FRENCH RIVIERA-AVIGNON-CARCASSONNE

AVIGNON

I do believe that Avignon was one of my favorites in a large town in Provence. And if you arrive there on a warm spring day with the roofs of the medieval buildings outlined against the wonderful blue Provence sky, I think you’ll understand why.

Avignon is the capital of the Vaucluse Department and has enough to see and do to warrant a two or three day visit. Unfortunately we only had 3 hours to explore as much as we could. If you had the time there’s the 14th century Palais des Papes, basically the palace of the French pope, in the days when there were two Popes in Europe. And of course there’s the famous Pont d’Avignon (Pont de St Bénézet) which stretches into the river Rhône and the historic ramparts that surround the city.


Or just explore the old part of the city: discover typical streets like the rue des Teinturiers with its paddle wheels on the Sorgue canal which flows through the city, and numerous little streets and squares paved with cobblestones – all named after the ancient professions of the Middle Ages.

Take in the beautiful façades of the private mansions built in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you’re in to religious buildings, there are several small chapels to be visited as well as the cathedral. You should definitely visit Avignon’s covered food market. Open in the mornings, from Tuesday to Sunday, the market has around 40 stall holders, true ambassadors of local produce: fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, olive oil and other culinary specialities of Provence.

Unfortunately Kim caught the dreaded Bus Flu (from a traveler who was pretty much sick the whole time), and she didn’t have the energy to explore too much of Avignon.


For a town the size of Avignon, it is remarkable how many great shops you will find here.  We ignored Rue de la République, Avignon’s high street with the usual fast fashion chain stores, and focused on Rue Joseph Vernet, Rue de la Petite Fusterie and the streets around them instead. Here, Kim found the French brands that she loved. She was on the lookout for Sessún, Petit Bateau, Sandro, Comptoir des Cotonniers, American Vintage and Repetto. I let Kim have a little shop while I bolted through the winding streets of Avignon’s city center towards the Papal Palace. There’s no way you can miss this architectural marvel. The Papal Palace towers over much of Avignons old town and looks like a real-life version of a Game of Thrones set. You can enter the building and take a tour of the palace, but the 20 rooms that are accessible to the public are empty (most of the furniture got lost during the French Revolution). There are some intricate frescoes to see inside, so if that’s your thing, purchase a ticket and walk right in. The Pont Saint-Bénézet lies in ruins now, leading only halfway over the river Rhine. It once connected Avignon (and a watchtower of the Papal Palace) to the Île de la Barthelasse, an island that was a popular destination for the city folks to unwind. The famous bridge used to be the largest of its kind in Europe, spanning 900 meters. Some quick photos I bolted back down to catch up with Kim again.



We then took stroll through the Square Agricol Perdiguier park beside the tourist office which lead us to Place des Corps Saints, a small square with cafés shaded by plane trees. We had lunch at Ginette et Marcel, which specialises in tartines: slabs of toasted country bread covered in anything from cold meats and cornichons to warm goat’s cheese and honey. We then headed out a little early and took the opportunity to take a couple of photos.

CARCASSONNE

First of all, I’ll concede that the city walls and towers are, without a doubt, magnificent. Carcassonne is well worth a one-hour stroll to appreciate some of the most remarkably intact old fortifications you’ll ever see. Unfortunately, Carcassonne is a few hours away from anything else that’s really worthwhile, so most visitors get stranded here with more time than they need.


The city of Carcassonne can be divided into into 2 parts: La Bastide Saint Louis, the “newer” part of the city which was built on the left side of the river Aude by the “Black Prince” in 1355, and La Cite Medievale, or the older Medieval City



We arrived late in the afternoon and headed out to the smaller but more famous sibling, the ‘La Cité’ citadel, Carcassonne’s (lower) town, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Known as the ‘Bastide Saint Louis’, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants, as well as all the standard services and amenities you’d expect, and as such it’s the perfect antidote to the tourist attraction that towers above it. We strolled through its streets and checked out an handful of charming boutiques, several great places to eat and a couple of unusually stylish overnight options. While not exactly a shopaholic’s paradise, Carcassonne’s lower town has some eye-catching boutiques that are a good source for take-home treats and self-indulgent souvenir purchases. They are all concentrated in the grid-system of streets leading off from the Place Carnot and can be whizzed round in an hour or so if you’re pushed for time. We slowly walked back to the hotel for dinner, then wandered out to take a couple of night shots.


The next morning we were up just before sunrise to walk the upper town, which is surrounded by a double wall, the area in-between is known as the lices or “lists” where medieval knights once did their thing. Whilst the outer wall is the work of Louis IX, parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times. The citadel includes the Château Comtal,  the central castle of the upper town dating from the twelfth century with an amazing 31 towers. It was early and we were the only ones up exploring the castle. We then headed back done to Pont Vieux and the banks of the Aude which was a wonderful place for a picnic once you’ve done the upper town. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538 to catch up with everyone for breakfast.
Check out our tour video here:

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FRANCE-FRENCH RIVIERA-EZE, MONACO TO NICE

 FRENCH RIVIERA, MONACO TO NICE

We had an early start to the morning for the journey northwest with views of the Italian Riviera. We continued to France for a visit to a Perfume Workshop in Eze before travelling along the celebrated Cote d’Azur onto an overnighter in Nice.  That night we took an optional Monte Carlo by Night excursion with dinner.



No, Monaco is not as expensive as you may think.  Some of you may be contemplating a trip to Monaco in the near future but have this impression of the Principality as a place where you cannot get by with under 1.000€ per day. Naturally, if you do have the desire to spend that amount, you can easily find hundreds of exotic ways of getting rid of large sums of money in a couple of minutes!



The good news is that Monaco is also a place where normal people, not just multi-millionaires, live and work, and that there are therefore plenty of ways for the common of mortals to have a wonderful sample of what the country can offer on a very reasonable budget.  Monaco isn’t a very large place but getting around on foot can be quite tiring after a while due to the very uneven terrain and the heat in the summer.



We started late afternoon in the heart of Monaco, Old Town, has been meticulously preserved over the centuries and welcomes visitors to meander down in its narrow, well-lit streets while gazing at old medieval houses and vaulted passageways. We pasted many wonderful attractions located in this area including the Place Saint Nicolas, the Chapelle de la Paix, and the façade of the Law Courts. The Saint-Martin Gardens was the perfect place to take a break from the steep climb and we enjoyed breath-taking views of the sea. Also located here were a plethora of little souvenir and pastry shops and restaurants. After dinner we passed by  the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, the current and official residence of the Prince of Monaco (and also where Princess Grace lived).  It’s best to do this early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds but if you have no choice, do it anyway, it’s worth it.  You can always stand in the sunshine on Palace Square and watch the changing of the guard ceremony with all the crowds if you enjoy that kind of thing, every day at 11.55am sharp..



We then checked out the luxury cars in front of the Casino and the Hotel de Paris on Casino square, and explored the lush casino gardens and wandered through the marble alleyways of the Metropole shopping centre. We Enjoyed the great views over the whole of Monaco from the Casino terraces just behind (basically the roof garden of the Fairmont hotel), probably my favourite view of the whole of Monaco.



We jumped back on the bus and headed back to the hotel in Nice.  I left Kim sleep the long day off and grabbed my camera and ventured out late to check out a little of Nice There’s something about being out and about after dark with a camera in France that I really like. The French are artists with facades, trees, and floodlighting. Nice’s old town artfully mixes the character of Italy (it was Italian until 1860) and France (elegant dining and a general affluence). In researching our guidebook, the selection of great-value restaurants was abundant. Back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep I managed to get out very early to capture the sunrise before breakfast. Would love to pencil in Nice again.

Check out our tour video here:

https://youtu.be/gDLKmeXYd3g

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FLORENCE, ITALY

FLORENCE

This Renaissance gem and city of the Medicis kept us enthralled for a whole day. Traffic is banned in part of the historic centre, so visitors can wander at leisure and admire the city’s timeless beauty in relative peace and quiet. Our tour had a walking tour with a Local Guide that features most of the city highlights. We got to see Piazza Santa Croce; beautiful Piazza Signoria; Palazzo Vecchio; Loggia dei Lanzi; and, to top it all, Piazza del Duomo and its cathedral with the Giotto Campanile, and the magnificent East Door of the Baptistry, known as the “Gate of Paradise.”




I don’t think I need to say much about Florence…after all, Florence is Florence. It’s not only the capital of Tuscany but it’s also the capital of Renaissance art and rich culture. In fact, Florence was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and was the most important city in Europe for couple centuries in the Middle Ages. Florentine architects from that era also invented Renaissance and neo-Classical architecture which later gained much popularity in whole Europe. Scientists and explorers like Galileo and Amerigo Vespucci are just to name some more Florence’s talented sons. This is also the city where Opera was invented. And finally, dominating artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo called Florence or Firenze their home.



Located in Italy’s irresistible region Toscana (or Tuscany) and by romantic Arno River, Florence is a city with endless enchantment sites and timeless tranquility. It’s not easy to escape the spell of Florence when you are surrounded by such astonishing culture. It is one of those places that offers too much to its visitors and one of those cities that is sophisticated with very down to earth mood. When you enter Florence, you enter the Renaissance time…that connection with time is made instantly and involuntarily. It’s hard not to wander off and be distracted with Florence’s mesmerizing history and atmosphere.





We began with a stop at Duomo- Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore. Located just down the street from our drop off, we found ourselves stopping here quite often. It is just so magnificent, you can’t help but stop, stare, and snap a few more pictures. And you can’t miss it–it’s right in the heart of the city and I believe is the tallest structure around. Trust me, it won’t disappoint! Make sure you buy a ticket inside and climb the tower–especially if it’s a clear day!
The next stop we made was at the Uffizi Gallery. This is a must stop and is often very busy! Just around the corner from Uffizi Gallery is Ponte Vecchio. Surrounded by the ultimate grandeur Ponte Vecchio is the oldest and most famous bridge over River Arno. It’s a pedestrian bridge with beautiful views of River Arno on the both sides, if you can manage to see the river over the countless jewelry stores and tourists.



You’ve all seen pictures of this famous bridge, and it really is quite a beauty. We were there on a spotty-day. The clouds were pretty grey and we were getting just small glimpses of blue sky but it was still amazing and so picturesque.


Not too far from Ponte Vecchio is Piazza della Signoria. This is one of the central squares. There is an old palace across from some Michelangelo copies and other famous sculptures. It’s going to be near impossible to explore through Florence and NOT come across Piazza della Signoria. We passed through it on numerous occasions and I loved it every time. Palazzo Vecchio is worth a visit and is right there in Piazza della Signoria. It’s also in the heart of ancient Florence. There is a lot of history in that square and it’s now known for its quaint little carousel. It’s fun for the kids and people watching. And bonus, there is some fun shopping nearby.



Another stop we made in Florence was at the Galleria dell’ Accademia. This was a bucket list item for me, home to several of Michelangelo’s sculptures and most notably, the famous “David”. Walking around the corner of that beautiful gallery and seeing David majestically calling out on the other end of the hall was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It is hands-down something you must experience while in Florence. Again, it’s safest and cheapest to get your tickets ahead of time!

Check out our tour video here:


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PISA, ITALY


Vistas of undulating hills, rows of cypress trees, terraced vineyards, olive groves, and rural villages form the backdrop of our journey through beautiful Tuscany. We took a break in Pisa to see the SQUARE OF MIRACLES and the amazing Leaning Tower, then on to Florence.


Pisa, Italy is best known for its leaning tower, but there is so much more to see in this Tuscan town. Piazza dei Miracoli, the area around the cathedral and the tower, is beautiful, and a visit can easily occupy several hours. Pisa was one of the four great maritime republics in the Middle Ages, and it retains a good selection of monuments from that era. There’s also the Arno River, a university, and several interesting museums.
It’s a good city for strolling and enjoying at a leisurely pace.
Pisa is located in the northern half of Tuscany, not far from the coast and about an hour west of Florence.
Okay, I’m going to be very honest with you all–there really is not a ton to see or do in Pisa. However, if you’d like to stop for the famous pic with the leaning tower, I recommend just making it short stop in the city for an hour or two.  We went on a lovely day, and were able to get some fun pictures–but other than the famous quirky tower, there really is not a whole lot to do.



It really was such a beautiful day.
I have to make a confession though. This may hurt a bit…but I have to be honest: the leaning tower was SO much smaller than I ever imagined! I legitimately thought it was going to be much taller then it is. It’s really not very big at all.

Also, I know you can buy tickets to go inside! We did not do this, but if you want to spend a little bit longer there–that’s always an option.

Check out our video of Pisa to Florence:




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