Venice, too, almost didn’t make the cut. We worried that its reputation – for being so saturated with tourists there was no room to appreciate where you were – would be off-putting enough that we didn’t mourn excluding it from our itinerary. But as we got geographically closer, and it became clear it was only a quick train ride away, the prospect of visiting resurfaced. After all, how do you not go to Venice when it’s just within arm’s reach? Still, it really wasn’t until after we returned to Verona from Lake Garda that we made the decision to visit the next day.
Rather than walk you through what we did, which was mostly walk, eat, walk, ogle, walk, boat, eat, and walk further, I will share two things, and then a bunch of photos.
For those who haven’t been, I’m here to confirm: Venice. Is. Spectacular. The city has defied all logic and its engineering and architectural feats boggle the mind almost as much as the beauty of its built environment delights the heart. It is overrun with tourists, but there is something so astonishing about the place that, with a little effort, they can all be easily ignored (and Drew and I have long felt that it takes much less effort than you think to get away from the maddening crowds, you just have to be willing to see all of a place, rather than the Lonely Planet highlights). I have never seen so much aesthetic masterwork in the public realm in a single place. You must see it to believe it.
In spite of this, Venice is a city in deep distress. It is financially withering at the hands of an exploitative single-industry economy (tourism); as a result, its youth are fleeing for better job prospects and its population is shrinking and aging rapidly; and to make matters slightly more macabre, it is literally sinking into the Adriatic lagoon on which it sits. We had the chance – almost by chance – to visit a pair of palaces that now form city hall (including the mayor’s and planning office) during our one day in town. We wandered around the interior for a while (to the surprise of the security guards who were happy to let us do so, but were bewildered by our interest) and agreed that while the city is certainly a paradise of sorts, we do not envy its civic leaders their challenge of reconciling Venice with the 21st century.
After retrieving our belongings from Mario – our incredibly kind host and babysitter of our bicycles and bags while we traveled light to and from Toronto – we jumped on a train from Not Milan (aka Gallarate) headed for Verona. The journey was quick and painless enough, and we arrived at the Verona train station in the mid-afternoon, with a short three mile ride to our campground ahead of us. We pedaled through unremarkable landscape under a strong early August sun, hopeful our campground awaited with some shady, cooling relief.
The bad news: it didn’t. Camping Verona Village is fairly new, and the only foliage to speak of in the tent area were some young saplings offering comically small spots of shade – an effective respite for ants, or maybe half of my left foot.
The good news: the campground also had some pretty affordable tiny houses for rent, which came with air conditioning, a kitchen, our own bathroom, and a sweet little porch. Consulting our weather app and the sweat-soaked t-shirts we were both sporting, we decided to ‘splurge’ and found ourselves settling into the inspired and efficient design of this adorable little hut for the next few nights.
After unpacking, we hopped on a local bus to return to the city center. Verona wasn’t initially on our itinerary, but as we planned our route across Italy, it emerged as a convenient base from which to explore some places we did want to be sure to visit (namely, Lake Garda to the west, Venice to the east, and the Dolomites to the north). Often, going somewhere you didn’t intend to means your expectations are lower, and perhaps for this reason, more easily exceeded. Such was the case for Verona: we really loved it!
Like many Italian cities, Verona is organized around a river – in this case, the Adige – which offers natural beauty, architectural flair in the city’s bridges, nighttime romance in the light reflecting off the water, and a natural divider of neighborhoods such that one can feel the ‘vibe’ shift from one side to the other. The city feels almost indulgent in its charm, but because Verona is a bit off the heavily beaten path of northern Italian tourism, it also has a relaxed, very ‘actually-lived-in’ feel.
In one of the main piazzas, an incredible Roman theater (built in the FIRST century) stands remarkably intact, and around it, a large public square exudes a buzzy romance with cobblestones, broad old plane trees and busy outdoor cafés filling with chatty patrons. It was down one of the alluring side streets off this piazza that we found ourselves at La Tradision, beckoning us in with its enthusiastic crowds and advertised €2.50 Aperol Spritzes. I had heard much about, but never actually sampled an Aperol Spritz, so we put our name on the list for a table, and ordered two to enjoy outside in the street while we waited.
What a revelation! This simple concoction – just Prosecco, ice, sparkling water, an orange wedge and of course Aperol – was a refreshing, highly drinkable entree into Italy’s aperitivo culture (the sacred pre-dinner drink, somewhat – but only somewhat – akin to American happy hour). We then headed in to the restaurant’s back patio, where we enjoyed a tasty meal of northern Italian fare and got a better sense of the Verona vibe. After a few hours of city wandering, a visit to Juliet and Romeo’s alleged homes, and some delicious organic gelato, we returned to our quiet little campground / hut, and slept peacefully (I was sure to say my prayers to the gods of Freon before we drifted off).
The next day, after breakfast on the porch, we set out for Lake Garda. This is Italy’s largest lake, and like Lake Como, its better-known sibling to the west, is surrounded by the foothills of the Dolomites, one of Italy’s most spectacular mountain ranges. We took an hour bus ride to the town of Garda, which sits on a cove on the central eastern shore of the lake.
After stocking up on some provisions in Garda, we embarked on a long walk along the water’s edge in search of a good swimming and picnic spot. After some amusing obstacles and hijinks through some impassable trails, we finally found a great spot in the Parco Baia della Sirene and spent a few hours splashing around and catching the warm raindrops as they fell from a the gray summer sky.
In the late afternoon we made the return journey back to Garda to catch a ferry that would take us to Sirmione, an old Roman resort town that sits on a peninsula at the southern end of the lake. During the ferry ride we became extras in a selfie video call with some passengers from Spain, and surprised them by jumping into their conversation with our out-of-shape-but-still-better-than-Italian Spanish. Then we and our nuevos amigos were treated to this post-rainstorm rainbow:
After a short time exploring Sirmione (which was interesting, pretty, but too saturated with tourists to really enjoy) we decided to catch a bus back to Verona, and headed for the station. Our timing proved prudent, as the mild drizzle of the early evening turned sharply into a full-on squall. In a matter of minutes, the sky darkened and the winds picked up. The waves of the lake grew and began to crash menacingly against the town’s seawalls. As tree branches flailed, tourists followed suit, running for cover with limbs in a wild display. We made it onto the bus just as the worst of a downpour was erupting from the sky above.
We enjoyed a quiet, rainy ride back to Verona, thankful for our mobile shelter, our good timing, and a very beautiful day!
One of the most incredible buildings in Milan is its Cathedral, the Duomo di Milano. Here’s a photo of its mind-blowing façade:
I got that photo off of Wikipedia (photo credit: Jiuguang Wang) because we didn’t go there.
In fact, we really didn’t go to Milan at all. Instead, we spent three days mostly sleeping heavily in a suburb of Milan. (Our hotel had amazing blackout curtains.) But: we needed the sleep – I guess we were tired out from Toronto, and the three-legged flight back to Italy, and the time difference – and we did have a good time in Gallarate, the suburb. I’ll share the few things we did/ate while there, but to be clear, none of it was worth a special trip.
Tasty meat/cheese platter and crisp northern Italian wines at Norcinarte
Stopping by the historic wing of the Sant’Antonio Abate Hospital
The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, in the heart of the town, by day and by night (I forgot to take a photo of the nearby, older Chiesa di San Pietro)
A really terrific meal of fresh pasta at the recently opened Terminal restaurant, convenient to the train station
The pedestrianized center of town, with various textile-inspired street lighting and wall hangings
Mostly what we did in Gallarate was rest and recuperate, debate whether we should go into Milan each day, not go into Milan, and plan the coming weeks’ travels. Then we recovered our bikes from our previous Airbnb host and set out on our next adventure!
At this point in our travels, things take a surprising twist, because having just arrived in Italy, it was time for us to fly to Canada!! You see, we’d been invited to our friends Yasir and Sonali’s wedding in Toronto, and though it was a challenge to make the journey, we really didn’t want to miss this important milestone in their lives. So off we went!
We cleverly stashed our bikes and our camping gear at an Airbnb near Milan airport, then headed out bright and early for the world’s most absurd itinerary: Milan to Vienna, Vienna to Montreal, and Montreal to Toronto. (Careful readers will note that Vienna is almost completely the wrong way.) This obviously reflected a tradeoff wherein we were spending time to save money, relative to a more direct itinerary.
Not only was our itinerary lengthy and somewhat complex, it was also moderately stressful due to a super-tight transfer at Vienna airport. We had only 25 minutes from the landing of Plane 1 to the takeoff of Plane 2. This felt pretty unreliable on its face, but we figured if Austrian Airlines was willing to sell us the ticket, it must be theoretically possible. And indeed, upon our arrival in Vienna, we entered a world of Austrian efficiency and hospitality that was frankly brilliant: an employee met us at the tarmac with a dedicated vehicle, whisked us over to passport control, ushered us past the entire queue (suckers! I kid; we felt kind of like jerks for doing this), and let us directly onto the jetway through a secret door. Easy peasy. Then we boarded the plane only to find that our seats had been double-booked, so they’d upgraded us to Premium Economy. Very tight. We settled into our oversize seats, sipped a glass or three of Grüner Veltliner, and actually quite enjoyed this long middle leg.
Though we were getting pretty tired by the time we landed in Montreal, we knew the last leg – Montreal to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport – would be an easy one. We’d taken this same flight some three and a half years earlier, during a frigid yet dreamy midwinter trip to those same two Canadian cities. (Another upside of attending our friends’ wedding was that it gave us a chance to scope out Toronto in a more hospitable season.) The flight is a sub-hour puddle jump in a turboprop plane, during which they still somehow find time to offer you free dark chocolate, and at the end of which you enjoy one of the great urban landings, flying parallel to the city skyline:
The first time we flew into Billy Bishop, we were actually able to walk directly from the airport to our home base. This time it was a short Lyft ride, but still: very good. (It was only later that I discovered I must have misplaced my fleece jacket somewhere during all these movements; a bummer, but that’s life. We haven’t lost all that many things, considering how long we’ve been traveling.)
We stayed in two different Airbnbs in Toronto. Yes, it’s possible that by staying in Airbnbs we are marginally supporting the use of limited housing stock for tourists rather than for locals, but the effect is marginal enough, and the value gained over staying in hotels is large enough, that we manage to look the other way. The first place we stayed was pretty close to downtown, in a convenient yet impersonal high-rise that bore a little resemblance to the glassy postage stamp we’d stayed in in January 2016, which we’d affectionately referred to as “the Urban Living Hypothesis.” Just planner things.
Sara’s parents were gracious enough to fly to Toronto to stay with us for a few days before the wedding! It was great to see them. Here we are together in Nathan Phillips Square, which is flanked by both the stately and attractive Toronto Old City Hall and the curvy and (in my opinion) less attractive Toronto City Hall, built in the 1960s. To its credit, Toronto has really leaned in to the imagery of the newer, derpier city hall, even using its signature curves as an icon on municipal trash bins.
We had great days together walking to and through many remarkable neighborhoods (Cabbagetown, Greektown, Kensington Market) and excellent parks (Allan Gardens, Riverdale Farm). The latter is a working farm with animals and everything, owned and run by the Toronto Department of Parks, Forestry & Recreation (motto: “A City Within a Park”).
Another day we took the ferry out to the Toronto Islands. Much fun was had enjoying the spectacular city views, deciding not to swim in the probably frigid waters of Lake Ontario, and people-watching along the promenades and pathways of the islands.
Sara’s parents took their leave and we moved into a space-efficient Airbnb in Harbord Village, the kind of residential neighborhood that real estate agents are legally obligated to describe as “leafy.” In fact, there are a great number of very green neighborhoods in Toronto, and we rather liked this one, flanked as it is by Kensington Market, the University of Toronto, and the stylish Bloor Annex. We dropped off our stuff, got as fancy-looking as we can manage, these days, and then it was time for the main event: Yasir and Sonali’s wedding!
I don’t have any photos, so I’ll just note that it was a really wonderful, joyous occasion, and Sara and I were so glad to be able to be there. Yasir and Sonali asked us to write a song (or rather, to adapt the lyrics of an existing song) to sing as part of their gathering, and I’m pleased to report that that went off very well too.
Several of our common friends from graduate school were also in town for the wedding, and it was great to see them all again. It’s been a while since we’ve had access to anything resembling a group of friends. We met up for delicious ramen, and later for fantastic neo-Korean delights at the idiosyncratic Her Chef, which I can’t begin to recommend highly enough. (Get the chicken bowl.)
Indeed, it was great overall to be back in Toronto, a city we both love, and while it was a mixed bag being back in North America, it was an unalloyed joy to be able to converse freely in our native language. We felt like we were being extra-kind, extra-effusive, extra-demonstrative, just because we had the linguistic facility to do so. It helps that Torontonians are themselves kind, if not unreasonably effusive given the size and intensity of the city they inhabit. And Toronto offers the kind of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity that has been largely absent from the European capitals we’ve been hanging out in lately.
One of the last things we did in Toronto was visit the former home of Jane Jacobs, that legendary housewife from Scranton, PA, who saved New York City and changed the very face of planning itself. (None of this is an overstatement, if you look into the facts.) Fed up with city politics and fearing her children would be drafted into the Vietnam War, she left NYC for Toronto in 1968 and set up in a handsome Edwardian in the Annex neighborhood. We went out there with a fellow planner friend, making a sort of pilgrimage. It’s owned by another private citizen now, but there’s a plaque, and an aura. And we feel more entitled to pick a single-family home now – if it was good enough for Jane, it’s surely good enough for us!
In the last stretch of our time in France, we spent a day in Marseille, a day traveling from Marseille to Antibes via the beautiful little port town of Cassis on the Mediterranean, and a day traveling from Antibes across the dramatic, mountainous waterfront of the French/Italian Riviera.
Marseille was great. Sitting right at the bottom of France, with its arms around the Mediterranean Sea, it has a decidedly different pulse than that of its peers to the north. It shines by the harbor, where beautiful sea waters lap against the walls of a revitalized old port area, and fishmongers hawk their daily catch across the street from upscale retail and waterside hotels. Though the city suffered a lot of damage during WWII, signs of its ancient origins (it was settled first by the Greeks in 600 BC) are still visible.
After taking in the port, we enjoyed some delicious Lebanese food for lunch, and then explored Le Panier, one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods, long home to some of the poorest residents of the city, and now struggling against strong gentrification pressures.
Even beyond Le Panier, the class and racial dynamics of Marseille are palpable. Unlike in Paris, where sharp segregation obscures poverty and (to an extent) diversity from tourists’ view, Marseille is a visible melting pot of socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds, even in its wealthiest areas. In the early part of the 20th century, the city experienced a large influx of Greeks and Italians, and soon after this wave, of Armenians fleeing the genocide of the 1920s. In the mid-century, Corsicans, Vietnamese and Spaniards all arrived, and in the second half of the century, North Africans (particularly from Algeria) have added to the increasing diversity of the city. While this diversity is proudly celebrated, it also coexists with a very high poverty rate and – surprise – an uneven distribution of resources and power. In our short visit, we didn’t have or take the time to more deeply understand these dynamics, but someday I’d very much like to return to learn more.
In the late afternoon, we climbed up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, just outside of town, for some fantastic views of the city.
We got caught in a thunderstorm on the way back down to town, and took refuge in our car. We said goodbye to Marseille and headed back through the rain to our sweet little campground.
The next day, the sun returned and we made our way east to Cassis. We had wanted to visit Calanques National Park, a relatively new addition to France’s national park system (created in 2012) known for its fantastic hiking along dazzling cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the lingering winds from the prior day’s storm, combined with a very hot and dry summer, made for fire risk conditions too hazardous to allow visitors, so we settled on Cassis, a nearby port town which turned out to be a very decent consolation prize!
Just beyond the port, at the sea’s edge, hundreds of visitors speaking a myriad of languages lay on towels under the blinding mid-day sun. Though the water was frigid, many ventured in for a cooling dip, ourselves included. This was my first time swimming in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, and it was definitionally refreshing.
With salt in our hair, we returned to the car and drove further east, arriving at our next campground just outside Antibes in the late afternoon. It was a cheap, nondescript site with a lot of mosquitoes near a town centered around a water park and a casino. It wasn’t the most glamorous spot to spend our last night in France, but with some effort, we located a restaurant that had charmingly converted its parking lot into a dining area, and toasted a great six weeks in this lovely country under a dreamy purple sunset!
As our time in France came to a close, there was much to reflect on. Amosaic of memories large and small stick out to me now: the preponderance of square (rather than rectangular) pillows; the way people enunciate – almost sing – their greetings and goodbyes (a high pitched bon- followed by a soothing, drawn out jooouuur); the strange popularity of NASA t-shirts; the two Syrian refugees we met over dinner in Rouen who shared their stories, their love for soccer, their loneliness, their taste in music, and their despair with us; the wide color palette of window shutters; the much narrower color palette of soft cheeses; the fields of grain in growth, sunflowers at peak, and endless rows of wine grape vines; the ubiquitous and almost ominous jingle of the train station announcement system; the consistently bad coffee.
The next morning, we opted for the scenic route to Italy. We covered the distance to Milan in about six hours, first hugging the coastline and then heading slightly inland through mountains forming the southern end of the Alps (the roads and bridges that allowed our passage were as much an engineering marvel as the mountains were a natural one). Because of the aforementioned Schengen Zone, there is no formal border crossing between these two countries. You only know you’ve crossed over by the Au revoir and Benvenuti signs, and the noticeable acceleration among your fellow (now Italian) drivers.
About thirty minutes over the border, we stopped in a small seaside town for our first meal in Italy. We (well, Drew, really) stumbled through an earnest attempt at ordering in Italian, and to our moderate surprise, we soon thereafter successfully received our order of wine, fresh mussels and, being only a few miles from Genoa, pasta with pesto alla genovese. After lunch, full of delicious food and the unmistakable thrill of new terrain, we smiled heartily in arrival and embrace of the next country of this scheme-based adventure.
We left the Burgundy region with fantasies of a future return on our mind (they might involve a house with a large kitchen, friends, and a much deeper dive into the abundant wine this beautiful area has to offer). Settling in behind one of four wheels for the first time since Mexico (this time me instead of Drew in the drivers seat) we plotted a route south that would give us maximum countryside and minimum tolls. It was in this way that we proceeded into Provence!
Seven hours and some truly beautiful scenes of rural France later, I maneuvered our manual vehicle gingerly into a parking spot right outside the Hotel Porte de Camargue in the town of Arles, where we planned to stay for the night. It was the first time we’d been in a hotel in months, and between that, being in the notoriously fancy south of France and driving in a car, it felt like we were experiencing an entirely different kind of European vacation! We left our things in our little room (complete with mini shampoo bottles and blessed, powerful and rare AC) and ventured across the Rhone river on foot into town.
Arles is most famous for inspiring the work of Van Gogh, including the iconic Café Terrace at Night that I, and most everyone else I know, had hanging in poster form in their college dorm room. The cafe remains and is quite tacky, but the rest of the town was utterly romantic, sultry with an incoming summer evening.
We strolled to a small restaurant on a side alley, where the heat of the day had begun to recede, and ate open faced sandwiches alongside a refreshing sparkling white wine on a table in the street. After dinner, we left our phones off in our pockets and took to the streets by feel. Back down at the river’s edge, we were struck by the scene: it was the more realistic, 2019 version of Starry Night Over the Rhône, another of Van Gogh’s exceptional works completed here in 1888 (he was actually only in Arles for about a year, but produced more than 300 pieces of art in that time).
We slept and enjoyed the luxury of a breakfast buffet the next morning, all too disappointed to have to push onwards. At this point, our freewheeling approach to travel was curtailed somewhat by a 90-day limit in the Schengen zone and a flight we had to catch in Milan at the end of the month. So, we packed up and drove east, stopping about 30 minutes later at the Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux-de-Provence. This is an immersive multimedia art experience located inside an old stone quarry. On exhibit at that time was a collection of Van Gogh paintings, and Japanese art, each set to a eclectic soundtrack and projected in high definition against the walls of this enormous quarry. My descriptions – which would largely amount to “IT WAS VERY COOL” – would never adequately convey the scene, so I’ll let these videos and a few snaps do the talking:
Later that afternoon, we stopped in at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, which is a stunning and remote Catholic abbey that has housed monks on and off since the 12th century. Today, the monks who live there grow lavender and keep honeybees to make a living.
Just beyond the abbey, we stopped at the highly photogenic hillside town of Gordes, and after that, Roussillon, another beautiful settlement known for its pink hues, derived from the ochre geological formations upon which it sits.
The next morning, we drove to Bedoin, the town that serves as basecamp for cycle climbers of Mont Ventoux. For the uninitiated (and I was), this mountain is one of the more coveted bike rides in Europe for road cyclists. From what I can tell, it goes up, up, up, you fist pump at the top, and then you come down down down. I’ll let Drew do it more justice momentarily. While he huffed and puffed, I walked around daintily in some lavender fields, thus thoroughly occupying our respective gender roles for the day.
Drew here – I’m thrilled that I had the chance to climb Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence! This is a bucket-list climb for any cyclist who likes climbing, and it didn’t disappoint. You gain 5,000 feet in one continuous 13-mile pitch, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the six straight miles at or above 9 percent grade right in the middle of the route. That part was difficult. Fortunately there’s a water refill spot after that. You really have the feeling of climbing a mountain, from the gentle, agricultural foothills, through the steep pine forest, and out into a lunar landscape high above the treeline. The last mile is an 11 percent grade, but you can see the summit so close so morale is high. I was so stoked by the time I reached the summit; it was very moving. And the descent back down is a blast.
We left Bedoin later that afternoon, heading in the direction of Marseille. We identified a campground somewhat north of the city, which turned out to be one of our favorites of our entire trip so far! In addition to having a small pool and cheerful outdoor bar area, we happened to arrive on paella night. We dined on some spicy rice (which will forever remind us happily of our wedding!) and plotted our Marseille explorations for the following day!
One of the passions that Sara and I share is for wine. For more than a decade now, I in particular have been enchanted by the wines of Burgundy. In the wine world, this isn’t exactly a niche interest – Burgundy is one of the most famous and prestigious wine regions worldwide – but it is something of a generational one: our parents might have been more likely to prefer the velvety and heavy wines of Bordeaux, while younger folks seem to prefer the esoteric, funky, and individualistic wines that emerge from the varied terroirs of Burgundy.
(Sadly, too, Burgundy wine isn’t a particularly affordable passion, as Burgundy prices now rival Bordeaux and any other wine region in the world. This has particularly occurred over the past decade or so, as international speculators, particularly from East Asia, have driven up prices in what amounts to a search for investment properties. Will anyone actually drink those bottles? It seems a shame. For that matter, will anyone actually live in all those glassy high-rises in midtown Manhattan…?)
Anyway. When we were planning our France trip, a visit to Burgundy was a must. We chose Beaune, the small but mighty heart of the region, as our home base from which to explore the wines and wineries of the Côte d’Or – the evocatively-named “golden slope,” home to many of the greatest wines in the world.
The idea was to mix in exploration of Beaune itself with bike rides to various vineyards, where we might taste young and old wines and form a more complete understanding of the region. I’d called ahead to severalwinemakers and arranged visits (a must, in this prestigious region). Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on a major heat wave (during which temperatures routinely exceeded 100 Freedom Degrees). Given that we were traveling by bike, riding to vineyards would be at best unpleasant and at worst hazardous, so I had to cancel our appointments. We were marooned in Beaune.
Fortunately for us, Beaune is a splendid place (if something of a playground for the rich), and we had plenty to do and plenty of opportunities to connect with wine even within the town. Highlights included:
a great food market in the city center on Saturday
an afternoon class at a wine tasting school, including a history of Burgundy, fundamentals of tasting and identifying wines, and a tasting of seven Burgundies including several premier cru and grand cru wines
viewing – from the exterior only – the flamboyant Hôtel-Dieu, which was founded as an almshouse in the 15th century, evolved into something of a hospital complex, and now hosts a major wine auction every November
cooking a few meals in our Airbnb and pairing them with some very nice wines bought at any of the million wine shops in town
One of the last things we did in Beaune was take a tour of the Edmond Fallot mustard factory! For this former co-editor of MustardAddict magazine, this trip to the last mustard-maker in Beaune was sheer joy. We got to see their old production equipment, learned all about the history of moutarde de Dijon and moutarde de Beaune, tried our hand at making our own mustard (simpler than you’d think, but I prefer their quality over our own), and sampled a thousand and one flavors of mustard (standouts included walnut, tarragon, and curry).
So, even though we had had to hole up in town more than we’d have liked, we still had a great time in Beaune.
As the day of our departure approached, we had a decision to make. We knew we needed to get to Milan by July 29th, because we had a plane to catch. (More on that later.) I had in mind to bike across the Alps from France to Italy, following Hannibal’s possible route through the Maurienne valley, while Sara was opting for the rather saner option of not crossing the Alps by loaded bicycle, instead taking the train to Milan. However, train logistics proved extremely complicated and the weather still wasn’t cooperating, to the point where even I questioned the wisdom of riding 60-mile days in a humidity-adjusted heat index pushing 110 degrees. So we bit the bullet and rented a car, which turned out to be a great move for a whole variety of reasons, but the reason that’s relevant to this post is that it allowed us to drive south through the Côte de Beaune (the southern part of the Côte d‘Or) and visit a few wineries on our way out of Burgundy.
This part was just great. It was magical being in the midst of the Golden Slope, toodling our way from tiny famous towns like Pommard to tiny famous towns like Meursault. I dare say that, regarding the greatest appellations, even more ink than grape juice is spilled each year. For a small taste of this, consider just this one blog post, some two thousand words long, about a single premier cru vineyard in Meursault. To be fair, we got to taste a wine made by Château de Cîteaux (in Meursault) of grapes from Les Perrières vineyard, and it was really exceptional.
Then, before we knew it, we had left the Côte de Beaune and crossed over into the Côte Chalonnaise to the south. Despite all our foiled plans, we had a grand time in Burgundy, and we are both eager to return, preferably at a moment in our lives when we have a better-defined income stream.
We spent a week in the Loire Valley, the “garden of France,” for hundreds of years the playground of powerful Frenchmen and -women. Over four rolling days, we traveled along La Loire à Vélo from Saumur through Tours to Orléans. And we loved it!
For three reasons:
1. The bike infrastructure. La Loire à Vélo is a massive collection of bike paths, low-trafficked roads, and bike-friendly amenities like parks and water fountains, stretching out for more than five hundred miles, from Nevers in the center of France all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We were expecting a lot of paved paths between the Loire River and the adjacent roadways, and while there was some of that, there were also plenty of high-quality hardpack trails, cobbled streets, country lanes running through the vineyards, and a few excursions straight through caves!
Really, I’ve never seen anything like it. I think about folks who get into transportation planning because they love to bike or walk, and because they want to build large-scale networks that are great for biking and walking. So often they get mired in the minutiae of collision countermeasures and highway design manuals. Meanwhile, some lucky souls got to lay out hundreds and hundreds of miles of fantastic paths and clearly-marked signage in a river valley in central France. And it’s not just one path, as you might expect – there are auxiliary facilities on the other side of the river (which the main route frequently crosses, for variety and convenience) and spur routes to compelling destinations near the main route. It’s either a reminder of how much better France is for cycling than the US, or perhaps a call to think bigger and do greater things. Or both.
Also, there are tons of riders, of all ages, genders, and fitness levels, including some adorable groups of youngsters at summer camp (probably about age six), all on their own humble bikes. If you build it, they really will come.
2. The wine. There’s tons of wine production (“tons” is usually hyperbole, but in this case it’s probably an enormous underestimate) throughout the Loire valley, particularly in the Touraine area, the greater region centered on Tours. Compared with Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne, Loire wines are (much) cheaper, more accessible, and less well known, although certain appellations, like Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Vouvray, have an avid following. (The most famous Loire wine, Sancerre, comes from much farther inland.)
In fact, we had the chance to visit all these famous appellations, and more! Setting out eastward from the ridiculously charming city of Saumur, we first took in sparkling white wines at Langlois-Château, then stopped in at a random winery in Saumur-Champigny (rich, satisfying wine for 8 euros). Later on we passed through Chinon (over, really, as the city sits hard against a vertiginous hillside), and I had perhaps one too many delightful glasses of crisp, mineral white wine in Vouvray. I would particularly recommend Bernard Fouquet’s work at Domaine des Aubuisières.
It was such a delight to transform these regions from names we’ve heard to places we’ve been. And it was equally great to receive the warm welcome of winemakers rather farther off the beaten path than folks in those more famous wine areas. Tasting and drinking wine in the Loire felt unequivocally fun, in ways that it might not have in more august regions.
3. The castles! There are hundreds of castles throughout the Loire Valley, some dating back to the Middle Ages and others exemplifying the elegant sensibilities of the Renaissance. Because good things come in threes, we spaced three castle visits throughout our week in the valley. (In truth, we hadn’t begun with any target number of castles, nor had we planned how satisfyingly the castles in question increased in complexity and grandeur. Sometimes these things just work out.)
We started off with the Château de Saumur, which was built as a fortress and later converted into a palace. It’s most strongly associated with King Philip II of France, but it has a long and complicated history that, to give you a brief taste, involves King Henry II of England. This was yet another opportunity to reflect on how much we just don’t know about European history.
Our second visit was to Villandry, a Renaissance château built in the 16th century for the finance minister of King François I. This estate is particularly famous for its intricate and geometric gardens. It’s also in private hands, so while you can visit it in the summer, actual people actually live in it in the winter. #goals
We rounded out our collection with a visit to the biggest of them all: the Château de Chambord, the enormous (yet never finished) hunting lodge of King François I himself. This castle has about 400 rooms and more than 200 fireplaces, and its rooftop is a riot of asymmetrical Italianate towers and cupolas. Totally unreal. The whole thing is held together by an exquisite double-helix spiral staircase in the dead center of the building. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been involved, at least conceptually, in the design of the château. (François was the patron of the composer I studied for my undergraduate thesis, so that association was a nice perk.)
Extra bonus castle: the one from “Sleeping Beauty,” which we merely biked past en route to our campground one afternoon:
So, a week well spent. Inspiring, invigorating, and delightful! We were sorry to have to continue on.
By this point in our travels, we have been fortunate to visit several large, “global” cities. We began in Cartagena, continued to Bogotá, Medellín, Quito, Lima, and Mexico City, and in London before our arrival in Paris on the first of July. In between, we have enjoyed everything from mid-sized towns to total rurality, and urbanists though we may be, it must be acknowledged that many of these non-urban experiences absolutely rivaled our city time in their intrigue, beauty, culture, etc. But, urbanists we are. And so, the beacon guiding us to Paris was bright, and our arrival, triumphant.
Drew has been here once before, so he provided something of a preview for me before we touched down together. When we emerged from the Parisian metro, after a night’s rest and a strong cup of coffee, I began to start to reconcile perception – long held and recently formed from his previews and our travels elsewhere in France – with reality.
My first impression from that moment (to be affirmed a thousand times over during the course of the coming week and a half): Paris is (like) a museum.
The city, like many others, is a mélange of sounds, smells, and activity. But it is with your eyes that you most predominantly take in Paris (OK, and your mouth, but we’ll get to that later). Its streetscape offers something beautiful on and around every corner, and it seems your job, as a visitor, is to witness this beauty. I say witness, because it seldom felt like we were fully experiencing it. Look; do not touch.
Though this may not be the most flattering description – indeed it suggests something removed and inaccessible about the place – it is not without praise. Beholding the beauty of the city – from its gorgeous architecture to its seductive sidewalk cafés and elegant people – made me wonder why we can’t all be a bit more like Paris. Why, when such a thriving template exists, do so many cities still suffer from a drab ugliness (that cannot all be attributed to resources)?
A few things that absolutely glowed:
Sainte-Chapelle: A brilliant work of stained glass and detail, this place feels like the love child of whimsy and holiness. While we were there, I especially loved hearing more about Drew’s undergraduate thesis in music, which focused on a piece written in the 16th century by the director of the Sainte-Chapelle boys’ choir. Drew unearthed, transcribed into modern notation, and directed a choral performance of the piece, which hadn’t been heard by the world since its performance in this very chapel almost five hundred years ago!
Musée de l’Orangerie: crowded though it was, it was a treat to visit this beautifully laid out museum on the edge of the Tuileries. The cool (as in, not hot) lower level had an outstanding collection of pieces, but it was the top floor that I really loved. Just days after visiting Monet’s Giverny home, we saw his enormous watercolor paintings up close, with their achingly beautiful textures and purply-green hues. I was also quite moved by a young brother and sister who sat next to each other on the floor, looking up at the paintings and whispering about what they saw. Art at its best.
Galeries Lafayette: swimming through an onslaught of perfume puffs and made up make up counter ladies was well worth it to get a look at this: possibly the world’s most beautiful mall.
Musée d’Orsay: my favorite of all the museums we went to in Paris (and we went to a lot: we decided early on in our time there to purchase the Paris Museum Pass which gets you access to many of the city’s museums, and – maybe more valuably – lets you skip the lines. It pushed us to expand the reach of museums we visited, and on more than one occasion this saved us over an hour of waiting in the sweltering heat, and for that alone, was well worth the purchase). In addition to the spectacularly famous collection of work on the top floor – the Cézanne, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh and Degas that everyone flocks to this museum for (myself included; I have always wanted to see Seurat’s scenes and Degas’s ballerinas up close) – we spent an afternoon in the huge and outstanding Black Models exhibit, exploring the representation of Black subjects in the work of (largely) French artists through history. It was fascinating and stirring, and we were tremendously lucky in our timing, as the exhibit closed only about a week later.
One lesser known thing about the Musée d’Orsay – it was formerly a train station, and served as the primary repatriation point for French Jews who had survived concentration camps and returned home after World War II (described on a small plaque we encountered on the exterior of the museum). Inside, the old train station clock looms large over the magnificent main hall. Beneath, a model of Lady Liberty (the real thing, which was of course a gift to the U.S. from the people of France) stood with grandeur, and for us Americans, particular poignance.
Biking to Gare d’Austerlitz – On our last day in town we rode to the train station via the banks of the Seine. This ride, which I dubbed the “Parisian Recap,” gave us a chance to take in the major sights of Paris all in one go, appreciating both their beauty once again, and also their relation in space to each other, which really helped tie the city together for me. I said to Drew that I had wished we had done this ride on our first day too, and would recommend such an approach to anyone planning a trip to Paris in the future.
During our eleven days in Paris, we also of course visited the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, and many, many of the other “must-do’s” in Paris. This included a full day at the Louvre and a ride out to Versailles, each of which were tremendous, over-the-top, and frankly, for me, too much to take in. But they are no doubt an aesthetic wonderland.
And though this aesthetic, ocular experience of Paris was the dominant one, we did break through to feel Paris more fully a number of times. Mostly, when we had food in our mouths. On our first evening in town, Drew and I put together a map with pins on all the places we wanted to visit. Mine tended towards bookstores, parks, and coffee shops. His included museums and all the award-winning bakeries the city had to offer (and there are…many). I can recall so many street corners on which I felt the buttery flakes of croissant melting on my tongue, both cursing and celebrating the fattening miracle that is French pastry. Here is just the briefest of peeks into that journey:
Beyond the food, we enjoyed some wonderful evenings – the time when I think Paris is at its very best – that gave us a feel for the city. One Wednesday evening, we bought ourselves a bottle of red wine and headed down to the Left Bank of the Seine to do like the locals and enjoy the slow transition from summer day to summer night. We encountered a brass band – a motley crew of instruments and young people with big hair and bare feet (we remarked we’d probably be their friends) – playing Queen songs and drinking beers. We sat with our feet dangling over the walls of the river, watching the weekly gathering of Wednesday night dancers who come together here in the summer to enjoy music and rhythm with friends and strangers.
We also had the chance to spend the evening with my step-dad’s second cousin Sally (basically a sibling, by Jewish standards) and her husband Martin, their son Simon, and Simon’s girlfriend Marine. Sally is an American who moved with Martin (who is German) to Paris about twenty years ago. Simon and his sister Esther (not present, but I have met her once or twice before) grew up trilingual, and have spent much of their young adult years moving among countries and lifestyles with the agility only someone with this kind of background could. Sally and Martin’s apartment is in the northeastern corner of the 19th arrondissement, and we had made plans to share a meal there on the Fourth of July.
We began the evening with snacks and sparkling wine and instantly dove into American politics, grateful to have people to share the depths of our latest outrage with. We moved on to a delicious home-cooked meal of summer peaches and greens, chicken, rice, fresh peas, wine, homemade fruit sorbet and naturally, a cheese course to finish. We were admittedly completely stuffed and drunk by the end of the evening, grateful for the generous hospitality, jokes and storytelling, and what we learned about Paris and France that we couldn’t have from museums or monuments. A lovely evening!
On one of our last nights in Paris, we headed into the Marais to catch a Brazilian band I had heard was playing in a local club. I love nothing more than waking up with feet that hurt from the previous evenings’ dancing, and it had been too long. Forro na Caixa was a kinesthetic and sonic delight!
All in all, our time in Paris was beautiful and indulgent. I struggled at times to feel and find depth beyond the aesthetic, and honestly, after so many months of consuming beautiful and amazing things, it stirred up an anxiety about my purpose, contributions the world, etc.; it can be hard to look at so much achievement and then at yourself in the mirror. But at its best, our time there was inspiring and delicious, and as with all our experiences, I am glad for what it was to me and us then, how it is for me and us now, and what it might be, in retrospect, as time goes by.
We arrived in Rouen with the taste of just-ripe cherries lingering on our lips. The morning’s ride from Bourg-Achard brought us down a thrilling descent right to the edge of the Seine. In order to continue on the designated bike path we had to get to the other side of the river, so we gladly hopped on a nearby free ferry for the first of what would be many beautiful crossings. From there we rode for about 15 miles with the river by our side, its calm waters sparkling in the mid-morning sun.
Around 11:30am, the path turned away from the river and we thought the best part of the day’s riding was behind us. Au contraire! A moment later, we rode straight into what appeared to be a municipal fruit orchard. On either side of the cycle path, for hundreds of meters, cherry and pear trees glistened with late June fruit. Though the pears still had a few months to go before they’d be ready for harvest, the cherries had the bright red veneer of a perfect snack. We noticed a kid in a tree a bit further down the path who was gorging himself on the fruit in the upper branches, and decided this was our indication we could, and should, follow suit. For the next several minutes we stood on public land, eating fistfuls of free cherries and thanking the universe for France, bike touring, productive trees, and summer.
When our stomachs could take no more, we reluctantly pushed onward. We had our sights on Rouen, where we planned to take refuge for a few days from an incoming heat wave. We had initially tried to reserve a place to stay with air conditioning, as temperatures were forecast to reach well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But as it turns out, the rumors about the French being against AC are largely true. At least in our price range, there were a grand total of zero hotel rooms or Airbnbs with this particular amenity to be found. So, we settled on a place with several windows and a strong fan.
Our sweet little apartment on the second floor had a little living room with French doors opening onto a little balcony. We stashed our bikes out there and took cold showers before heading out to explore Rouen. Over the next few days we discovered and enjoyed a very charming town famous for, among other things, being the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It provided some truly rewarding sites and spaces:
We endured the heat wave well enough, spending the hottest hours as motionless as possible. Once the sun had dipped behind the mansard roofs, we’d venture out onto our little balcony to drink cold white wine, taking in the remains of the day.
We left Rouen decidedly pleased with our few days there. It didn’t hurt that we spent our last morning at a cat cafe, but even without this added bonus, I’d recommend a visit to this lovely town to anyone visiting this part of France.
When we rolled, we were still about 80 miles northwest of Paris. We had planned a two day route that hugged the Seine, and were almost instantly rewarded. Headed for Les Andelys (where we’d camp for the evening) we were treated to great scenery and beautifully empty bike paths:
We also were routed across the river about a half a dozen times. Sometimes, this involved dismounting and squeezing our bikes through impossibly narrow bridge gates or unyielding barriers likely intended to discourage our very behavior:
We persevered, and were treated to the best of all the Seine crossings, approaching the castle on the left, at the end of the day:
The next morning, July 1st, we hiked up to explore the castle we saw on our way into town the evening prior (see above), and take in some dreamy views of the Seine river valley below.
We headed back down the hill, hopped on our bikes and rode ~25 miles to Giverny. A visit to Monet’s home and gardens was high on my list of must-do’s while in France, and while the tourist crowds were a bit overwhelming after so many days ‘off the beaten path’, the visit did not disappoint. The house, lily-pad filled ponds and incredible flower gardens, all so true to Monet’s work (or really, vice versa), thoroughly earned their visiting admirers:
After getting our fill of florals, we continued on to the town of Vernon a few miles down the road and caught a train headed for Paris. It was an exciting moment, pulling in to Gare Saint-Lazare a few hours later. It was my first time in this city, and needless to say, the hype has been building for years.
However, our very first impressions of Paris were a mixed bag. Stepping into the street just outside the station, the unmistakable thrill of urbanity greeted us after many weeks away. People rushed around, the thrum of movement creating a blurry foreground against a backdrop of beautifully maintained five-story buildings filling the blocks edge to edge. Magic!
But then we had to get on our bikes in Parisian rush hour.
We wobbled into traffic, suddenly quite conscious of our wide and precarious loads as buses and cars whizzed by without a bike lane in sight. In one of our first major intersections of the ride, an SUV almost hit Drew, and then me, and further along a guy on a motorcycle cut into my path so closely I almost lost control and fell in the middle of a chaotic under-construction road that was full of cones and debris. Scary! We kept our wits about us and successfully picked our way through the evening commute to our lodging on the northwest side of the city, thankfully arriving in one, slightly harangued, piece.
We met our host and put away our bikes, settling in to our new home for the week. After a shower and some Turkish take-out (by now a tradition) we fell straight to sleep, eager to refresh and begin anew in the morning in Gay Paree!