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Summer 2018: Mountains, Lakes, and Food in Italy, France, & Slovenia

Summer 2018: Mountains, Lakes, and Food in Italy, France, & Slovenia

Jul 22nd, 2018, 05:00 PM
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Join Date: Oct 2013
Posts: 71
Summer 2018: Mountains, Lakes, and Food in Italy, France, & Slovenia

As a long time reader of the trip reports here, I have always wanted to write one on our travel. This year I decided I would take good notes and give it a shot! Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write one in the past...they were both inspirational and informative!

Trip overview:
June 19-July 17 2018
Maine-->NYC--->Milan (flights; reverse on the way home)
Trip plan:
Cogne, Italy (June 20-24)
Lake Annecy, France (June 24-27)
Lyon, France (June 27-30)
Chamonix, France (June 30-July 2)
Casalborgone, Italy (July 2-3)
Parma, Italy (July 3)
Friuli Venezia Giulia region (Grimacco, Cividale di Friuli, Gorizia, Udine, Trieste, etc.) (July 4-8)
Treviso, Italy (July 9)
Sirimione (Lake Garda) (July 10-12)
Marina di Pietrasanta (July 12)
Casalborgone (July 13-16)
Milan (July 16-17)

A little bit about us: We are a couple with no children in our 40's (me early, DH late). This is my eleventh trip to Europe, my husband's eighth. We enjoy good food and wine, really trying to get the feel for a place, meeting local people, walking/hiking, and art/culture. We have always planned our own trips, and while in the past we have avoided driving (for the most part using trains and walking), this trip we rented a car for the duration of the trip. Part of why our itinerary may seem wonky is that we were traveling with our Italian friends for a part of the trip (work obligations for us drove some of it) and we were also taking a detour to meet the exchange student from Prato that will be spending a year with us this year.

We left Maine bright and early, with a ten hour layover at JFK in our plan. This is a necessary evil when coming from Maine, so we embrace it and don't find it annoying. Beats driving four hours to Boston before or after a trans-Atlantic flight! World Cup soccer kept us fairly entertained along with our many downloaded books. There are definitely worse ways to spend a day. Our flight to Milan left on time and was gratefully uneventful. We arrived into a steamy airport, and passport control seemed much slower than I remember. An hour and a half later we were at the Auto Europe counter (no lines, no waiting!) and off with our Telepass (the best decision of our trip), GPS, and Volkswagon Golf. My husband never sleeps on the flight, so I was responsible for getting us to Cogne while he napped on the air conditioned car ride. Mainly an autostrada drive, it felt good to be on the open road. About a 2 hour drive, once I took the exit toward St. Pierre, I was rewarded with the winding, scenic, mountainous drive that I imagined. Waterfalls, tunnels, trees...windows down and fresh air. We chose Cogne based on some reading I had done about good hiking/Gran Paradiso National Park. Our friends from Italy explained there was a very captivating murder case that happened in Cogne, so they felt it was a curious choice. But without spoiling our trip report, it was one of our favorite stops on this holiday. We stayed (a splurge for us) at the Bellevue Hotel & Spa ( https://www.hotelbellevue.it/en/ ), and they accommodated our slightly early arrival willingly. It was an amazingly charming hotel, and the spa area and services were top notch. A quick nap (1 hour), a walk around the small town, a swim in one of the pools, and dinner at the Bar a Frommage, we were ready to sleep for real so we could hit the hiking trails in the morning.

A note about the Bar A Frommage...while we had a pleasant dining experience, the food was heavier than we had planned for a travel day. I think that is typical of food in this area, but we had wished we had chosen something lighter that first evening. We found the subsequent post-hiking dinners a little less heavy.
mainetrvlgrl is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2018, 05:06 PM
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Congratulations on your first report. Your writing is easy to read and follow. I look forward to more.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2018, 05:32 PM
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Our first full day in Cogne my husband had a lovely breakfast (I don't do breakfast), and then we set off for the local tourism office. We bought a hiking map, filled our water bottles, and set off to explore the area. The scenery was breathtaking; hundreds of wildflowers in bloom, Gran Paradiso peak showing its snowy head between other mountains, the valley flanked by the crystal clear alpine rivers. We decided to take a gentle hike to Valnontey, and then decide where to go from there. It was a beautiful temperature, sun shining and the trails relatively quiet. We then continued along the river until the trail we chose ended with needing to cross a river, or ascend a fairly steep single track trail. So we opted to go back to Valnontey for some lunch and take a different trail back to Cogne. The bathrooms were just the squat toilets in the floor, so I was relieved to have packed my own tissues. After a panino and some water, we took a wonderfully steep and scenic trail back to Cogne. We saw our first Ibex (seven of them), and enjoyed crossing some small streams and the steep up and down of the trail. Our app told us we covered 12 miles and climbed 46 flights for the day. We enjoyed the pool/spa and the Himalayan salt room post-hike. Dinner was at Brasserie Bon Bec, and we enjoyed a vegetable sfumatino, pasta, and a local veal/potato dish with an extraordinary bottle of local torrette superieur. Lighter food and after a day of hiking we were satisfied.

Our second full day we decided to hike to Lillaz and see the waterfalls. It was a very easy walk along the river, and the waterfalls were beautiful. This was more of a tourist destination, with busses of school aged students coming by the hundreds. It is a fairly steep walk up to the top, but you can stop at any point and turn around. My husband went to the top and I went about 3/4 of the way. The rocks were wet and slippery and it wasn't fun, so I turned back. His photos of the top made me not regret my decision-it was nice but not much different from what I had already seen. We walked back closer to the river on a narrow trail through the flowers and the trees. We returned to the center of town and stopped at a local shop for some beer and snacks. We had spa services scheduled for the late afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel after. A massage and facial and more time in the pool...we decided to break our general rule for vacation and return to Bon Bec for dinner, as we had enjoyed such a nice meal the night before.

Our final day in Cogne we took the gondola up to the base of Montseuc. We had inquired earlier in the week about the gondola, but it had yet to be opened for the summer season. The front desk attendant said it was a lovely loop hike around the gondola at the top, so we were happy to know they opened for the season that Saturday. We walked up and bought round trip tickets- 10 euros each (if we had not had more spa services planned we would have done just one way and walked back into town). The hike up to the peak of Montseuc was steep but amazingly beautiful at each turn. We made it to the top, signed the book, and the descent was somewhat more gradual. The second half of the descent was along a ski slope, and so it was more of a steep open field than a single trail. Other than two other families, the trails were quiet. Our ride down was quick, and we were able to get in a swim before our second round of spa services. Dinner was at the Petit Restaurant, right in the hotel. A four table, michelin rated restaurant, it was a fantastic dining experience. We did one of the three tasting menus, and everything was amazing. Service, food, wine...we were happily satisfied.

We agreed that we could have been quite happy staying in Cogne for a week-we feel like the hiking possibilities and other things in the area were really untapped this trip. We parked out car on the first day and never got in it again until we left. We would return here another trip in a heartbeat.
mainetrvlgrl is offline  
Jul 22nd, 2018, 06:16 PM
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Lake Annecy

We were up bright and early to pack and leave Cogne for what we expected to be a relatively short (1 hour and 46 minutes) drive to Lake Annecy, France. A tip that I would pass along is to check the Mont Blanc pass website before planning your trip vis the pass. We drove the close to an hour up to the pass, only to find it was closed for maintenance that day until 6:00am the next morning. The kind gentleman who explained thankfully handed us a handwritten re-routed list of directions, as our GPS and Google Maps didn't want to suggest another route! So we set off for Lake Annecy via Switzerland...we got a little turned around in Aosta, and I had a brief visit from an Italian police officer on a moto (apparently you can't turn across the lane of traffic into a parking lot to turn around if the line on the road is solid...lesson learned, and he took pity on me I think!). We finally got moving in the right direction, and three hours, steep ($$) tolls to go through the other mountain pass, switchback driving, and a new appreciation for the breaks in our car, we arrived in Annecy. We stayed in an apartment (booked via Booking.com), and met our landlady who was just lovely. She had provided enough food for us to have breakfast every morning, a bottle of rose, beer, water, juice, coke...and the apartment was adorable and close to all of the main attractions, but far enough away that it was quiet for sleeping. Her shower ended up being the best of our entire trip (four star hotels included!). We stowed our bags and set off to see what Annecy was all about. Honestly, it was far more touristy than I was expecting. The old town was quite dirty and crowded. The lake was stunning, more of that clear turquoise water was shining in the sun. We got our bearings with the area, and ate at a very basic restaurant in the old town. My rule is never eat at a restaurant with pictures on the menu, and if you can find a place with a hand written menu, always give it a try. Some tartiflette potatoes, salad, and a glass of white wine and we were ready to walk around at sunset.

The following day we decided to explore the patisserie across the street (despite having breakfast items provided...), and we were not disappointed. Fresh croissants and coffee were a perfect start to the day (I opted for breakfast today...the croissants were too amazing to pass up!) We decided to get out of town a bit and do more hiking. We drove up to the Semnoz plateau, and hiked all day on the trails. Cows, sheep, and goats accompanied us as we walked. You could see Aix-le-Bain & Annecy from the top. We stopped at a farm and bought some fresh tome cheese-a chunk of cow and a chunk of goat-from a lovely woman. My rudimentary French got us through, and she was happy to share her cheese with us. We got back in town in time to catch the last two hour ferry ride around the lake. We found ourselves comparing (probably not fairly) this lake/ferry to the one we experienced in Lucerne, Switzerland. This ferry was much smaller, and it stopped just for a moment at each town (there wasn't a lot of off and on happening). But we enjoyed seeing the lake from this vantage point. We ate a late dinner at a creperie, and a dessert of glaces for my husband and gaufrette with nutella for me. A wonderful day in the mountains-I would highly recommend getting out of town if you stay in Annecy to explore the environs.

Our final full day in Annecy we decided to rent bikes and ride around the lake. We rented bikes through Cyclable Annecy, and the bikes were comfortable and great to ride. The gentleman who helped us was patient and efficient (there were lots of people who were wanting bikes that day!). We didn't reserve ahead of time but it didn't at all appear to be an issue. You do need an ID to rent. We biked the 38km round trip from one end of the lake to the other, and back. The bike trail around the entire lake is not yet complete, but this was really a great ride. We stopped at a public beach in Sevrier on our return trip to swim in the lake and relax a bit. The water was so clear and refreshing after a long ride! We cut our beach time a bit short so we could get back and see the France-Demark World Cup game at a local pub. While the game was quite boring, it was festive to watch with the locals. We opted to get a gelato (we never eat lunch on vacation...we are usually busy and grab a snack) and go back to shower and pack for our next stop. Wine, cheese, bread in our apartment with some fresh cherries were dinner that night.

We made the best of our time in Annecy-we didn't care for the main area of the town that was so touristic, but the areas around the lake and in the mountains were lovely.
mainetrvlgrl is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2018, 05:05 PM
Join Date: Sep 2004
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Really enjoying yoour report. Looking forward to hearing about Lyon.
ElleD9 is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2018, 08:03 PM
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Definitely surprised by your impressions of Annecy and the lake. The photos I've seen make me think of it as idyllic.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Jul 25th, 2018, 05:47 PM
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We had a nice slow morning and met our landlady to check over the Annecy apartment, and then hopped in the car to make the relatively short drive to Lyon (1.5 hours). We had rented a wonderful apartment near the Opera in Lyon (via booking.com), but the check in was all remote (never met our landlord-just received codes to get in). We dropped off our stuff (had to park in the Opera parking garage) and then went off to explore the city a bit before meeting a friend from the US (who also happened to be in Lyon for work) for dinner. Our first impressions were that Lyon was an absolutely lovely city, with much of the same kind of charm that we found in Paris but on a slightly smaller and more accessible scale. As we walked around, we felt more like we were living in this place vs. just visiting as a tourist. We had been told about the stunning views of the city as well as the beautiful mosaics in the Basilica of Notre Dame De Fourviere, so we headed up the hill to check it out. After reading a bit more about the churches of this city, it turns out that Notre Dame De Fourviere is one of the newer ones (built in the late 1800's). But it was still quite stunning. The walk up to the basilica was quite steep, and there is relatively little (if any) signage pointing you in the right direction. We thankfully just followed our gut (you can sort of see it in the distance as you walk up), and made it up after a hot walk. The views of Lyon don't disappoint-and we were treated to a lovely cool breeze at the top. The basilica was also quite impressive, a very large and grande structure. The mosaics were stunning, and people were very quiet and respectful in the space. We sat there for almost an hour, taking it all in. We then wandered back to our apartment to shower and meet our friend out. The dinner ended up being one of the highlight meals of our trip. We had reservations at Maison Marie, and the neighborhood was lively that evening. Marie herself seated us and made the most wonderful local wine selections. The food was fresh and perfectly prepared-the avacado/crab/tomato/herbs starter was one of the best dishes I've ever had. At the end of the meal we continued to walk around the city, visiting the Bartholdi fountain all lit up by the city hall. We hated to see the day end, and we both agreed that we had not booked enough time for visiting this city.

The second day we had booked a walking tour/food tour in Lyon. Lyon is sometimes considered the culinary capital of France (depending on who you consult), and we have had such wonderful prior experiences with food tours in both Paris and other Italian cities that we thought it would be a great way to learn about the food culture of the city. We were right-we had such an amazing tour that we fell even more deeply in love with Lyon! Our guide, Pauline, worked for Lyon Food Tours. We met (a group of 8) at 10:00am and set off to learn about the city. Our first stop was a cheese shop, where we had a tasting of 5 different cheeses. We learned that the St. Marcellein cheese was the famous cheese of Lyon (along with 53 other AOP cheeses of France). We then learned about the history of the traboules (secret/public passageways all around the city), and Pauline took us into several of them to see how they worked. We then stopped at a wine bar for some local wine as well as some local charcuterie. We then continued on to have some food at a traditional bouchon, a typical Lyonnaise restaurant. We tried some communard (a beaujolais wine/currant liquor drink), a terrine of veal and beef on toast, a cheese and herb dip known as "silkworkers brain" (Lyon has a long silk making tradition), and a poached egg cooked in beef sauce. All of it was quite good and very different from what we had eaten thus far. We then walked down Rue de Boeuf, the street with the largest number of Michelin star restaurants in Europe (according to Pauline-3 of them!). We stopped at a local silk maker, and watched him create silk on a machine that dated back to the late 1800's. Our tour concluded with two dessert stops-one for glaces and the other a coffee shop that served desserts based on the local Lyon praline (candied almonds). We spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the old part of the city. We had dinner at another bouchon, wanting to try some of the other local dishes.

Our final "day" in Lyon was actually not in Lyon, but rather on a full day wine tour of the Rhone Valley/Cote Rhoti region. Our guide, Vincent Pontet, spent the day teaching us about wine in general, the local wine, the terroirs of the area, and of course tasting wines. We tried over 15 different wines and had a fantastic lunch as well. Scenery, company, and level of information were all top notch. We learned so much, as did the sommeliers in training who were also a part of our group. We returned in the early evening, too tired and full of wine to do much that evening. We did take one last stroll around the city...again sad that we had planned such a short stop. But we also agreed this would definitely be a place we would both want to return on a future trip. People were kind, there was no shortage of beautiful squares and architecture, food was absolutely amazing, and the wine stellar. St. Joseph white is my new favorite kind of wine after this stop!
mainetrvlgrl is offline  
Jul 25th, 2018, 07:22 PM
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Lyon sounds like one of those perfect places to slow down and enjoy what comes at you.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Jul 27th, 2018, 08:16 AM
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We arrived at our hotel, Grande Hotel Des Alpes mid-day from Lyon. The drive up into the mountains was lovely and scenic. The hotel was quite nice, and apparently in my booking of this last minute-ish (we had a few plans with out friends change), I booked the honeymoon suite (oops!). Which was really code for the attic of the hotel...thank goodness it was the only room with AC (not that we expect that in our destinations...we are used to no AC now). It was quite unique and interesting, but the shower was quite strange. We didn't realize the weekend would be the Chamonix Marathon...so the town was full and buzzing with lots of fit and athletic folks. We had made a reservation for a restaurant (I didn't recall the name), but it was only ok. We walked around the town and checked everything out before dinner. We turned in earlyish to watch World Cup soccer. It was quite loud with people finishing the marathon at all late hours, but it was festive so we didn't care.

The next morning we were up early to go on a hot air balloon ride with the Alps Montgolfiere company. My rudimentary French was put to the test-nobody spoke English at all! But we figured things out, and had a lovely ride with them. We definitely didn't need the coats/sweatshirts they recommended (there is a huge hot propane torch above your head), and it was a hot and sunny morning to boot. We had never been in a hot air balloon, so we weren't sure what to expect. It was definitely a unique experience, and our driver was excellent. He made sure we got just about every angle of Mont Blanc that he could provide. The landing was a little rough, but I don't think there is really another way to land except to just bump down. We helped put the basket and balloon in the trailer and they took us to a parking lot nearby for champage and chocolate chip cookies (interesting combo!). We then drove back to the cars, and headed back to the hotel, with the goal of doing some hiking in the afternoon. However my back decided to be tricky after the rough balloon landing, and so I had to go and lay down for a few hours to try and get it back to a good place. We decided to take the gondola and cable car up to Mr. Brevent (Aiguile Du Midi was closed part way up, so we opted for this route). It was packed with people, and very hot that day. We decided to just walk around the general area, then have a late lunch at the restaurant on top. The views were spectacular, and the food not bad. The hiking would have to wait until next time. We walked back from the gondola station and decided to take a swim in the pool of the hotel. More World Cup soccer...

I'd say Chamonix was a nice town, and we didn't really have enough time to explore it fully. The Marathon was festive, but it makes me wonder what the town is like on a week/weekend without such a big event happening. I would go back and do more hiking and outdoors activities for sure.
mainetrvlgrl is offline  
Jul 27th, 2018, 01:30 PM
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The trip up L'Aiguille du Midi and the hike over to Montenvers is worth coming back.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Jul 27th, 2018, 03:12 PM
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Enjoying your trip with you. Lyon sounds interesting.
Adelaidean is offline  
Aug 3rd, 2018, 08:02 AM
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Casalborgone, Parma, and then to Grimacco

This was the transitional point in our trip, going from it just being DH and I to joining our Italian friends for our week away in Friuli Venezia Giulia. We drove from Chamonix, through the Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco) tunnel this time, to their home just about 25 minutes outside of Turin. I adore their little village of Casalborgone...probably because we met our friends there three years ago and have been back to visit them every year since...but it is a sweet little town with some quietly spectacular food and wine. We spent the night with them waiting for all of their girls and her husband to return home from other trips so we could leave the next day. We started with breakfast the next town over at the Fabrizio Galla pastry shop Tre Colombe (same Fabrizio Galla that has the Farmacia in Turin), which is always special. I highly recommend a visit to either shop if you find yourself in either area. We then packed up the cars and headed for Parma, where our friend Alberto had to work for half of the next day before we could head to Friuli.

We had been fortunate to visit Parma before, so we took two of the three girls with us and headed to meet the landlord of the apartment we had rented just for the night. It was a perfectly located place off the main st. but still in the old city of Parma. The parking situation was interesting...there was a small parking garage under this building, run by an older couple. He told us not to park it in a spot, but rather to get out and give him our keys. Luckily this ended up ok, but if I were a new traveler in Italy it may have made me too uneasy to trust that situation! I told myself it was like valet parking in the underground lot...we then went to the apartment and dropped our things off before heading out for an aperitivo. In rolls a thunderstorm...so we just made it to a place right before the downpour! It wasn't the best aperitivo, but the drinks were cold and the company was good, and we had shelter from the storm. We met everyone else in our party at the restaurant, Ristorante Angiol D'Or where we had a late dinner. Food there was quite good, and the service very friendly. It was after 11:30 when we returned to the apartment, so we went to bed and prepared for the travel day the following day.

We headed to Fidenza Village (a shopping outlet) for the morning while Alberto worked...my husband needed some dressier clothes for dinners out. This was something that we didn't realize about dining in Italy...dress for dinner is more than a collared shirt. We got him a few shirts and then me a new leather handbag...can't have too many Italian leather bags Then we met Alberto for lunch at La Fattoria Di Parma...an outstanding spot for local meats, cheeses, and some amazing caprese with mozzarella di buffala. We then made the four hour trip to Grimacco. Our friends planned this part of the trip, so we were enjoying being the followers and seeing what they had planned. The house we stayed at was part of an interesting tourism project they are doing in that area called SlowValley. The idea is that rather than building a hotel, local residents contribute rooms or areas of their residence to the idea of a town hotel. We were in a house that was adjacent to the landlady, called Casa Sittaro. At this point my phone told me that I was in Slovenia, so I knew were were quite close to the border. The house was absolutely sweet and perfect for the seven of us. We unpacked and relaxed for a few minutes before heading to the only restaurant in town, Trattoria Alla Cascata. We visited the small waterfall behind the restaurant before making our way inside. We were the only diners in the restaurant (it was a Wednesday evening...), and we had such a special meal. Everything was like home cooking and we enjoyed every moment. They make gnocchi with bread (vs. potatoes) in this area, and we had some herbed gnocchi with brown butter and smoked ricotta that were pretty outstanding. The air in the mountains was fresh and not quite so hot, so it was wonderful sleeping there.

The days of travel and transition can sometimes feel tedious, but I think we made the best of them with some good food with good friends!
mainetrvlgrl is offline  
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