July – August 2012: Italy & France


After being among the 12 million inhabitants of Paris, where space is a valuable commodity, the wide space and uncluttered horizons around Connell are a nice change.  The town has changed quite a bit in the 8 or so years since I saw it last – many smaller businesses have closed, some new ones have opened, quite a few new houses have been built and the mix of people has changed a lot.  It’s been great having a few quiet days after a full on month in Italy and France.  I went for a bit of a wander around town early one morning and later at night with my camera, also had a good day out on the farm with John Hart – harvest is in full swing right now.


On Monday we drove 550 km to Paris, the landscapes of France change quite a lot more than I thought they would.  Lots of areas with wheat fields for miles and not a grape vine or olive tree in sight.  Bill is doing such an amazing job driving us everywhere, he was a bit nervous about driving into central Paris to return the car, all went well though (3000 km without a ding! – Ed.).  We had a few hours before we could meet our home exchange partner and so we decided to WALK, ended up walking almost 6 km dragging our luggage in 30 deg heat, totally wore ourselves out.  We learned to use the Metro after that (super easy) and have been zig-zagging all over Paris.

The first museum we visited on Tuesday was Musee d’Orsay where I saw Degas’ “Blue Dancers”, the exact painting that I copied after reading how people used to learn to paint by copying the masters. It was amazing to see every brush stroke and little line, and the colours were so much better than my book.  That evening we were invited to have a picnic with our Paris friends Line and Romain who we met in Arrowtown a couple of years ago.  We got to see their apartment and they took us to a lovely park and we had a 4 course  French picnic.

The next day we used our open top bus passes to look around and get the city overview but found the tourist route way too crowded and it was about 39 degrees. On the list next was Maison Européenne de la Photographie. There were two very interesting exhibits: portraits by many famous photographers of Charlotte Rampling through her career.  It was really interesting seeing so many views of the same person by different photographers.  The next exhibit was of work by Alice Springs – her real name was June Newton, wife of the famous photographer Helmut Newton.  One day he was ill, he set up some camera gear for her to do an assignment for a cigarette company that he was supposed to do, and that launched a career of her own.  She used a pseudonym so she wouldn’t instantly be recognised as Helmut’s wife. In the evening we met Aurelie ( home exchange partner) and went out for a lovely French dinner.  She is excited about coming to New Zealand in October.

Yesterday we spent the morning at the Musee Rodin  – loved, loved it. For the last 9 years of his life he lived in a hotel with beautiful gardens all around it, now the whole place is a gallery of all his work.  Most of his best known sculptures are spread through the house and surrounding garden, very peaceful and inspirational.

Today was another big day , this morning at the Grand Palais we saw a Helmut Newton exhibition (he is a famous fashion/nude photographer).  Part of the exhibit was a film made from behind the scenes footage his wife shot over the years, excellent to really see how he worked. Next up (after lunch) was a Mogidiliani exihibition at La Pinacothèque de Paris, which had alot of his portraits but no nudes which disappointed me, so we went to the Musée National d’Art Moderne to follow up on that discrepancy and weren’t rewarded with a Mogdiliani  but saw the Marc Chagall painting of the bride and bridegroom at the Eiffel Tower and lots of Picasso and Kandinsky and Brague.  Not to mention Warhol, Salvador Dali, Miro and countless others.  It’s a really impressive collection, without the shoulder to shoulder crowds of  tourists in the headline galleries.

We really enjoy the little fruit / bakery / fish & meat shops that you are never far from. There is a little roasted meat shop around the corner which makes me think of my boys, chicken legs, and wings, as well as whole chickens, ribs, about 5 different kinds of sausages etc. We have a little meat snack and then we can wait until 8:30 or 9 to eat like a proper Parisienne.

Cave dwelling in the Dordogne

Our last day in the Dordogne Valley was lovely, we travelled to Rouffignac, to see more cave art.  At this cave you travelled into the earth about 1.5 km on a little train and they pointed out the cave drawings on the way. They were more just drawings and less like paintings than  Font de Gume, but still lovely to see.  We also went to Roque Saint Christophe which is a huge rock shelter / overhang place; enormously huge and on rocks over looking a beautiful river.  In prehistoric times it was home to many different groups of people and Jean Auel used this whole area we were in as the back drop for her later stories (when Jondalar and Ayla get to his home), you could imagine it all.  This particular rock shelter we visited was also a medieval fort/city much later on.  There was an intricate set of lookouts on opposite sides of the river for miles and miles both ways so any visitors coming up the river could be spotted.

Then we went to Maison Reignac which is an actual fortified castle built into the rock cliff.  It was fully furnished and I just wanted to sit down there and start writing a romantic novel about the people that lived there (making them up of course)  there was a “torture” display there that gave us nightmares though.  The ways that people thought up to be  brutal to one another is sometimes hard to fathom.  Especially when it was done in the name of religion through out the Inquisition.

Medieval Cordes-sur-Ceil to prehistoric Les Eyzies

A 400 km drive across the lower part of France took us to Cordes-sur-Ciel.  It is another medieval village set in fortified walls on a hill top, a good place to defend from enemies.  We had booked a room at l’Escuelle des Chevaliers, a pub dating from the 1200’s. It turned out to be a great spot, Claude and Michel who ran it were very friendly and helpful.  Every night they put on a medieval dinner (I had pork rather than rabbit, Cher had chicken), it didn’t take too much imagination to feel part of the medieval world.  The town itself had a very good collection of working craftsmen, hand-making knives, pigments, leather products and of course all manner of fresh tasty food.  The tiny cobblestone roads, meant for horse and cart, are now one way streets. Pedestrians get used to flattening themselves against the walls to let cars go by.  I’m glad we were driving a little Renault rather than an Escalade. The pace here was much more relaxed than some of the other walled cities we have been in that are more on the tourist route, it felt like things changed very slowly here.

After two nights in Cordes we headed about 200 km north to Les Eyzies de Tayac in the Dordogne valley, where we are now.  It is the meca for prehistoric culture.  We had pre-booked a day trip with Steve, an English archeologist who lives here now.  It was a massively educational and interesting day, so much to absorb that we’ve had to have a slow day today to let it all soak in.

We started the day with a visit to Font de Gaume.  It is a cave full of prehistoric paintings and access is tightly controlled, only 96 per day allowed (carbon dioxide levels are monitored to ensure preservation of the artwork). Steve had booked tickets months ago so we wandered past the huge queues waiting to get in and were in the first group of 10 or so to be let in for the day. Seeing artwork (mainly animals; bison and horses) that were drawn around 15,000 years ago, was hard to comprehend.  The curves in the rock were used to give 3-D effects, and multiple colours and perspective was used.

After the Font de Gaume we went over to another cave system,  Les Combarelles.  These were smaller and more compact, the art was more carving in rock – the paint had disappeared.  The guide was great at using angled light and a laser pointer to make the art jump out of the rock.  Again, this was complex art, made way before many would have you believe it should have happened.

After lunch we went to the National Museum of Prehistory.  This is a huge collection of artifacts and information all around the development of our species.  There was far too much to see and absorb in one day, and with all the information in French it didn’t get any easier, but our guide Steve made sense of the highlights for us.  Combined with the cave visits, we ended the day with a much better idea of where we come from.

France: Cote d’Azur and Provence

We left the paradise that was Manarola in the Cinque Terre after a lovely night out with Bill and Co from Montana, friends we met outside an Internet Cafe. We had a long drive through the Italian Riviera – literally miles and miles of beach umbrellas and an azure blue sea, through Monaco (we bypassed it on the Autostrade) through Nice to a small town called La Col sur Loup.  The B and B was a beautifully restored 14th century home, and again they had a lovely terrace for breakfast.  I can say that I miss the protein components that were in Italian breakfasts ( lots of that thinly sliced ham, salami, cheeses and always hard boiled eggs). The French are just coffee, juice, croissants and more bread with jam.

We explored a lovely Medieval walled city called St. Paul de Vence which is now an artist enclave, stuffed full of studios and galleries of contemporary French artists. So exciting to see, very inspiring for both Bill and I to see the vibrancy and imagination overflowing in the works – especially after seeing all the older works through the ages in Rome and Florence. For long periods through history art was made in very similar veins, the artists of the times copied and emulated each other – and of course there was an overriding religious theme through a lot of it.  Anyway what occurred to us is how now it is so diverse.

And  the definition of an artist has gone so far past replicating what we all see. It is so beautifully emotional and imaginative and NEW, and the abstract and the realism are MERGING so powerfully. Bill and I both have so many new ideas of things to try.  I am really  craving my art supplies  now though.  My journal and my FELT TIP PENS are just not hacking it. St. Paul de Vence is also the home of Marc Chagall and we saw his grave, he worked up until 3 days before he died and his final lithograph was entitled “toward the light”.  I was surprised that there are still original lithographs of his for sale in the galleries there. He was a prolific artist.

Also we explored the town of Mougins and went to a Photography museum, they had lots of old cameras and two exhibitions on. One was of nudes and one was photos of Pablo Picasso working and playing etc.

One night we had an amazing meal at a restaurant in Cagnes sur mer ( between Cannes and Nice) overlooking the French Riviera , we trip advisor ‘d to find it and it was totally nothing to look at but a husband chef and a wife waitress and the absolutely most divine food.  I LOVE how the French people pay such close attention to everything little thing – and make eating a fine art.

We had a huge day driving-  350 km across the centre of Provence.  We were surprised at how much it looked like Idaho!!!  or parts of New Zealand for that matter. Very rugged and rocky with pine trees.  Then we got into the blooming lavender fields and I thought, here we are – the Provence of my imagination!!!!

Today we explored the town of Lacoste, where the Marquis de Sade lived in a chateau high on the hill and it is being renovated by Pierre Cardin,  while waiting to get in we met two lovely men, one from Britain and one from Australia who are friends that meet up from time to time.  They booked a table for 9 this morning and were gathering up people through the day to have dinner with them. How cool is that ?  There is mystery surrounding who they actually are, so we hope to clear that up at some stage.  We need to nap though as the dinner doesn’t start until 9  tonight!!!  We went to lunch in another beautiful place called Menerbes and stopped at Abbey St. Hillieres on the way back here, a restored 12th century abbey. I loved the energy there. Wanted to stay and do Qi Gong in it but will do it in the lavender garden here.

Manarola, in the Cinque Terre

Manarola in the Cinque Terre is a beautifully secluded, quiet little seaside town.  It was the first time we have really slowed down and felt in full holiday mode, due mainly to the room we booked which was pretty basic but had a front row view of the harbour.  There was a huge deck where we could sit, eat and absorb the beautiful little town.  It was very quiet; no traffic.  Getting to town is a bit of a mission, a long one-way drive in from nearby La Spezia then leaving the car in a parking area above town.  The final few hundred meters in is on foot, but worth the effort.

The other towns up and down the coast are linked by cliff edge walkways, as well as a train service.  We wandered down to Riamiggorie yesterday morning, ordered a coffee from a rather grumpy bearded barista who didn’t seem to be enjoying his day, then wandered back.  Internet was pretty sparse but we seemed to cope.

Hopefully the pictures convey a bit about how nice Manarola is – it’s definitely a place we want to come back to, and stay much longer.

This morning we had a 320 km drive, leaving italy and heading for France.  We are now in La Colle sur Loup, near Nice.  It has a really nice vibe, we are gearing up for a good day exploring the walled city area tomorrow.

Florence and Vinci

Photos by Bill, words by Cher. Tomorrow we head to Manarola, in the  Cinque Terre on the coast.  Not sure if we have internet there so might be off the grid for a couple of days.

We are staying at the Casa di Zifiro in the hills near Montelupo about 40 minutes from Florence.  We have views for miles of the Tuscan countryside. Alessandro and his mother are lovely hosts and they made us a homemade dinner last night.  It was antipasto with meats, cheeses and cantelope and then a pasta dish and then a lovely meat thing– pork and chicken and cheese served with the most delicious zucchini I think I have ever eaten.

Yesterday morning we drove to the train station and took the train to Florence, we had to meet our tour on Ponte Vecchio this beautiful little narrow bridge with jewellery shops all along both sides.  In the 13th century the wealthy ruling family- the Medeci’s built a corridor over a mile long to link up their two palaces and the corridor is still there- it travels over the Ponte Vecchio (up high) and they banned all the smelly shops-fish mongers, butchers and leather tanning because it stunk up their walk and allowed only jewellery makers on the bridge and that is how it is today!!!  Our morning tour was a walking one through Florence- beautiful buildings everywhere- the Duomo- or cathedral, is absolutely huge and completely decorated in carved marble.  We went through many piazza’s (town squares) and learned a lot of history as we made our way to the  Gallerie de Academia which used to be an art school in Michelangelo and Leonardo’s time.  We were able to see Michalangelo’s  David.  Wow, there are not really words to describe that beautiful boy, 5 metres tall and made of marble.  It was commissioned to be up high on the outside of the Duomo but it turned out so beautifully they put it in front of the town hall. (Now there is a replica there and the original we saw is safe inside the gallery.) Bill and I had discussions about art and how it is evolving— that old stuff seems so much nicer  than a lot of more modern art. And you wonder how much of that is just because it is old?

In the afternoon we did a tour of the Uffizi Gallery (which was the Medici families personal collection) they had 3 popes in the family as well. Throughout both tours there was also the Roman history of the town and Roman sculpture that has survived.  Both Bill and I are learning a lot of art history: perspective was born in Florence, and it was interesting to see that appear from the Medieval art to the Renaissance art.  It was 41 degrees and so probably the hottest day we have had. I don’t think I can whole heartedly recommend Italy in July! We are testing our stamina.  Today we had a lazy day and then went shopping. Italian cotton and linen summer stuff is all on sale.  I had fun.

We also went to Vinci , the little town where Leonardo was born, the museum there is in an old castle and covers his scientific side- totally amazes us how creative that man was. Then we drove up in the hills to the home where he was born in 1452 – everything seems to LAST here – you look at every bit of cobble stone or stone wall work and just wonder how old it was (and if it would stand up in an earthquake)  Tonight we are going back to Osteria De’Nichi, which is entirely glutin free–something I have not seen before anywhere.  They had lovely food. I had a pizza, my first in Italy.

Tuscany: beyond medieval

Cher’s thoughts from the last two days:

Yesterday we had a lazy morning – we needed to rest and revitalize ourselves. The Italian breakfast buffets are like picnics- cold ham, smoked ham, salami, various cheeses, hard boil eggs, and then a huge selection of breads, buns, croissants and sweeter cakey things and of course capuchinos.  It is very difficult not to overeat.  The terrace at this B and B where we are served breakfast overlooks the Tuscan countryside. Later in the afternoon we went in to San Gimignano , a beautiful medieval hill fortress town.  It is like seeing history come alive and just totally fascinates me. The shops are pretty touristy, but you catch glimpses of normal life up the side streets and alleyways.

Today we went to Volterra, another medieval fortress town.  The earliest history of these places is Etruscan, from about 1000-200 BC and most of the artifacts from this time  is funerary stuff. The Etruscans had the cutest little tomb/caskets made of limestone which were buried with their ashes inside. We saw hundreds of them in a museum today, all beautifully carved and decorated.   Then the Romans came through and left a lot more in the way of substantial buildings and ruins, so the medieval part is built on top of a lot of Roman stuff. I am particularly enjoying all the sacred art,  madonnas and child etc.  and also all the medieval embellishments, they painted and decorated every surface they could see in the churches. In Volterra I didn’t catch any glimpes of any vampires.  I did take photos of ANGELS on these little caskets dating from 600 BC. The archetype of the angel is so so old.  We also loved the Alabaster carvings that are popular here, beautiful translucent stuff. Almost talked ourselves into a nude sculpture in alabaster but thought the postage might be too much.

The Tuscan countryside looks exactly how I imagined it where there are mostly grapes and olives and fruit trees.  There is also quite a bit of wheat grown here and as it is harvest time there are quite a few  ripe wheat or stubble paddocks so there is that drier feeling and look than I imagined.  We are doing alright with our Italian and can order and ask for things. Today I asked an Italian lady in the grocery store for the ‘locale speciality’ and pointed to the wine and she smiled as they love to tell you if they can. Another lady in the shop said they love it when tourists say “Per favore”  PLEASE , before they start asking for things.  I would love to be fluent in Italian, it seems way easier to pronounce than French for some reason.

Tom and Ben, you two would LOVE all the meat here– we had a Tuscan BBQ and I must find out the spices they use because it was delicious. There is all sorts of salami and smoked ham — sort of an art here.

Sam- you would LOVE the light- it is so luscious- the golden hour goes on and on and Dad and I can’t decide how you would describe the “differentness” but it is different.

Rachel- there are leather purse and shoe shops everywhere— they just kind of suck me in.  We thought of you when we were in Rome and are happy that you and Tom get to come back here next year.

On the road to Tuscany

Yesterday we picked up the car we had booked through Renault Eurolease.  The taxi ride out to the airport was a bit of a thrill ride, I’ve figured out that while the traffic looks chaotic and dangerous the drivers are mostly very organised and aware of others.  But going through a roundabout, with 4 lanes of traffic trying to weave through each other, while our taxi driver answered his radio calls and also his cellphone, wasn’t the best preparation for picking up our car!  It can’t be too dangerous though – among the traffic was an old guy in his motorised wheelchair cruising along next to a bus.

At least the car depot was on the edge of town.  The Renault agent was great, giving us a good run down of what we needed to know.  Driving on the right seemed to come back easy enough.  The car is only a 1.5 diesel but held its own on the motorway, we were sitting behind a Masserati at 130 km/h for a while.

We are staying just outside on San Gimignano, an ancient walled city, in an agriturismo which I think roughly translates to ‘farm stay’ but is more like a posh vineyard.  Very peaceful, and close to the town that needs to be explored by walking, as no cars are allowed in the centre.  We had a quick look last night and will go back later today when the heat (mid 30’s) settles down a bit.

Rome: old ruins and ‘modern’ art

We would need months or years to really get to grips with Rome so with just 3 days joining the tourist highlight circuit was our only option. The Colliseum (or Flavian ampitheatre), Forum and Palantine Hill were on our list this morning.  The tour guide was good but there is a trade off between being shown what the guide thinks you need to know and not having time to linger on the bits that interest you.  I guess the answer is to go back after the tour by yourself.

I didn’t realise what a hard life the colliseum has had. Between being abandoned for years and having much of the building materials recycled in to other projects it’s a wonder so much is still there.  Naturally we wonder about earthquake damage, but the blocks were mostly tied together with metal connectors – although many of these were pilfered in the mediaeval years to be melted down in to weapons!

Cher did a quick google and found there was a gallery of ‘modern’ art (modern in Rome means the last 200 years or so!) that had some Klimt and Kandinsky in it.  We caught a taxi over the the Galleria.  With only an hour till it closed we raced around, absorbing among other treasures art by van Gogh, Degas, and Rodin.  All this and well off the tourist path, excellent.  There was also a big Warhol exhibit but we had to skip that.