Shall we summer on the Côte d’Azur?

Some Good Life

The southeast coast of Provence on the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Côte d’Azur, is teaming with resorts and beaches from Bandol to Menton. The most glamorous stretch of the French Riviera extends to the Italian border and includes Monaco, Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Hire a car, rent a yacht, settle into a villa or bounce from town to town. Let me show you.

Thank you to our friends at Heliport de Monaco.

Heliport de Monaco

A taste of Provence, sweet France

Fly from London to Marseille in less than 2 hours and land in Provence, the idyllic southeast corner of France that is home to artists, lavender fields, lush vineyards, divine cheeses and relaxing sun-spashed days that define joie de vivre.

Only leave Marseille, the bustling port city Alexandre Dumas called “the meeting place of the entire world” after you’ve sampled the bouillabaisse, a regional classic, seafood stew. On to Aix-en-Provence, and stay in the 5-star Le Pigonnet located in the city centre.

Whilst in Aix-en-Provence (abbreviated to Aix, pronounced ‘X’), meander through century old streets in this colourful university town. Weekend markets, fashionable cafés and for art-lovers, follow in the footsteps of Aix-native Paul Cézanne for whom “art is a revelation of an exquisite sensitivity.”   

Just 15 minutes north of Aix, the remotely-situated Bastide La Valentine is a six-bedroom stoned-built house in the district of Puyricard, an ideal base for outings in the Provençal countryside. 

Wineries: If you only have time for one, visit Mas De La Dame or “the women’s farmhouse” which is managed by sister-team Caroline Missoffe and Anne Poniatowski and has produced wines and olive oils for four generations. Seductive, inviting and steeped in history – Nostradamus, Van Gogh and Simone de Beauvoir have connections to this picturesque vineyard. Also nearby – an estate worked by the Négrel family since 1813, Mas De Cadenet derives its name from the word “cade” a local juniper-like shrub. These winegrowers produce vintages under the prestigious AOC-appellation, Sainte Victoire. For an ultra-modern organic winery, Château la Coste practices biodynamic principles of agriculture; the vineyard has a wine shop, bookshop and several cafés. 

Perched Villages: Located mainly in the Lubéron region, villages-perchés are hilltop towns that were built around castles during the Middles Ages. Gordes is one of the prettiest and most popular villages.

One last stop before returning to Marseille, the port town of Cassis, nestled into limestone hills on the southern coast, known for excellent seafood and AOC white wine.

A taste, a glimpse, a fraction of a sliver of the region. I’ll soon be wanting more. Reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s bestseller, A Year In Provence, that would be a lovely start.

Great British Staycation; Fairy Cottage Weekend

If you are looking for a staycation in Britain and want to discover some less-travelled parts of the realm, I found an appealing alternative to holiday camps and hotels.

My usual accommodation preference is luxury boutique hotels but I wanted to try something new.

As for holiday camps and villages in the UK, like Butlins and Center Parcs, marketed to families as domestic vacation destinations, a definite no. Maybe they are strange to me because they don’t exist in the US; the closest equivalent would be timeshares, resorts with activities and entertainment available on-site. Or maybe strange because I’m not a packaged holiday enthusiast and always choose to do-it-myself over manufactured, seemingly generic experiences.

In searching for something different and wanting to combine local exploration with a comfortable weekend break, I happened upon Unique Home StaysLike many travel secrets, bountiful once discovered, I had no idea there are an infinite array of rental properties in all shapes and sizes, scattered across the country. I chose a cottage in Cornwalland so began my journey.

Destination: The civil parish of Warleggan on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England. Population: 203

Getting there, on the roads less travelled:

 Accommodation: The Fairy Cottage

Officially named Pixie Nook, this one-bedroom cottage whimsically decorated in floral pastels has a cozy fireplace and a private cedar hot tub. Whether you enjoy cooking your own meals in the quiet country kitchen, or prefer to patronise a local pub, there’s a perfect balance of accessibly secluded. 

Locale: Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Explore this amazing, picture-perfect landscape and create an adventure of your own. Take a walk in the woodlands, cycle the countryside or drive to the Cornwall coast. Other activities, culture and entertainment include: Bodmin and Wenford Steam Locomotive, an old slate mine and subterranean lake at Carnglaze Slate Caverns, Bronze Age stone circles known as the Cheesewring and the Hurlers, grand houses at Lanhydrock (National Trust) and the Georgian house of Pencarrow, plus miles and miles of footpaths and trails for both serious walkers and amateur hikers.

In short, private home rentals, luxury self-catering accommodation, regional local colour. I’m hooked.

To view properties and plot your own close-to-home escape, visit Unique Home Stays

Best of Berlin: Twenty-nine hours & 5 Must-Sees

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner” ~ JFK

Time for a weekend away, a mini-break, destination: Berlin. Here are my 5 must-sees in the German capital.

1. Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) – Modelled from the Athenian acropolis and topped with the Quadriga, this iconic symbol of Berlin was built as a monument to Prussian glory.

2. Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) – Located in the Baroque-style Zeughaus building (formerly the arsenal) with German history from early civilization to present day, and an adjacent exhibition hall designed by architect I. M. Pei.

Berlin has over 170 museums and several are situated on Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a pretty area on a narrow island in the Spree River. Here are three more of Berlin’s must-see museums: Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) named for the Pergamon Alter (the monumental structure excavated in present-day Turkey was part of the acropolis of an ancient Greek city there), the museum’s collection of antiquities also includes the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) displays artwork of the German Masters and French Impressionists. The Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) presents an unflinching look at Jewish history in a building resembling a shattered Star of David, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

3. Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) – The Evangelical (Protestant-Reform) Church of Germany also located on Museum Island features an ornately decorated interior, including an elaborate alter, mosaics and sculptures, and a massive Sauer organ with 7,269 pipes (worth it to stay for service or visit for a concert). Don’t miss climbing to the top of the copper dome for beautiful views of the city.

4. Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) – Originally named Lietzenburg after the area and renamed after the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte, Elector Friedrich III (Kaiser Frederick I of Prussia) built this palace as a summer residence for his wife. Walking through the richly-decorated rooms, accompanied by the free audio-guide, imagine royal life amid the largest collection of 18th-century French art outside of France.

5. Die Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall) – Bernauer Strasse and East Side Gallery are the best places to see the symbolic remnant of the cold war that was once a 27 mile long (43.1 km) border between East and West Berlin. The total border length around West Berlin was 96 miles (155 km). On Bernauer Strassse you can see stretches of the wall, an observation tower, and the infamous “death strip.” At the East Side Gallery look at the colourful murals on the longest remaining section (0.8 miles/1.3 km).

A few honorable mentions:

Save your money to stay at the Hotel Adlon the address in Berlin located in the Mitte district and on the grand boulevard, Unter den Linden. From the glass cupola of the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, take in vistas of the city. If you’re after more panoramic views, head to Fernsehturm television tower, the city’s largest structure (368 m/1207 feet), an icon of communist East Berlin. Next to the Fernsehturm, visit Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) one of Berlin’s oldest churches. On to Bebelplatz, once named Opernplatz (Opera Square) and renamed in 1947 in honour of social activist August Bebel, this large open square was the scene of the infamous Nazi book burning on 10th May 1933 when some 25,000 books were burned. Here, find the bronze memorial with Heinrich Heine’s quote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” The imposing buildings around the square include Alte Bibliothek (Old Library), Altes Palais (Old Palace), Staatsoper Uniter den Linden (opera house), and St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale. Lastly, in the Kreuzberg district which is loaded with Turkish shops and cafés, discover a “Marianne” Stasse and Platz – it’s lovely.

To quote President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring speech from June 26, 1963, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum’ ” [I am a citizen of Rome]. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”

Stourhead House and Gardens, Wiltshire ~ Idyllic England

grounds of Stourhead

grounds of Stourhead

The National Trust is a UK conservation charity protecting some 567 historic houses and buildings, gardens and parks, coasts and countryside, sites and monuments throughout the country. If you live in Britain, you should become a member.

My favourite National Trust property is Stourhead, an 18th century landscape garden and Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. Designed by Henry Hoare II, the house holds treasures for period-lovers including the Regency Library with a magnificent lunette painted window based on Raphael’s Vatican fresco, The School of Athens, while the manicured lawns brim with temples and other elaborate follies that visually delight in any season. Enjoy Stourhead for the day just a few hours from London via the M3 motorway. View the great-house, gallivant the grounds at your leisure and imagine it’s your very own home-sweet-home (or perhaps that’s just me). Check out the gardens:

Palladian Bridge

Palladian Bridge

the Grotto

the Grotto

Pantheon

Pantheon

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Stourhead's colourful environs

Stourhead’s colourful environs

February 22nd: Post dedicated to my dear old Dad, Happy Birthday Pop!

A very British Christmas

This year marked my first Christmas away from a familial home, instead deciding to remain in my English domicile. Upon relaying this intention to friends, the oft-reply wished me glad tidings, “you’ll be having a Charles Dickens Christmas!” Somewhat confused by this comment because I intended to stay in posh North London, not removed to the 19th century Victorian era. Nevertheless, I decided to ponder the prospective meaning of an English Noël.

One lovely aspect of Christmas in the U.K. (a nominally Christian country) is the unabashed awareness and unreserved “Happy Christmas” that passes many lips. Most everyone celebrates the holiday in some fashion regardless of religious persuasion, largely due to the cultural importance and inclusivity of the day.

My Christmas-day dawned with midnight Mass at St. Dominic’s with excited chirps of children blended into carols and Latin sung choruses. Evergreen branches sparsely decorated the church’s towering columns with vaulted ceilings compelling the eye toward enormous stained glass windows rising above the ornate gothic altar. When the pipe organ bellowed the closing hymn, Adeste Fideles, the church bells gracefully began to chime and I instinctively reached for my iPhone to capture the uplifting experience. Suppressing the notion, I momentarily chastised myself, closed my eyes and continued singing.

Somewhere betwixt the quaintly illuminated High Street decorations, a BBC special showcasing the nation’s best loved Christmas food and my own feast finale of flaming traditional pudding, I realised the magical merriment of Christmas in Britain – a truly Dickensian* Yuletide.

*Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] b.  characterized by jollity and conviviality a Dickensian scene round the Christmas tree

Joyous sentiments of British Christmas culminate in New Year celebrations and fireworks over the Thames ~ for those observing the Gregorian calendar, best wishes for 2013!

Villages, Vineyards and Villas… oh my!

Oh yes! That was my answer when I was invited to a friend’s weeklong milestone-birthday celebration at a Tuscan villa. Although I have been to Italy numerous times over the years, I’d never been to Tuscany. Despite my love of all things Italian from coffee and pasta to art and history, in my recent travels I have exchanged Europe’s accessibility for more exotic far eastern locales. Still you would be crazy to decline a week in Tuscany, touted as one of the most beautifully romantic and vibrantly picturesque places on earth.

To describe the landscape of the region break out the adjectives, add a generous helping of superlatives and you have the loveliest-quaint-bucolic-most serene Tuscan countryside. Cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves dance along the rolling hills and intermittently scattered along the vast tracks of fertile fields are charming towns which provide endless potential for day-tripping adventures. While Florence is as marvelous as Pisa is infamous, Lucca, Volterra, Siena, San Gimignano and many, many more are well-worth a sojourn.

Another local pursuit is winery-hopping, the Italian version of a pub crawl, and each vineyard has its own unique history, barrel methodology and tasting choices. You may not know your Brunello di Montalcino from your Vino di Nobile di Montepulciano but touring the wineries is a master class in the Sangiovese grape and the art of the vine. Some of the most interesting were Castello Banfi l’Enoteca ~ a castle in a gorgeous location with lovely people and delicious wine; Casato Prime Donne ~ despite being a traditionally male dominated profession, the winemakers here are all women and this vineyard produces bottles of Cenerentola or “Cinderella;” Villa Le Corti ~ wine is literally on tap but unfortunately the proprietress-owner is a most unpleasant Duchess; Fattoria Corzano e Paterno ~ Arianna and her family run this vineyard, farm and working dairy which produces artisanal sheep cheeses making tastings especially scrumptious; Antinori’s Badia di Passignano ~ in the Chianti Classico region, barrels here are aged in the property’s 4th century monastery and you should not miss an exquisite dinner with wine pairings at Osteria di Passignano.

After a day’s indulgence you need somewhere to lay your head. Accommodation options in Tuscany are plentiful but if you are traveling with friends why not rent a villa; for roughly $12K per week you can stay at Enzo and Annagloria Corti’s spectacular Villa Torre Il Santo located in Tavernelle in Val di Pesa. Ah, la dolce vita.

Ciao!