are so much cheaper in Vancouver. The best seller/new releases are selling for about 15-18 euros. We haven’t had too many memorable songs to commemorate our trip just yet….just a couple of euro pop songs that seem to be playing everywhere…Akon’s “Lonely” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gazolina”, a rather loud and annoying song. Man, there are some really bad euro pop songs on MTV. I guess no wonder everyone is into North American music no matter how bad we think they are…..

Since we are leaving early tomorrow and need to return the car with a full tank of gas, we thought that we should go in search of a gas station before they close for some reason or another. We really have not noticed any gas stations inside the city, I only notice them on the highways, so it would be a challenge to locate one, and fill up and get back to our parking lot without draining the gas tank. We narrowed it down that the gas stations would probably be on the outskirts of town and not in Central Ville so we decided to go towards the Promenade Des Anglaise and hopefully will see one. It tooks longer than we thought to get there as we somehow did a distorted circle. There is some major construction happening within Central Nice so there are a lot of detours and the roads are all gutted up so it is causing a lot more traffic congestion than I assume there normally is. Anyway, we finally get ourselves on the Promenade and go down, and finally get to see Hotel Negresco which is supposed to be the flagship hotel of Nice, if not the whole entire Riviera. It was big and I could see how it could be grand but it wasn’t really overly impressive from the outside. Apparently it is supposed to be very grand inside, but we never did get ourselves there. We were too obsessed looking for a gas station. As we continue driving down the strip, Colin yells out enthusiastically, he thinks he has spotted a possible Shell sign. As we drive closer, we confirm it indeed is a Shell gas station. Diesel is at 1.06 euros a litre, which is about the going rate. So within our 10 days, we have only filled up twice. Once on the highway before we went into St Tropez which was 53 euros and today’s fill up which was 33 euros. Once we filled up, we tried to plan the shortest route possible to our parking lot. We were fairly successful, only making one wrong turn but quickly figured out where we were. We are getting rather good at using landmarks for navigating (and of course the GPS system on our car has been a lifesaver, with identifying what streets we are on and what direction we are heading).

Once we found our parking lot, we cleaned up our car, and went back to the hotel. Tonight, we would have to get rid of any unnecessary weight in our luggage as there will no longer be any cars so we are back to carrying our luggage around and with the amount of train and ferry travel we will be doing, we want to be as light as possible!

France has been wonderful. Just absolutely loved it. The only thing we don’t like is the 20% tax on everything! At least it’s all included with all prices or otherwise I would have a heart attack.

Looking forward to seeing Italy and the Italian Riviera…..
italybound01 is offline  
Old Jul 4th, 2005, 12:34 PM
  #9  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,749
What a read!

We stayed in Aix for a full week and loved that place. But you're not alone in disliking it. Can't quite figure out why we liked it so much when so many people don't.

But I have to say the funniest thing so far is the comment that you heard "not much happens in Cannes except the film festival". It is one happening place. I can't imagine who told you that, although of course, it is at its busiest during the film festival.
Patrick is offline  
Old Jul 4th, 2005, 12:57 PM
  #10  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Jan 2005
Posts: 114
BELLAGIO

Thursday, June 9th

Woke up at 7am today and got ready to leave France. I was looking forward to my morning coffee and pastries this morning, and fruit too. One last check on our email quickly while Colin went to bring the car from the parking lot to the front of our hotel. Loaded up the car and off to the train station. Colin dropped off me and the luggage by the car rental office while he parked the car in the return lot so I could have the clerk start on the paperwork. He told me our final total was 249 euros which would be charged to my credit card and I told him I have already paid. He tells me we pay at the end. Hmmm….something is wrong. I know that I booked and prepaid for our car through Autoeurope on the internet and it was supposed to cost us $642 Cdn for an automatic economy car. Now he’s telling me it is 249 euros which is the equivalent of approximately $390 Cdn. That was what my quote was for a standard economy. It was no point arguing with him at this point. He didn’t ask me to sign anything so I took all the receipts and will check everything when I get back. I’m sure if I prove to Hertz I was charged twice, they will remove the 249 euros. What I want removed is the 642 Cdn which will be highly unlikely. Wouldn’t that be sweet?! Drive around in a Mercedes for less than $40 a day??!! Like I said, I will clear this up when I get home.

There was a screen at the car rental office that showed all the arriving and departing trains and what platforms they were at. Located our train to Milan and it was departing on time at 10:05 on Platform D. We only rode second class this time and will be in second class for the rest of our train journeys. Apparently there is not much of a difference. First class on our trip from Barcelona to Montpellier was definitely not impressive. As long as I have a reserved seat as this was a long train ride (we wouldn’t arrive until 2:50pm to Milan), that would be fine. The train was nice enough and we both got window seats facing each other. The train ride was a nice one, right along the coast so we got to see all the coastal towns it went through, including the ones we drove through and Vertimiglia.

We arrived in Milan at about 3pm as we were about 10 minutes late in leaving Nice. We checked the departures board for our train to Varenna and we didn’t see it posted. So I went to check the automated ticket kiosks to check on the time and to see if we could reserve seats on this train ride. It didn’t look like it, and 4:15pm was indeed the earliest train out to Varenna. We still didn’t see it posted on the board and then looked at our ticket closely and it said “via Lecco” and Lecco was posted on the board for 4:15pm so that had to be it. Finally our platform number was posted….it was number 6 We had no reservations so we went to see what the seating arrangement would be like. It was basically take whatever seat you could. So we found two seats and stored our luggage and essentially hoped for the best that we would eventually arrive in Varenna. My email confirmation said it would take about an hour. As we had no idea where the stop would be, we made sure we didn’t fall asleep on this train ride! We went through many small towns, but nothing too scenic. About 40 minutes in, the scenery changed and it looked a lot more pleasant. Then we started seeing water so we figured we were indeed in the lake region. What worried us was whether we had to change trains in Lecco or not. Finally, a train representative came in our car to validate our tickets and it was then we asked him and he said that Lecco was the first stop and Varenna would be the one following. We felt a lot better after that. After the Lecco stop, we were trying to gauge when the train was slowing down so we could get our luggage ready as the trains didn’t stop at a station for long. Then the Italian lady who was sitting next to me started talking to me, telling me in English that the stop for Varenna wasn’t for another 10 minutes so we could relax for a bit. She said the scenery would be improving as we got closer. Then she is asking about where we are staying and gave us tips on where to go in Varenna, where a nice restaurant is, and talking about George Clooney and his house. She was very nice and helpful, telling us where the ferry station is etc. She then tells us that we would be stopping very shortly so we should get our luggage ready. We thanked her and got on our way.

We got out of our train and it was very cool and windy but sunny. It was actually cloudy and rainy in the first part of Italian train ride and we were happy when we woke up before we hit Milan and it was sunny. We followed gravity and went down the hill and looked for the ferry terminal. It was very easy to find. Bought two tickets “Due Bellagio” and it was departing in about 20 minutes or so, so we had time to take some pictures of the area before our ferry arrived. Lake Como is gorgeous. So serene, so beautiful, so tranquil, so surreal. Our ferry came on time and we boarded and the ferry ride only took about 10 minutes to Bellagio. Once we got off, we followed the instructions given to us by the apartment staff to go underneath the awnings of all these hotels and look for one of the huge staircases up. It was a little work to get our suitcases up the hill, but we managed. But I wasn’t 100% sure where the apartment was so I told Colin to stay with the luggage as I made sure I found the apartment before continuing on. Luckily the directions were accurate and we found the apartment very easily.

We rang the bell for reception but unfortunately no one answered. We rang it a few more times and when we concluded no one was there, I went next door to the café (we were given instructions to ask the café to call if no one was there). One of the girls called but there was no answer. She said she would call again in 5 minutes so we just waited. After 5 minutes she tried again but with no success. I tried on our cell phone but had troubles getting a connection. A few minutes later, another French couple pulled up in the car with an email confirmation in hand. Good, another couple wanting to check in and they had the same problems we had. He had a cell phone with him and tried calling the number with no success. I guess he knew some Italian so he was talking to one of the girls in the café and apparently this has happened a few times. He was pretty casual about and said “Hey, we’re in Italy!” so we all decided to just sit at the café and wait. Colin and I share a bottle of Pinot Grigio while we waited and read up on The Lakes. Before we finished our bottle, a lady came into the apartment and opened the gate. The other gentleman asked her if she was the apartment reception and she confirmed it. I let Colin stay at the café while I checked in and got our room key. We got a studio apartment and it turned out to be very spacious and lovely, with a small lake view from our window. There was a kitchenette with refrigerator and all kitchen utensils so it was very nice. We asked the lady for a couple of restaurant recommendations before we settled in.

We showered and freshened up and decided to try one of these recommended restaurants. Went to both and they were both full. Went around the area and found a nice little place called Antico Pazzo. They had a couple of four person tables available, but they told us they currently did not have any tables of 2, and that we had to wait for about 5 minutes which was fine. A couple just left and they had to clean the table so we were seated very quickly. Ah yes, our first night in Italy so we wanted some yummy pasta! We ordered a bottle of Rosso di Montelcino, Colin had the beef carpaccio with arugula and shaved parmesan cheese and home made pasta with meat sauce and I had the zucchini lasagnette with prawns, crabmeat and cream sauce and the homemade tagliatelle with lobster sauce and cream. Oh…to die for! I remember how good Italian al dente pasta was when we were last here and it hasn’t changed. It was sooo good and the wine was great too. Colin finished with an amazing tiramisu and I had a blueberry panna cotta. And of course a couple of expressos…………Wow, what a great welcome back to Italy. We just love Italian food so much!!!

Friday, June 10th

Woke up to a beautiful morning in Bellagio. Last night was a little chilly compared to what we have been used to, but it looks like a beautiful day today! We walked a couple of blocks down to find a place for a morning coffee and settled on a café right beside the church with the sun beaming down. Colin had a cappuccino and I had a café latte and “due cornetto.” The coffee was fantastic and the cornettos were great too. I was expecting croissants but they were croissant shaped, but were more bread-like in texture and had some raspberry jam inside them and were lightly sugared on top. Fantastic! Breakfast was 6.40 euros. Very reasonable. I took my sweet little time as I was in Italy and therefore everything is done in slow motion.

After breakfast, we decided to explore our beautiful town. We didn’t see too much last night. It is definitely very beautiful, very charming, and very clean. Once again, every corner you turned was a postcard shot. We went down to the water, then explored the little side streets with their little shops. So quaint, but very small. I think we did the town in about an hour. We wanted to find a way to get up to the top where we see a big yellow building but we were not successful in finding a way up.

We then decided to take the ferry over to Tremezzo and see Villa Carlotta. We bought our ferry ticket but the ferry would not arrive for another hour so we had some time to kill so we took another walk and also made dinner reservations at Barchetta, where we were recommended to by the apartment lady and also written up by the DK book. There was already about 6 reservations ahead of us, and the restaurant staff advised us exactly what table we would be sitting at. I guess the tables are decided by priority.

The ferry boat ride to Tremezzo was about another 10 minutes. We got off at the Villa Carlotta stop and walked around the area. The Grand Hotel Tremezzo looked very grand indeed. What caught our eye right away was their pool that was on a separate deck/dock on the lake. They also had a lakefront beach club/restaurant that had deck chairs on sand. It was very nice and I wondered if they would rent out the deck chairs to non-hotel guests. Since I missed my beach day in Nice, I really hope to have one more suntanning day but we’ll have to see. There’s not really “beach area” in Bellagio or any of the lake areas I have seen so far. Only the super fancy hotels have a pool area.

We checked our the waterfront cafes for a place for a nice lunch. We settled for one that had a nice unobstructed view of the lake, and a good group of people. We both ordered pizza (Colin with ham and anchovy) and me with ham and mushroom. Colin had a beer and I had a bellini (tasted the same, but not slushy). Lunch was good and very relaxing. We spent a good while there just soaking in the atmosphere. After the big lunch, we figured we had to work off our meal so we went to Villa Carlotta to walk around the famous gardens. It was a huge property with lots to see. We actually did a lot of walking and missed our planned ferry back and went on the 4:15 ferry back instead.

Dinner was at 8:30 but I needed a nap. We did some more walking around and headed back to the apartment. Did some relaxing and then took a nap. Took a shower and walked to our restaurant.

Sure enough, our table was reserved with our name on it. Service was very professional and excellent. They served us an aperitif and a 750ml bottle of water before getting our menus. The menu was in all Italian but I could make out a lot of the stuff was “fish of the day” or equivalent. The restaurant prides themselves on serving the freshest of ingredients. At the end of the menu, it said something to do with a special menu of 52 euros per person, wine included. I thought it would probably be the best choice for us as we would have asked for the chef’s recommendations anyway. This way, I don’t have to worry about deciphering an Italian menu or wine menu. The Maitre D told us that it would be a surprise menu that even he wouldn’t know what it was and we were fine with that. He said wine would be taken care of so we didn’t have to take care of that either. Perfect! The couple beside us, a very nice couple from California, were intrigued with the fact that we ordered stuff that we had no idea what it would be. They were curious as to what we would get. We ended up talking to them for quite a while. They had been traveling in Italy since mid May (and we though we were gone a long time!). They had been in Positano, Orvieto, and were just recently in Santa Margherita Ligure (our next stop) and said they loved it.

We were impressed that we were brought out two different types of first courses. Colin had prawns and shrimps with asparagus, and I had grilled tuna over grilled eggplant with mozzarella baked on top. The portions were huge and were just amazing! We were poured two glasses of Pinot Bianco from the Piedmonte region, where truffles were from. It was very nice, and as perfect with our first course. Our second course was also a fish. Once again, a very generous portion of a grilled white fish from the Lake (can’t for the life of me remember what he said it was). But it was cooked to perfection and served with pototatoes, tomatoes, caramelized onions, blanched spinach which was so sweet and carrots. All the ingredients were so fresh that you did not need to hide any of the taste with heavy sauces. Everything was prepared very simply, and you can just taste the natural flavors and freshness of it all. Fantastic! We were given a prosecco wine (sparking white wine) to cleanse our palettes and then were given a nice dessert wine with once again, a very generous serving of crème brulee/crème caramel. We finished with two expressos. And after such a fabulous meal, it turned out they only charged us the 53 euros per person for a total of 106 euros. They didn’t charge us an extra cover, no charge for the bottle of water, or the expressos! What an amazing deal and experience!

Went for a walk along the water afterwards and Colin had to get his first gelato experience of Italy. I was too full to eat anymore.

What a perfect, relaxing day. Tomorrow….we will explore Varenna.

Saturday, June 11th

Great sleep last night. I’ve had a great sleep every night except that last night in Nice (cause we didn’t sleep on a full stomach). The sky was not completely blue this morning, there were some cloud patches, and it was a lot cooler than yesterday. It is amazing how the temperature fluctuates in the lake region. Our first day was windy and cool, but relatively clear. Second day was just absolutely beautiful and warm (guessing around a comfortable 26/27 degrees or so) and today it’s probably around 20-22. Normally in Vancouver, whenever you get the 20s or even high teens, you see people in t-shirts and shorts. However, we have gotten used to the hot temperature rather quickly so once I felt how cool it was, I had to change into my jeans and bring my hoodie jacket with me.

We walked out to our neighborhood café for another cappuccino and latte, and another couple of cornettos. They were filled with an orange marmalade today. So good. Our plan was to head over to Varenna to look around have lunch at Vecchia Varenna. We decided it was smarter to stay in Bellagio for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about ferry schedules plus we could just stumble back to our apartment if we drank a little too much.

It’s a good thing we took a bunch of pictures yesterday because as beautiful as everything still was, it looks even better when the sky is a perfect blue. We boarded the 11:15am ferry to Varenna and started walking around the town. After looking around Tremezzo and Varenna, as nice as the towns may be, Bellagio was the most charming by far. And the other towns don’t have much shopping either whereas Bellagio is lined with all kinds of shops everywhere. It didn’t take us long to explore the whole town. We could have went to visit Villa Cipressi or Villa Monastere, but we have done enough of the garden thing so we didn’t think there was the need. Our real goal was to have lunch at Vecchia Varenna and everything else would be just on the side. We didn’t realize that we actually walked past it early on, and only found it on our way back after walking to the end of town. Turns out they are only opened for dinner. Took a quick glance at the menu and it was pretty typical of the region, with very reasonable prices. Only thing that stood out that Colin would probably try was grilled donkey meat. What I wanted to try which is a local dish is the fried perch with risotto.

We contemplated whether to look elsewhere for lunch but decided to just head back to Bellagio instead. We didn’t want to have lunch on the waterfront at any of the overly touristy spots or at any of the hotels. We both wanted to go back to the spot we had dinner the firsts night: Antico Pozzo. It’s very nice and comfortable spot in a pretty courtyard with great food at reasonable prices…why not?! We shared a mixed salad, Colin had spaghetti with clams, garlic and parsley and I had the fried perch and parmesan risotto that I was wanting….it was fabulous! Had a bottle of Chardonnay which was very good and finished with two expressos. Very relaxing, very satisfying meal. Went for a walk around town to walk off some of that meal before our next meal! Our town was just buzzing with people everywhere. I guess a lot of people got off the ferry to come into Bellagio for a few hours. All the shops and streets were full of people. Mind you it was Saturday so I’m sure a lot of locals came into town as well. Even we bought a few things for souvenirs. After the nice walk we went back to our room for a nice nap before dinner. Ah yes…it doesn’t get more relaxing and lazy than this.

We already know where we were going to dinner tonight…Trattoria San Giocomo…a couple of minutes from our apartment. Mind you, everywhere is within a 5 minute walk as the town is so small. We tried to make a reservation last night but they told us they don’t take reservations as they are such a small restaurant. We went there the first night and saw people waiting for a table sitting on the steps on cushions so we already were prepared for a wait. When we got there, there were two groups of four ahead of us and they were sitting on the steps having a drink. We joined in and picked up a couple of cushions from the chest and sat on the steps and ordered a couple of glasses of white while we waited. The staff brought us some bruschetta as we waited. There would be many couples of groups joining the wait. At one point, I believe there were enough people waiting to fill the entire restaurant. It was quite a sight to see that even tourists passing by were taking pictures of us, sitting on the steps waiting. It was a very relaxing way to wait and we waited for about 45 minutes or so because we didn’t get seated until 9:20pm or so but it didn’t feel long at all. We shared an antipasto della casa which consisted of salami, dried beef, tomato and mozzarella, and marinated (pickled) fish…very nice. Colin had a fettucine with sundried fish and I had the fresh ravioli stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese and spinach, and then we split an ossobucco with polenta. We ordered a red from the Lombardia region (our region). Everything was fabulous. Colin finished with strawberries with ice cream and of course two expressos and it came out to 67 euros….amazingly reasonable for such a fantastic meal. I am so stuffed and think I will go very light tomorrow.

We had to take walk but the wind really picked up by the waterfront so we tried to stay away from the water and walk up and down all the stairs to work off some of that food! Colin had to go by the gelateria right beside our apartment and get another cone. He amazes me sometimes of what he can consume.

Our stay in Bellagio was so relaxing. Onto Santa Margherita Ligure tomorrow and Cinque Terre. I hope we will find someway to fit in at least a couple more hours of tanning time before we head home!



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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 01:08 PM
  #11  
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SANTA MARGHERITA LIGURE AND CINQUE TERRE

Sunday June 12th

Took the 9:10am ferry from Bellagio to Varenna. Obviously it was early and no one else was heading out of Bellagio at that hour as Colin and I were the only ones getting on the ferry! So we had to whole ferry to ourselves as the ferry went to Menaggio first before heading over to Varenna. There were a few more people who joined us from Menaggio so that was the end of our private ferry ride. Dragged our luggage up the hill to our train station as we waited for our 10:19 train to Milano. Pretty much everyone else who was at the train station was heading over to Milan to catch connecting trains (as we would be to Santa Margherita Ligure). The train arrived on time and we got Milan smoothly. There was about a 40 minute wait before our train to SML so we grabbed a couple of panini as we didn’t have breakfast, and plus I went to use the automated ticket machines to get a ticket to Riomaggiore of Cinque Terre for the next day as I hadn’t done that yet.

We hopped onto our train to SML. We had made reservations so we had assigned seats. We arrived in SML at approximately 2pm. The instructions given to me from Hotel Jolanda said that the hotel was a 4 minute walk from the train station but did not give me any specific instructions. I figured it should be pretty self explanatory. Thankfully, there was a map of the area posted right outside the train station with all the locations of the hotels in the area so we made a mental note of what streets to hit and made our way down the hill. It was very easy and were at our hotel in no time.

Check in was simple enough. Asked for our passports, verified my name, and give us a key to room 208. Breakfast was included from 8-10am, there was a gym and sauna there as well. After settling in, we headed out to explore the area. We were about a 5 minute walk from the water.

Santa Margherita Ligure is a very cute and quaint little resort town, catering most to Italians I would assume. The piazza right when you hit the water looks so much like English Bay in Vancouver aside from the architecture. So many buildings are painted with intricate designs…very beautiful. The waterfront has a huge marina and is lined up with various beach clubs. Unfortunately, the weather has been rather unsettled so today was not an ideal beach day. There were not too many people suntanning. We walked along the water and tried to figure out which way led to Portofino. We saw the Best Western that we would be able to rent sunbeds and umbrellas from at a rate of 12 euros per person through our hotel and they had mentioned it was the way to Portofino so we assumed it was the way there. We decided to follow the path. It was like a combination of walking the Vancouver seawall and the Sea To Sky highway. Pedestrians and vehicles shared one tiny little windy road. Buses had to honk each time they were about to turn around a corner in case there would be oncoming traffic. We made our way and passed through the tiniest town of Paraggi (if you call it a town…it consisted of 4 little resorts I believe) and made it to the border of Portofino. However, at this point, we had walked quite a ways and we would still have to walk a ways to actually get into town. Plus it was getting very grey so we decided we would head back to the hotel. Turned out we ended up walking for about 3 hours!

We took a short nap and then looked for a place for dinner. We decided to go to the waterfront and check our our options. We settled on a place called Palmas where we saw people with huge plates of mussels that looked really good. Turned out to be a great meal. We shared a huge plate of steamed mussels in a very tasty broth (only 8.50 euros), Colin had spaghetti with crawfish, jumbo prawns, and octopus (amazing) and I had spaghetti with clams (also so amazing). We had a jug of red wine, shared a great piece of tiramisu and of course had two expressos. Fantastic meal for 67 euros including tip.

Monday, June 13th

Today we would finally head to Cinque Terre. When we woke up, the sky still looked very grey. I didn’t think I should be wearing my shorts. But I was still optimistic that the sky might clear up by the time we reached the end at Monterosso so decided to wear my swimsuit underneath and wore jeans but packed my shorts anyway. We took the 9:01 train to Riomaggiore and arrived at 9:50am. It would cost 3 euros to enter the Cinque Terre trails, and 5.40 to get the entrance and access to all trains in the area so we opted for that option. There were signs posted that the trails from Manorola to Corniglia were temporary closed.

We walked the path Dell Amore from Riomaggiore to Manorola. It was an easy stroll/walk, not a hike at all. We arrived in Manorola and walked through the town. The dark clouds that were hovering all morning somehow burned off and the sun was appearing and it was getting hot. I hadn’t even really started to hike yet and already knew my jeans would be too hot to walk in so changed into my shorts. Thank goodness I brought them!!! Colin insisted that we would be able to get through to the trail so we tried but an old man that was sitting along the trail told us “chiuso” (closed) so we went to the train station to take the train to the next town. Of course we had just missed the train and the next one wouldn’t be for about half an hour. We kept ourselves occupied listening to various backpackers share their stories with one another. We then find out that our train would be delayed by 20 minutes due to technical difficulties. Anyway, the train ride was only 5 minutes long but with all the waiting time, it would be an hour before we got ourselves to Corniglia.

Corniglia was a cute little town. We had read the next trail from Corniglia to Vernazza was a challenging one so we decided we better grab a bite before tackling it. We didn’t want a sit down place so looked for a place to grab a couple of panini. I had a caprese pita (mozzarella with tomatoes and olives..yumm!!!) and Colin had a ham and cheese panino. They were nicely heated and we went up to the tower to enjoy our lunch. Well, we weren’t the only ones with that idea and we had lots of company. Hahaha….I think Colin was finally “hammed out” today because he only ate his sandwich halfway and then took out the ham. He had to finish off with a gelato before continuing on so he had 3 scoops..cherry, pistachio and honey from Corniglia. The pistachio was great!

OK….off we go! The sign said that the trail would take about 90 minutes. Our goal was to do it in less than an hour. It was funny….looking at the hills, you can’t really see where the trails are until you go on them and you understand why. They are often very narrow and you would have to yield if another hiker was coming from the other way, or you would let someone pass if you weren’t walking fast enough. The initial 15 minutes or so were pretty intense, it was pretty much doing the Grouse Grind, except you have a view of the Mediterranean. Afterwards, there was a combination of ups and downs, so it wasn’t as brutal as just going up. We were amazed at the amount of seniors we saw doing the trail. Many had walking sticks with them and they took their time, resting in the shade, but it was still cool to see. When we were in Provence, there were lots of seniors doing biking tours around the area as well. We finished the trail in 45 minutes. Vernazza was a very picturesque and can see why it would be the most popular one of the five towns. They had a tiny little beach/waterfront area as well where a lot of people were hanging out and taking a break before doing the next trail. We grabbed a couple of drinks and sat in the sun by the water for about 20 minutes and headed off for the last trail. The trail to Monterosso was also posted as 1.5 hours so we aimed to finish it in less than 45 minutes. Once again the first 15 to 20 minutes were pretty brutal. We were both sweating up a storm, especially Colin who was carrying the backpack too. This trail was definitely longer than the other one. A little after halfway, we started the descent and essentially just went downhill and we had to keep on going down stairs. Going down is even harder for me because I’m afraid I’ll miss a step. You are able to do the trail from either town so of course there were people going to Vernazza from Monterosso and from our point of view, it looked like it was much harder the other way. We kept on going down and down steps and the steps looked so steep. Some of the older folks would ask us how much longer it was for them to go uphill and it was still a ways so we told them just to take their time. We would end up taking an hour to complete the trail and were elated when we saw the beaches of Monterosso. We were going to get ourselves a beach chair at one of the beach clubs no matter how much it cost. Problem was we didn’t have any towels with us. Because it was already 3:45pm, we were able to rent two sun beds for 10 euros total and have access to change rooms and showers. However, they didn’t rent towels so that meant we were not going to go into the water. Oh well…we were content just lying in the sun. The sun had come out and we were so happy that we managed to get some sun and get that last beach day we were hoping for. We didn’t get too much color because it was getting late but it was nice to relax by the sea. The water was nice, but the sand once again wasn’t fine. The beaches in France and Italy are nothing compared to Hawaii and Mexico. But at least we had our sun experiences in the French and Italian Rivieras.

I checked ahead of time and there was 3 trains heading back to SML 6:20, 6:35 and 6:55 and the one after wouldn’t be until 8:30 so we wanted to take one of the 6 o clock trains back. We ended up taking the 6:20 one and the train ride was supposed to be 45 minutes long but once again, there were technical difficulties so we were stuck on the train in between stations for an extra 25 minutes or so. Good thing we took the earlier one back. The others would probably be delayed as a result. Once we got back to the hotel, we took our much needed showers and went to get dinner. It was late, about 9pm at this time, so we decided to just go back to Palmas where we had such a great dinner the night before. We started with the mussels again (was just as good as first time!), I still hadn’t had any pesto dishes and it was specialty of the region so I ordered trofie al pesto (trofie were hand made tiny worm shaped pasta, specifically made for pesto) and it was sooo good and Colin had a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella, capers and anchovies. It was fantastic…super thin crust, fresh slices of mozzarella, big capers and tasty anchovies. Let’s say we had another great meal! Too late for dessert so we just finished with two expressos.

Tomorrow….off to Firenze!!!

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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 01:30 PM
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FLORENCE

Tuesday June 14th

This morning we got up at 7am as we had to take the 9:01 train to Pisa, and then switch trains to Firenze. It was pouring rain outside. Thank goodness we went to Cinque Terre yesterday!!! We both decided as much as we wanted this to be a cab-free vacation, we should call for a cab to take us to the train station. Before we headed to the breakfast room at 8am, we asked the reception desk how long it would take for a taxi to come, so he said he would order one for us for 8:30am. We grabbed a bite at the breakfast room and then went to get our luggage in our room and checked out and waited for our taxi to come. There was a huge tour group assembling in the lobby and they were all moving outside when our “cab” came to pick us up. Turned out to be a sleek black fancy Mercedes Benz pulling up and asked for us and helped us with our luggage. There was no sign of “taxi” or anything. Our guess was they called a private limousine company or a so-called “friend” who did this type of stuff on the side. Anyway, it was pretty funny as all these seniors were just staring at us, wondering if we were some sort of VIPs getting this preferential treatment. The short 3 min ride would cost us 10 euros but it was worth it alone just to see all those faces watching us. Plus Colin would have been sweating up a storm carrying his two bags up the hill…yup, it was the best thing to do.

The train arrived on time, but there were some delays on certain stops so we were about 10 minutes late arriving to Pisa. Our next train connection was supposed to be only 5 minutes afterwards so obviously we missed the connection…thank goodness there was another train 20 minutes later so we ended up pulling into Florence at 1:03pm.

Once we arrived in Florence, we decided we would try to get to our hotel by foot. I had a map on how to get there, but establishing which direction to head is always difficult. If we learned anything on this trip, it was that we both had a horrible sense of direction and that we were horrible at reading maps! We knew we were close to the Duomo so we looked for the big monument. Thinking we found it, we headed in that direction, not knowing it turned out to be St. Lorenzo instead! I asked one of the local vendors where the street I was supposed to be following was, and it was very close so we were in the right vicinity. After we found the street, we were able to find our Tourist House Ghiberti very easily. Tourist House Ghiberti is a bed and breakfast with only 5 rooms and has been highly written up in Tripadvisor and on Fodors.com. We weren’t disappointed at all. The amenties are great, each room has its own computer and fax machine with internet access, the minibar is stocked and at super reasonable prices (.80 euro for bottled water, 1.00 euro for pop, 1.80 euro for beer…cheaper than what you can get it at cafes in Florence!!!)

After settling in, we went out in search for a quick bite as it was approaching 3:30pm and we had dinner reservations at La Giostra at 8:30pm. We couldn’t believe the amount of tourists that were in Florence. Everywhere was flooded with tourists and hawkers. It was overwhelming as this is our only stop when we have felt this way. We wandered around town and went by the Uffizi to cross Pont Vecchio and the line to get into the Uffizi went on forever….past the end of the building and down the road onto the other side of the Uffizi. Must be at least a couple of hours wait! Thank goodness we got reservations before we left! We would go tomorrow. We crossed Pont Vecchio and stopped for a bite at a small café and were surprised at how outrageous their prices were. We ordered an ice tea, a beer, a small plate of gnocchi, a lasagna and a cannolo for 30 euros. And this is not a restaurant by any means! This was a bar/café and served Bread Garden-like food. We just hoped that dinner would make up for this experience.

We did some wandering around, looking at shops and walked to an area with tons of stands selling various souvenirs, t-shirts, scarves etc. The sky at this point was really dark and it looked like it would start pouring any minute. We were right. All of a sudden, the rain just started coming down. Luckily, we were in a sheltered area so we continued on browsing along the shops. The rain was not tapering off, so we finally decided to move on and go into some boutiques to shop. You wouldn’t believe the amount of hawkers/vendors approaching all these tourists trying to sell them umbrellas….they think of everything! But coming from Vancouver, we are fine with rain, so we would not cave. By the time I came out of Zara, the rain had become a light sprinkle so we made our way to the hotel to shower and take a break before dinner.

Dinner was at La Giostra, a place that was highly recommended by many Fodorites. It is literally a hole in the wall in the middle of nowhere. They don’t even have a sign out front so you would never go in there unless you knew about it ahead of time. We were served a complimentary glass of prosecco wine to start and given the menu. The menu was definitely extensive, but not cheap. Antipasti dishes averaged around 10-15 euros, pasta averaged around 15 euros and the meat dishes were about 20-30 euros. All dishes were listed in Italian but the staff were more than happy to translate anything or everything for you. Almost every table had ordered a bottle of red and they served it very dramatically with a opening the bottle, sniffing the cork, then pouring a bit out to a glass, swirling it around and then onto the second glass, then to the decanter and finally emptying out to a glass that they would take away. They also served every table with an extensive mixed antipasto plate to start. I thought the amuse bouche plates were great in France but they went all out here. We got 9 different types of antipasti…grilled marinated egglplant grilled mariniated red peppers, tomato with mozzarella, bruschetta, chicken liver pate, marinated anchovies, breaded and fried spinach and ricotta cheese, some sort of stuffed grilled zucchini and some others that I can’t recall right now. I was filling up just eating that alone! And it was all good. Colin ordered his parma ham and melon (fantasic…ham was not too salty and melon was so sweet), I had the recommended mushroom salad with fresh porcini mushrooms…something you can’t get everyday so it was very good! Colin asked the server to recommend a good pasta with a meat sauce so he got the taglieri with wild boar meat (tasted like a tender beef brisket in a zesty tomato sauce…amazing) and I had the spinach and ricotta gnocchi (so good, but the sauce was a bit on the creamy side). We shared the osso bucco which was cooked to perfection in an amazing tomato based sauce. Asked the server to pick a dessert for us and served us warm strawberries with a light syrup over vanilla gelato. So simple, but so perfect for a complete meal. And of course, finished with a couple of expressos. What an amazing meal!

We took a walk around central Florence to walk off the meal. It was a very pleasant walk, especially with all the crowds gone. There were still a lot of people on the street so it created a lively atmosphere, not like the chaotic tourist traffic that we saw earlier in the day.

Wednesday June 15th

This morning we woke up and could hear that the streets were wet…looked like it had been pouring. Florence is going through some very unsettled weather and it looked like there were some thunder showers that occurred overnight. Breakfast at Tourist House Ghiberti was very nice. They had a very lovely breakfast room all laid out with your usual European continental breakfast as we had been having, but with some more variety of cold cuts and a very lovely homemade pound cake. We enjoyed breakfast very much. The weather still looked iffy outside so we went with jeans and a tshirt and I brought my hoodie just in case. We walked to the Duomo (it’s only a couple minute walk from our hotel) and got to go in right away….all the tour groups hadn’t reached the site yet! The Duomo in Florence is the 4th largest church in the world and it’s just huge inside. We then went to the tower and paid 3 euros each to climb the 414 steps to reach the top. Ah yes, once again, another way to burn off our breakfast. We were sweating by the time we reached the top because the sun had decided to come out and it was now warm. We were both asking ourselves why on earth were we in our jeans!!! Everyone was huffing and puffing as they reached the top. It was the same way to go down as it was to go up so while we were going down, lots of people asked how far there was left and we told them that it was still a way to go.

We were contemplating what our next stop should be as we had about an hour before we should be at the Uffizi as our reservation was for 12:45pm and we were supposed to arrive 10 minutes early. We were still very close to our hotel and it was now blazing hot so we decided to go back to our room to change before heading out again. That is always the upside of having a centrally located hotel.

After changing and freshening up, we headed out for the Uffizi. Funny, for some reason, both of us thought we had figured out Florence and both headed in one direction without questioning each other and also without looking at our map. After walking for a while and not recognizing anything, we finally thought to check the map. Of course, both Colin and I have concluded that we both absolutely suck at reading maps and are much better looking at landmarks. Unfortunately, all buildings are so close together in Florence that it is sometimes hard to spot certain buildings. Anyway, I decided to ask a store owner close by which direction the Uffizi was and of course we had gone the wrong way. We made it to the Uffizi just right on time. Because we had a reservation, we were supposed to go to Gate number 3 and bypass the huge line that were lining up to enter. The admission was 6.50 and the reservation fee was 3.00 each. How could you not make a reservation?! Time is so valuable! Anyway, once again, just like the Louvre, the Uffizi was just filled with amazing art….just overwhelming…one masterpiece after another. Of course, I was particularly interested in seeing the works of Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Raphael. We spent a little over an hour there. It was wonderful seeing all the masterpieces but both agreed we wouldn’t want to wait in line for hours. It is hard to appreciate the brilliance of these works when there are so many people hovering around you, with all the tour groups coming in, plus the encase all the great works in glass and the lighting is very dim in some rooms. Nevertheless, it was great to see.

We then went to grab lunch. Once again, we would be subject to the many tourist traps around the area. If you want to grab a bite or drink it the piazzas and people watch, be prepared to pay high prices and be subject to mediocre quality food. I had a lasagna, Colin had spaghetti with meat sauce, I ordered a diet coke and Colin had a beer. Total was 24 euros. Colin’s spaghetti wasn’t bad, my lasagna was once again of Bread Garden quality. Lunch has never been too high a priority for us as we have been having amazing dinners night after night. And tonight we hoped it would be no exception. We asked our host for a few recommendations for dinner and gave us a few business cards. Since I had access to the internet, I went online to see if I could find any info on any of them. We finally chose Accademia Restaurant which was in Piazza San Marco right beside the Accademia where the statue of David was because found out that they served Florentine steak and that was something I wanted to try.

But after lunch, we decided to head over to the Pitti Palace to just look around. We decided we didn’t really want to see the Boboli Gardens inside and just wandered around and did a little more shopping. It was then time for a gelato so we decided to see if we could find Vivoli which we passed by on our way to the Uffizi but once again, no luck, so we kept on walking and somehow wandered to Sante Croce. Looked like there would be some big event going on as they were setting up bleachers. We would later find out that it was some sporting event. We bought gelato at one of the cafes near the area where I believe we bought some panini last time we were in Florence.

Time to head back for a rest before dinner. I called the restaurant to make a reservation for 8:30. They told me that they were only about a 5 minute walk from the Duomo. It indeed only take us about 5 minutes to get there. We found the Piazza San Marco but there wasn’t a restaurant that stood out right away and we looked around and saw a place with the neon light “Ristorante” but with no name so we decided to look there. Once again, just like last night, we had troubles finding the name of the restaurant until we saw it on the door which was pushed in. We went in and it was very quaint restaurant. It wasn’t too busy when we arrived, only a few tables. We were seated at a nice table and were given the menu, specials list, and an extensive wine list. Within the next 15-20 minutes, there would be several groups coming into the restaurant and filled it 60% or so. We noticed that about half of the clientele were locals/regulars. That was very nice to see. First reaction when looking at the menu was how reasonable the prices were for everything. La Giostra was good, but the prices were still on the expensive side. Our server was fantastic….friendly and sincere, he was very helpful with our selections for dinner. We were going to share a mixed antipasto, each have a pasta and share a Florentine steak. However, he told us that the steaks are minimum 2 pounds because there is a bone involved so he recommended that we cancel one of the pastas. We ended up choosing a trio of pastas which consisted of ravioli with porcinis and cream sauce, penne in pesto sauce, and spaghetti in tomato and garlic sauce. He also helped us choose a nice full bodied red that would go perfect with the steak, a 1999 Vino Nobile de Montepulciano “Asinone” which he told us means “big donkey”.

The antipasto consisted of bruschetta, chicken liver pate and a selection of cured meats including parma ham….very nice, especially drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a hint of red wine vinegar. The pasta dish was huge and we were so glad we only ordered one serving. We started with the ravioli. There were only two and they were huge…stuffed with spinach and ricotta, and served with porcini mushrooms cooked to perfection in a light cream sauce. We took our first few bites and were in heaven. Now this is what pasta in Italy is supposed to take like!!! Not the crap we have had at lunch. We then took a bite of the penne in a parmesan-pesto sauce and had the same reaction…so al dente…so firm, so tasty and with so much bite. Then the spaghetti which didn’t look like spaghetti because it was handmade so it is a little thicker than usual. Wow…it was so amazing. The tomato garlic sauce had such a huge kick and the texture was a perfect al dente…the best we ever had. We were honestly having an orgasmic experience!!! I was almost stuffed from the pasta alone but we couldn’t wait for this 2 pound steak that was still coming!!! It was huge and the chef had cut it into a few pieces for easy serving and separated it from the bone. It is essentially a steak chargrilled with herbs and olive oil but it is the quality of beef that is so special. It truly was tender and very tasty and cooked to a perfect medium rare. The roasted potatoes were to die for as well but we could only have one or two tiny pieces. When our server took away the plate, I told him I was so full and he said that we still had dessert to go! There was lots to choose from but we would only choose one and Colin asked him to choose his favorite, which was an apricot panna cotta served with a strawberry coulis. He said it was a favorite with the locals. Man…absolutely amazing. I thought I couldn’t eat dessert but I ended up having half of it!!! I wanted to end with a lemoncello tonight and that would be on the house. It was such a perfect meal to end our stay in Florence and to wrap up our trip. We made sure we gave our guy a great tip. The bill came out to 117 euros (the steak turned out to be 44 euros at 4 euros per 100g) and the great wine was 38 euros. Colin discreetly gave him 20 euros separately from the credit card slip. He left and I guess looked at how much it was and came back with the lemoncello bottle and filled up our glasses again and thanked us. Hey, great service should be rewarded.

Took a nice stroll to walk off some of the big meal but that lemoncello really does wonders with aiding with the digestion process as we were no longer stuffed when we left.

Onto Milan (our last stop) tomorrow!
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Old Jul 4th, 2005, 01:53 PM
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MILAN AND AMSTERDAM (LAST STOP)

Thursday June 16th

Onto Milan today. We woke up at 7:00am to shower and get ready. Before breakfast, we paid our host. If we paid in cash, we would get a 8% discount so that is what we did. My two local phone calls for restaurant reservations cost us 0.27 so that was fine. And we consumed 4 bottles of water at a cost of 0.80 each. What a deal for such convenience. We decided we would take a cab again to the train station as we were running a little late. We asked about getting a taxi and he said it would only take a few minutes and the ride was only a few minutes so he would call for us when we were ready to leave. We were able to have breakfast on the terrace today because it was sunny. This is definitely a nice property. He called for a taxi and was put on hold for a few minutes. Colin took the luggage down on the elevator in the meantime. Then someone came on the phone and said something. He said “grazie” and hung up. He came down with me and told me that they were on the way and that they would just stop in the middle of the street so we would have to get ready. I couldn’t believe it. A cab pulled up as soon as we were able to move our luggage out to the street. It was an experiencing being in a vehicle weaving through the chaotic streets of Florence. I am so glad we did not book any rental cars while in Italy because there was honestly no need for one. If we were going around Tuscany as we did in Provence, that would have been different. Anyway, there was some surcharge going to the train station or something and the ride ended up to be 10 euros again. We arrived about 8:55am and our train to Milan was at 9:14 so we timed it out perfectly. We looked up on the board and our platform was still not announced yet. It would be posted within 5 minutes. A Chinese girl came up to us and asked us for 0.50 because she needed money and did not give us any more explanation. I had no money on me but Colin gave her the 0.50. It was kinda weird. I wonder if she just does that all day for a living instead of hawking as there seemed to be a whole lot of Chinese refugee types working illegally. We also wondered whether it was an Amazing Race type of thing. Oh well, we didn’t dwell too long because our platform was announced. We had a reservation for carozza 6. It was an Eurostar train and we would arrive in Milan by noon.

We have been at the Milan Centrale train station many times to change trains so we were very familiar with the set up. We would be staying at the Marriott in Milan because my friend works at the Marriott and managed to get me a great deal for 85 euros. I have read many negative reviews on Tripadvisor but for the price, I thought it would be worth a shot. We checked that the Marriott was close to the Wagner Metro station so we went to the Metro stop and decided to buy a 48 hour pass for 5.50 euros each. Each ticket would cost 1 euro otherwise. We would have to change lines at Cardona station, which is the station we would take the Malpensa Express to the airport. The European subway systems are so efficient and easy to figure out. It was a piece of cake. We took a look at the map once we arrived in Wagner station to see where via Giorgia Washington was and easily found it. It was about a four block walk down and we found the Marriott very easily.

The bellmen were quick to greet us and to help us with our luggage. The lobby area was nice and the check in staff were friendly and professional. It was only 1:30pm but they were able to give us our room right away. We were able to get a king size bed and a non smoking room. The room was very nice and clean. Room service and minibar were expensive so we wouldn’t be partaking in that! But I did hear someone ask if there was a supermarket near by and there was one a block away across the street. There was a box of Italian home made biscotti that were complements of the hotel so that was a nice touch. There was a dental kit with toothbrush and toothpaste, a shaving kit with razor and shaving cream (Colin decided hat it was a sign to finally shave off his holiday goatee) in addition to the usual Marriott Neutrogena toiletries.

After resting for about a half hour, we decided to head over to the Duomo area. It would be the same Line 1 heading in the other direction and about 6 stops. We were there in no time. We were expecting for another “wow” moment as we went up the steps and we did get the “wow”…then went to see the façade and were disappointed to see that the whole façade was covered up!!!! They are restoring it and you can see the top has already been done and looks great but I couldn’t believe it!!! We tried to go in and I got stopped because I was wearing a halter top and a short denim skirt. I put on my hoodie and still got stopped because I was exposing my knees so I told Colin to go in. As I waited outside, I took pictures of the area and couldn’t believe how many hawkers approached me, asking if I wanted to buy jewelry or popcorn to feed the pigeons in the square. They were pretty aggressive and really annoying. Maybe we had been in small towns for the past little while but Milan was really bad with the hawkers and the begging. Even kids coming up to you with a cup in hand almost demanding you to give them money. A couple of young girls were playing accordion in front of us when we were at a sidewalk café having our lunch break. We told them no and she started whining to us, saying something like you can afford to eat, you should give her money…something like that anyway. Speaking of which, Milan is the first place that I’ve seen that doesn’t publicly post their prices. The sidewalk cafes have pictures of what they serve, but doesn’t post a menu. Anyway…I really didn’t feel like paying 5 euros for a 20cl bottle of coke, so I chose to pay 8.50 euros for a mojito instead. Colin paid 7.50 for a bottle of Beck’s beer. Actually my cocktail was more than double the size of a normal cocktail so it turned out to be a pretty good deal. We both ordered a couple of pizzas…cheese and salami for Colin and cheese with grilled tuscan vegetables for me. Pizza was pretty good…I would prefer a thinner crust but it was still good. The cheese on top were like cheese curds…reminded me of poutine cheese.

We then went to wander and find La Scala Opera House. We went into the Museum. The two ahead of us were students so they had a discounted rate. The ticket guy asked if we were students. I said no right away and then smiled and said…yeah, sure. He was nice and said he would give us the student discount so we saved 2 euros. We were able to see some paintings, some costumes of previous performances and the highlight was seeing the actual opera hall from one of the boxes. We weren’t allowed to take pictures but I had to sneak in a few. La Boheme would be starting tomorrow night I believe. It would be so cool to watch an opera there.

We did some souvenir shopping and then decided to check out some of the shopping around the area. It’s insane how much shopping there is!!! We later went to the fashion district where you can just name any name brand and there would be a store within a 4 block radius. D&G, Versace, Chanel, Prada, Gucci…you name it. Armani has a whole entire block! It wasn’t an overly flashy area…just a whole lot of shopping!!! Of course not cheap though. Seems like all the sales people who work there could be models too…and the majority of the locals. All tall, slender model types. My goodness….

We wandered around until the shops closed and decided to head back to the hotel. We would skip dinner tonight because we had such a late lunch and we had to pack and sort out our stuff before heading home. Before going back to the hotel, we stopped at the supermarket to buy some water because I didn’t feel like paying 3 euros for a small bottle of water. We bought a 1.5 liter bottle for .31!!!

Tomorrow morning we have some time before heading to the airport so we will go to the Duomo again (I will be appropriately dressed this time!!!)

Friday June 17th

We slept in to 9:30 this morning. We called front desk to see if we were able to get a late check out. We were able to get a late check out of 3pm so that wasn’t bad. Made sure I dressed appropriately today! Took the metro to the Duomo and went in without a problem. Wow…it’s huge inside. Just beautiful.

Afterwards we did a little shopping around the area and before you know it, it’s already 1pm and we hadn’t even eaten yet. Time to grab lunch! I was pretty adamant I didn’t want to eat anywhere right smack on the piazza because they are pure tourist traps. I don’t mind paying a premium for drinks if I want to people watch, but I just want a good quality last meal in Italy before we head off so I didn’t want any mediocre quality food. We look down the smaller streets and settle on one without outdoor seating. We go in and see some a mix of tourists and Italian business people having lunch there. Hey, if there are locals there, then it should be pretty decent. The antipasto list didn’t have anything too exciting, mostly various cured meats so we decided on two pastas: spaghetti with shellfish, tomatoes and garlic for me, and spaghetti with garlic and chilis for Colin. The pasta was fantastic. Perfect al dente and tasty sauce. The clams and mussels were all perfectly cooked and were fresh. We then split a mixed grill that included grilled pieces of veal, chicken, beef, sausage, liver and kidney. It was the internal organs that caught my eye and what I thought Colin would want. He enjoyed the kidney and liver. We finished with two expressos. Great last meal in Italy.

After lunch, it was time to head back to our hotel to check out. When we got to our room, our key card didn’t work. Housekeeping wouldn’t let us in so we had to go down to front desk for them to reprogram our key. She said it wouldn’t only work once for us to get into our room. Colin took a quick shower as it was really hot and muggy out today and then we went to check out. The Marriott turned out to be a great stay. There were quite a number of negative reviews but I guess it depends on how much you pay per night. It was 85 euros with the friends and family rate so it was a great deal. But I don’t think I would pay over 200 euros. They classify themselves as a 5 star. I would call it a 4 star, not a 5 star.

Colin was contemplating on getting a cab to Wagner station with all our luggage as he didn’t want to sweat but it was only 4 blocks and we would still have to lug them through the subway stations so I convinced him that we should just walk slowly as we had all the time in the world before our plane would leave. I swear that laptop and all those travel books weigh a ton. Plus we have wine and souvenirs to bring back!

We were going to take the Malpensa Express Train to the airport. It would cost 9 euros per person. It leaves from Cardona station which is only about 6 stations away from Wagner. The train ride is 40 minutes and there is a train every 30 minutes. It was a great way to get to the airport. A ride to the airport from the Marriott is approximately 80 euros!

We arrive at the airport and easily find which area we are supposed to go to check in. However, it is still too early as the KLM staff have not even set up yet. We wandered around the shops and have a gelato to kill some time. Finally we see the KLM staff setting up so we go and line up. There is a huge group of South Americans ahead of us and taking forever. The check in clerk ask us if we are traveling to South America. When we say no, he tells us to go to the business class check in. Thank goodness! We get our luggage (a total of 50 kg!) checked in through to Vancouver so we don’t have to bother picking it up in Amsterdam and get our boarding passes. That means we can now go through security and into the gate. Once through to the gate, there’s a whole lot a nicer shops to look at…all high end stuff. We still had some time to kill so we went to look for a drink. We found a nice wine bar to sit at and they had wines by the glass so Colin had a really nice glass of red for only 4 euros and I had a glass of gewurtztraminer for 5 euros. We also shared a plate of proscuitto and melon for only 7 euros. I couldn’t believe how reasonable the prices were, for an airport! And everything was so nice. It was such a nice way to relax and pass the time.

Our flight to Amsterdam was at 8:50pm and we were scheduled to arrive in Amsterdam at 10:45pm. We arrive a little ahead of schedule and headed towards the train station to get a train to Central Station to get to our hotel. Went to the ticket counter and the guy tells us that there was a train strike and the first train to Central station would be at 1am. Ok….now what?! It would cost too much to go by taxi. So we go look for shuttle bus options. We go outside and look for shuttle buses and see a stop for one that would actually take us to A-Train Hotel but unfortunately the last shuttle was at 22:00 and it was 23:00 so that was no help. We then decide maybe we could look for a bus that would go to central station. We see a bus at the bus stop and ask him if he is going to central station. He says no, but he could take us to the tram station that would take us there so we hop on and it only costs us 4.80 euro for both of us. He tells us when to get off and what tram to take. Fortunately we only had to wait a couple of minutes before our tram arrived. Central Station would be the last stop so we didn’t have to worry about when to get off. Our ticket was good to transfer onto the tram so we didn’t have to pay anything extra. It was the first time we rode the tram in Amsterdam so it turned out to be a great way for a little tour around the city. We passed by some really happening areas. Well, it was Friday night afterall and it looked like every single bar was packed.

It took us a total of 40 minutes to get to Central Station from the airport so it wasn’t bad at all. By this time, it was midnight. When we got to Central Station, I realized I didn’t write down any instructions on how to find our hotel. Fortunately there were a lot of train staff around because of the train strike so I asked them if any of them know where the A-Train Hotel was and one of them knew and it was literally across the street so it was easy to find.

We checked in the hotel and the reason why I chose this hotel was because of its location and it got good reviews on Tripadvisor. It was not cheap, it was 149 euros but I wanted something close to the train station as we would only be essentially spending a few hours there anyway our flight to Vancouver was at 10:00am.

We would drop off our stuff (we only brought our carry on with us as we checked the rest of our luggage through to Vancouver) and went out to wander around the area. It wouldn’t take us long to find the red light district and it was just packed. It was very entertaining to wander around and people watch and “window shop”. The last time we came through Amsterdam, it was a Sunday morning so there was absolutely nothing happening but it was a very different experience this time around! The streets were flooded with people, you could smell weed all over. The area was not lined up with any sort of gourmet restaurants, but lots of fast food and take out places selling pizza, hot dogs, waffles, all greasy stuff to cure the munchies. Some places even had vending machines selling some sort of fast food and lots of places selling French fries served with mayo. We would see a KFC open and busy at 2am! Instead of sipping coffee at sidewalk café to people watch like in Paris, people were sitting at sidewalk pubs drinking beer and people watching. There were tons of girls posing in their windows….some very pretty and some really nasty looking. It was a very interesting experience. We walked all the way to Dam square and turned around and headed back to the hotel.

I would rate the hotel as a two star. Shower only, with no toiletries. Only a “3 in 1” soap/shower gel/shampoo dispenser. We had two single beds on opposite sides of the room Colin and I had to sleep to roommates. J Breakfast was included and it was a pretty standard European continental breakfast, with boiled eggs. They had a coffee machine that made expressos, café au laits, cappuccinos and regular coffee. But aside from cold water, all of them had the price of 1.20 euros posted beside it. We were a little surprised they wouldn’t include coffee but fruit juice was free? We tried but we didn’t get it to work so we grabbed some juice and had our breakfast. There would be many people after us checking out the machine. Most would not use it, but one couple managed to get coffee and I became intrigued. Then I saw the front desk guy get a coffee without putting any money in so I was determined to figure it out. Went back to the machine and started pressing buttons, then Colin comes over and presses one button and coffee starts pouring out. Hahaha….it was as simple as that. I think its free during breakfast hours and there is a charge after breakfast hours. Doesn’t matter. We got our coffee so we were happy. We checked out and went to the train station.

It was very easy to use the machine to buy a ticket to the airport. It was 3.40 euros per person. We asked the staff the night before how often the train goes to the airport and were told every 10 minutes after 7am. Forgot that today was Saturday so it was every half hour. We literally missed the train by 2 minutes (damn coffee machine!) so we had to wait half an hour before the next train came. The ride was fast, about 20 minutes. We had to go through security and then go to the gates. Our flight was showing boarding already even though it was only 9:15 and our flight wasn’t until 10:25. We still had to do some last minute souvenir shopping as we didn’t get souvenirs for everyone yet so we dashed to the duty free store and speed shopped to get some last minute items and then we went to the gate. We could see in that they allowed people in, but people were waiting inside in a smaller room to board the plane so we decided we would wait and wander around the other duty free store instead to kill time and use up the last of our euros. It was so funny, as we were making the last of our purchases, Michael Buble’s “Home” was playing in the shop. The song finished as soon as we finished with the cashier. “….I’m coming back home….” We both thought it was so appropriate as we were going home.

We took off on time and I just started dozing off when Colin nudged me and told me not to get too comfortable because the plane was turning around. Turns out that there was something wrong with the wing flap that wouldn’t allow the plane to reach its intended altitude so we had to go back down. But before we land, we had to dump out all the fuel so it took another 45 minutes or so to do that. We landed fine and thankfully we were flying KLM and we were in Amsterdam so they were able to bring out a replacement aircraft which was the exactly the same as the one we were on (we thankfully kept our seats as we had a two seat only row to ourselves). They would have to transfer all the baggage and refuel so it would be a total of 4 hours later before we headed up again. The rest of the flight was fine. We watched Million Dollar Baby and Phantom of the Opera. Meals were fine and we had the usual KLM treats of ice cream and chips. Safe landing and we got our luggage fine!

Wow….what an incredible trip. It was truly a trip of a lifetime. It will be hard to top this one!!!
italybound01 is offline  
Old Jul 4th, 2005, 05:09 PM
  #14  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,827
Don't have time to read your whole report (I will later) but I went to your photos and they are great. Looks like you had a wonderful trip. Thanks for sharing.
isabel is online now  
Old Jul 6th, 2005, 02:33 PM
  #15  
 
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 1
great read! loved all your food descriptions....i feel like i've gained 10 pounds just reading it. thanks for sharing your experiences. i can't wait until my trip to italy in the fall!
icecream is offline  
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