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James Martin

Europe Travel

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The Giro d'Italia Starts in Northern Ireland

Monday April 14, 2014

giro picture
This year the Giro d'Italia, the world's second biggest bike race (and the one before the Tour de France), starts in Northern Ireland. The three days they spend there will take them through 426.7km of northern Irish countryside before heading off for the region of Puglia to start the Italian part of the Giro.

The race should be fun to watch. In case you need some facts about it, The Belfast Telegraph offers up the interesting: 25 days until the Giro d'Italia - and here's a fact for every one of them.

Art in the Countryside

Friday April 11, 2014

montestigliano, water colors
Ever think about painting the Tuscan countryside? I hadn't. But you can. We're at Montestigliano, a farm estate in the province of Siena, where groups come to paint, taste wine and olive oil, and learn, as we will later this morning, how to forage for herbs in the countryside. There are also opportunities to practice dolce far neinte, the sweetness of doing nothing.

That's my painting in the foreground. I need practice making my cedars straight, but in a couple of years I'm sure I can produce a salable work.

Ballooning Tuscany

Tuesday April 8, 2014

tuscany ballooning
The landscape of Chianti in Tuscany has enchanted visitors for centuries--long enough for the storied land to have acquired the nickname "Chiantishire", referring to the foreigners from less gentle climes who flocked there.

To want to see this land from the wicker basket of a balloon held aloft by mere blasts of hot air is a natural, at least for Phileas Fogg types who have an eye for (small) adventures.

We recently took one of these contraptions on a short flight along the Pesa River. Pockets of fog along the torrente lent mystery to the patchwork of vineyards, orchards, forests and family farms. At the end there was bubbly, as old Phileas might have expected.

You should do this. Here's how (with pictures): Ballooning Tuscany.

Athens to Santorini Island

Sunday April 6, 2014

Are you a beginner to Greek island hopping? No matter, it's easy to get between the mainland and the islands, but there are many choices to make, Fast hydrofoil or slow ferry? How about a flight? Swim?

Santorini is one of the top island destinations in Greece, so why not check out all the ways to get between Athens port of Pireus to the Cyclades Island of Santorini?

From there you can go on to Crete or even Turkey. Once you start island hopping, it's hard to stop.

The Waterways Under Siena

Friday April 4, 2014

siena campo picture
While relatively free of foreign tourists, Siena is swarming with school kids this time of year. We've had a chance to see Siena's latest museum, Museo dell'Acqua, dedicated to the unique way the city fed its public fountains. Unlike Italy's other powerhouse cities, Siena doesn't lie along a major watercourse--but no matter, ancient engineers were clever enough to literally wring water from rock, creating underground tunnels called bottini to deliver it. You can  see one of them after a visit to the spiffy museum.

We also had a chance to try two of the April flavors of gelato at Grom, just off the Piazza del Campo. You can't just wander tunnels all day under Siena you know--there are a few things to do above as well.

(The museum one of the interesting "experiential travel" option on the new My Tuscan Experience website.)

Lerici and Some Advice for a New Neighbor

Tuesday April 1, 2014

lerici picture
George Clooney was a little dissatisfied with his Italian Lakeside estate. Folks evidently knew where he partied and bothered him. Seeking solitude he recently purchased a villa/agriturismo in my neck of the Italian woods, La Lunigiana.

I have some advice for him. If some day he wants to go to the seaside for a swim or some good food, he should just take the short jaunt over to Lerici, one of the gems of the Italian Riviera shunned by Americans who seem to prefer the Cinque Terre for some reason.

If, like my neighbor George, you don't like making your way through crowds of people speaking your own language, you might try a place I think is very nice to visit. And you don't have to actually do anything there, just enjoy the slow life. See what it's all about: Lerici Travel Guide.

Discover the Joys of the Rural Life in Italy

Sunday March 30, 2014

marche eating well
I don't get too crazy about organized tours. But this one is different. It puts you smack in the center of rural life in a place few tourists know. Big tour companies couldn't do a tour like this because the average tourist doesn't know the destination well enough to fill their humongous buses. Plus, you can't say, "Envy me, I'm going to a small town called Mercatello in Le Marche!" People would look at you and wonder why you don't go where everyone else is going, then ask you which country Le Marche might be found in. But you know, right?

Eat with an all-male gourmet society, learn how to make hand-stamped fabric designs out of common rust, make your own paper, and stay in a great villa; these are a few of the things we elaborate on in: Discover Rural Italy: A Le Marche Tour Like No Other.

Bathe Free in Bagni San Filippo

Wednesday March 26, 2014
bagni san filippo picture

A tourist looking for information on things to do in Italy will find quite a few places in which to bathe. Yes, the ancient Romans loved their baths so much they deforested much of the area around Rome for wood to heat their public baths. But there's another kind of bathing in hot water that's (almost) entirely natural. These are the hot springs that pop from the earth at places like Bagni San Filippo in southern Tuscany, shown in the tiny little picture above.

Believe it or not, the thermal pools along the river are a short walk from the town along a well tended pathway and are free to use. There are also places in town where the thermal spa experience is more luxurious and is far from free, but you get to wash the sulfuric fumes from your hair. Your choice.

Bagni San Filippo has a fantastic restaurant named after the particular type of regional limestone used in construction in these parts. Osteria Lo Spugnone offers up regional specialties carefully sourced and crafted--all at a very reasonable price. And...you can walk off the extra pounds you might add by trekking on the slopes of Mt. Amiata just a short drive away.

We visited Bagni San Filippo on the suggestion of our hosts at the nearby organic farm with villas in Umbria called Fontinaro, where we had a great stay recently.

Charming Small Hotels Guides

Thursday March 20, 2014

charming small hotel guides italy picture
After listening to many travelers, I have discovered the two things people worry about most when planning a vacation these days. "Will the hotel be charming?" is one. And then there is the unanswerable question: "Will Europe be reasonable?" I can't help you with the reasonable bit, although you expect me to. What's reasonable to you? They tell me some politicians are reasonable. I suppose that means that big companies can buy them cheaply, as is fashionable these days--because few politicians sound reasonable to me. Let's just say this about reasonable: everyone has his price, and it's a different price. I am not a soothsayer; I cannot guess your price.

But there is someone following the charming lodging side of things. Duncan Peterson's Charming Small Hotels Guides offer up their discoveries of old world lodging charm in a very old-fashioned way, via softcover books printed elegantly on heavy paper with numerous small but well-done high resolution pictures. After all, these days you don't have to lug around such a book while you vacation; you'd better have made your decision well ahead of your flight and reserved your favorites if you expect to rest in one of these small hotels.

Of course, you're on the internet. You've been reading gushing drivel like this: "Ten outrageously fantastic places to stay in Europe that you can't miss but are to die for!" written by "bloggers" who likely haven't stayed in them. These are but empty and premature titilations. You deserve better. There is a promise of "no gushing" in these guide books and I found none in the Italian one. Hurray for that.

I have merely thumbed through the Italy Charming Small Hotel guide. It's what you do first, to get a feeling for what's going on. The wanderlust infects you quickly; a few minutes of conscientious thumbing was enough for me to be able to titillate you with tales of places that will make you want to sell the house and the dog and be off  to Europe for an extended vacation. I mean really, there are converted convents in there. Country guesthouses, too. Castle hotels and villas. Something, in other words, for every fantasy you've ever had regarding the background for a lusty and full life completely removed from the idiocy of the office or the greasy smoke of the burger place you've been toiling at (featured within the Italy guide are a pair of two-star guesthouses in Rome! Reasonable!).

You don't even have to go to Europe right now. Get one of these guides and just spend a night with it. Dream. Perhaps in the morning you'll have it all figured out.

Now that sounds reasonable to me.

Roquebrune: A Gem on the Côte d'Azur

Wednesday March 19, 2014

place les deux freres picture
We've recently had a chance to spend some time in the castled hill town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and we really enjoyed the experience. From the town's 10th century castle, you have the view above down into the main square, the deux freres, and across to Monaco. You can trek to nearby towns or go all the way to the Med. Roquebrune is a fine place to stay a few nights. See our extensive city guide: Roquebrune Travel Guide.

Also: Côte d'Azur Map and Guide

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