“Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed.” ~Pico Iyer
Please note: This is a really long post about my recent trip to France and Italy. Feel free to skip around to what interests you.
I just returned from the trip of a lifetime.
It was one of those rare occurrences where all of the stars were in alignment, all the pieces fell into place, and most everything went smoothly. Even the few things that went slightly awry were fun or funny.
Reflecting back on the trip, I can see now exactly why things went so well. But truthfully, neither I nor my traveling buddy (Katie Tallo, my partner on The Habit Course) did much pre-planning. But some of the choices we did make prior to the trip led to a near pristine experience for both of us.
First, many of you may remember that I was supposed to go on this trip back in September. The day before leaving (with bags packed and boarding pass printed), my son became ill, and I had to cancel the trip at the 11th hour. It was heartbreaking for me and Katie at the time, but it was the right thing to do. And now, perhaps, it appears this was the time we were supposed to go.
So Katie and I re-booked our tickets in January, made a few alterations to the previously planned trip, and then frankly got so busy with our projects that we didn't start thinking about the trip until a few weeks before we left.
Our new plan was to begin our trip in Paris, because Katie has a dear friend who has recently moved there with her family. Ironically, one of my best friends was traveling to Paris at the same time.
After a few days in Paris, we planned to take a train to Northern Italy to stay with our mutual blogging friend Diana Baur (of the blog A Certain Simplicity) in the bed and breakfast she runs with her charming husband Michael and their dog Max.
We had our hotel booked, our reservation with Diana, train tickets, and a rental car arranged. And that was about it for our planning.
Part 1: Paris Perfection
Katie lives in Ottawa, Canada, and I live in a suburb of Atlanta. So we both took connecting flights to Newark and flew together to Paris. All flights were on time, Katie's bag was the first out of the shoot in baggage claim in Paris, and mine wasn't far behind. We caught a cab and were sitting in our hotel within an hour of arriving in Paris. Can you believe it? That never happens!
We stayed at the Hotel St. Paul on the Rive Gauche near the Luxembourg Gardens. This hotel was an accidental find on the Internet, but it turned out to be perfect, mainly because of its proximity to the Gardens.
That first morning, since we arrived at the hotel around 9:00 a.m., our room wasn't ready. So we walked a few blocks to get breakfast and discovered the Luxembourg Gardens.
I've been to Paris a few times before, but for some reason, I'd never been to these gardens. I don't know how to describe what an amazing oasis they are in the midst of this bustling city.They are not to be missed.
The main feature of the gardens is the palace built in the 1600's for Marie de Medicis (mother of Louis XIII), which is now the seat of the French Senate.
In addition to the beauty of the gardens and palace, Parisians have a knack for making everything beautiful and special.
Within the gardens, groups of people were doing Tai Chi, yoga, playing chess, running, painting, sipping cafe au lait and eating croissants (that was me and Katie). There were pony rides and activities for children, tennis courts, quiet walking paths. And flowers — everywhere.
It is a jewel of Paris, and we spent hours wandering through it and taking in the beauty and French culture — and eating croissants.
Paris with Friends
Katie's friends Genevieve and Kirk moved to Paris about nine months ago. We met them at their apartment, and they guided us through some of the lesser known, but so-glad-we-saw highlights of the city.
One of my absolute favorites is the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, an English language store and reading room opened in 1919 by an American ex-pat. It was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. The bookstore was featured in the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris. Watch this clip of scenes with Owen Wilson that were shot in front of the bookstore.
We spent hours just walking the streets of the Latin Quarter and other parts of Paris and even more time eating and drinking, which were the occasions around which all other activities revolved!
Genevieve and Kirk knew some of the best restaurants and guided us from one culinary experience to another. There are outdoor cafes, creperies, and enticing restaurants on every corner. The aromas of Paris are almost as intoxicating as the sights. One of our most memorable evenings was sitting with them at an outdoor cafe drinking wine and laughing about things I can't remember now but that seemed extremely funny at the time.
One of the other highlights of the trip (of course related to food and wine) was meeting my friends and across-the-street neighbors Holli and Geoff for a wine and cheese tasting and mini-class on French wines at O Chateau, a lovely wine bar and restaurant.
Sometimes these little coincidences can turn into the most memorable and special parts of a trip. Being with close friends makes a magical occasion out of any event.
Paris As Tourists
Katie and I did do some of the expected tourist activities. We went to the Louvre (hot and crowded); toured Notre Dame (still the same with flying buttresses and French Gothic architecture, but always stunning); and walked the Champs-Élysées (simply exhilarating and unequivocally Paris).
One of our favorite toursity activities was walking up the hill to Montmartre and Sacre Couer and wandering the narrow streets where some of the most famous artists (van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Latrec) resided during the 19th century, making it the artistic center of Paris.
There's a wonderful little museum in Montmartre that was once the studio for Renoir and Suzanne Valadan and other artists. You get a real sense of the history of this artist community through the exhibits and letters displayed.
The other breathtakingly beautiful (almost overwhelming) place we toured was the Paris Opera House. I'd never been before, but since I have two ballet dancing daughters, I was particularly interested, as this is the home theater for the Paris Opera Ballet (as well as the Opera). Photos don't do this magnificent place justice, but take a look anyway.
These are the grand staircases up to the main theater. Katie and I look like we should be thrown out for being too bourgeois.
Here's the Grand Hall (which actually looks like the one at Versailles). I almost cried it was so beautiful.
We ended our time in Paris with one last special dinner and a final stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens. The following morning we boarded a train from Paris to Turin, Italy.
Part II: Idles (and Victuals) in Italy
Turin is about an hour and a half drive from our final destination of Acqui Terme, a city of about 20,000 in the Piedmont (pronouced pia monte) region of Northern Italy. On this map, it would be about halfway between Turin and Cinque Terre in Northwestern Italy.
It is one of the principle wine making regions in Italy (a real bonus). And it is known for its hot sulfur springs and healing spas. It was once an active Roman city complete with baths and an amphitheater and all things Roman.
Unlike Cinque Terre, Acqui Terme is not a tourist hot spot, and Rick Steves has not (yet) laid claim to it. I hope he doesn't. It's anonymity is what makes it so special, so perfectly magical and authentic. The breathtaking beauty of the landscape in this region smacks you in the face at every turn. You feel as though you've been transported into some European fairy land that is so perfect it doesn't seem real. But thank God it is.
After navigating the Autostrada (Italian highway) in our little stick shift rental (with only one missed exit), we made it to Baur B&B in about 2 hours. To say that we were happy to see Diana, whom we had both befriended through our blogs, was an understatement.
She was standing in front of her plot of paradise waving her arms happily and looking stunningly beautiful. The scene of her and her home and the surroundings simply took our breath away.
Diana and her charming, funny husband Michael have spent the last nine years restoring and renovating a 200-year-old home and barn in the hills of Acqui Terme. It has been a labor of love and artistic vision that hasn't come to fruition without some heartache and struggle.
But the result is something no less than the gold standard for everything you'd expect from a bed and breakfast– times twenty. It all looks so casually, beautifully, creatively thrown together in a way that assaults every sense in every delightful way.
Going from the lights and energy of Paris to the luxurious beauty and serenity of Diana's place and the surrounding environs was the perfect second half to our 12 day trip. Let me give you a little tour of Baur B&B . . .
The main house, which has two guest rooms plus Diana and Michael's apartment, is connected by another structure with a guest room and patio upstairs and Diana's ceramics studio and Michael's wine cellar downstairs.
This connects to the former barn which houses the kitchen, sitting area, and patio for breakfast dining for guests (on the lower level). The upper level is still unfinished but will ultimately have more rooms. In back of the main house, there is a lovely swimming pool, vegetable and herb garden, and a hillside of flowers everywhere.
It is from the garden that Diana plucks the herbs to put in the homemade breads and omelets she prepares each morning for breakfast (in addition to fresh fruit and yogurt, Italian coffee, cheeses with tomatoes or sauteed pears, and prosciutto or Italian sausage) — all served on beautiful ceramic plates and bowls that Diana creates in her studio.
While we eat breakfast, someone magically cleans our already spotless room, refreshes the specialty soaps and shampoos, and stocks the mini fridge with drinks.
The view from our bedroom windows, which swing open wide to allow in the breeze, is of the hillsides of Acqui Terme and surrounding towns laid out with hundreds of vineyards as far as the eye can see. It is simply spectacular.
If you went to Acqui Terme and only spent time hanging around Diana and Michael's place, taking in the views, and lounging around by the pool, it would be an amazing trip.
But there is so much to see in the area that you have to step out of paradise to see more paradise.
I'll take you through our daily itinerary so you can get a feel for what you can see and do.
Day 1: Exploring Acqui Terme
We drove about 2 miles from the B&B into the old town of Acqui Terme and wandered around the lovely narrow cobblestone streets and piazzas. There are an abundance outdoor cafes, restaurants, old churches, and hip shops all painted in the pastel oranges, pinks, and yellows you see everywhere. Read this article by Diana to learn more about the town.
That evening, Diana joined us for one of the best meals we had on our trip at twinkling patio restaurant tucked off a cobblestone street. The ravioli was so exquisite, I still find myself waking up at night longing for it.
Did I mention that the cuisine here is the best you will have anywhere in the world?
Everything is fresh and simple, and every meal is an experience to be savored (along with a lovely bottle of Piedmont wine). And we did, several times a day!
Day 2: Exploring the Piedmont
Diana and Michael gave us instructions to drive around the neighboring towns and villages of the Piedmont region. The rolling hills, which are primarily covered with vineyards, are dotted with tiny villages — each more charming and lovely than the next.
We followed our noses and explored, making some missed turns which led us to beautiful discoveries, old churches, friendly people, and more food.
Day 3: A Trip to the Italian Riviera
We took a day trip to two beautiful beach towns about a 2 hour drive from Acqui Terme — Portofino and Camogli. Portofino is an upscale harbor village with elegant shops and restaurants and yachts anchored waiting for the likes of Beyonce to hop aboard and cruise the Italian Riviera. Camogli is a smaller, lesser known (but no less beautiful) fishing village nearby.
Both towns (and many of the other small villages on the Riviera) are stunning, and the drive between them is equally beautiful. We spent the day wandering, driving, and sitting along the shore drinking wine and watching people.
Read this article about the various seaside towns on Italy's Mediterranean. You could make an entire trip out of seaside town hopping.
Day 4: A Day-Long Winery Tour
This was one of our favorite days of the trip. Diana's husband, Michael, is a wine aficionado and knows many of the wine makers in the region. He took us on a day-long tour of wineries, with wine tastings at each location and a spectacular Italian lunch in between. Michael entertained us with stories and educated us about the wines of the Piedmont region, which are simply the best.
Of course I loaded six bottles of wine in my suitcase, putting me well over the luggage weight limit on the plane! But it was worth it.
One of the most spectacular wineries had a wine cellar dating from the 1500's. Our hostess and the owner of the winery seemed more like your Italian grandmother, but her knowledge of the wines was impeccable, only matched by her gentle charm.
Day 5: The Italian Hoedown
On our last full day in Acqui Terme, Diana and Michael took us to a “festival” hosted by one of the local winemakers, a big bear of a man with a huge heart. (That's him dancing below.)
It was the Italian version of a community church social (but with lots of wine and no religion!), held in the winery with folding tables spread with food, a local band, and every family from the neighboring villages on hand.
Since the locals don't see too many Americans or other foreigners, we made quite at hit at the party, much to our surprise.
We ended the evening singing, dancing, laughing, and enjoying our 15 minutes of fame for reasons beyond our comprehension!
It was the perfect way to end our time in Acqui Terme and with our amazing hosts, Diana and Michael. Katie and I will never forget it.
The next morning we said a reluctant goodbye to them (they had to shove us in the car and roll us down the driveway), and drove to Milan to catch our flights backs home.
Even as I'm writing this post, I'm still trying to process everything we did and saw, and how it has all impacted me. Although I've traveled out of the country many times, this particular trip taught me so much about the art of traveling — traveling in a way that keeps you joyful, expectant, uplifted and balanced.
In my next post, I will share with you some of the things I learned about traveling well so that you might apply the ideas to your own future travels. So sorry for the length of this post — but it was hard to leave anything out!
I'd love to hear your comments and thoughts about our adventures.
If you are interested in knowing more about Diana and Michael's bed and breakfast, please visit their site at Baur Bed and Breakfast. Also, please visit Diana's beautiful blog, A Certain Simplicity, to get a feel for her country Italian lifestyle.