Wednesday, November 5, 2014

European Eulogy: From Barcelona to Florence, along the French and Italian Riviera


The experienced waiter brought our fish and pasta with pesto or tomato sauce with a flourish. We added wine and ate with gusto.  We absorbed the colors and light of Portovenere and the Mediterranean Sea, so clear and blue. We savored the beauty of Cinque Terra, those lovely pastel villages in the mountains, which we approached via ferry so we could see this UNESCO World Heritage site in all its glory and splendor.  It glistened under a cobalt blue sky.  The weather was perfect throughout our trip.

Forty-one people from around the US followed tour guide extraordinaire Enrico from Barcelona to the French Riviera (Cote d'Azur) and the Lanquedoc-Roussilon vineyards, to the Italian Riviera from Nice, through the emerald and gold rolling hills and wine country of Tuscany, and on to Florence.  It was my first Go Ahead Tour.  It proved to be a great way to go with the flow of sightseeing without having to worry about any of the details. Enrico, who hails from Naples and has an incredible command of the English language, was full of information and stories, efficient and organized, knowledgeable, caring and funny. At times he must have felt like he was herding cats, but he made things happen and kept us going.  Most of all he made our Grand Tour along the Mediterranean coast an exceptional and fun journey.
Gaudi's Barcelona with new friends: Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, undergoing restoration; his La Pedrera, called "nature turned into a building;" and his  curvy, tiled and landscaped Park Guell. 
We started off in Barcelona, a spirited city that for me began more with a wimper than a bang. Exhausted from the long flight, I sank into a deep sleep once I hit the bed of our pretty hotel. I dreamt people were knocking at the door; heard the phone ring several times.  Geez.  Who in the world would be knocking and phoning in the middle of the night?  I turned over and slept until 11:00 am. OMG. It hit me!  I totally missed the walking tour of Barcelona, the trip's very first event.  The front desk had many messages for me, plus a few wagging fingers. I was instructed to get to the La Sagrada Familia to meet the group at 12:45.  I walked to the iconic Gaudi cathedral, and was glad I did, but I didn't connect with the group.  Not until I got back to the hotel to face the music. From this point on, Francie, as Enrico called me, became the butt of some well-deserved joking, although I wasn't late again. Fellow tourists Rita and Mary came knocking a few times to be sure I was up, their bright faces beaming as I opened the door; but my wake-up calls, and sense of guilt, did the trick for the rest of the trip.

With Barcelona as our base, we went to Montserrat, an amazing 9th-century walled Monestary that houses the famous "black virgin,"  Turns out she was not from Africa, however, but black from the smoke of millions of candles. I preferred my misconception, but kept the thought to myself.  Travel is like that.

In any case, such musings became lost in the swirl of Flamenco dancing that enlivened our last night in Barcelona after a delicious all-you-could-eat meal and good wine.   The stomping, clapping, and melodrama of this Andalusian dance style enthralled us.  Enrico, also a jazz musician, called it the "Andalusian Blues," like the American tradition with a wild twist.

Carcassone, ancient city and educational hub.     
The next day we set off for Montpellier, France, stopping on the way at the Medieval fortified city of Carcassone.  Here we wandered La Bastide Saint-Louis, Pont Vieux, and the banks of the Canal du Midi. Carcassone boasts a lovely ancient square and good shopping, which actually you could say about every place we visited.  This Go-Ahead group did a lot to help the economies of every town and city we stopped in.


















We arrived in Montpellier on a Sunday night, tired but true travellers who just kept going like energizer bunnies.  We walked across the almost empty and silent main square on a circuitous route to our restaurant, the Oracle.  We were rewarded with a great fish meal, and also a lovely crescent moon above the fountain, statuary and classical buildings of the plaza.

The extraordinary Nimes arena, a well-preserved example of Roman architecture. 
Nimes amazed with its preservation of Roman buildings, including an amphitheater built in 100 AD and used in the film "The Gladiator."  We climbed way up to the top to see the whole city, a feat for some of us.

From Nimes we went to Nice, the jewel of the Cote d'Azur, breathtakingly beautiful.  I went with some friends on a trolley tour of the city, which started at the beach.  Ever onward, the Go-Ahead group also made a stop at Pont du Gard, the three-tiered Roman aqueduct.

The white castle of the Grimaldis and the
 Monte Carlo casino, oozing incredible wealth. 
Since we were in Nice, most of us couldn't resist the optional trip to Monaco.  Up we climbed in our trusty tour bus, up, up, up to the mountain top. It's a treacherous road, the very one where Grace Kelly lost her life.
We took in the ostentatious Grimaldi palace and then "played the slots," some good-natured gambling in the swanky, super-wealthy, jet-set Monte Carlo Casino. There's a surreal quality to this little kingdom, a kind of exaltation of the super, super-rich and their fantasies. Still, we are now able to say "I was there!"
Monte Carlo from the hilltop Grimaldi Palace.

The exquisite beauty and light of Cinque Terra.
A boat in the Portovenere harbor.
Next we moved on to a wonderful part of our fabulous journey: transferring from the French to the Italian Riviera.  If our expert bus driver Jean Pierre could take us to Monaco, he could take us anywhere. Ernesto regaled us with stories, including a funny skit on the ergonomics of the French language. Against the backdrop of the Apennine mountains, we continued along the Mediterranean coast, engrossed in stunning views around every bend. We stayed in Santa Margheritta Ligure, which Enrico called Marqueritaville. It felt like that, but ebullient with wine rather than marqueritas! It was our base for a few nights, as we branched out from there.

A highlight for me was the lovely ferry ride along the magical Cinque Terre cliffs to the colorful mountain town of Portovenere, then to the two villages of Vernazza and Monterossa,   The Cinque Terre of my dreams, those charming hillside towns set among olive groves and vineyards.  Like diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds in a treasured necklace.   Ah, the light, the color, the sparkling azure sea; the spirit of fisherpeople and farmers; the bustling of village squares, quaint narrow streets, restaurants and shops!  It filled up our senses.    

How could we not stop in Pisa, when we were so close? Ernesto relented!
Our Italian Riviera fantasy tour ended in Florence, at least for most of us who did not take the option of going to Rome.  On the way to Florence, we made an unplanned stop in Pisa, at the boistrous urging of our group, and explored the famed Leaning Tower, the Church and the Basilica. The white buildings shone brilliantly against the cerulean sky.

Then it was on to Florence, the heart of the Italian Renaissance, its history and splendor vibrant to this day.  We had a good local tour guide who took us to the Duomo, the various squares, Santa Croce.  The Medicis left their mark.
The Duomo, Firenze.
Medieval San Gimignano, the walled Tuscany hill town.
Some of us took advantage of the optional tour to San Gimignano, a former pilgrimage station on the way to Rome known today for its splendid medieval architecture.

A great-great grandaughter led the wine tasting at Tenuta Terciano.
We also stopped at a well-known vineyard in the beautiful hills of Tuscany for an elegant wine tasting.

We returned to Florence tired but exhilerated.  That night we shared a final meal at Da Mimmo, a beautiful restaurant with special ambience and great Tuscan cuisine and wine. We toasted to our hosts, our tour guide, and the inner joys of  a well-travelled adventure.
Da Mimmo: our farewell dinner.
Enjoying Monterossa, Cinque Terra 

Firenze: Duomo outside and inside. The famed golden door is a duplicate of the real one being restored. Our local tour guide at the Palazzo della Signoria, the center of Florentine civic life, and the Basilica of Santa Croce, the burial site of Michaelangelo, Machiavelli and Gallileo.



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