Monday, September 17, 2012

Italy-France September 2012

We arrived in Milan on Tuesday morning Aug 22.  For lunch we went to a recommended restaurant only to see the sign (which we saw repeatedly over the next 3 days) chiuso per la feria or closed for the holidays.  On the other hand our hotel, The Bruneshelli was brilliantly located next to the Duomo.  We did a city tour on Wednesday culminating in a viewing of the Last Supper.  Dan Brown was right it does look like a woman to the left hand side of Christ.  As the only restaurants that were open were in the Galleria Victor Emmanuel that is where ate most of the time.  On Thursday we did the tour of the golden quadrilateral where all the fashion houses are located.  Well worth a visit given the importance of fashion in our culture.  I also bought a Tom-Tom which proved invaluable.

Friday we hired a car and drove to Verona.  We stayed at the Anfitheatro BandB which is conveniently located next to the Arena.  We saw Carmen and it was an amazing experience.  The chorus must have been over 200 people and the stage at least 8 times that of the Sydney Opera House.  They had horses cantering around on the stage. It started at 9 and finished at 1am.  As we and the other 20,000 people streamed out we were so glad we were only 5 minutes away from a bed.

The next week we stayed in a villa near San Casiciano with Ann, Anthony, Jan and Peter.  One would not call the village attractive but the villa (other than the access) certainly was.  We had a great time visiting Sienna, Greve, San Gimiagno, and Florence.  We had two good dinners at in the village at Cinque de Vino and Nello but then the day generally comprised a visit to a town, lunch and then return for an evening meal in the villa.  In Sienna I saw the head and thumb of St Catherine who is revered in Italy because she pursuaded the Pope to return to Italy from France and the 57 floor marbles in the Duomo which are only on show for 6 weeks of the year.  In Florence we went and saw the Fra Angeleco paintings at San Marco and then a great lunch at the Golden View restaurant which overlooks the Ponte Vecchio.  We also went to Greve, home of Chianti (where as the waiter was pouring a Chianti Ann loudly proclaimed that Chianti wine was rubbish) and a great butcher and finally San Gimigano where we ended up having lunch at the DiVinorum which has great views over Tuscany.  The funniest moment of the week was as the dinner was finishing on the first night.  We had a Bengali waiter and Peter Arnold wanted a taxi back to the villa.  The waiter said that taxis were few and he had a friend who would drive them.  He came and the three left.  Five minutes later he reappeared saying they did not know where to go.  Luckily I had loaded my new Tom-Tom the villa as the Home Address and we are able to guide us all back.

We then moved to St Jennett in Provence which is up in the hills behind Nice.  The views of the villa we stayed at were spectacular and the access again a tricky rutted path.  This time we had Vivienne's sister, Virginia and her husband Pierre staying with us.  We had two dinners in St Jeannet, the first at the Chante Grille was excellent, the second at St Barbe was probably the most expensive and worst meal of the holiday.  Again we could have been lost going back to the villa but remembering what had happened in San Casiciano, I had reset the home address and we got back to the villa.  Vence, Tourettes-sur-Loup and Gourdon were great villages in the mountains, St Paul de Vence was quite rightly described by our housekeeper as Disneyland.  We went to Nice, finally found the Matisse Museum which led us attending the Matisse Chapel in Vence.  I must confess while I liked his pre-WWI paintings I found his late work (mainly scissor cut outs pretty simplistic).  We also went to Cannes to visit relatives of Pierre and had a great lunch at La Napoule.  In Gourdon we ate at Le Grande Homme which was aksi excellent.

Our final meal together was at L'Amial at Sante Maxime as we were both driving west.  On Trip Advisor someone had rated the restaurant very poorly because when they asked for two vegitarian meals in a group of 4 the manager physically threw them out.  We however meekly asked for the Plat du Jour and had a great meal.

We then moved onto the Pavilion at Pampelonne at St Tropez.  This is a great place to stay and highly recommended.  The owners are English and on Monday night they throw a great BBQ.  Our first night we ate in Ramatuelle at La Farigoulette and had a great meal.  But we were the first people to sit down and were served reasonably promptly.  Other later arriving couples were still waiting for their first course as we paid our bill.  The other great meal was La Pesquiere in St. Tropez at Le Ponche bay.  This is set back from the port in the old village and was great value.  Vivienne liked the nature around St. Tropez and on our final full day we drove around the hills in Gassin and Cavalaire finishing at Le Mignon restaurant on Pampelonne Beach   It is on the southern tip of the beach and not nearly as glitzy as some of the other locations nearer to St. Tropez.  The money in this area is extraordinary.   Ferraris abound,  Porshes are common place and there must have been at least 20 $100 million stinkboats moored at the port.  Now I know what if feels to be one of the 99%.

We then returned to Italy.  We spent three nights at Santa Margherita Ligure which is a great place to visit.  It is on the Italian coast about 30 minutes south of Genoa.  It has a great atmosphere and you can catch boats to Portofino and Cinqueterre.  We stayed at the Santa Margherita Palace which is a brand new hotel done with Italian style set back 5 minutes from the beach.  We had probably the best meals of the holiday at Le Nostromo, Aqua Pazza and Oca Blanca.  The first was #1 in Trip Advisor and booked out every night.
The owner recommended the other two restaurants and while not quite in the same league as Le Nostromo were certainly not far from it.  In all three cases the food was excellent and the wine chosen by the owner superb value (we generally paid around 20 euros a bottle.)  Cinqueterre gets all the raves but I would stay in Santa Margherita if I was going to this area.

Our next stop was Bellagio on Lake Como.  Another fantastic place.  Drive up to Bellagio via Lecco and then going back catch the ferry across and drive down through Tremezzo.  We did ferry trips to the Villa Carlotta (excellent) and Como (we arrived at lunchtime and the Duomo was shut).  You could give Como a miss but on the drive back to Milan we stopped at the Villa del Balbianello which has to be seen to be believed.  We stayed at the Hotel de Lac which is conveniently located at the Ferry Terminal.  We typically had a late lunch at the Hotel de Lac people watching and then went to a wine bar for a single course meal.
We had two great meals at the Enoteca Cava Turacciola and Apertivo et Al.  On our final night we ate on the terrace at Hotel de Lac.  This is another place to put on your bucket list.

Finally we returned to Milan.  We went to La Scala to see a ballet, Eugene Onegin which was unbelievable.
La Scala is very simple outside but unbelievably sumptuous on the inside and the people watching during the intermissions was great.  The next day we visited the Pinotecca which was very good and unlike say the Uffizi  in Florence there was no queuing.  It is a very good art gallery.  That night we went to Le Navigli area and ate at the Osteria La Vigne, top of the Lonely Planet recommendation and a good meal.

In conclusion we ate well, the A$ kept up its remarkable strength so we felt we were getting value for money everywhere we ate and stayed.  I dread to think what the places we visited would be like in July and August but as most of holiday was in September the crowds were manageable.  I sort of feel I now have Italy out of my system but it is one of the great places for Australians to go for a holiday.

The other big change is how much technology has changed solo travelling.  A GPS system is invaluable and mine cost 139 euro which is a lot cheaper then renting one and also more likely to have up to date maps.  A Kindle means you do not have to lug a pile of books around.  I read 5 e-books while on holiday including Hilary Mantel's 900 page epic A Place of Greater Safety.  Finally we took an Ipad with us.  While not very good for entering data an Ipad is great for reading it.  Instead of going to the well-worn copy of Lonely Planet I found that increasingly we would look up Trip Advisor and 10 Things to Do ... when visiting a new town.

Chris Golis Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence
website: mobile: +61-418-222219

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