France – Italy Travel Journal 2017

France/Italy 2017

Just Getting there….

Alsace

5/20 Amy arrived and took us to BART. Flight seemed fast, slept a little, picked up by Dani and Monika in Frankfurt with a 3 hour drive to Riquewihr, greeted by Frank and Rosemary. We enjoyed some wine and cheese and bread in our very lovely antique apartment, walked around a quiet town and visited two of the museums that were free today, the tower and the thieves tower. Very quaint with lots of geraniums in the window boxes. Ended the evening with a glass of wine with Dani & Momika (My cousin and wife)

 

5/21 I slept until after 9! And joined everyone for a typical banquette breakfast. We finally got going close to 11 on our walk/hike through the vineyards and forests on a beautiful clear warm day with a breeze to cool us off. We could see over to the Black Forest mountains. We looked for a lunch spot but nothing worked out. We visited Hunawihr town and church and had a late lunch back at home. We then walked around the town seeing the sights and all the crowds before they dissipated before our lovely dinner. We walked a bit more to work off a bite or two of dinner before retiring to bed. A lovely lovely day!

 

5/22 another typical French breakfast with croissants and banquettes and good Peet’s coffee. We drove to Ribeauville , two villages over and walked through the Old Town on our way to our hike up to three castle ruins. It was lovely through mostly forest. The wildflowers were in full regalia but I restrained myself from starting to take flower photos or I would never arrive! We stopped at a lovely chapel deep in the woods on a hillside which is a retreat center. The different castle ruins were very near each other and the first one you could climb to the top of the tower. The views over the whole Alsace valley was lovely. The trip down went a lot faster and back in Ribeauville we stopped for cappuccino, bought food for dinner, ice cream and then visited one of the wineries nearby. The valley features gewurtztraminer and Riesling and muscat. One hillside can be the standard wine and another the Grand Cru. I think I can even taste the difference. We ended the evening with a big salad, fresh bread and some pasta with one of our purchased bottles. Another lovely day!

 

5/23 we got a much earlier start today after our wonderful 🥖 and croissant 🥐. We drove to kaysersberg and walked through the town before our walk up to St. Alexis chapel and restaurant/auberge (inn). We made good time and waited for Frank and Rosemary to reach us by bike. We enjoyed a long lunch and drinks which took almost three hours! Ron and I took the forest route back to Riquewihr while Dani and Monika walked back to the car. Frank and Rosemary were down in 20 min so they rode around the countryside. We did some wine tasting before dinner and packed up for the next leg of our trip. Overall Alsace was a wonderful beginning to our trip. Great hiking and wine tasting. Quaint villages that kept our cameras busy. Good weather, fun time with Dani and Monika, Frank and Rosemary. We catch the train in the morning for Provence!

On to Provence

5/24 after another great European banquette breakfast, Dani drove us to the train station in Colmar, with his car full to the max with all our luggage. We struggled to get it all on the train and put in baggage space, as opposed to our laps and enjoyed a 5 hour train ride to Avignon. We waited an hour and half for all the bicyclists to gather before we took the bus to Vaison La Romaine and the Hosterlie Le Befroi. 36 of us, mostly hard core bikers but some not so serious. We were fitted with our ebikes before dinner then enjoyed a nice discussion and wine on the terrace and a lovely dinner in the garden- gazpacho, quail and apple dessert. We are anxious about tomorrow.

 

5/25 did not sleep well due to some extremely LOUD frogs/birds? right outside our window all night. I finally had to close the windows and turn on the air. Pretty warm here. So glad the day is over and we survived. We all rode in two big groups for the first day so it wasn’t that hard. We rode 17 miles through beautiful vineyards and villages before our coffee stop. I fell early on at a roundabout looking out for traffic so didn’t see a new curb. Minor scrapes and kept on going. On the way back it was VERY windy, so yeah for ebike! Ron and I could keep up that way. He did fine using his ebike. We made it back by around 1 and had lunch in town, spent the afternoon by the pool which was wonderful. Today was an “easy” warm up day so we have the hard stuff still ahead of us. We wandered up to the chateau ruins at the top of the Old City, wandering through narrow streets. We got to know everyone before dinner and enjoyed another great meal, ending with poached pear covered in chocolate sauce.

 

5/26 today was a tough day but we could do it, thanks to ebikes! In fact, several of the slower ladies asked about it, after we passed many of them on the LONG uphill we did today. We covered 41 miles but 3700 ft of climbing. We went through a beautiful section of rocky outcropping called the Les Dentelles up to a cute town and chapel called Suzette. It was quite a fun ride down to lunch in a bigger town where there were hundreds of bikers. This is the starting point for biking up to Mount Ventoux, 1912 meters (around 3000 ft), which is on the Tour de France. That’s the Monday ride we aren’t planning on doing. Quite a few took the shortcut back, but we stayed with Frank and Rosemary using our ebikes to keep up with them over the next long uphill. We passed through some mountainous areas with a few small villages but also passed by a big swimming hole in the river as there were over a hundred cars parked in the valley. We felt like we were missing some big event but it was actually everyone having fun at the shallow river. We had a stop for sorbet which was just enough to get us home. We cooled off in the pool, soaking our aching bodies. We felt good we could do it and not be as wiped out as those who did the whole ride without help. It was pretty warm today with less wind, so we were glad to finish the ride. As always, a nice dinner in the garden.

 

5/27 it’s pretty chilly in the mornings when we eat breakfast on the terrace, but it’s heating up otherwise. We got a fairly early start today due to the heat. Ron stayed back today and did some wine tasting nearby as it was a wine festival at a few of the wineries. He had a very nice day tooling along with his bike in the countryside. I headed out with Frank, Tom and Roger (all friends and family docs) out a different route than the first two days towards Savoillans, where there is a famous bakery to feed hungry bikers. It was a long slog up the hill and I was so glad I had an ebike (recurring theme). I made it to the top before the guys. Then we coasted a long way down into a beautiful valley with not much there except a few Italian looking houses and a church. And of course the bakery and coffee bar. After replenishing our stores, we headed back up over another pass, a long downhill ((those are pretty fun) and then wandered through the countryside, up and down, up and down. We had a nice lunch at Faicon, a pretty little town up on a hill before our last downhill. We rode 48 miles and 3700 ft elevation gain. The longest ride I’ve ever done. Back and knee not too happy with that although my back doesn’t hurt on the bike, just getting off. Rejuvenated at the pool. The area does remind me of Italy, houses of stone, no color. The wildflowers are incredible – too bad we don’t stop to take pictures🤔 but then I would get way behind-even with my motor. I only use it going uphill, so I’m still getting a great workout. And I keep pedaling when it’s on, just not as exhausting. I do feel a little guilty because I pass all these hard core bikers going up the hill. It’s a bit embarrassing!

 

5/28 another beautiful warm day. We eat a lot for breakfast since we burn it all off, so I haven’t been hungry at lunchtime yet. Today, we biked to the olive grove area passing through Nyons, a bigger town that had their town market today. We only had 15 minutes to walk through it, which was good, because we couldn’t have carried anything we bought. There is one in our town on Tuesday. When the group all gathered, we biked out to an olive farm where we were served the most amazing lunch of savory breads, couscous salad, lentil salad, baguette and delicious spreads. We thought we were done, but then they brought cheese, quince (an apple type fruit) and olive pate on bread. We thought we were done, but then they brought dessert! A cherry cake, succini walnut torte and finally they brought out a fruit salad! We were stuffed! It wasn’t a long ride back to Vaison la Romaine, but was a bit hot. We biked 36 miles and 1500 feet. The pool helped a lot to cool us off. A friend of mine, Brenda, has some friends in a town 12 miles from here and she connected us with them. They met us for a glass of wine and lovely conversation. We walked around the old city to burn off dinner calories before bed.

 

5/29 we woke up leisurely today (7 am) as we were not riding up Mt. Ventoux like the majority of the group. But seven of us took off on Ron’s tour of the wine country. We rode a very up and then very down back road to a lovely old town of Sigaret on the edge of a hill. It had very narrow streets and cobblestones. While we looking down at the beautiful valley below, 7 fighter jets roared across the sky and dropped red, white and blue dye to represent the French flag in the sky. They did it three times. It was like a fleet week show that we happened to be in a fabulous spot to see. After finding some coffee and talking to an American who has lived in this tiny quaint town for 20 years, we biked down to Gigondas for some wine tasting. We had to promise to buy a bottle for them to serve 7 of us for wine tasting, so we thought that was fair. Afterwards, we wandered around this town, again narrow cobblestone streets with a church at the top. We made our way back through Ron’s vineyard backroads with one more wine tasting before we made it back home. 25 miles and 1800 ft-a lot better than 5000 ft in 13 miles. Some didn’t make it, but of course, Frank was the first one to make it to the top! We had our ice cream and beer, quick dip in the pool then gathered with our wine tasting group to drink up the 3 bottles of wine we bought before dinner. We did some wild dancing after dinner with some 60s music but it didn’t last long as those who rode up the mountain were fading fast from their high.

 

5/30 today was a day off from biking! It was market day. And what a market it was! We slept in until after 7:30 – what luxury! Took our time with breakfast, and hit the market by 8:30. Many were just setting up but by 9 it was buzzing. Every street near the center of town was crawling with every kind of item to sell, from fruits and vegetables, spices, clothing, baked goods, pottery, you name it! We spent a bundle, but had to stop due to the problem of getting it all home. Plus we were going on our hike by 10:30- to a cute town on a ridge, Crestet. A 90 minute walk, a lot in the forest, uphill. We had drinks and sorbet, then headed back the short way, which put us back on the busy road. We still found a picnic spot, which filled up right after we laid out our lunch. We recovered again at the pool and visited some galleries in the old town before going out to a lovely dinner with 4 courses, all delicious. We have a big day tomorrow, so off to bed!

 

5/31 we had a 6:45 breakfast with lots of food to help us get through the day. For us this was the biggest challenge day-60 miles, 4000 feet. Some decided to make an easier ride, but with our ebike, we were game. Ron was worried about his battery, but I exchanged mine for his so he could make it. The ride was actually really lovely. It threatened rain, but never did, so it made it a cool day which was perfect for our ride. We biked around the lower part of Mt. Ventoux and into a deep gorge, skirting the top of the canyon in a very gradual ascent. The road was good, traffic light, and it was so mild, you barely notice we were going up hill. We passed through four rock tunnels and finally reached an overlook of the gorge. It was packed with bikers initially but we had brought some lunch,so after photos, everyone cleared out and we had the place to ourselves. The cloudy skies held and the temperature was perfect. The ride down was really fun. But we did have to climb up a few more times before we got back home. Our bottoms and legs were pretty sore and tired, but we were so jazzed we had made this ride. We bought some fresh strawberries on a roadside stand and ate them all over some vanilla ice cream. The pool time was pretty much by ourselves before dinner. It was nice to have a cooler day. Tonight at our debrief we heard all about Bicycle Adventure Tours which runs over 50 trips a year, all over the world. Trip leaders are volunteers which keeps the cost down. Many repeaters said this was a pretty difficult trip which made us glad we could do all the bike rides except the it mountain. We heard about many other great options at dinner talking to a past president and board member. All the organized trips are done for the week and we have two free days. Tomorrow is a cooking class!

 

6/1 we slept in until 7:30 today. What luxury! After breakfast we set off on our bikes for a 20 minute ride just outside of town and a 10 min walk up a rocky dirt rode to a charming farm house in the middle of a vineyard. Sabine was our host, speaking perfect English. Her husband Alex, born in England and raised in South Africa works in the family vineyard, along with their oldest daughter. We started with making bread dough for our rolls at lunch. A group chopped quite a lot of veggies that were cooked in a pot with some bacon. Another group made a liver/ham pate that was baked in the oven. A succini soufflé was baked in the oven. A cherry clafouti was the grand finale. We sat down outside to eat our wonderful lunch, along with four bottles of the family wine. A salad with a quickly made vinaigrette and some cheeses before dessert were also part of the meal. There were 7 of us for lunch. Ron & I decided to bike around a bit, whereas the rest went back as it looked pretty black and thunderstorms were predicted. We followed small roads around the vineyards through some small towns and eventually the thunder and lightening and rain caught up to us. We pulled under a tree for about 30 minutes while it crashed and banged and rained all around. Quite exciting! It eventually eased off a bit and we made out way home in light rain, needing to try it our new rain jackets. We made it back fine without getting too soaked. We had to eat inside tonight which was very noisy, even though the rain had stopped. We feel fortunate to have our very first drop of rain in 12 days.

 

6/2 hard to believe we survived and actually really enjoyed our 8 days of biking in Provence! Today Ron and I did Day 3 (see 5/27) since he didn’t feel well that day and didn’t go. We all suspect it was the steak tartare and raw egg he ate the day before that gave him the diarrhea. He said it was his favorite ride. It was cooler today and not many bikers on the road. It was lovely! We got back early and walked around the town one last time before our final gathering and group dinner. Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our 10 days in Provence. We were able to do all the rides with ebike assist, each one was different in landscape and difficulty, we got to know lots of new people, which is always fun, one lives near us in Orinda! The weather was good, a bit warm but tolerable with the wind and the pool, and only one day of some showers, just enough for us to try out our rain jackets. We are very thankful that there were no major injuries. Today is Pentecost and the French but having a big noisy carnival and fireworks. I think they missed it’s meaning😟. Tomorrow we head to Geneva to pick up our friends, the Johnson’s, and rain is forecasted. To be expected in the Alps. We hope we will see some of the Dolomite peaks.

On to the Dolomites and let the hiking begin!

6/3 a bit of a stressor day. The bus took us to Avignon where we had arranged to pick up a car, but at the other train station, as it was half the price. Ron had called to see if we could pick it up at this one for the same contract price. They promised to credit his account but he had to pay the higher price. So it took awhile to get going. We were driving to Geneva, but had to come in on the French side so as not to pay a higher drop off fee. We wanted to stop along one of the lakes to walk a bit but ran out of time due to the need to avoid Switzerland at all costs as Swiss has a high fee to ride on their freeway. (Geneva is in Switzerland but the airport is on the border and has a French side). So we meandered for a good hour trying to find our way to the airport through many small roads where we met, guess what, bikers! We finally made it to the airport, and then I left my camera in the car. I discovered it right away, but the Hertz agent had already driven our car off. So i had to wait for him to come back. Ron went on to meet the Johnson’s, who were 45 minutes late, which was a good thing. But then their luggage didn’t arrive. They went to the desk to ask about it and they found out that some had been left some on the plane. So I was trying to find the Johnson’s at their baggage claim, they were at the claim desk, Ron was at Herzt Swiss desk waiting for all of us. DIck went to the desk, didn’t see Ron sitting there so they took the bus out to the Hertz parking. Ron had checked out the car but didn’t go there yet, waiting. So the attendant said he had already checked out! Meanwhile, I was standing outside the main entrance, hoping they would drive by and find me. 90 minutes later, we finally all reunited and were on our way. It was starting to rain, so our drive by Mount Blanc was mostly in the clouds. We kept driving through many, many tunnels and eventually it stopped raining and we ended up in Aosta, Italy. We were all staving, it was after 8 and we had a great restaurant found on trip advisor with Italian food, 5 stars. We never found it, but did find the center pedestrian street full of restaurants and activity. We had an Ok dinner. By then it was 10 pm and we had no place to stay yet. We searched online and called quite a number of hotels, getting desperate. It was Sat night on Pentecost weekend and every hotel was full. By 11, we reached a hotel an hour away that gave us the last two rooms. So by midnight we wee checked in, it was a very nice hotel with a sumptuous breakfast for only $106. So our crazy long day finally ended well!

 

6/4 today made up for yesterday and beyond! sunny this morning, full of breakfast goodies, we left our nice hotel by 9:30. It showered a bit driving through Milan, but when we got to Garda Lake, it was beautiful, sunny, breezy. We walked along the lake for over an hour, grabbed some Italian lunch, and were back on the road heading towards the Alps. The drive was beautiful as the mountains became more spectacular. The traffic the opposite way was horrific (4 day w/e) for hours, but we kept driving deeper into the Dolomites as the peaks started to appear. We just entered the very north end, spending the night at spectacular Lake Braies surrounded by high peaks. The sun and clouds made us take lots of pictures that someone will have to watch when we get back! We stayed at a high class hotel on the lake (our splurge!) which included a great dinner. Our waitress was from Russia so Dick could practice his. We signed up for an air B & B for the next two nights so we can enjoy some inside time as rain is expected.

 

6/5 this was a really nice hotel! Reminded us of Chateau Lake Louise on a smaller scale. We could have spent a few more days here. But we headed out deeper into the Dolomites. The peaks were intermittently showing in and out of the clouds all day. It was very dramatic. We took a lot of pictures through the car window and stopped when we just had to. We drove through the resort town of Cortina where we will be based for the next two days until the weather improves. We drove up to Pass Falzarego where we started our first hike. Pretty cloudy but dramatic towers showed themselves off and on all day. We hiked up through the forest and then, God forbid, we got off our trail on Ron’s phone and climbed up a very steep trail up to the ridge. There we found the trail we somehow missed, but survived. The ridge had all sorts of WWI defense tunnels, bunkers, and trenches. The wildflowers were lovely. We reached the top of a ski lift and a Refugio that was closed and it was drizzling. We were cold, so we ate a bit of food but headed on down a very nice dirt and paved road back to our original trail. We hiked 4.2 miles, 1200 feet up. This area had 10 towers that peaked in and out of the clouds. It was a good first hike since it was supposed to be raining most of the day and we didn’t get very wet at all. We drove back to Cortina for visiting an Internet cafe to confirm our air b&b, get money and food and of course a gelato and expresso. We had a bit of trouble finding our apartment but with some wave of arms of Italian mamas, we found it. It’s very nice and comfortable, with some good views of the mountains around and a walkway. It’s several miles outside of Cortina which is nice. We made our own dinner and went for an evening walk. We are firming up our plans for the rest of the week with help from our host, Natasha, who is from South Africa, but came here falling in love with the Mountains and with a local boy and never left.

 

6/6 Ron made us wonderful eggs with Kristen’s help and we leisurely got ourselves organized for the day. Since rain was forecasted, we weren’t in any hurry. But it really didn’t rain that much, mostly drizzled here and there. The sun occasionally made a brief showing. We drove up to a beautiful ledge to lovely Lake Murina, surrounded by lots of high peaks which kept moving in and out of the clouds. We walked around the lake which was lovely and then drove over to the Fanes Valley for a “short, easy” hike up to some waterfalls. Five hours later we had covered 7.2 miles, 1750 feet up and visited some amazing waterfalls. Two of them had cables that took you to behind the waterfalls. The trails kept going but we ventured no further. It was exhilarating, despite some serious rainfall along the way. But it was mostly not raining much and we saw the mountains show themselves now and then. We were pretty tired, but had enough energy to go out for pizza of course!

 

6/7 we woke up to blue skies! After another wonderful egg breakfast by Ron, we set off for a wonderful day! We took the cable car up at Lagazuoi that went up to a mountain plateau 2400 feet straight up. We climbed up a little rise with some snow patches that overlooked most of the Dolomites. It was spectacular! We beat most of the crowds, took a million pictures and then rode down again. The path was too snow covered at the top. We then drove to a small village down another valley and drove up part way towards our goal, Santa Croce. We then went up another 1500′ to the small scenic chapel at the base of the big cliffs. It had a stations of the cross up to the chapel which reminded me of my Catholic roots. It was also at the top of the 2nd chairlift and had a Refugio that only served beer. The views were amazing, looking out at the Marmolada Massif, the highest mountain in the Dolomites. We ate our left over pizzas before we hiked back down to the car, a total of only about 4 miles, but steep up and down. We had our gelato before the long drive back a different valley of many many hairpin turns. It was a pretty stressful drive for Ron but we thoroughly enjoyed the views of towns and mountains we hadn’t seen yet. It started to look dark and rainy but only really rained while we in the grocery store getting our dinner of carbonara. Blue twilight when we came out! After dinner, we went on a dusky walk watching th almost full moon head above the mountains with pink clouds and Alpen glow. We packed up are fun apartment getting ready for our hut experience tomorrow. We are so thankful for a great weather day!

 

6/8 we left our charming apartment after using up a lot of our food for breakfast including French toast and left over carbonara. We hit the trail at Ra Stua by 9:45 and a most spectacular sunny day. Not long after a gentle trail we got serious in climbing up the canyon wall for a good 90 tiring minutes. We reached the upper plateau with great views starting to appear. We rolled up and down for awhile through rocky or mossy hills. We passed a few small ponds and then eventually climbed up higher to Rifugio Biella at 7700 ft. We could see mountain peaks almost 360 except for the pass that went back to Lake Braies, just 2 1/2 hours away. We ate our lunch and then had a pleasant walk over to Rifugio Sennes. We had a beer and radler to revive us before heading down 1000 feet to Fidaro Vedla (6500 ft), our Refugio for the night. We arrived around 4:30 and hiked 7.5 miles and 2500 feet climbing. We had a relaxing rest of the afternoon just sitting outside the hut in the warm sun. Since we had to carry all our stuff, we didn’t bring anything extra to read. So we just sat and admired the beautiful mountain valley we were in. We had a wonderful dinner of Wiener schnitzel (which Dick couldn’t eat) and then worked off a few bites of dinner climbing up to a WWI cave and out to a point of watching the sunset over the canyon and Alps. We slept well under our feather beds😀

 

6/9 we had a wonderful breakfast and learned all about the hut. The first hut was built just after WWI in 1919 by the Austrian grandfather. It then became part of Italy after the war. His dad built the first guest hut in 1953, and he built the new hut in 1980, which is presently getting expanded. He said the cows will come up in 2 weeks when the grass has grown taller. We hiked out 3 miles back to the car, hiking 1000 ft. down on a nice forest road. We drove out through Cortina outskirts to relook at Lake Misurina in total sunshine with all the mountains now visible. We then paid our $25 E toll to head up to Rifugio Auronzo (7500 ft) and the famous Tre Cime Circuit, highest peak is 2999 (10,000 ft). (Coma Grande 2,999m, Cima Overst 2973m, and Cima Piccola, only 2,857m. There look like four since Sasso Leandro is near at 2,763m. ) There were lots of people but on such a beautiful day, crowds were expected. We checked into our rooms, made our lunch and headed out for our hike. We hiked 6 mi and 1300 ft up and circled the entire mountain peaks. We could see several climbers on one of the steep towers almost at the top. It was a lot of Up and down, but we had a new angle with each turn of the jagged peaks. We made it back to Auronzo by 5:30 enjoying another radler looking out on all the surrounding peaks. Thunderstorms were predicted but never happened. We’re anticipating a good dinner and watching the full moon rise right in front of us!

 

6/10 Ron got up at 5 am to take sunrise photos on the towers. The rest of us had breakfast served by 7. We were off by 8:30 driving to a new westerly part of the Dolomites, the Gardena Valley. We checked into our gasthouse Fundle in St. Christina in Groden. We are up a bit on the mountainside. The gardens are beautiful with flowers hanging off the balcony all the way around the front. Our hostess only spoke German which was fun for me. We had lunch in her front yard before leaving for our walk in Suisi Alm, or high meadow. We took a Funicula up 2000 feet to a very large area of huts and chairlifts and wildflower meadows and forests. We meandered about, looking at all the high peaks surrounding the meadow with some peaks of the snow covered Alps in the far distance. We stopped for some drinks and ice cream at a hut before heading back down. It was a windless, warm, perfect day with lots of beautiful floating clouds in the sky. We walked around St. Ulrich town before heading back for showers (they were 5 Euros in Auronzo so we didn’t take them yesterday) and our last meal in Italy, walking to dinner from our gasthouse. It was a lovely, relaxing last day and a great week in the Dolomites!

 

6/11 after our last breakfast in Italy of soft boiled egg, brotchen, granola and yogurt, Kristen and I took a beautiful 90 minute walk up on the hill side, the cross path. It took us past the stations of the cross carved out of wood, through a forest, ending up at Sylvester Kapella, a tiny church with a beautiful altar and paintings on the ceiling and walls all from the Bible. A bit faded, but still able to recognize most of their meanings.

We walked back to our gasthouse and talked with the owner’s son who is sculpturing who even has one of his pieces on tour, right now in Sacramento! He kindly gave us his book on hi work. We then drove out of the Dolomites and paid our way on the autobahn to Innsbruck. We dropped Kristen and Dick off at their bus stop to Munich, said our goodbyes and dropped our car off at the airport. No stressors so far today, but sad to be leaving the beautiful Alps and some beautiful weather.