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From France to Italy

From Nicole and David

Since our last email, David and I have driven from France to Italy and back so we thought it was high time we updated you on our latest adventures. We've packed in a lot over the last few weeks, but for now we'll just tell you about our journey from Provence to the region of Umbria in Italy. 

ALBI
After bidding farewell to our friends in Touzac, our first stop was a provincial town called Albi. Albi is deemed a World Heritage site due to the preservation of its fortified town centre and enormous cathedral called la Cathédrale St Cecile. The cathedral is pre-tty imposing from the outside and is apparently one of the largest brick structures on earth. Inside however, we found it to be the most beautiful church we've visited on our whole trip (and believe me, we've seen loads!!) Every inch of the interior is intricately painted, and the carved choir screen is just incredible. 

Apart from its jaw-dropping cathedral, Albi is famous for being home to artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. If you don't recognize the name you'll probably recognize his work, as Lautrec produced the poster-art used to advertise caberet shows at the Moulin Rouge such as Le Chat Noir. Reproductions of his posters turn up everywhere - particularly in French-themed cafes back home. It was cool to learn more about his quirky life story at a museum in Albi dedicated to his work.

ARLES
From Albi we ventured south to the city of Arles which once upon a time formed a part of the Roman Empire. Remnants of its Roman past are scattered throughout the city and bullfights are still played out in the ancient amphitheatre in the town centre. Not really our cup of tea, we decided instead to retrace the steps of Van Gogh who completed some 200 paintings while he lived in Arles. Following a trail throughout the city you can stand in the very spots where he painted some of his most famous pieces - quite a buzz for someone who's a big fan of his work!

CASSIS
From Arles we made a beeline for the coast to a gorgeous little place called Cassis. It was so exciting to see the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, and even better, to swim in it! David decided to sit with our gear while I had my first dip, and very quickly discovered French beach etiquette as he found himself literally surrounded by topless women setting themselves up to sunbathe. Not as glamorous as it sounds though, as most of the bodies had evidently seen the Mediterranean sun for several decades. What amused us most was the strategic way that people positioned themselves to sunbathe; rather than the standard head-towards-the sand-dunes, feet-towards-the-sea position, sunbathers lay on all sorts of awkward angles to ensure they achieved ultimate sun exposure.

ST RAPHAEL
From Cassis we took a hair-raising drive along the windy cliff top coastline to visit St Tropez. Famed for being party central for the rich and famous, we were more impressed with the view from St Tropez of the beautiful peninsula it forms a part of, rather than the place itself. There's certainly a glamour aspect about it - even roadworkers are kitted out in designer sunglasses and loads of bling - but we were more than happy to leave St Tropez and continue down the coastline to neighbouring St Raphael which had a lovely beach and a not-so pretentious vibe.

NICE
We were very excited about visiting Nice as it's one of my sister's favorite places in France, and we were certainly not disappointed. The nightlife was really buzzing there so we really enjoyed strolling through the old town and soaking up the atmosphere. Also had an evening dip in the sea (still warm at 8pm!) while loads families, couples and groups of friends hung out on the beach having picnics or playing volleyball.

ST PAUL DE VENCE

As we arrived in Nice right in the middle of an Ironman competition, accommodation was pretty tight so our second day there we ventured inland visiting the perfume town of Grasse, and then a hilltop village called St Paul De Vence. St Paul used to be a hangout place for the likes of Picasso and his contemporaries and nowadays the tiny village is jam-packed with galleries, studios and boutiques. We found that although hordes of people visit during the day, not many stay the night, so we experienced our coolest accommodation so far by staying in a Roman-inspired room in the ramparts of an old stone hostellerie overlooking the provincial landscape of the valley. Were we pinching ourselves?...... Yup! 

MENTON
Continuing our Riviera mission we hung out at two more stunning beaches called Villefranche and Cap d'Ail on route to Monaco. Finding accommodation prices pretty hefty in Monaco, we settled for dinner there followed by a gawk at the opulence of Monte Carlo Casino and the other grand casinos and hotels in Monaco's hub. We were way too underdressed to even step in the foyer of any of the hotels where people dined in tuxedos and slinky dresses, so onward we went to the final Riviera stop before Italy: Menton. Famous for a year-round sunny climate, Menton was a nice place to say à bientot (see you later) to France before moving on to Italy.

HIGHLIGHTS
- Stop over in Roquefort - the cheese named after this town is ridiculously expensive back home so we enjoyed sampling some while hanging out in the tiny township
- Visiting Pont du Gard - David studied this beautiful Roman aqueduct at school, and it really was impressive to see it in the flesh
Aix en Provence and Uzès - great places to get out, stretch our legs, and have a bite to eat
- Swimming in the Med
- Racing a Bentley down the highway in Nice - we were winning until the other driver stopped texting
- Fragonard perfumerie tour in Grasse - even if you're not into perfumes, the process of creating them is fascinating. Random fact: it takes 9 years to train to be a nose (someone who creates new perfumes). It's little wonder there are only 60 people in this profession worldwide
- Night market in St Raphael - although somehow David was talked into purchasing mango essential oil(??)
- The fancy cars of Monaco - never before have we seen so many Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Rolls Royces all in one place!

NOT SO HIGHLIGHTS
- Stinky Cheese Take 2 - you'd think we would've learned our lesson the first time, but no, we bought some roquefort for the road and by the end of the day the strong blue cheese had liquidized - ugh!
- Driving through main street Marseille - five cars merging into three lanes, scooters weaving in and around us, a tram appearing from nowhere... so glad we escaped unscathed

............Insert coffee or tea break here if needed.............

ITALY

CINQUE TERRE 

Our first stop in Italy and a highlight of our whole trip was our stay in Cinque Terre, the five fishing villages on Italy's northwestern coast. Access to and between the villages is mainly by train, ferry or on foot. The village we stayed in was Manarola, the baby of the Cinque Terre family. From Manarola we walked to two other villages, rewarded with stunning views along the way of terraced vineyards and olive groves dropping right down to the sea. After a swim to recover from the scorching heat, we caught a ferry to village number five, and from there had a horrendously steep walk back to Manarola (glad we did that leg last!) Cinque Terre is such a unique and special place - definitely worth the effort to go there.

TUSCANY - SAN GIMIGNANO

Before visiting San Gimignano we knew nothing about it except that it's home the best gelato in the world (reason enough to go there right?) but what we encountered there was some of the most generous hospitality we've ever experienced. Our B&B hosts went out of their way to help us in anyway possible, and gave us the amazing opportunity to go truffle hunting. In Italy you have to hold a licence to go truffle hunting, but we were lucky enough to tag along with two licenced hunters and their clever hunting dog, and go home with fresh truffles to eat with pasta that night! The pungent smell of truffles freshly dug from the ground will be something we'll never forget.

UMBRIA
In Umbria we stayed in a lovely old farmhouse with David's family for a couple of weeks. Up until this point, we (David and I, his brother Callum and his parents,) had all been on separate travels so it was neat to catch up and swap stories. A couple of Callum's mates came to stay for a few days and David's friend Tim popped down from England for a weekend, so it was a busy household creating much interest for the Italian neighbours! Admittedly when we first arrived at the house it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, however we soon discovered we were in the middle of.....everywhere, as the location was a great point from which to visit various places in Umbria and Tuscany such as MontepulcianoGubbioSienaArezzoFlorence and (although not strictly in the same region,) Assisi. The farmhouse was surrounded by sunflower fields, vineyards, olive groves and tobacco fields - all that you would expect of the Umbrian countryside thanks to the various films set in this idyllic place!

FLORENCE
Florence is somewhere I've personally wanted to visit since I was at school thanks to a very passionate Art History teacher who drummed it into us all to visit one day, so it goes without saying that this was another highlight of our trip. Such a beautiful city, filled with art and culture, and what made it more special for us was that we hung out there with two of our good friends: Tim, who through his work in the coffee industry managed to have us along on a tour of an espresso machine factory, and Briar, a good friend from NZ who's also travelling around Europe. Through the coffee tour, we learned about the best barista in Florence and on visiting his cafe (and shamelessly doing a bit of name-dropping), became his favorite customers for a couple of days, tasting some of his filter-coffee experiments and being greeted with a cheerful 'Good morning New Zealand!' when we entered the cafe.

HIGHLIGHTS/LOL MOMENTS
- First pizza experience in Italy - sitting in the plaza of Manarola, watching Italian kids play football and being solemnly asked by a little boy to move out of the way so he could make his corner kick
- Incredible seafood meal - again in Manarola
- Gelato - amazing variety of flavors such as Raspberry and Rosemary, Pink Grapefruit and Sparkling Wine.... we've lost count of how many flavors we tried
- Truffle Hunting - especially the massive grin on our hosts' face as he presented us the first truffle he found for us
- Giving a mini concert at the B&B in San Gimignano - neighbours and passers-by hung over the fence to listen
- Hanging out with Tim - first time David had seen him in four years, my first time meeting him
- Tour of Mazocco Espresso Machine factory - gained a huge admiration for the work that goes into making espresso machines. All handmade and custom-designed according to country and customer
- Watching the World Cup games in our 'local' - a bar in a tiny village called Lippiano
- Visiting Assisi - praying with a Francescan monk in the doorway of a church built in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi 
- A 'gondola' ride in Gubbio - nothing but cages swaying in the wind, riding up a giddyingly steep slope
- Visiting Poppi - a place where David's great-grandfather was held as a prisoner of war
- Catching up with friends and family on the other side of the world - not something you get to do very often
- The italian language - mama mia, what a fun language to listen to!

NOT SO HIGHLIGHTS
- Diesel prices and hefty road tolls - ouch!
- Worst pizza experience ever - ironically in Italy we had both the best and worst pizza we've ever eaten
- Countryside prostitutes - really sad to see ladies standing by the main highway each day, waiting for work
- No washing machine access for a month - although in saying that, it was quite entertaining to watch Callums friend attempt to wash a suitcase full of clothes with a hose!

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