The area, put on the map by Rick Steves, is now choked with tourists. Streets are clogged, the footpaths that connect each village are eroding. And we can’t have that. The area is a UNESCO site and it needs to be preserved.
Currently, the area gets about 2.5 million visitors a year and they’re looking to reduce that down to about 1.5 million. They are proposing some sort of on-line ticketing system. There is also talk of dedicated tourist trains and an app that would allow travelers to see which paths and villages are most congested.
“In my opinon, not allowing behemoth cruise ships to drop people off by-the-thousand just to trounce around for a few hours, would go a long way to solving the problem.”
But, they didn’t ask me for my solutions. So for now we’ll have to work around it.
Here is what I’ll tell my clients:
The Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Riviera. There are many other wonderfully picturesque places along this stretch of coastline to stay and explore. Try Levanto, Portovenere, or Lerici. Santa Margherita Ligure and San Remo are a bit further, and have a more resort feel. And Portofino is worth a splurge. Further north is the sleepy town of Camogli.
You’ll still be able to take a boat or ferry that will pass by the five towns. And viewing it from the water is pretty special.
For stunning coastline you can also head further south to the popular Amalfi Coast. Towns like Positano, Sorrento, Ravello and Amalfi will welcome you. Active travelers can still find plenty of exercise, like walking the Path of the Gods. It’s not as quiet or laid back, but the gorgeous views and limoncello will go a long way to assuaging your disappointment.
Although tourism is on the rise, Puglia is a great alternative and doesn’t attract the same amount of visitors. You’ll still have charm, rustic beauty and lovely coastline, but the jumble of sherbet-colored houses will be shades of putty and white.
You may not be able to hike between most villages, but active travelers can bike, which is a very popular activity in the area. Check out places like Polignano al Mare, Monopoli, Otranto, Gallipolli and the Salento. Real nature buffs, looking for isolation, should consider the Gargano, further north.
The Cinque Terre has always been very popular with backpackers and hikers. Fortunately, you can find walks in the mountains in the Italian Lakes region. Como and Garda are well known, but you can have the place to yourself in Orta or Iseo. Though not on the coast, the scenery, villas and gardens are still breathtaking and the calmer lake waters allow for plenty of opportunity to spend time on the water.
Personally, I have better things to do on my vacation than
I’d much rather see you avoid the area for now, let them work out the kinks and maybe put off your visit until next year. Pick another destination if you’ll be in Italy this year.
But if you’ll accept no substitute, it might be wise to try to visit before summer hits.
Fall is generally a nice time to go – but tickets will be at a premium and will sell out quickly. Not to mention it might be a total fustercluck until they get a system in place.
I think you’d have a better shot visiting in April or early May and having the best Cinque Terre experience.
There are still so many unanswered questions surrounding how this will work.
Will you automatically be granted a ticket if you’re staying overnight in one of the five villages?
Will cruise ship companies get to hoard a gazillion tickets for their passengers, while indy travelers are left holding their backpacks with no access?
And there is still no word on exactly how a ticket system might work or where you will buy them once that’s figured out.
Keep checking back here. I will post more information once those details are announced.
Think Italy and it’s easy to picture the canals of Venice, the gladiators of Rome and the shopping mecca of Milan. These great cities have helped make Italy one of the most desired holiday destinations in Europe.
But what about the Italy that you hear less about? Away from the tourist attractions and cityscapes that fill up guidebooks, Italy continues to marvel with countless off the beaten track attractions.
Before you start the search for flights and accommodation, take a look at these three places you should consider visiting.
1. Lake Iseo
Take the train an hour out of Milan into the heart of Italy’s northern Lombardy wine making region, Franciacorta. This is the gateway to the quiet, small and charming area of Lake Iseo. You will come across monasteries, castles and vineyards in this picturesque bit of countryside.
A ferry runs from Sale Marasino or Iseo to the Monte Isola, which is the largest inhabited island in southern Europe. Here you can observe the sleepy fishing village life, while taking walks along flower decorated walkways and stopping off at traditional cafes.
Head to the south of Tuscany for a glimpse into Italy’s old way of life. Maremma has strong peasant roots and has managed to avoid the tourist makeover. There are a collection of Medieval towns that remain unspoilt, filled with olive groves, chestnut forests, vineyards and historical monuments.
The warm locals are very welcoming and there are often events to get involved in. The five main zones are Metalliferous Hills, Grosseto and Coast, Amiata, Argentario Coast and Fiora Valley. Highlights include Massa Marittima, Campagnatico and Giglio Island.
For endless hills and mountains, make your way to Molise between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea. Within this beautiful landscape you’ll find the National Park of Abruzzo, where you can spot lots of protected wildlife in their natural habitat and various plant species. Spend some time on the Flag beaches too without the hoards of tourists taking up all the sand space. Up in the mountains there are two ski resorts: Campitello Matese and Capracotta. This mix of skiing and sunbathing mean that a Molise holiday offers travelers two distinct sides of Italy.
Hopefully these few picks will inspire you to research some more idyllic Italian spots. Which off the beaten path area in Italy would you like to visit next?
I experienced my first barge cruise in France this past May. You may have already read my reasons you should take a barge cruise in France, but today, I thought I’d give you a better idea of exactly what it’s like to take one.
I’ve received many questions from clients, readers and social media followers, so I’m hoping most of your questions might be answered here.
Here’s a little play-by-play.
Many barges are owned by a company and that company hires the captain and crew. This is not the case with the Athos. The Athos is independently owned and operated by a husband and wife team – Captain Julian and his wife Dannielle, who is in charge of everything behind the scenes.
I communicated directly with Dannielle before the cruise. I filled out a little questionnaire which included basics like emergency contact info, flight arrival and plans before and after the trip. But she also inquired about things like food allergies, special meal preferences, likes and dislikes, favorite beverages etc. I got the impression they really want to make my time on board the best it could be.
Dannielle also made suggestions for how to arrive by train, how to book and even which train from Paris would arrive on time at the pick-up location – the Béziers train station. Some travelers arrive in the region early or stay later, which I highly recommend, as there is so much to see and do in the Languedoc-Roussillon.
Danielle sent along my itinerary which detailed exactly where I would be going and what to expect. The barge cruise starts on a Sunday, is six days and runs in both directions from April through October. The mooring points will be the same, but the starting and ending points alternate, every other week. They know in advance which way you’ll be running, so just ask.
The cost of the cruise, which is paid in advance, includes everything from soup to nuts. Your transportation to and from the barge, lodging, tours and excursions, all meals, drinks, wine, any snacks. The only things not covered are any food or souvenirs purchased during an excursion, or when walking around on your own.
Also, a 5-10% tip for the crew is strongly encouraged, so factor that in and be prepared to give the gratuity directly to the captain at the end of the trip.
The Athos is a beautiful luxury barge, crafted of teak wood, with lots of windows making it sunny and bright. It’s decorated very simply, and with fresh flowers throughout. The barge has five staterooms, crew quarters, a small kitchen, a salon and upper deck – both with lots of comfortable seating.
Bikes are on board for every passenger to ride. There is no television, but they have a nice selection of books to choose from and a dongle for wi-fi, which was expectedly, a bit sporadic. The newest addition, a mechanical awning, was controlled by the captain when passing under bridges or near low hanging branches.
Most barges are configured for between eight and 20 passengers. Athos holds a total of ten, which meant there were five staterooms. So if the barge is fully booked, you’ll be traveling with a maximum of 10 guests. As it turned out, my cruise ran with five. But a barge agent joined us for a few days, but not for the entire week.
I was a bit nervous about the cabins being too small or claustrophobic, but found them to be very comfortable with just enough space. The rooms are done in wood and white tile, with small sliding windows that open for fresh air and stream in tons of natural light. The beds were comfortable, high and cleverly designed to store suitcases in drawers beneath the mattress after you unpack. Wooden ledges run the length of each wall to store personal items like an alarm clock, phone dock, tissues, eyeglasses etc. I had plenty of outlets in my room to accommodate my phone and camera battery chargers.
Bathrooms are tiny, and equipped with stand-up showers. There isn’t room for two inside – but the water was hot, strong and outiftted with every L’Occitane bath product you needed, which were replenished daily.
There is a small closet for your clothes. I traveled alone, and had plenty of space – but if you travel as a couple, you might find the closet a bit tight – so pack light!
What to expect day to day
Daily, we would rise and have breakfast in the salon. You could get up early, help yourself to a hot beverage from the espresso machine and sit up on deck to enjoy the peace and quiet. You could even get in an early morning walk or bike ride on the tow paths. Typically we would need to finish breakfast and be ready to depart at 9am – give or take – in our air-conditioned mini vans.
You can skip the day’s excursion if it didn’t interest you – but it’s included in your package, so I would advise going.
On the way to our destination, we enjoyed the scenery and beautiful views of the countryside, which in May was blooming poppy fields and vineyards dotted with the occasional ruin or crumbling stone house. We would spend time touring with our guide for a few hours and return to the barge to have lunch – on deck if the weather allowed.
During this time, the boat stayed moored right where we left it. After lunch, we would set sail. A few hours of cruising at a snail’s pace and those of us on board would chat, nap, read a book or just take in the landscapes or enjoy watching the crew navigate the complex process of passing through the locks. More active passengers would get off the boat to walk or take a bike ride and meet the barge at our next mooring point. This needed to be arranged in advance – but the captain and crew were more than happy to oblige.
It was quiet and relaxing, but from time to time, other barges or boats pass by and everyone waved – it was quite friendly. From time to time you’d come across a lock, pass under a bridge or through a lively village along the canal, which seemed to break up the longer stretches of silence.
We moored at our new destination, usually in the early evening between 5pm and 6pm. Dinner in the salon or on deck (depending on the weather and bugs) followed at about 7pm. We dressed up a bit for dinner – but no ball gowns or suits were expected. Think a sundress, or capri pants and a nice blouse. Khakis and short sleeve shirt for men.
After dinner, our tour guide appeared to announce the schedule and meeting time for the next day’s excursion. Then we were left on our own to take a walk, read, listen to music, talk and then retire to bed. Our last evening some wild and crazy moving and grooving to 80’s dance music followed dinner, but thankfully no one got on top of a table or took video.
What happens on Athos, stays on Athos!
The barge doesn’t cruise at night – it remains moored, so you’ll wake the next day in the same spot you arrived the day before.
Again, each barge offers a slightly different itinerary with different mooring points, village visits and excursions. This was my itinerary:
Day 1 – Pick up at the Béziers train station and transfer to Marseillan, where the boat was moored. We made our way to the barge in mini vans and were greeted by the crew with champagne and appetizers.
Day 2 – Tour and tasting at Noilly Prat vermouth distillery, which is located right in Marseillan. Seafood lunch on the barge and then we set sail. Moored in Portiranges.
Day 3 – Tour of the charming town of Pézanas. Cruise through the famous Neuf Ecluses staircase locks and moor near Béziers with a lovely view of the cathedral at night. Our guide Matthieu walked with us up to the Oppidum, which was well worth it – the views were incredible!
Day 4 – Tour of the city of Narbonne. We had our only lunch off the barge at Chez Bebelle in the Narbonne market (included in the price). Moored in Capestang in front of the Collegiale Saint-Etienne, which is beautiful and floodlit at night. We had time for a quick game of Pétanque (yes I learned to play!) in the village. We followed the local custom of sipping Pastis while we played.
Day 5 – Tour of a local olive oil mill, which included a tasting of oils and Lucques olives, followed by a guided visit to the hilltop village of Minerve. The boat was moored all day in Capestang.
Day 6 – Tour of the famous historic walled city of Carcassonne. We cruised to Argeliers, where we moored for the night and the captain joined us for our final dinner and the crew joined in a farewell toast.
Day 7 – Final breakfast on board and minivans depart around 10am to return you to the Beziers train station (unless, like myself, you’ve made arrangements to stay on longer in the area).
In a word, the food was incredible. Three meals a day, all on board, with the exception of the lunch out at the Narbonne Market (which was included in the price). The food is gourmet, fresh and local. Breakfast is a continental style sit-down affair with lots of bread and pastries from the local boulangerie, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, meat and juice.
Lunch is a buffet style and is taken on deck, weather permitting. Each meal is relaxed, but courses are plated and presented beautifully, each described by the chef. Cheeses and wines are presented by the hostesses and described in great detail, and the selections were rotated at every meal. We tasted a wonderful array of cheese from the area during our week.
At the end the cruise we were presented with a booklet that contained the itinerary, and a full description of each meal, along with the wines and cheeses, to refer to back home. This was not only helpful for me to write about it, but also for those who want to recreate a dish or seek out the wine we enjoyed on board. It was a nice touch.
Our crew was a total of five; The captain, a chef, a tour guide and two lovely hostesses. And on occassion, Jill, the sweet terrier mix who is quite content with sitting on the roof near the captain and accepting extra from the guests. Everyone was friendly, upbeat, professional and bent over backwards to ensure we enjoyed the trip. They all worked as a well-oiled cohesive team, especially when it came time to go through locks – it was literally all hands on deck.
I was especially impressed with the knowledge of our hard-working hostesses. Not only did they serve our meals, tidy up our rooms, make us cocktails and and morning coffee, but every lunch and dinner they described the wines and cheeses, in-depth.
There is no doubt the draw of a barge cruise is the canal du midi and the wonderful places we explore, but the crew made the experience fun, extra enjoyable and totally unforgettable.
So, You Think You Want To Take A French Barge Vacation?
If you’re interested in a Canal du Midi Barge Cruise, I highly recommend spending some additional time in the area exploring other villages, historic sites and even a few wineries.
I’ve partnered with my trusted colleague Beth Hanson at Canal Barge Cruises to offer you something extra special. Beth KNOWS barging. She represents over 40 barges and both she and her husband actually owned and operated a barge in France for 15 years. Since each person’s idea of the perfect barge experience may differ (Do you want more food and wine? Perhaps history or even an adventure cruise?), Beth is able to help navigate (see, what I did there? ) and choose the BEST barge for your vacation.
If you get in touch with Beth, and book a barge cruise, mention me (Robin from Melange Travel) when you book and you’ll get an hour of complimentary pre or post cruise travel planning from yours truly. Together, we’ll put together an amazing vacation in the “other” South of France, for you.
And, if your questions about barge cruising weren’t answered here, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try to answer them personally!
Disclosure : I was a guest on the Athos Barge. All photos and opinions are my own.
1. Am I willing to sacrifice?
There are so many upsides to traveling with one bag, but it doesn’t come without some sacrifices. The first thing you’ll need to sacrifice is space in your luggage. You won’t have much, so you’ll need to pare down what you bring.
You might need to leave behind a few beloved beauty products. You may not have room for three favorite sundresses. If you’re used to packing a different pair of shoes for every outfit you own, you’ll be disappointed. You will need to edit and make some hard choices. You might even need to sacrifice some precious vacation time to do laundry or wash a few things in the sink.
These small sacrifices are the price we pay for freedom, but you should ask yourself if these are going to be an issue for you, or impossible to overcome.
2. Am I able to make the time committment?
I wish I could just tell you that the minute you decide to travel lighter, you’ll just blink your eyes and instantly transform into a carry-on traveler. That you could pack perfectly for every occasion and be off to some far away land without any forethought. But, I can’t.
It’s not quite as easy as throwing everything you own (plus the kitchen sink) into your suitcase anymore. That would be too easy. But nothing worthwhile comes without its challenges.
You’ll need to consider the right bag for your travel style, decide what to pack based on your destination’s climate, plan and edit your wardrobe, familiarize yourself with the 3-1-1 liquids rule, research your airline’s bag restrictions, etc.
I’m not going to lie. It is a time commitment. But, it does get easier with time. The more you practice packing and traveling, the better you will get. But you’ll need to be prepared in advance and know that although it’s worth it in the long run, it will take some time in the beginning to convert.
3. Do I care what other people think?
There are going to be times you may have to wear the same outfit more than once. Wait, let me rephrase that. There will be times you’ll wear the same outfit during your trip. [insert loud gasp! here]
Your hair may not look perfectly quaffed, make-up not photo shoot ready, like it does at home, because you had to leave a few key products or your flatiron behind.
You’ll also run across those travelers I like to call carry-on shamers, who taunt you, scoff, point or roll their eyes because you’re bringing luggage on the plane, instead of checking it. Major meltdowns may ensue or travel tantrums because OH MY GOD you’re taking up all the overhead bin space and holding up the boarding process!!!!
But do you care? I sure don’t. I’m on a mission and I could care less what others think – especially as I’m sailing by them at the luggage carousel, praying their checked bags made it safely. Or when they have no clothes because said bags didn’t make it.
And if you think for one minute your repeat outfits are fodder for hotel concierge gossip from city to city – well, I’m here to tell you, it isn’t. They don’t care. So stop worrying. Stop caring.
If your answer to these questions is a loud resounding YES – and you need help converting to carry-on travel, check out my collection of helpful carry-on tips or consider a one-on-one carry-on consult with me.
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve posted anything French wine related – but it’s never far from my mind (or lips). Not only do I love learning about wine, drinking wine and traveling to wine regions – but I also enjoy passing on a bit of knowledge and special events along to you.
In May, I had the pleasure of visiting the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, which is known for its quality and selection of wine, and it happens to be one of the oldest and largest wine regions in France.
So, when I was invited to preview Pays d’Oc IGP wines (which are the BEST wines of that same area) to kick off Pays d’Oc Wine Week, of course my answer was a big Oui Oui!
Pays d’Oc IGP is the first and the oldest quality designation of wine in France and has been around for 25 years. It’s not to be confused with the Languedoc-Roussillon, which is a region. Or Sud de France, which is more of a marketing brand. All of labels encompass wine in the South of France, but only Pays d’Oc IGP represents a prestigious quality control. In fact, only about 10% of French wine have this distinction.
The strength of Pays d’Oc lies in its varietals, over 56 to be exact. The wines are all so diverse, there’s guaranteed to be something for everyone’s palate.
Out of the 840 million Pays d’Oc bottles a year produced the breakdown is
While many wine lovers would love to drink Chablis, Bordeaux or Burgundy all day, every day, most of these wines are priced for special occasions and it can be daunting to select just the right bottle. These days, people need to be able to pick up a good quality, easy drinking bottle of wine for everyday. This is another area where wines from the Pays d’Oc excel. They are all very affordable, with a good QPR (quality price ratio). You can pair them with dinner, an aperitif or just sip them on their own.
Easy. Simple. Unfussy. Tasty. Affordable. This describes Pays d’Oc wines perfectly. And it describes why they are some of my favorite wines to seek out.
Over the course of my lunch at Balvanera, we tasted nine bottles – an assortment of red, white and a rosé. The rock star Argentinian chef, Fernando Navas, created a mouth-watering selection of dishes including empanadas, sweetbreads, steak, carrot salad, sautéed mushrooms with poached egg and even dessert. Seriously, they were each extraordinary. And the chosen wines paired perfectly with everything, proving that Pays d’Oc wine is indeed food-friendly and can make both carnivores and vegetarians very happy.
Some of the standout wines for me were:
Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc 2014 – a nice crisp rosé. Pale pink in color and tastes very fresh with a hint of minerality. The Grenache grapes are hand-picked. I’m very familiar with this reliable producer. Pick up anything you find from them.
Seigneur Jean de Roze Chardonnay 2014 – I’m not a fan of big oaky California Chardonnay. I much prefer Chablis, but for about half the price this unoaked, food-friendly wine shouldn’t be missed.
Figure Libre Cabernet Franc 2011 – I love a good Cab Franc, and most I’ve had come from the Loire Valley. I didn’t even realize a good Cab Franc could come from the South of France. The fact that it’s a biodiverse wine means you’ll pay a bit more for a bottle, but it’s worth it for this aromatic, authentic and impressive wine.
If you’ll be in New York City from November 2nd – 8th, you can discover Pays d’Oc wines during Pays d’Oc Wine Week. Over 25 restaurants will be participating – including the fabulous Balvanera, which is where my lunch took place. You can find a list of participating restaurants here.
Can’t get to NYC for wine week? Why not head out to your local wine shop and buy a bottle. Pop by and let me know which one you tried and what you thought.
During my trip to Puglia I visited Lecce, a beautiful small city located almost at the very tip of the ‘heel of the boot’ in Southern Italy. It’s often called the Florence of the South, due to its abundant Baroque architecture. Perhaps that’s why the city really resonated with me, since I do love Florence.
I actually enjoyed Lecce, but didn’t have nearly enough time there. I would highly recommend a visit. Here are some of the things to do and see in Lecce.
The hub of Lecce’s life has to be centered around the oddly shaped main square – the Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Here you’ll find cafes, shops and restaurants of course, which are perfect for just taking a break and for people watching, but the piazza also offers lots of history too.
Marked by the statue of the same name, Saint Oranzo can be seen sitting atop a column, blessing the city. The column is said to mark the end of the famous Appian Way, but today it makes a pretty awesome landmark for finding your way around the city if you get lost.
The best part about this large square is the giant Roman amphitheatre, which considering the age of the ruins, is in exceptionally good condition.
And it wouldn’t be Puglia without some representation of the olive tree. There is a beautiful old and gnarly one right on the square.
Spend time on the piazza in the evening, when it’s bustling with activity. And if you visit in summer, you’ll get to see live outdoor performances.
A short walk from the piazza is Charles V Castle, which is also worth a look. Though the outside of this former fortification is rather stark, you’ll see art and stained glass displayed in spacious rooms with vaulted ceilings and stone details on the inside.
Piazza del Duomo
If you’re a Top Gear fan, you may recognize this spot from an episode filmed in Lecce. This giant piazza is home to the Duomo (listed below), but also to a bell tower, Bishop’s palace and seminary. And it’s a photographer’s dream. Even if you don’t visit the church, it’s worth a visit to this square just to admire the architecture and colored stone. Best times are very early morning or right before sunset for the light and lack of people.
Like most typical Italian cities – Lecce has more than its fair share of churches. Over twenty to be exact! Too many for me to visit. You could spend your entire stay hopping from church to church – but who would want to do that and miss out on all the food and wine? I can only do so many churches before becoming ‘holy fatigued’ – they all look the same to me. Here are three major ones to visit, all with no admission charge.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Though my sad photo doesn’t do it any justice, this church is perhaps the best example of Baroque style out of all of Lecce’s churches. The basilica began as a monastery in the 14th century, was constructed in several stages, and was completed in 1695. The facade has a beautiful large stained glass rose window and is littered with stone carvings from animals to vegetables. The inside boasts seventeen alters, more ornate flourishes like carved stone columns, chandeliers and a wooden and gold vaulted ceiling containing three paintings.
Chiesa di Sant’Irene
Named after Lecce’s Patron Saint Irene, this church was over 40 years in the making and was completed in 1639. The inside is rather plain and simple, but bright and the dark wooden pews really pop against the pure white walls.
The Duomo sits on the piazza of the same name. It was built in 1144 and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It’s unique because of its two entrances and two facades. The more ornate facade, seen above, depicts the coat of arms and statues of Saint Orontious, Justus and Fortunatus.
Inside, the nave is shaped like a cross and has a whopping twelve alters and a crypt. The wooden ceiling holds a painting representing the Last Supper.
There is more in-depth info on churches of Lecce here.
Art, History and Gardens
The papier-mache tradition came to Lecce by way of Venice. In Lecce it’s called Cartapesta. There are lots of shops, and even if you aren’t in the mood to buy anything and bring it home, it’s worth popping in and out of a few shops just to appreciate the artisan craftsmanship. You can also visit the Museo della Cartapesta, which is a museum dedicated to the art of papier-mache.
Lecce has an Archeological museum, Museo Storico Archeologico which I didn’t visit, but have heard wonderful things about. If gardens and outdoor space is more your speed – try the public gardens at Villa Comunale or the Botanical Gardens, Orto Botanico.
One of my most favorite activities in any Italian city is wandering the streets of the centro storico (historic center). This is always encouraged, especially when joining the locals on their nightly passeggiata.
The pretty Baroque architecture, showcasing the special ‘Lecce Stone’, not to mention the pretty doors, windows, balconies, loggias and archways will have you snapping photos everywhere you turn. One evening, I came across a street market with stalls offering clothing, crafts, trinkets and also vendors selling street food like roasted chestnuts, which were in season during my fall visit.
And why not top off an evening with an after dinner espresso at this cute little cafe?
Lecce is easily accessible by car if you fly into either the Bari or Brindisi Casale airports. You can also take a local FSE train from Bari to Lecce in about 90 minutes or from Brindisi to Lecce in about 30 minutes. Local bus service runs from Brindisi to Lecce several times a day.
Want to plan a trip to Puglia, but don’t know where to start? Here’s how I can help.
Year after year, Italy continues to be a top vacation destination for travelers. That’s no surprise to me, someone who’s been enamored since my first trip, continually returns and sings its praises to prospective clients.
What’s not to love? Italy is steeped in rich history, grand architecture, food and wine, culture, lifestyle, picture-perfect landscapes and gregarious people. All combined, it’s enough to make the most unfeeling traveler fall in love. And fall hard.
But for those who haven’t been, the thought of visiting a foreign country can be daunting and overwhelming.
Here are some essential tips that will help you relax and enjoy your first trip.
1. Adopt the Right Attitude
Italy’s lifestyle and culture are very different from that of the United States. But, that is exactly why you are visiting, isn’t it? To experience something new, exciting and different.
Honestly, if you’re expecting it to be the same, or will be disappointed when you find that it isn’t, I would advise you to stay home and save your pennies. It’s best to be mentally prepared for the differences and adopt a relaxed and positive attitude before you go. Be ready, willing and open for everything.
If something doesn’t work out as planned, and it will happen, don’t revert to what I call the “comparing Italy to America syndrome.” It’s offensive and rude to continually complain to hotel or wait staff about how things are done in America.
Making statements like “This isn’t the way we do it back home”, or “In America, we always get ice with our drink” will quickly get you labeled as an “Ugly American” and it won’t solve any problems.
Remember, you’re there to experience their country, not convince them that your country’s way is better.
2. Understand the Differences
One difference is space – it’s at a minimum – so hotel rooms and bathrooms will likely be smaller than what you’re used to. Some older, charming budget hotels don’t have elevators or air conditioning, so if these are important to you, you’ll likely spend more for these creature comforts taken for granted back home, because many are considered a luxury in parts of Italy.
It’s important to be aware of meals and meal times as well. Italians eat three meals a day, and make several stops at the local bar to down a cup of espresso with lightning speed. Breakfast consists of a roll, or cornetto and a cappuccino (never after 11 am) or espresso. Don’t expect a full American breakfast.
Lunch is usually served during a very limited window around mid-day. You’ll likely be out of luck for a good lunch after 3:00 pm as most reputable places don’t offer continuous service. Typically dinner isn’t served until at least 7 or 8pm, though locals eat even later. If you find yourself hungry out of normal meal times, head to a wine bar or grab a slice of pizza to go. When all else is closed – opt for gelato!
3. Learn (some of) the Language
You don’t need to be fluent in Italian to visit, but learning a little goes a long way. You’ll find people in larger cities speak English, but don’t expect that in tiny villages or off-the-beaten-path locations. Even if the plan is to stick to big cities, it’s polite to at least learn a few basics before you go. It’s fun, easy and you’ll get better treatment from locals. I recommend you learn the basics and use them often.
Bring a good menu translator or at least a list of foods you don’t want to eat when traveling. If you have any food allergies, it’s also a good idea to write them in Italian on index cards and carry them with you to show your waiter.
4. Know When to Go
Summer months may be the best time for families with kids to travel to Italy because their schedules easily allow it – but keep in mind, traditionally it’s very hot in the summer and you’ll be joining everyone else traveling during this time, so large crowds will be the norm.
Much of the country takes their vacation in August, so many places where you’d like to eat or shop may be closed. Tours and guides will likely be booked well in advance. It’s also the most expensive time to travel, so airfare and hotel rates will be at a premium.
Instead opt for an off-season visit, in spring or fall, which can offer lower prices, lesser crowds, better availability for excursions and more pleasant weather.
5. When it Comes to Planning, Less is More.
Most people go to Italy with a mile long checklist and run through, checking things off at a marathon pace, in order to get it all in. That’s Italy done wrong. It’s impossible to see everything, so don’t try.
Depending on how many days you have, stick to larger cities, which are easy to get to and spend a minimum of three days in each place. Don’t pack too much into your daily itinerary. Italy is a country meant to be savored at a slow pace – so adopt a slow travel and slow dining philosophy. Build in lots of downtime to watch the museum of life go by and soak up the local atmosphere. That’s Italy done right!
6. Getting Around
If you are sticking to the larger cities of Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Bologna or Naples, there is no need for a car. Italy’s high-speed train system is fast, clean, and efficient. However, if you plan to explore more remote areas in Tuscany, Umbria or Le Marche, you’ll have the most flexibility by renting a car. For those who want to splurge, hiring a private car and driver is a relaxing and stress-free option.
Be prepared to walk more than you ever thought possible. Fashionistas, leave the stilettos home and opt for comfortable, yet stylish shoes. It won’t hurt to pack a few extra Band-Aids for much-needed blister relief, either.
Planning your first trip to Italy and don’t know where to start? I’d love to help! Click here to find out more.
On my most recent trip to France, I knew packing light would be a bit of a challenge. I would be in Paris, which can be finicky in terms of the weather – especially with wind, rain and temperature fluctuations. And then I’d be off to the South of France, which would be much warmer and sunny.
The Languedoc boasts 350 days of sunshine a year, but I would be on a barge on the canal, so it might be very hot during the day and then cool down at night. And there was a dress code on the barge – you were expected to dress up a bit for dinner. No ball gowns, but no track suits either.
The secret? Layers, people. Layers. Layers are your friend.
I can happily and wholeheartedly shout from those Paris rooftops that I was able to successfully travel with just my carry-on wheelie, one personal item and feel like I had everything I needed for the trip. I made it work.
My goal is to travel lighter each time I take a trip, so I am consistently editing and finding ways to downsize what I feel is essential.
For example, my smartphone replaces many travel items I used to take with me, which saves space in my luggage.
What I did not take:
sunscreen (I bought my favorite French brand there)
my laptop or camera (I used my iPhone for everything from maps to email and taking photos)
Other than basic unmentionables and my toiletries, here is a glimpse of what I packed for the two weeks:
Mixing and matching all of these pieces, I was able to create many different outfits. That’s the key.
No matter what the weather threw at me I was ready. Sunny and hot – no problem – skirt, short sleeve shirt and hat. Cold and rainy – denim jeans, knit top, scarf and my waterproof jacket. Dinner on the barge – swap the short sleeve knit top for a dressy one, throw on some jewelry and done!
Looking back, I would have ditched the black dress, which I hardly wore and replaced it with a long sleeve knit black knit top. It got downright chilly in Paris even though it was May, and I could have used it.
The takeaway is this – you can still be stylish, comfortable and not feel bored with your options, while travel lightly.
I hope it inspires you to travel with less.
If I can do it. You can do it, too.
If you struggle with packing lighter, here’s how I can help.
I just returned from a once in a lifetime experience that had been on my France bucket list for quite sometime – a French barge Cruise on the Canal du Midi aboard the Athos.
Located in the Languedoc region of France, the Canal du Midi is a 300 year old very unique stretch of water and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The canal itself is about 150 miles long and runs from Toulouse to Sète and tops out in the Mediterranean.
It was originally designed for trade to transport goods like wheat, textiles and wine by barge, before the invention of railroads. But in the early 1990’s, some of the boats were renovated into luxury vacation barges and a new tourism sector was born.
If you’ve followed me, you’ll notice I don’t talk about cruises. I’m not a fan of the typical cruising experience, which is generally ginormous ships that resemble floating cities with millions of people, food buffets and aggressive itineraries. That type of travel doesn’t appeal to me.
But a barge cruise seemed the antithesis of a cruise, a slow travel experience, with just a handful people on a small vessel, only covering a short amount of ground per day with more focus on local food and wine. And that’s exactly what it was.
Here are some reasons I think you should consider a French barge cruise along the Canal du Midi.
1. The Scenery
Some of the most amazing scenery. A mixture of poppy fields and vineyards, postcard pretty. An old house here and there, beautiful bridges, aqueducts and charming villages, all surrounded by the backdrop of the canal, which is lined with Cyprus, Plane and Umbrella Pine trees. Dappled sunlight that dances across the water through the leaves. It’s very serene. And as you’re driving to and from daily excursions, you get to relax and enjoy different views of the French countryside.
2. The Slow Pace
The barge travels about four MPH and you have the ability to get on and off to either walk or bike (they have bikes onboard) along the towpath and meet up with the boat or just take it easy on deck, read a book, take a nap, chat with fellow passengers or the crew. It’s a very relaxing vacation or it can be more active – you get to choose. Another bonus – absolutely no seasickness, so if you’re prone to that on ocean liners, you won’t need to worry here.
3. The Weather
The Canal du Midi is located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the South of France. The area boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. And though it can be windy and a there can be a chance of rain – during the season, which only runs from April through October, you’re almost guaranteed good weather.
4. The Locks
The locks are an amazing feat of architecture and engineering. Some are very small, but others, like the Nine Ecluse, a succession of eight locks near Fonserannes are a downright marvel. Water gushes in to fill up the basins with the power of what seems like Niagara Falls. And it’s fascinating to be on the barge to be part of it all.
5. The Crew
They pamper you, but not in an annoying way. Very unobtrusively. They ask before you even board what your favorite drinks are and if you have any food allergies. They know the area well and are knowledgable, entertaining and happy to tell stories about their time on the barge. They really want you to enjoy your time on board (and off) and will go out of their way to make you happy.
6. The Food and Wine
We had some absolutely amazing meals on board. Every day when we stopped in a new village, one of the guides would make a run to the boulangerie and the chef would shop for local specialities at the food market. The food was fresh, gourmet, local and it was plentiful. We ate like royalty.
We enjoyed a cheese course every night at dinner which included a variety of local cheeses.
And since the Languedoc is a huge wine region – all of the wine was local as well. We had a nice mix of red, white and rosé and the bottles flowed at lunch, dinner and apéro for as long as you wished. It was expertly paired with our meals and both the chef and wait staff would describe every course and each wine in detail, which was a nice touch.
7. It’s All Inclusive
Everything from soup to nuts is included on the trip. You pay one price which includes the barge, transportation to and from the barge, the crew, all of your meals on board, all of your drinks, wine, cocktails (as much as you want) and all of the excursions. You don’t need to worry at all about handling money or bringing it along with you, unless you wanted souvenirs or to buy something during one of the excursions.
8. The Excursions
We got to visit some pretty amazing places. Each barge has a choice of the places they visit and create their own itinerary, but the Athos included the villages of Pézenas, Carcassonne, Capestang, Narbonne, Marseillan and Minerve. We also got to visit the Noilly Prat vermouth distillery, a covered food market in Narbonne, a local olive cooperative and had time one night to walk to the Oppidum d’Ensérune with our guide. It was a nice mix of history, food and charming villages.
Stayed tuned, I’ll be posting more about my trip over the next few weeks – you can look forward to posts on my favorite photos, what to pack and also a day-by-day account of exactly what the trip was like.
Disclosure: I was a guest aboard the Athos barge. All opinions and photos are my own.
So, what do you think? Would you take a barge cruise along the Canal du Midi?
There are many ways to get from Paris’s main airport, Charles de Gaulle, to central Paris. Depending on budget, travel style, time of day and where you’re staying, one is likely to work better than another. Here is an overview of the choices you have.
The standard, good old-fashioned taxi, is still my favorite, most direct, and reliable way of getting from Charles de Gaulle to the center of Paris. You’ll see signs directing you to the taxi stands at every terminal.
It’s always best to make sure you get in line at the taxi stand and only take a licensed Taxi Parisien. Ignore any annoying hawkers inside the airport trying to offer you a ride. Head right to the stand, queue and wait your turn. The line moves quickly, but if you have no luggage to collect at the carousel, you’ll get into the line faster, which is one of many reasons to become a carry-on only traveler.
On my last trip, my taxi driver whisked my luggage away to the trunk and handed me a cold bottled water before opening my car door. I paid €54 from the airport to the Marais in rush hour traffic. I’ve never had a bad taxi experience and they are always professional.
There is also talk of making a dedicated commuter lane, which may get you to Paris even faster if you’re traveling during work hours.
Cost : As of March 1, 2016 – Paris taxi fares will now be a flat rate fee. Expect to pay €5o to any address on the Right Bank; €55 on the Left Bank. And there will be no surcharge for evening rides, but fares will increase if there is more than four people in your group.
This long time option connects the airport with Paris’s Opéra area, which is the 9th arrondissement. Depending on time of day, the bus runs every 15 to 30 minutes and the trip takes 75 minutes. The coaches are air-conditioned, they serve every terminal and there is plenty of room for luggage. Tickets are available at automatic ticket machines at the airport.
Cost €11, one way.
Technically called Les Cars Air France, this reliable bus service operates two lines that service Paris, 7 days a week. Line 2 runs from CDG to the Place d’Etoile, between 5:45am and 11pm, and takes about an hour. Line 4 runs from CDG to Gare Montparnasse (with a stop at Gare de Lyon) from 6am to 10pm and takes 75 minutes.
These leave every 30 minutes and service almost every terminal (though some require an extra connection). Tickets are available online, at airport vending machines and even on board.
Cost : Line 2 €17; Line 3 €17.50, one way.
A brand new shuttle service owned by the British company EasyJet just launched a new shuttle service called easyBus. The buses run in both directions between the Palais Royal/Louvre area and Terminal 2 at CDG, making this the option that gets you closest to the actual center of Paris – the 1st arrondissement.
The trip takes 45 minutes to an hour and tickets can be purchased online.
Cost : Prices vary based on time of day you travel, but currently range from €2 to €10, one way.
The RER B line runs from Terminal 2 or Roissypole from Terminals 1 and 3. Stops on this line include Gare du Nord, Châtalet, Saint-Michel/Nôtre Dame, Port Royal and a few more options as the train heads south towards Orly.
I’ve done it before, and doing it your first time does require prior planning and can be a bit confusing as you need to buy your ticket at the airport and then navigate your way to the RER station and beyond. It’s also notoriously hit with technical problems and can be very unreliable.
This option is also not recommended if you have a ton of luggage, or if you’ll be hopping on during commuter times, as the trains are crowded, as are the Metro stations you may need to connect with in order to get closer to your final destination. The other dreaded thing you need to worry about that makes this a risky option – STRIKES. And we know how the French love their strikes.
Cost : €10, one way.
Popular shuttle vans like Parishuttle or Bluvan take up to eight passengers at a time from CDG to Paris. These will bring you directly to your destination, like a taxi, as opposed to a bus just dropping you in a central location – but that also means you’ll have other passengers to drop off as well, so your trip can take longer depending on which order you’ll be delivered.
Parishuttle requires you to call them from the airport to get your pickup location, while Bluvan has dedicated pickup spots at each terminal.
Journey time on a shared van is impossible to determine – based on how many others to pick up, at what terminal, how many stops en route to Paris and what number you are in the queue. Could be an hour, could be three days.
Both require you to book online, in advance. I’ve heard and read stories about their unreliability, so use caution and book at your own risk. In case of delayed flights or very late arrivals, you may have a bit of a problem, as they tend to only wait one hour. And since these are prepaid services, you’ll need to request refunds if for some reason you miss your ride or you decide not to use them.
Cost : Prices start at €25 one way, per person for shared rides. There is a charge for extra luggage. Both also offer private transfer options.
What’s on the horizon?
A new high-speed express train that links Charles de Gaulle to the center of Paris is planned. The line will run from CDG to Gare de l’Est in a mere 20 minutes. Sadly, since this will be part of the French Railway system, it will also be subject to – you guessed it – strikes. Ticket prices are predicted to be a hefty €24, but that’s still half the price of a taxi and will get you to the city faster.
Construction is set to begin in 2017, but the project is planned to take eight years to complete, so you’ll just have to a plan a trip to Paris and try it out for yourself in 2023!
Heading to Paris soon? Don’t miss one of these tasty Paris food tours!