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Italy and San Marino

Tour of northern Italy (with a stop at one of the smallest nations in the world...)

sunny 30 °C

Been quite a while since I updated this, and I can't remember exactly how I ended the last post so I'll continue with what I remember.

My last night in Nice was rather long and boozy so waking up to leave for Italy didn't leave me feeling all that great. It took some water, juice and food to have me feeling a-okay before getting behind the wheel.

My first stop in Italy was La Spezia, and while I would love to have done the scenic route the entire way, it would have taken almost double the time of going by the motorway, and since I did have toll tags for both France and Italy, that's what I did. It did feel like a long old drive, though I'm sure the fact I was feeling a little tired didn't help, but I made it to La Spezia safe and sound, having to park my car some distance from my Airbnb. The lady who ran it was incredibly friendly, with full of tips and information about where and what to visit.

Of course, my first day was to go visit Cinque Terre. I knew we'd be in for some good weather when I woke up and headed to the train station early and it was already rather warm. I did have to queue for a while to get my pass, but trains ran frequently. Over the course of the day, I did stop and visit all five villages. I didn't spend too much time in the first couple of villages, Riomaggiore and Manarola. I had planned on doing the short hike between these two villages, but was informed the path was closed, and was also closed between Manarola and Corniglia.

I spent a bit more time in Corniglia, though getting to the town itself was hard, having to walk up what felt like a never ending set of stairs, though the views on offer were spectacular. As I always wear my walking shoes, I checked the time and distance between Corniglia and Vernazza and figured, why not, I'll hike this one instead. Considering the heat, it was a long, hard slog, well over ninety minutes mostly heading up to begin with, then a rather quick descent the closer I got to Vernazza. Ended up talking with a group of American tourists on the way, which helped pass the time.

Spent a long time in Vernazza recovering, and definitely enjoyed my first beer of the day! Walked up a nearby hill, again taking in some fantastic scenery (will upload more photos soon too.) Though I do feel quite fit nowadays, the distance between Vernazza and Monterosso was just too far, at least for me. If I hadn't done the previous hike, I might have considered it. Being the last stop, I spent more time in Monterosso than anywhere, the town actually split in two by a large hill.

Each village is full of things to see. Definitely more than one chiesa (church) and usually a museum or two, but most people, including myself, arrive to simply take in the scenery and try and snap our own photo of the rather famous ones you'll see in books or on the internet. The only downside is that it was absolutely packed. No criticism of tourism, considering I'm one myself, but I'm sure it would have been quieter in say... January. But I'm thoroughly glad I did it, definitely enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend.

Though I returned to La Spezia rather knackered, the next day I was out again, this time riding a train for an hour or so as I headed north to Genoa. I had contemplated staying there as I planned my trip, but La Spezia was better for the links to Cinque Terre. Genoa is an absolutely gorgeous city, absolutely steeped in history, and I loved walking the narrow streets of the old town. Better yet, the city had at least three (and probably more) funicular. Some only go up and down between two stations. One, though, heads right up into the hills surrounding Genoa.

For the first time since Andorra, I found myself in nature rather than a city, and on nothing but a whim, figured I would go for a walk, as I found a board suggesting I could take in some scenery while I also walking by some old forts that line the hills. It was rather quiet, not many tourists heading this far, and I eventually ended up following signs for a restaurant which offered panoramic views. Not sure how long it took me to walk there, well over and hour as I stopped often to snap a photo, but they didn't lie. Panoramic views on offer, the food was pretty good, and reasonably price as well. As always, the walk back was a little easier and definitely quicker as I didn't stop all the time! The only disappointment is that the weather did turn that afternoon, a thunderstorm rolling in. I ended up in a cafe, the lady behind the bar suggesting it was a frequent occurrence during the summer. A reminder of Sydney...

My last day in La Spezia was spent in the very town I was staying. It's a small town, and one used by tourists as a base rather than a place to visit. But there are a few hidden gems, and the docks are certainly a nice place to visit, with a number of bars and restaurants around. Being a Sunday, it was actually rather quiet around town, any tourists probably elsewhere, and considering how hot it was again, it was only in the evening that the streets and piazzas once again started to fill up.

Leaving La Spezia the next day, I stuck to the coast this time as my next stop of Pisa was only a short drive away, in comparison to some of the distances I've covered so far. My Airbnb was an apartment quite a distance from the centre of town, but my host provided all the information I required, including how to get into town. Walking wasn't realistic, particularly given the heat, so I ended up getting a bus each day. My first night, all I did was head to the local supermarket, grab some beers, then headed to a local pizzeria, where I enjoyed a fantastic local pizza.

First day was, of course, spent in Pisa itself. I had to be the usual tourist and head to the Leaning Tower, snapping a number of photos, but there are plenty of other buildings to visit while you're there. I definitely headed into the cathedral, which was absolutely stunning inside, and also into the Duomo, which was rather empty inside but still awe-inspiring. I spent a few hours in and around the tower and the other buildings before grabbing a map from a local tourist office, asking what else there was. The map suggested a couple of routes to take, and it was amazing how quiet the city was once you were away from the tourist areas. And Pisa had plenty of architecturally stunning buildings, plenty of museums to wander into, and though it was another stinking hot, humid day, it was pleasant just walking around, though trying to keep to the shade!

Day two had me hopping onto a train and heading towards Florence. Many people do it the other way around, staying in Florence and heading to Pisa, but considering I'm driving, Pisa was the better option for myself. Anyway, Florence is as beautiful and stunning as you can imagine. I booked my tickets for the Uffizi well in advance, and I could have honestly spent all day in there looking at everything. I'm sure I did spend a few hours in there, enjoying the fact it was rather cool. It was absolutely packed, no wonder they suggest you reserve an advanced ticket, and it was amusing to hear some of the stuff continuously telling people to be quiet. Felt more like a church at times.

Aside from the Uffizi, I pretty much saw all the other famous landmarks. I spent at least forty-five minutes queuing up to enter the Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, but I'll admit, the inside wasn't as great as the outside. And I did chuckle to myself when I remembered climbing the cathedral in Assassin's Creed. The Basilica of Santa Croce was definitely worth the entrance fee. To be honest, during this trip, I think the basilica's have proven to be just as beautiful as most cathedrals. And, of course, no visit to Florence is complete without crossing Ponte Vecchio. I crossed a bridge further down near the basilica and walked back, snapping a few shots before crossing it myself. If you're wondering, it's full of jewellery shops nowadays.

Florence is obviously a very old city and I could have spent two or three days wandering around, taking in all the sights. It was stupidly busy, even Cinque Terre wasn't as packed, and nowhere in France or Spain had been anywhere near as bad. I was definitely travelling during European summer! Add to that, Florence was... almost obscenely expensive, but Italian standards anyway, nearly matching the price of some places in France. Understandable, I guess, but it made buying pints of beer rather expensive.

Day three was another day trip from Pisa, this time to the small town of Lucca. And talk about an undiscovered gem. Yes, there were a few tourists around, but I swear the Italians keep this one a secret. 'Si, go to Pisa, got to Firenze. Lucca? No, nothing there. Very boring.' It's definitely worth a day trip as you can walk the four or so kilometres of the city walls, and then simply stroll around the streets of the old town. Plenty of landmarks to see, but as it's so quiet, compared to Pisa or Florence at least, you can sit outside a cafe, have a drink, and just enjoy the peace and quiet. Admittedly, you could easily see everything in town easily within a day, unless you're a completionist and want to see every museum and every landmark possible, but I can heartily recommend it as a day trip from Pisa.

My drive from Pisa to my next stop of San Marino had me driving through the Tuscan countryside. I avoided the autostrada as I wanted to take the scenic route. The road through the mountains was a lot of fun but hard work to drive, but the views on the way were absolutely spectacular, stopping in a small town right at the peak to take a few photos. I was passed by any number of bikers, and there must have been at least fifty of them doing the same thing when I arrived. For those wondering what road it was, it was the SS67. My sat nav took me from Pisa to Florence, driving through there wasn't a lot of fun, exiting the city on the east, following the SS67 to Forli, and then head south-east on the SS9. This would be a nice route to take if you were heading to Rimini from the west coast.

San Marino, one of the smallest nations on Earth, is definitely worth a visit. I was staying in another Airbnb, on the very edge of the San Marino/Italian border, though in San Marino itself. Having arrived rather late in the day, and feeling rather knackered after an exhausting drive, I headed to a pizzeria which had some fantastic reviews. Best pizza I'd had so far. Hands down, no contest. I headed to one or two bars after that, but I pulled up stumps rather early and got some much needed shut eye.

Public transport in San Marino isn't great, and knowing what I'm like, wanting to enjoy a few beers during the day, driving wasn't an option. But I did have the bus timetable for the service that runs from Rimini, so had to sit around and wait awhile before it arrived, expectedly late of course. The City of San Marino sits on an enormous hill overlooking the rest of the country and what seems like half of Italy. The city and country itself are old, very old. Heading to the tourist office, I made sure I got my passport stamped, grabbed a map, and was offered some sound advice on what to do.

Any plans were stopped, for a while at least, as there was a festival of sorts taking place, and there was a beer tent. After grabbing a pint, I ended up speaking with a German couple for a good few hours, knocking back a few beers, and having a good laugh. Good people, and I've kept their details to keep in touch. But though I could sit and drink beer all day, I did want to check out some sights, so I walked up the hill to visit the three forts. Achingly beautiful views were on offer, while at the highest point, you could see some stunning shots of the City of San Marino itself. It was nice just walking around the old streets, though admittedly, the city is tiny. You definitely don't need more than a day. I did grab another pizza from a restaurant with good reviews, and ended up catching the last bus back, which was only at around 20:30. I did ask about taxi's and was told they can be pricey.

Stop number four of my journey of the Italian peninsula was Reggio Emilia. Not exactly on the tourist trail, but it was convenient for day trips to Modena/Maranello and also for Bologna. Unfortunately, I'd been carrying a cough for a little while by now, ever since entering Italy, to be honest, and it really knocked me for six during my drive from San Marino, so that meant my first day in Reggio Emilia, where I was going to check out the city itself, was a wash out. All I did was head to the local pharmacy, and using Google translate, got my hands on some cough medicine, headed back to my apartment, and got some rest.

Though I still didn't feel all that great the next day, it was time to visit Modena. Actually, though I did want to visit Modena itself, it was time to visit Maranello and the home of Ferrari. The first museum, though, was the Enzo Ferrari experience, where the city has turned the house he was born into a museum, and the building next to it is filled with some of the most beautiful Ferrari's ever produced. They also show a film of Enzo Ferrari during the visit, highlighting details of his life and the history of the marque itself. The collection isn't enormous by any stretch of the imagination, easily visiting in no more than a couple of hours, but if you're a car buff, it's a must.

Through the website, you can also book a bus to take you from Modena to that museum and then onwards to Maranello. I'd booked mine long ago, so boarded for the half hour trip. Maranello is Ferrari, or Ferrari is Maranello. As soon as you enter, the Prancing Horse is everywhere. The bus takes you past the Ferrari factory and various other buildings linked to the marque, before arriving at the Ferrari museum. I can say this right now, it is worth absolutely every penny spent buying the ticket. I could have easily spent all day in there just looking at all the cars. Not just road cars, but sports cars and what everyone probably wants to see, the Formula One cars. The place reeks of history.

While I was there, I decided to try my hand at one of the simulators, just for a laugh. It wasn't cheap but I somehow managed to cram my fat arse in one of the cockpits, and as I was driving a Ferrari, it had to be Monza. You only get seven minutes but I managed a few laps, my fastest only nine seconds slow than Kimi Raikkonen's current lap record. There's hope for me yet!!! I also enquired taking a Ferrari for a drive, as there are plenty of garages offering the Ferrari experience. Let's just say it was well outside my budget, ten minutes being one hundred Euro, and so on. So I figured I could always head back one day with a wad of cash and take one out for an hour.

Back to Modena, I headed to the tourist office, grabbed a map, saw the main sights, headed to a bar which sold craft beer, enjoying a great chat with the barman, whose English was solid after living in the UK for a few years, before returning to Reggio after quite the day.

Day three was Bologna. About another half an hour on the train past Modena, I had toyed with the idea of heading north from Reggio instead of south, but I couldn't miss Bologna, not with everything on offer. It was probably one of the muggiest days of the trip so far, though, the walk just from the station to the main tourist office leaving me almost soaking wet, not in a nice way. Grabbing a map as always, I also booked a ticket to climb the Torra degli Asinelli (Asinelli Tower) for later that afternoon.

Like most maps, it came with a suggested walking route, so I followed that first, definitely visiting the basilica first, which was surprisingly free to enter, and utterly beautiful inside. The route took me past most of the famous landmarks dotted around the old city, before I abandoned it around two-thirds the way around and did my own thing as usual. Bologna is as old as all the other cities I've visited, finding my way down along old narrow streets, buildings seeming to close in on you, but it was the shade I found most enjoyable.

Climbing the Asinelli Tower was quite the experience. It was stiflingly hot inside, so by the time we reached the top, everyone was sweating. Climb was worth it though, the views provided were... well, as I've said about a lot of things, absolutely spectacular. It was a little cramped up there, though they do keep the numbers reasonable, just about everyone managed to get the shots they wanted. Up that high, there was also the slightest of breezes, not really enough to cool right down, and entering the tower to climb down, everyone was sweating again at the bottom. Good fun though.

If you look at the list of things to do in Bologna, you could easily spend two or three days taking in everything on offer. But if you're doing a day trip, you can easily knock off the main sights, while visiting one or two things perhaps overlooked, quite easily. And it's another place I recommend that everyone should visit. Though popular, and it was busy, it was nothing compared to previous stops.

I'd avoided the autostrada through most of Italy, and there was absolutely no point using it to head to my next stop of Verona. This wasn't an Airbnb but an actual B&B I'd booked long ago, as driving near the centre of Verona was difficult, parking impossible, so I was again on the very edge of town, once again relying on buses to get me home.

Verona is... gorgeous. Absolutely, utterly, fantastically gorgeous. I loved it. So much that, for my third day, I abandoned any idea of doing a day trip and stayed in the city. There is so much to see and do, but it's not just that. As always, I had a map, and followed that somewhat, but getting lost in the old town was fun, and heading up across the river to the funicular, to take photos from the other side... I spent a long time just sitting on the wall and simply looking, camera in my pocket for once. Of course, those with a love for Shakespeare will go looking for Juliet's house, and you can also visit her grave/mausoleum if you're so inclined. They do have a statue of her outside the house, all the tourists lining up for a photo. Most would go to grab one of her breasts and all I could think was 'She was around 14 in the play, perverts!'

The city also had a lot of Roman ruins. Haven't mentioned them too much above but Verona has an arena, which is still used to this day for events, including opera, and there is also the ruins of a theatre nearby. I made sure to visit both of those. Depending on which side of the river you're on, you can follow the banks until you arrive at the Ponte di Castelvecchio, with a museum attached to it nearby. As always, there is an abundance of churches you can visit, but if you're going to visit just one, make sure it's the Duomo Cathedral di Santra Maria Matricolare. Worth every cent of the entrance fee.

Of course, you can't visit Italy, particularly on a long trip like I'm taking, without visiting Venice, so that was a trip for day two. Was it as good as I expected? Was it as beautiful as everyone says it is? Abso-beeping-lutely! Don't get me wrong, it was so stupidly busy, it wasn't funny. Well, only the toursity parts were. So I had a plan. I followed the signs to the Ponte di Rialto, took a couple of snaps, followed the signs to Piazza San Marco, did all the touristy stuff around there, then went an explored. Walk around five minutes away from either of those places, and Venice is wonderfully peaceful.

Tempted to a gondola ride, just for fun, until I saw the price. Ridiculous, so that was a no. Instead, I crossed the Ponte dell Accademia and kept walking until I was near the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Sitting at the point, you are provided with wonderful views of the Piazza San Marco on the other side of the Grand Canal. Heading back, there were times I was the only person around as I turned down narrow little streets. The main thoroughfares were busy though nothing like around the main hotspots. There are so many churches to visit, you could spend all day doing just that, but I'll admit, at times Venice seemed almost too quiet, even empty of life. Then when you realise that Venice is actually quite large, when thinking about it, but only fifty thousand live there now. To be honest, with all the tourists, and I know I was one, but I almost don't blame them. Little wonder they are bringing in all these initiatives, large and small, to almost stop tourists arriving altogether. It'll never stop completely but it might put off a few. I've read plenty of tourists receiving large fines for the smallest of infractions.

As I said above, my third day, I spent in Verona again. Didn't do all that much. To be honest, I'd been on the road for quite a while, and I was starting to feel a little tired. That's why I was actually looking forward to my next stop, as I planned on relaxing more than I had during most of my trip so far. (And my stops in Italy hadn't finished just yet either).

Posted by benjamin2981 23:42 Archived in Italy Tagged venice road_trip verona bologna italy pisa basilica cathedral roman hot old_city old_town ferrari cinque_terre arena roman_ruins maranello leaning_tower airbnb romeo_and_juliet Comments (0)

Country No. 3 - Portugal

Porto and Sintra only. Would have loved to stay longer...

sunny 23 °C

I'm not sure if it's just me, or if many have had the same luck, but all of my Airbnb hosts, even those I didn't get the chance to meet, have been nothing short of fantastic.

My drive to Porto from Santiago was fairly straight forward, though I did worry when entering Portugal and the motorway. Through France and Spain, my little tags would beep to state payment would be taken. It doesn't beep in Portugal, so I wasn't sure if it worked or not. (I'd only find out leaving Porto for Sintra that it was all okay.)

Motorways in Portugal, outside of the main cities, are practically empty. But the drivers? Well, they are... pretty bad. Didn't come close to an accident, but watching some of the antics on display was amusing. Entering Porto wasn't particularly difficult, though I had to ignore the sat-nav more than once due to never ending roadworks on the approach to my Airbnb. Managed to snag a parking spot close by and unload my stuff.

Most of my communication prior to arriving was with Lurdes, but it was Aderito who sat me down and went through everything with me. Utterly fantastic, as basically gave me a two-day itinerary with the map he had. The little cottage I had was perfectly suitable for my needs, so I headed straight out into town, as I had arrived rather early. All I wanted was a beer or two, avoiding most of the tourist sites as I would spend the next two days wandering. I found a sports bar, conveniently located close to my Airbnb, and admittedly I spent a couple of hours there each night as they were playing the Champions League semi-finals, and I can't remember the last time I watched any Champions League!

I spent two days walking around Porto, the first day covering 28 kms, the second day a paltry 17.7 kms. The first day I took the tram out to the very west of the city by the coastline. It was rather misty to start with and I was worried I'd be in for disappointment. But after sitting down for a coffee, I waited until it cleared, turning into a gorgeous, sunny and warm day. I followed the coastline for a good few kilometres before turning inland, wandering here, there and everywhere, mostly following the guidance of Aderito, who didn't disappoint. Visited another contemporary art museum, but could also wander the parks and gardens. I spent hours walking that first day, so was absolutely knackered upon returning to my Airbnb, though after a shower, headed out for at least a couple of drinks.

Day two was more of the same, though sticking to the inner city and I guess more 'touristy' parts. I had lunch at Cafe Santiago, where I feasted on a Francesinha Santiago. Basically a sandwich full of meat, covered in cheese, with a fried egg on top. Calorific, but utterly delicious and I managed to polish off the whole thing. Other than that, it was just another day of wandering. I could list every monument I saw and photographed... But I can only say that you should definitely visit Porto. It's beautiful when the sun is out, particularly if you're by the river. If you cross the river and head to towards another museum, you get some breathtaking views of the old town.

I would have loved to have spent another couple of days in Porto, wandering the narrow streets and simply kicking back and relaxing. I left early on my last day there, and had a mini heart attack when I found the garage I had parked my car in closed. Thankfully the man responsible, who didn't speak any English, turned up, mimicking that he was just eating breakfast.

During the drive to Sintra, I figured I'd stop off by the coast, eventually stopping at a town called Nazaré. For those who don't know, it's where some of the biggest waves in the world have been surfed. There were no enormous waves on the day of my visit, but I spent a couple of hours walking the promenade before taking the funicular up to the nearby hill, the town basically split in two. Again, some stunning views on display, and if I ever return to Portugal, I'll spent a couple of weeks slowly working my way north to south, or vice versa, and would definitely spend a couple of days lazing on the beach.

I'd heard Sintra could be very expensive, and although I spent €30 paying for entry into parks and palaces, everything else was as reasonable as Porto. My host, Filipe, was again fantastic, full of advice, particularly about where to have dinner, which I chose to visit on my second night. I only had one full day in Sintra, so had to make the most of it. Standing in line for the bus, I started talking to a Dutch family, and as we were well to the back of the line, they asked if I'd like to join them on a tuk-tuk. I'm on holiday, so why not? The driver was a bloody mad-man, spending half his time turning around to talk to us, but it was bloody good fun too, though I prayed to all the gods that we arrived in one piece.

The Palacio de Pena was beautiful, and I'm glad we got there as early as we did, as the line I noticed upon leaving was horrific. The park surrounding the palace was stunning, glad I'd taken my hayfever tablet, and I climbed to the highest point in the park, where the High Cross is located. The Moorish Castle was also good fun to walk around, climbing to the very top, where more views could be taken in. And finally, I walked all the way back to the historical centre to visit Sintra Palace. I didn't walk as far as Bilbao or Porto, but I certainly did a lot more climbing!

My last night in Sintra was spent at a local restaurant, partaking in a dish of Portuguese food, before heading out to enjoy a couple of beers before heading back to my Airbnb. The last place I was in had a guy with a guitar, and he was a rather good singer, so I ended up staying for a couple, just to listen. The football on TV in the background was also a good reason to stay.

And that was it. I know I could have done so much more in Portugal, but as I've said time and again, I'm just limited by what I can see and do. However, there is always the chance of another trip in the future, so perhaps I can visit a few places I've had to miss this time around.

Posted by benjamin2981 08:59 Archived in Portugal Tagged museums road_trip walking history driving palaces portugal old_town porto sintra airbnb historical_centre Comments (0)

Day 11 / 12 - Orléans, or How I'm now a Jeanne D'Arc devotee

Drove - 124 miles from Le Mans to Orléans via Chartres / 19881 steps (11th) / 16784 steps (12th)

sunny

I’ll admit, Le Mans had been a surprise. First by how pretty it was, but I’d also made some friends, a couple who I’ve already been keeping in touch with. I guess that’s the whole point to solo travel, to meet new people, but considering my French is bloody awful (I can read it better than speak or understand), I’ve been lucky in that I’ve met people who speak decent English.

But after yet only another couple of days, it was time to hit the highway. This time I was heading the closest to Paris I probably will during this trip, hitting the autoroute towards Chartres. Admittedly, I was only going to the city for one thing, to see it’s cathedral. I’m sure those of you still reading this are thinking ‘But Benjamin, you are not religious. Why all the cathedrals?’ Because they’re architecturally stunning and you don’t have to be a devotee to God to understand the symbolism.

I managed to find a spot to park in the only free car park in Chartres then walked up a monster of a hill. After picking up a map from the tourist office, I headed straight for the cathedral. I will now have to compare that one to Le Mans, and there are ever more cathedrals the longer I travel. The one in Chartres is magnificent though, and I can only recommend it. But there is more to Chartres than just the cathedral, and I did spend a couple of hours wandering the streets, grabbed a spot of lunch (a baguette filled with everything, I didn’t even realise!) and completed what I guess was the ‘tourist trail’, taking a few photo’s but generally just appreciating how peaceful it was. I reckon Parisians head to Chartres to get away from the hectic lifestyle of the capital!

Leaving Chartres, I avoided the autoroute that would take me to Orléans, instead sticking to the N or D roads, hoping I’d be provided with some sights on the way. Well, while I did pass through one or two pretty villages, the one word to describe most if it is… flat. Just lots and lots of farmland. And there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of wind turbines. Kind of kills the view…

Then there were the trucks I got stuck behind, and driving a right-hand drive car in Europe can make one slightly apprehensive when trying to pass, as I’m on the wrong side to see past, though I’ve managed well so far. I just don’t take big risks, making sure there is definitely nothing on the horizon before passing.

Thankfully the sat-nav didn’t try to take me around the houses going into Orléans, pretty much taking me through the town and straight to my place. Caterine had messaged that she would be heading off to Paris, but she was still home when I arrived, so at least we got to meet each other. Her English was fantastic, so communicating was a breeze, and she was friendly and very informative about what I could see in the city. We probably spoke for around fifteen minutes before she left for Paris.

That left me a house to myself. I will admit something. The driving does make me tired, as I feel I’m having to concentrate just that little bit more, particularly regarding speed limits, and French drivers love to tailgate (and not just me, I notice it when cars are going in the opposite direction.) There’s more to it than just that, but most days of driving results in me not doing too much that first night. So I headed to the local supermarket, grabbed some food and a couple of beers, and spent the night catching up on things I may have missed. Or, even better, watching things that are geoblocked on Youtube back in the UK!

The next two days were about one simple thing, or one person. Jeanne D’Arc, better known as Joan of Arc to the English speaking world. I don’t think I’ll ever visit a city as devoted to one icon as Orléans is to Jeanne D’Arc.

Streets, shops, café’s, you name it, there is something named after her. And there are numerous statues around the city as well. In addition, there is a festival every May 8th that celebrates her liberation of the city in 1429. Her house (rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII) is probably a site of pilgrimage for some. I found it a little disappointing, as there was only a movie played that showed the story of her life, along with a timeline and one or two other small things. I thought they would have had a recreation of what it might have looked like at the time.

The main cathedral has a shrine devoted to her, considering she is a saint. The stained glass windows along both sides tell her life story in ten stages. There was another church I visited, the Notre Dame des Miracles, which doesn’t look like a church from the outside, but inside, there was more devotion to her. In fact, I think it was slightly more moving than the cathedral.

I think it’s safe to say that Orléans will never forget Jeanne D’Arc!

Other than anything relating to her, I visited my first art museum of the trip. I don’t know art, but I did spend a couple of hours looking at some very pretty paintings. And I don’t know about you, but is contemporary just… I don’t know, weird in comparison? Anyway, there were a couple of rooms that left me staggered, the number of paintings, how large and full of life they were. I remember one in particular, not its name, but I do remember the eyes. It was like they were watching you in return.

Even the streets were beautiful. Walking down the Rue Jeanne D’Arc or the Rue Royale had me stopping to take pictures. I’m sure a lot of it was rebuilt after the war, but I’m fairly sure they’ve done it to match what it must have looked like before.

I even walked through a garden, though only because I found it amusing it was named after Louis Pasteur. Again, out of season as I missed the opportunity to ride a little train that goes around the park. (Joking, as it’s for kids… or am I?)

Finally, one cannot talk of travelling and not mention food and drinking. The happening place is Rue de Bourgogne (Burgundy. I didn’t even attempt to pronounce it the French way and ruin it) though, for scenery, a stop down by the Loire is a must on a sunny afternoon.

Anyway, Rue de Bourgogne is full of pubs, clubs and restaurants, it’s where I spent both evenings. Most pubs and bars had a 3 hour long ‘happy hour’, while I enjoyed a real ‘French’ lunch my first day. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant (and having trouble finding it on Google) but I had a 3 course meal (entreé, plats du jour and dessert) with a pint of beer, for only €22. Didn’t have to eat again that day! And the lady who served me, who suffered through my poor French, while she spoke a little English, was a delight. A real laugh, no doubt at my expense probably!

And so ends my three night/ two day stay in Orléans. Long enough to soak in the culture, see the sights, and enjoy myself. Thing is, if Schengen wasn’t the thorn it can be and is, I would have spent longer and driven around visiting nearby chateau’s, but alas, I have ninety days to cram in as much as I can. Next stop is Tours, where I’ve organised one day to tour the city, and Monday, I have booked a train ticket to visit Saumur, a town around 40 minutes train ride away.

Looking forward to it!

Posted by benjamin2981 08:20 Archived in France Tagged road_trip walking history driving orleans museum cathedral nightlife joan_of_arc airbnb chartres jeanne_darc Comments (0)

Day Eight & Nine, Le Mans - April 8th / 9th 2019

Fougères to Le Mans (7th) – 88 miles / 22169 steps (8th) / 15455 steps (9th)

sunny

I’m not really sure where to begin!

Well, there was little point explaining much for day seven. After enjoying another lively discussion with Remy and Christine at breakfast, it was time to leave Fougères. I had my first experience of trying to find a petrol station on a Sunday, as I didn’t pass one leaving Fougères, so figured I could fill up in Laval before getting on the autoroute towards Le Mans. Although I didn’t come close to even the light coming on, it was something I will have to be aware. Most of my journeys are not longer than a couple of hundred miles to begin with, but I will fill up more often than not before the longer stretches. (Luckily my first really long journey isn’t until after Morocco in May.)

Anyway, finding my Airbnb host in Le Mans was simple enough, my sat-nav not sending me around the houses for once. And I really have lucked in with my hosts so far! Simone is a delight, with a wicked sense of humour. Within a couple of hours of arriving, she asks ‘Would you like a biere?’ Now, bear this in mind, she is a 70 year old woman, who just happens to love hosting people!

So we head off down the road to a local bar, where I’m introduced to some locals, and one guy, Antoine, spoke good English and had just finished his own travels in the USA. Must have spent a good couple of hours (if not longer, to be honest) before we headed back, with another friend in tow, Laura, who is also staying with Simone. I’m then treated to some home-cooked Vietnamese food before heading to bed. Not a bad introduction!

Monday was all about exploring Le Mans itself, leaving the motor racing aspect to the Tuesday. However, one thing I’ve learned rather quickly is that many stores and museums are closed on a Monday in France. The big stores remain open, and the more popular museums likely are too, but I was told by the lady in the tourist office that most in Le Mans would be shut. Still, my first port of call was the cathedral, better known as the Cathédrale St-Julien. The only word to describe it is… Wow! It’s not just the fact it’s bloody enormous, but the inside was a treasure trove of sights too. Seen one or two cathedrals during my travels and have to say the one in Le Mans is certainly one of the better examples.

Le Mans also had a rather well preserved old town, called Cité Plantagenêt. Though you won’t get lost along the narrow streets, the numerous old buildings certainly make you think you’ve gone back in time… until a car almost runs you over anyway. The old town is full of small shops, workshops, bars, cafes and, of course, most of them were closed. Go figure.

Heading down to the River Sarthe, one can also take in the remnants of what was once a Roman wall that surrounded the city long ago. What I did realise is that the old town and cathedral were built on a hill overlooking the river and everywhere else, as climbing back up the stairs towards the old town was a pain in the arse!

As it was a rather pleasant day, in fact probably the best day weather wise since leaving the UK, I hopped on a tram and headed to the outskirts of the city, to the Abbaye Royale de l’Epau. Knew nothing about it except it was an abbey, so paid the €5 entry, received an audioguide as well, and wandered the grounds. It was incredibly peaceful. There were not many visitors and the sounds of the city were left behind. I found myself just sitting down for a few minutes, enjoying the silence. Under-rated, if you ask me.

After the silence, I headed back into the city and sat at one of the many bars lining the Place de la Republique. It was rather warm in the afternoon and the top of my head is now paying for it, as I didn’t have a hat! I enjoyed a petit biere in a couple of the bars before wandering into a rather popular Irish pub called Mulligan’s.

And that’s why I woke up with a stonking headache this morning. I was sat by myself, just watching the TV with a pint, when I was approached by a girl as she heard me speaking English with the barman. I was invited to her table with a few others, and she ended up doing the interpreting, as most of the others could only speak a little anglais, and my francais is… well, probably not as good as their anglais. We must have sunk a couple of beers together in there before heading across the road towards another bar. I think I finally left at around 1 or 2 in the morning, couldn’t find a taxi, so I ended up walking for an hour or so back to my Airbnb.

For my second day, my wonderful host, Simone, had organised what was almost a personal guide to take me to the La Sarthe circuit. Katia was a motor-racing fanatic. Definitely put me to shame. She’d spent a few years living in the USA working in the Indycar series, actually living in Indianapolis itself, so her accent was definitely amusing to someone used to hearing accents of angleterre.

First stop was the La Sarthe museum, where I spent a good ninety minutes or so wandering around, taking too many photos of either very old cars, or very old racing cars. They had replicas of the De Dion Bouton, considered one of the very first automobiles ever made, and the very first Benz ‘motorwagen’. Being Le Mans, most of the cars were either originals or replicas of cars that had one raced the famous old track. We’re talking Bugatti’s, Bentley’s, Jaguar’s, Ferrari’s, Ford GT40s, up to the all-conquering Porsche and Audi teams. I think I took a photo of nearly every car. While I’m sure there are many collections that could rival, the only two I’ve seen that come close would be Donington Museum, which I believe has now closed, and the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.

Katia then took me on a drive of the track, at least the public road bits, first passing Tertre Rouge, driving the entire length of the Hunaudieres straight, though we had to take roundabouts instead of chicanes, then the section from Mulsanne to Indianapolis and Arnage, before the track becomes ‘private’ and we headed off to lunch near the local karting track.

I’ll be honest, after all that excitement, and a three course lunch for only €12, I was knackered from the night before, and Katia had work to do, so she dropped me off back at Simone’s and I actually had a lie down! I did head back into town for a couple of beers, watched a bit of football (soccer), then headed back again, just in time to meet Simone, Laura and Katia for dinner, as the three knew each other as Katia and Laura had once been Airbnb guests of Simone’s. It was a good laugh, I couldn’t understand a lot of it, but Katia helped translate the important bits.

I’m actually writing this in Orleans, as I left Le Mans earlier this morning, having stopped in Chartres on the way (it was actually quite a detour, but worth it) which I might talk about in my next post.

PS – Maybe I’ve lucked in so far, but if you’re considering it, use Airbnb. My hosts have been sensational so far. Rose-Marie and I had trouble communicating, as my French is admittedly poor, but she was still lovely and very helpful. Christine and Remy were an utter delight, Simone was just awesome, while my current host, Catarine, was very friendly, though she’s had to disappear for a couple of days. Fingers crossed all the rest of my hosts are just as good!

PSS – I think daily updates are a bit much, so will probably just update at the end of each city visit or when I find enough words to describe what I’ve seen and done.

Posted by benjamin2981 11:54 Archived in France Tagged walking museum cathedral drinking old_town le_mans airbnb circuit_de_la_sarthe motor_racing Comments (0)

Day Six, Fougères - April 6th, 2019

16611 steps

semi-overcast

If all my Airbnb hosts are like Rose-Marie, and now Christine and Remy, then I’ve made a damned good choice using the service. The room I have is even better than the pictures, and the husband and wife duo have made me feel nothing but welcome in their home. This morning, Remy and I must have chatted away for at least an hour and longer, discussing a couple of my favourite topics, history and politics, while he happily gave his opinion on Fougères itself, and also describing other parts of France. The pair have done plenty of travelling over the years and have given me some solid advice.

Heading out into another overcast, but at least slightly warmer day, my first port of call was the tourism office, as although I know Fougères has a grand chateau (pictures incoming soon hopefully), I can be honest and admit I didn’t know much else about the town. The lady at the counter was very helpful, pointing out places on the map I might be interested in.

The first thing to notice, even before heading to the office, was that Saturday is market day in Fougères, most of the streets leading into the square blocked off. It had a very French feeling to it, go figure, and if you can think of it, they probably sold it. No end of fruit, seafood, meat, breads, clothing was sold. If I wasn’t feeling full from breakfast, and not wanting to carry around something half the day, I’d have certainly stopped to buy something!

I have a feeling I might say this a bit during April, but if I was here later in the spring, and definitely during the summer, then Fougères would look spectacular. I’m not sure if all French cities are the same, I’ll find out as I go along, but the two gardens I walked through on the tourist route would no doubt be a kaleidoscope of colours once the flowers are in full bloom. The public garden near the Église Saint-Léonard already had plenty of colour, in addition to providing breath-taking views of the Chateau de Fougères in the distance.

From the garden I headed down the hill towards the old medieval town, full of winding, narrow streets, barely wide enough to fit a car. There are still examples of medieval homes still standing and lived in, and despite being bombed during WWII (as described by Remy), most of the town, whether old or newer, managed to survive intact.

At the bottom of the hill, I met the walls of the chateau, having a quick look around the Église Saint-Sulpice, before I followed the road back up the hill, through the last remaining city gate. As I’m here during low season, the chateau was closing for lunch when I arrived. That gave me an excuse to finish the rest of the tourist trail, which included another public garden, before grabbing some lunch of my own (pancake wrapped sausage. It was actually rather nice) and treated myself to a small beer, sitting in one of the squares, listening into conversations I couldn’t understand as an old man played an accordion. The sun always threatened but never really came out.

The chateau re-opened at two p.m, and after paying the standard entrance free, I was given a free audio-guide and must have spent a solid two hours walking around the chateau, learning about the history of the castle but also of Brittany itself. As always, there was some myth involved in addition to the actual history. But it’s the reason why I’m doing nine-months around Europe. I’ll admit, apart from one or two places around the globe, Europe has always been my main interest in regards to history and is why I’m doing this trip now.

Christine gave me a good tip to head out for dinner, a small restaurant by the name of Le P’tit Bouchon, so I’ve headed back to my room to relax, as I’ve done a few hours of solid walking, and the hill back up to town from the chateau was a leg killer!

(It must be noted that the reviews for this restaurant can be considered mixed, generally regarding the owner. Even Christine mentioned it depended on the mood of the owner as to how I would be treated. Could be interesting! The good news is that both husband and wife, who operate it alone, do speak pretty good English, but I’ll try my little French, just to be polite.)

If it wasn’t for Schengen rules being an Australian, I would love to have explored this part of France for longer, but as I’m restricted to 90 days, I’ve had to plan this part of my trip carefully. So tomorrow, it’s back on the road, heading generally east towards Le Mans.

POSTSCRIPT

Holy moly! The meal was sensational. Entrée, main course and dessert, plus a drink (glass of Leffe), all for €21.50. The main course, macaronade, was probably one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. The sort of beef that just melts in your mouth. The dessert, a rather simple chocolate mousse, had me wanting a larger bowl of it. I’d read one or two harsh reviews of the guy who ran the front, and though perhaps a little abrupt, as he’s running the show by himself, with his wife in the kitchen, he was nothing but helpful and his English was, again, much better than my French. The only suggestion I would make to anyone reading this, who perhaps might head to Fougères, and wants a decent meal, make sure you reserve a table. I was lucky to get one without reserving, getting there early and dining alone as I was. He turned away plenty of people, as it’s only a small place, a dozen tables at most.

Not a bad way to end my rather short but sweet stay in Fougères.

Posted by benjamin2981 05:03 Archived in France Tagged walking history chateau airbnb Comments (0)

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