Tuesday, October 14, 2014

2014 France and Italy sojourn - PART 2 - Week Two Onwards

We arrived in Beaune in the early afternoon and found our hotel without too much trouble (Just a little bit ;-). I had booked the Hotel au Grand St. Jean which I had hoped would project the region's ambiance and character. We were not disappointed. We stayed two nights and it was everything we wanted. Very friendly service, large airy room, very comfortable bed, great en-suite bathroom and a very substantial breakfast. Add to that a super location to mooch around the very lovely town of Beaune at very reasonable rates and you really can't go wrong staying here. The reception staff were outstanding!

Beaune is a very attractive walled town, with plenty of small squares, parks and pedestrian only streets. And of course, shops, fine restaurants and street cafes.
Here's a view looking into the town
In truth, heading here was not really for the sightseeing. Beaune has always been one of my favourite reds and to be surrounded by it was like being the proverbial 'Kid in the Candy Store'. And the other delicious Borgogne wines we enjoyed have now swelled the ranks of 'Favourites'. If only they traveled well in a suitcase, it would have been worth the excess baggage!

Such quality at affordable prices!
First night's wine choice

On our first evening, we dined outside at Le Belena, just across the street from our hotel.
You have so many ways to eat here. Small plates or multi-course meals, simple or grand, local sourced or international. As it was our first night in Beaune, we went with local everything. (I started with a dozen escargot). Great tastes and  wine selection. Sitting outside, soaking up the warm evening and the street atmosphere was such a superb experience. The service was great, the ambiance was stylish and the bill was very reasonable, given we splurged a bit on the wines :-)

On our second day, we drove out to the village of Meursault, which happens to have a Chateau that also happens to produce one of my favourite whites...
We had lunch at the place on the left
Still favoured by the weather, we sat outside Les Artes and enjoyed their own Cream of vegetable soup, Pate de Maison, a Pasta carbonara and a local specialty, Poached eggs in red wine (Bourguignon) sauce. I had to try it and it was mouthwatering! Who'd have thunk it, eh?
We also enjoyed the 'local' wine as well.

We  spent the afternoon strolling around the village and the Chateau and marveling at the vineyards that stretched as far as the eye could see over gently rolling hills.

That evening, we walked into the old town of Beaune for dinner at 
Le Fleury.

This is a lovely restaurant with delightful, freshly prepared food, either set courses or A 'la carte, matched only by the professional and friendly service and wonderful wines on offer. We had yet another very enjoyable evening here during our travels through France. This has to be one of the best restaurants in Beaune, for a relaxed, yet 'classy' experience. Mind you, I was the only one wearing shorts. A very popular venue, we were glad we booked during our walkabout the previous day.
Following a great hotel breakfast the next morning, we were 'Up and at 'em' and on our way to Asti -another 500km+ journey. 

By this time we were getting used to the complete lack of speed limit acknowledgement on the highways - and also the stimulating experience of passing through the Toll Booths; Fanning out from three lanes to twelve booths, hopefully picking the right one for cash (My cards were not accepted), getting the correct change or changing up a note and getting change, trying not to drop the coins as they come out of the machine, watching the gate open, heading off from one of twelve booths to converge on three lanes amongst all the other traffic - Just Pick One and Go For It! -and all at done at breakneck speed. Phew!

We made it. We crossed the border into Italy (No checks any more, of course) and found our way into Asti, where we had a room at the 
B&B Villa Ferrari.

We had booked for two nights. What a super place to stay. Geraldine could not do enough for us, either at the Villa or with advice regarding places to eat in Asti or places to visit in the region. The room we had was huge, as was our bathroom and the whole villa has a welcoming feel about it. There is a fully equipped kitchen for guests use as well. The breakfasts were delicious and the home made baking was as good as anything we have had. Although it was early days on our road trip and we had lots more to see, we were sorry when it was time to leave this wonderful B&B.
 Would have loved a spin on this Harley parked in town
As well as exploring the town of Asti, we tootled out and visited some hillside villages in this very pretty Piedmont region. 
Isola d'Asti
Looking across to Castigliole d'Asti
As we set off for our next destination, Chiavari, South West of Genoa, we travelled in the knowledge it was only about 150km. away and we would have the best part of the day in the Italian seaside town. After about 4 hours over multiple bridges and through multiple tunnels, the sign welcoming us to France was a bit of a shock. At some point I had taken the wrong slip road onto the highway and ended up turning right instead of left.
We eventually got turned around and headed back through the bridges and tunnels, rounded Genoa and reached our destination. The bonus was that heading East, we were on the ocean side of the highway and the available views of the coastline were spectacular. If I hadn't messed up we would have missed all that.

Anyway, there was still plenty of daylight as we pulled up at the
Santa Maria

As with other hotels on our road trip, I chose this one for character. The location is a bonus. Great spot across from the beach and a stroll along the lovely promenade or into the old part of town, full of shops and great pavement restaurants.
This is a lovely seaside hotel that may have seen grander days - but then so has a lot of Italy - which can still turn on the style. I loved the 'retro' look and feel of the place and the old fashioned full-on service. (The bloke at reception is more than happy to nip into the bar to get your drinks and bring them to wherever you are.) The dining room is spacious with high ceilings and huge windows, so there's no feeling of being 'crammed in', even if you choose to eat at a busy time. The dining room service is pleasant and professional. Our room overlooked the ocean and was very comfortable. The en suite bathroom was also spacious with very good water pressure for the shower. The breakfast buffet was also very good. We stayed here for two nights and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 
We also enjoyed long walks along the extensive promenade and through the town, the centre of which is pedestrian only where there are countless interesting shops tucked away in the colonnades either side of the cobbled streets. 
 A Savory taste....?
Or a sweet tooth?
And as with the other towns, we really enjoyed the contrast in architecture.

Chiavari Street Market 

Chiavari Florist

After two very pleasant days which included a few hours on the beach, we set off along the coast (This time in the right direction) to our next port of call. I had booked another B&B and this one was an apartment in a medieval town called Dolceacqua. Apparently, Monet fell in love with the place. It was pretty special.
The way into our apartment, La Casetta di Vale was through the arch at the end of the bridge in the above picture.
This is what it is like through the arch

The apartment was very comfortable and the owner is a delightful character. She also owns the 'Bar California' on the other side of the little bridge and it is important to know that because that is where you need to go to check in. She will then take you into the old town to get you settled in.
'Pack light' are the watchwords if you are only staying a brief while. You have to go up three flights of stairs to get into the place and lugging heavy suitcases can be (Was) a bit of trial. Coming down was worse.
We're up here somewhere...
Also, parking spots in the vicinity are in real short supply, so you could have a bit of walk along the cobblestone streets which are not too helpful for wheelie luggage. Mind you, the walk and the climb are well worth it. This is a wonderful place to stay and you will be made to feel very welcome at the Bar California, which is very popular with the locals and visitors alike. There is also WiFi there but not in the apartment. The value is amazing, especially given the location and you are only around 30 minutes drive from either the Italian or French Riviera spots. 
Which we visited. 

We popped into San Remo.There is an old castle guarding the harbour, which is now a yacht marina and facing the marina there are numerous outdoor cafes and bars. Parking can be a challenge, as in all these places but we were fortunate to find a spot a short stroll away down the waterfront.
Besides, It is a very pretty place and the whole feel is very relaxed and strolling around is no bother at all!
Another gorgeous day and it did not take too long to work up a bit of a thirst, so we selected one of the cafes and stopped for a beer and some lunch.
The beer glass size was a bit of a welcome surprise and then lunch was so delicious, I had to take a photo:
We also tootled up to Monaco

....and had a mooch around Monte Carlo

 Me crossing the road at the Casino. 
The last time I was here, I wore a Dinner Jacket."The name's....."

We were having such a nice time, we decided to cancel our 'Break the journey' booking back towards Lyons and stayed in Menton for the night.
View of Menton
We stayed at the Royal Westminster Hotel.

Set right across from the beach, with lovely gardens and outdoor patios for dining and drinking, this hotel is exactly what one would expect to find on the French Riviera. Grand public rooms, bar and restaurant, attentive service and very good food. (We had dinner and breakfast there). Our spacious room  overlooked the Med and had two patio doors opening onto two balconies. The bathroom was enormous with a large walk-in shower and the very sensible design provided a completely separate WC.
As we looked out from our balcony on arrival, we heard the merry strains of a brass band in the waterfront park on the point. They were entertaining a happy crowd on this sunny Sunday afternoon. It was magic.
Our Room
 Our Room's View
Our dinner, which we enjoyed out in the grounds, was excellent and the wine list very reasonably priced. The breakfast the following morning left nothing to be desired - both cooked and continental.
Granted this property has been around for a while but it offers everything you need, with style and quality, at a very reasonable rate. We thought it was a great deal and would have stayed longer if our schedule permitted it.

On the day we arrived, we had some beach time and later, during our usual walk around town, we noticed a plaque, just as we had done on our way to the Farmhouse all those days ago. This one was to commemorate the liberation of Menton in September, 70 years ago by The American/Canadian First Special Service Force, or as the film starring William Holden called them:
"The Devil's Brigade"

Reading the above plaque and recalling the previous one in the Dordogne, injected a moment of sober reflection that it was only because of the actions and indeed sacrifices of many, many people that we were even able to swan around Southern Europe having the time of our lives.

Well the inevitable had finally arrived and on Monday morning, we packed up the little Lancia and headed North for the 5 - 6 hour blast back to Lyons. I had booked us into the Best Western at Jons, as from there, it would only be about a 20 minute drive to the Airport the following morning.

We were pretty nifty at handling the Toll Booths by this time and it was a great way to use up our coinage. Took a bit longer but there it is. (Sorry bloke behind). We found our way to the hotel, which is in a fairly isolated location. There are some small villages about, which we had a look at but as far as restaurants and cafes go, we struck out. We didn't fancy going into the city (Enough traffic for one day), so we had dinner at the hotel. It was OK, certainly nothing to complain about but I guess we had been spoiled.To be fair, the hotel did the job I had intended. It was a comfortable night with modern facilities and a very easy run in to the airport. 

We returned the car, caught the shuttle, checked in and went through the usual airport stuff, heading back the way we came. Shortly after boarding our Delta flight in Amsterdam, a lady with a clipboard approached and asked if we would confirm our names. She then said she was sorry but she was going to upgrade us but it meant we could not sit together and was that OK?
Well, before I could answer,the seat next to me was empty and my dear travelling companion was already heading out to the 'Big seats', so I guessed it was OK ;-). The lady said, 'Don't worry, sir, we'll look after her'. And they did. And they looked after me very well, too. Thanks Delta! And their flight partners KLM and Horizon also did us proud. 

Usually when I get back from long distance air travel, especially involving airport stopovers, I am thinking, 'No way am I going anywhere in the foreseeable future' but I have to say that this time, thanks to so many people doing their jobs really well, I am ready to go again! Thanks all. Now, if only I could do something about that jet lag....

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