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.|
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.|
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.|
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.
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.|
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!|
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.|
|A great-great grandaughter led the wine tasting at Tenuta Terciano.|
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|