Why should I sit 10 hrs in a crowded plane to end up on a crowded island during the Holiday Season if paradise is so close? I had it with flying around the world for 2013 and so the decision was clear: let’s drive to nice places where the tourism season is definitely over, enjoy great food, wine and lifestyle.
The routing was not planned in advance, it was decided based on weather, sights, cities and places worth visiting and what our heart and soul dictated…so we drove towards west and let our senses lead the way and we would see where we end up during the next 10 days.
Dijon: beautiful old town, wonderful Salons de Thé, my favourite is La Maison Millière in the oldest house of Dijon. No visit is complete without shopping at Maille, the mustard company, the choice is amazing and it is one of the best mustards I ever tasted. Stayed at La Pré aux Clercs, a small hotel at the Place de la Libération, they only have 5 rooms, we pampered ourselves and stayed in the Suite. It features a really nice bedroom with a romantic bathtub, a cozy living-room and a perfect bathroom with a rain-shower. The breakfast they served was prepared with love, not a huge choice but really nicely prepared and presented.
The restaurant is well known too, however we did not eat there as we did not feel like having a 6 course gourmet dinner that night (too much cake-eating in the afternoon). A highlight of the visit were “les Halles”, the covered farmer’s market…what a choice! We definitely will go back and buy fresh fish, meat, vegetables, cheeses and much more there, but then we would have to drive back home right away and start cooking!
Suite Pré aux Clercs
The road led us down south, along the Route “des Grands Crus” in Burgundy (including a stopover at the Musée du Cassis, where we got some nice Cassis candies, jams and jellies) to Beaune. There we discovered this amazing wine and bookstore, never before have I seen so many cook books in a shop, I was so overwhelmed that I finally did not buy any of them, I simply could not make a decision.
On we drove to Lyon, a city that does not look very inviting and is rather dirty once you leave the highway. However, when you get to the old part, it shows its beauty. We stayed at the Cour des Loges, a hotel built in 4 Renaissance Houses with a courtyard, which now is covered with a glass rooftop. What a beautiful hotel, with very special rooms. Ours again had a bathtub just next to the bed. There is a small SPA with an indoor hanging garden relax area, nicely done, however not huge and if more than 6 people are there, it seems crowded.
Lyon has lots of little shops, Salons de Thé and Restaurants to discover. The one restaurant we wanted to have dinner was fully booked, so we ended up in a typical Bouchon Lyonais, called le Cabaretier. It was a funny place, filled with lots of kitschy old stuff, photos of “grandmère et grandpère” on the walls. The food was okay, but not more than that. The wine was…terrible! For being in the heart if a wine region, they served vinegar! A highlight however was the breakfast the next day, the hotel’s courtyard is used as a restaurant and the buffet offered all you dream about on a lazy Sunday morning.
Cour des Loges
After breakfast we drove further south and visited Orange on our way to Beaumes-de-Venise en Provence. Orange on a Sunday afternoon after Christmas is very quiet and empty. They have however a very impressing amphitheater. And we had coffee in a nice Salon de Thé. We had booked a room at Les Remparts for the night, Beaumes-de-Venise again is a very nice village in the hills. Ludivine, the owner had upgraded us into a suite. A wow-place indeed, the suite was wonderfully furbished and decorated, in the courtyard there is a nice pool and romantic garden, which I am sure is a nice place to hide and relax in summer. The kitchen, which guests are allowed to use, is ultra-modern. Too bad we only booked for 1 night. We had dinner at the Saint Roch, a place with only a few tables and delicious food. Ludivine prepared a nice breakfast the next day, all guests sit together at one big table, I liked that set up, as you get to chat with people and exchange tips and ideas for your trip. One was to visit the village’s Olive Oil Mill, which is more of a shop which has a mill in the back”office” and they sell a lot of olive oil products, as well as cosmetics, candles, typical Provençal style kitchen ware and so on. Do I need to tell that I could NOT resist?
Suite Les Remparts
Olive Oil Mill in Beaumes-de-Venise
It was a sunny and warm day, so we drove first to Avigon, visited the old town and the famous bridge and continued on to Gordes. What a beautiful town on top of a hill overlooking vineyards and lavender fields. In Gordes we discovered a nice shop, Première Pression Provence, which sells a lot of tasty Olive Oils, Lavender Products, etc. No, here too, I could impossibly resist to buy some of the excellent oils. The shop tender was really going above and beyond, she let us taste all her oils.
We continued on via Apt to another romantic village on a hill, Roussillion. It was almost abandoned and looked like a motion picture set left unused. I really felt a special atmosphere there and liked the village a lot. And from there, through the nice Lubéron with its Lavender Fields on we drove to Aix-en-Provence where we would spend the next two days and nights. We stayed at the Maison d’Aix, now this cannot be described as a hotel, nor as a B&B in a traditional way, nor a Maison d’Hôtes. I would call it staying at home with friends. Again, we were lucky, as the rooms were sold out, we got an upgrade to the Suite, a really nice treat. The house is ideally located just off the Cours Mirabeau, the main shopping avenue. The Maison d’Aix has 4 rooms of which one was our Suite. There is a really small but beautiful SPA Area in the cellar, a retreat after a busy day in town. On the ground floor there is a lounge with a fireplace and a kitchen and winter-garden. It is a similar concept as at Les Remparts, however here we could not use the kitchen. But we could help ourselves from the stuff in the fridge (at a fee). Breakfast again was served at a big table for all guests. We had breakfast with a couple from London, very charming people who are about to buy their own property in the Provence. They told us about their experiences with real estate agents, oh well, one has to know that Southern France is Southern France, on fait ça avec calme:-)
Orange Vielle Ville
Orange Hôtel de Ville
Sur le Pont, d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse
XMAS Market Avignon
Roussillion abandoned in winter
Suite at the Maison d’Aix
I should mention that Aix is a nice town, however I did not really fall in love with it. But what is worth telling is that we had a nice dining experience at the Restaurant Vintrépide. Their menu is very simple and offers what the chef finds freshly at the market on that day, usually 4 starters, 4 main courses, 4 desserts where to choose from. We had a very delicious dinner, accompanied by a nice bottle of Chevrey Chambertin. Don’t miss the Foie Gras!
Very nice gourmet experience at the Vintrépide
Our trip continued and we ended up at the Mediterranean Sea, in Saint Raphaël where we stayed at the Villa Mauresque. While it is a nice building, friendly staff and beautiful location, the room was not very nice, the breakfast not worth being called breakfast and to top it, it was pouring rain. Saint Raph is another abandoned place in winter, on January 1st all we found as a dinner place was a Kebab Shop, but hey, that was definitely the best in town and one of the best I ever ate. Actually, the entire hip Côte d’Azur is not my world, the villages are wanna-be posh but in reality look “cheap” and are dirty, the architecture is terrible, I have no idea why the French allowed to build those horrible buildings in the 70’s and 80’s! Sorry to say, but the coast between St. Tropez and Nice looks very messy. Ok, it might be different in summer, but right now I cannot recommend a trip there. It gets better in Nice, the city is much nicer than the others along the coast and the market there is one of my favorites, we bought nice dried tomatoes and different olives and they taste so wonderful, when you eat them, you can feel all the sun they absorbed during summer.
The disappointing Côte actually made us change plans and instead of spending more days there, we continued on to the Piedmont. Not an unknown part of Italy to us, but always worth a visit. And who knows, maybe it becomes “casa nostra” one day.
First stop was Fossano, a typical Italian village with it’s Viale Roma, Piazza Garibaldi and lots of coffee bars and Pasticcerie. We stayed at the Palazzo Righini, an old monastery which was totally renovated and is now hosting a wonderful Small Leading Hotel. We stayed in a Junior Suite and to our surprise, the room rate included not only breakfast which offered a varied choice and was delicious (in France, this was mostly not the case), but 1hr in their Private Spa! Of course we had to take advantage of that and I even got a back/neck massage, a really painful but also helpful one:-)
We bought toasted Panettone in a Pasticceria, a really delicious sweet treat! And we had dinner at the Bar/Restaurant Il Loggiato of the hotel. The food was fantastic, who can resist a plate of Tajerin?
Our Junior Suite and Bathroom at Palazzo Righini
The Palazzo’s Court Yard and its sundial
Through the Langhe Hills we drove on to Barolo where we revisited Casa Svizzera where we stayed last February and bought their excellent Barolo and Barbaresco Wines. Signor Germano is really a great man, and of course he would not let me leave without accepting a free bottle of his new Chardonnay. We had a very typical lunch at the Barolando Restaurant, Brasato and Rabbit slowly cooked in a winesauce and just served with fresh bread (see my Rabbit Recipe, didn’t I tell you a piece of bread would do?, here was the proof). We had booked the next night at the Palas Cerequio, a wine estate in La Morra transformed into an Agriturismo. The location is absolutely top, the Palas is exactly what you imagine in your thoughts when thinking of Piedmont Hills and Vineyards, it is simply a dream. The room we had booked is in the new building, a Maisonette Suite, with a shower of 6m heights, while all looks very nice, it is not really that practical. But we enjoyed our stay there, visited the wine cave, had a fabulous dinner with them, eating Tajerin al Tartufo Bianco (I was shocked when the owner started to put the Truffle on my Pasta and would not stop,I thought this is going to cost me EUR 500, but I was lucky, paid not even 10% of that).
In La Morra we discovered a really fantastic wine shop as well, with a selection of so many wines, one had a hard time making a decision but I did finally buy some nice bottles there too. Now we had to start counting and see if we will end up paying customs fees.
So far, we had 15 bottles…CHF 0.60 fee would be worth declaring the additional bottles of the allowed 6.
At Cerequio I also bought 3 more Barolo’s from Michele Chiarlo, they say one of the best Barolo Wine Makers.
Bakery in Barolo
Maisonette Suite at Palas Cerequio
the best dinner!
1kg is sold between 10’000 and 20’000 EUR….
The next day we continued on and drove through the Monferrato, a very nice area as well, we saw countless hazelnut trees there and now we know why it is also known for its Gianduja Specialties (Nutella etc.).
The last two days of our trip were dedicated to relaxing, reading, eating and drinking well (ok, we did that the other 8 days before too) and enjoying massages and the SPA at the Relais Sant’Uffizio in Cioccaro di Penango. This again is an old monastery transformed in a Hotel & SPA. The SPA was only opened in 2012, offers 3 different Saunas, Pools, a Private Spa, lots of Massages and Treatments. I definitely did not mind that one day it was raining and cold outside, so we had a good excuse to spend all day at the SPA. The Junior Suite we stayed in was very nice, so is the entire hotel. The lobby/bar area is inviting, with lots of interesting books to read. One, il Tartufo d’oro from Richard Cook, was our “flavour of the day book”..what an interesting story of a truffle from Italian Earth to Hong-Kong Table. The Hotel’s Restaurant serves very nice dinners and also the breakfast was delicious, I can totally recommend this place, even if some people on TripAdvisor are writing bad comments about it. It is, in my opinion, always a matter of managing expectations. In Italy, things might move a bit slower, but they move, and the friendliness of the Piemontesi can hardly be topped.
Entrance Relais Sant’Uffizio
Relais Sant’Uffizio an old Monastery
Well, after those two last days relaxing we drove back home, with bags full of memories, nice food, wine, spices, herbs and sweet treats. A bientôt, a presto!