Grand Sud : Part II

The following day it was time to visit the medieval town of Carcassonne, located in the Landuedoc region. I was eager to explore this World Heritage Site. Arriving just in time for lunch, I opted for the speciality of the region. Cassoulet is a slow-cooked casserole traditionally made with white beans and pork. Delicious! Onwards to the main attraction, the medieval citadel La Cité. First built in Gallo-Roman times, various additions were made in the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s hard even to describe the grandness of this hilltop fortress.


Within the walled Cité sits Château Comtal, a 12th-century castle. Led by an expert guide, I discovered this castle and its ramparts, which provided an incredible view of the town. I was blown away (quite literally in fact) by all the history. For a view from afar, I headed to the River Aude, followed by a walk around Carcassonne’s center.

carcassonne-6 carcassonne-8carcassonne-10

I also discovered the historic Canal du Midi, excavated in the XVIIth century, which links the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I watched as numerous boaters used this main waterway along their route through Carcassonne. In 1996 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.


As the sun was preparing to set, it was time to head back to the citadel. Just opposite  the 12th-century Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse, and a 2-minute walk from the Château Comtal, sat Hôtel de la Cité, my home for the night. What a regal setting! I already knew it would be hard to leave in the morning.


I toured the elegant hotel, where once upon a time Winston Churchill slept, as did Princess Grace and Walt Disney. Now it was my turn to slumber within this Neo-Gothic mansion built in the XIX century. I couldn’t stop staring at the views from my balcony, rightfully so as the light kept changing and dusk settled in, the town illuminated in the distance.


My next stop was dinner at La Barbacane, their Michelin star restaurant. Yes, I did feel like a princess in a castle. Thankfully, it wasn’t yet midnight and the dream continued.



Grand Sud : Part I

After returning to Paris for a quick change of clothes, I once again boarded the train, high speed ahead, direction south. Can one ever travel too much? Considering I once spent 13 months on the road, I think not. There is so much more to discover beyond the City of Lights, and along with the France Tourism Board I was well on my way to discovering. In just under 3 hours I arrived to Avignon.


The first stop was lunch at a riverfront restaurant with quite a history. Guinguette de Vieux Moulin, located at the foot of the tower Philippe le Bel on the Rhone, a few miles from Avignon, opened in 1901. It was here that a bridge once linked the castle of the popes to Villeneuve les Avignon. In 1761, as the name suggests, 6 mills were installed, 3 for water and 3 for wind. In days past this was the place for fishing competitions and nautical games, now a place of relaxation and classic French cuisine.


Onwards to the highlight of the day, a 2,000 year old aqueduct bridge. Pont du Gard is a 30 minute drive away, and worth every mile. Approaching the bridge from a distance, I was completely taken with the enormity and elegance of this ancient Roman structure. It’s hard to believe that this three level masterpiece, 360 meters long and 50 meters high was built in only 5 years.


This massive bridge provided those living in Nîmes with running water for close to 5 centuries, making this a highly prestigious city in the south of France. Much of it was used for their bath houses. Water was collected from the Eure river at the foot of Uzès. Led by my expert tour guide I had the opportunity to discover the canalization, walking inside the bridge along the exact path where the water flows. Not to mention the views!


Surround by 408 acres of a stunning natural landscape, this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon swimming, canoeing, enjoying the flight of Bonelli’s Eagles, that is, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.


What makes it even more of a destination is that the Pont du Gard was the first French site to be awarded ‘Grand Site de France’ in 2004. This great honor presented by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, safely combines tourism, local life and the protection of nature. There are now 14 sites in France with this distinguished title. What’s more, this is a Unesco Heritage site since 1985.


After several hours learning about the structure and admiring its grandeur, I dug deeper into the history of this Roman aqueduct by way of the museum. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon there but it was time now to continue the journey. I vowed to return for the annual music festival in July. What a venue! Now it was time to end the day a short drive away in the village of Castillon-du-Gard.


As soon as I entered into the world of Le Vieux Castillon, located in the heart of this small Medieval village, I was enchanted. Newly renovated in minimalist elegance, this 32-room boutique hotel resides in a Renaissance building. Its history is felt in every room, within the spacious gourmet restaurant, through the courtyard and to the pool which overlooks the picturesque Provençal landscape. Just in time for sunset, I perched on a lounge chair to enjoy the view, and a moment of zen.


Needless to say, when morning came, I didn’t want to leave this tranquil paradise. But it was time to discover another famous French destination.

Île de Ré

Is it possible to find the tranquility of the Mediterranean hidden in the Atlantic Ocean? Just west of La Rochelle sits the island of Île de Ré. Having heard much about this natural landscape boasting sandy beaches and 10 charming villages connected by cycling paths, I decided it was time to explore. This French summer hideaway seemed like the ideal weekend away. As is often our preference, we chose to visit off season.


In just over three hours we arrived via train to La Rochelle. Since 1988 the city is linked to Île de Ré by bridge, providing easy access by car or shuttle bus. We chose the latter, since the main mode of island transport is by bicyle. No car is needed. The afternoon was cloudy and windy, with hints of blue setting the scene for the next few days. We chose to stay in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s capital and what is considered one of the most picturesque of the villages. We arrived easily by bus and settled into our elegant hotel on the harbor. As it was the weekend, the village was bustling with locals and second home owners taking advantage of the Indian summer. Nineteen miles long and two to three miles long, this small island with a population of 18,000, grows to 130,000 during the summer months. Soon, I would discover its appeal.


The following day we rented bicycles and began our journey along the coast. Passing marshes and salt farms we made our way to the smallest of the villages, Loix. Thus began our love affair with the island. From there we rode south to Ars-en-Ré, a larger village with an active port. After lunch we met a few friends from Paris (fortunate are those with family homes in such a beautiful natural setting), and joined them at the beach near La Couarde-sur-Mer. On the path home, we rode through countless vineyards, the season’s harvest ripe for picking. The landscapes all so beautifully preserved. As the sun hung low in the sky, we had just enough time to get lost in the tangle of Saint-Martin’s streets.


The next day we hopped back on the bikes, first stop: oysters. I was in heaven. We sat along the coast during low tide and feasted on tender shrimp and the freshest oysters I’d eaten since our trip to Cap Ferret. A glass of local white wine to compliment. Our next stop was La Flotte, another inviting port village. We were completely smitten by these picture-perfect villages; streets filled with shuttered homes in pastel shades of green, gray and blue; ivy creeping up walls and flowers growing around every corner. The charm was immeasurable. Our journey continued to a long sandy beach close to the village of Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. I could imagine the surfing and kite-boarding during the summer months. But now it was just us, along with a handful of couples and young families, enjoying the off-season serenity. Perfect timing, if you ask me.



When evening fell and it was time to return to Paris, we were not eager to leave the island and vowed to return. There were more villages to explore, more local pineau to taste and oysters to savor. I could now understand why Île de Ré was considered such an island paradise. A secret the French keep well, and now one I share with you. Here are my recommendations for island life in Saint-Martin-de-Ré.


SLEEP: Hôtel de Toiras is a five-star Relais & Châteaux property located on the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, providing a luxurious setting for a weekend away, or longer. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with old French charm. The entire setting is regal and elegant. Five years ago, the hotel acquired a beautiful old mansion and created its sister hotel, Villa Clarisse. Set father back in the village, this four-star hotel offers 9 rooms set in a lush garden with a pool. Either location makes a perfect home in the heart of the island.

EAT LOCAL: Le Bistro du Marin is THE local spot, located on the port. They don’t take reservations so prepare to wait by the bar, especially if you’d like to dine outside, or en terrace. Their hearty meat dishes served with delicious home fries and fresh fish specials are certainly worth waiting for! Not to mention their homemade profiteroles. Both lunch and dinner are served daily, closed Thursdays.

EAT GOURMET: Les Embruns is just behind the port and well worth a dinner reservation (you must book ahead as they get full very quickly). This is the place for seafood, with lobster salad that looked heavenly, and a variety of fish dishes on the menu. For 30€ you can try the tasting menu. It’s hard to go wrong in this charmingly kitschy restaurant. Open only for dinner during the high season, closed Tuesdays.

EAT OYSTERSRé Ostréa is a casual lunch spot along the bike path from Saint-Martin-de-Ré heading west. It’s hard to miss with its colorful chairs, always full in the high season. Here you can dine on an assortment of seafood, including of course, local oysters. The fresh shrimps too, are heavenly! All dishes are accompanied by a glass of local wine. This is a must stop while on the island.

EAT SWEETSLa Martinière is a family run ice-cream and pastry shop. It’s a MUST stop while on the island, though we missed out on this sweet experience since it was closed for renovations. Next time!

DRINK: Ile de Ré is not so much known for their wines as for the French apéritif Pineau, a blend of wine and cognac. As it’s a sweet drink, I quickly became a fan. You can taste it at any bar or wine shop.

CYCLE: With quite a few bike rental companies to choose from, I found Cycland to be one of the best, with a great assortment of bikes and locations in 9 of the 10 villages. Definitely use bicycles to get around the island!

VISIT: Ernest Cognacq Museum is a Renaissance style mansion highlighting the historical, artistic and military heritages of the island. Worth a stop for a quick history lesson!


24 hours in Kraków

Last week I flew to Kraków after a long overdue visit with my family in the south-eastern town of Sanok, a three hour drive from this medieval city. With little time to explore a place I already knew and loved, I headed to favorite haunts and discovered a few new ones. So how did I spend my 24 hours? Here are my recommendations for those new to the city or for anyone stopping over for a quick visit. The heart of Kraków is the main square where you’ll hear the clanking of hooves as tourists make their way around the city via horse and carriage. Stop at one of the many outdoor cafes for a local beer, and visit Kościół Mariacki, St. Mary’s Basilica.

NOTE: There’s now a train that will take you directly to the city center from the airport, only 20 minutes at 8 zlotys. Take care not to get ripped off by the taxi drivers! Negotiate ahead of time, especially to and from the airport.

24 hours in Krakow

SLEEP: Minutes away from both the Rynek Glówny (market square) and the Wawel Castle sits the Radisson Blu. This modern 5-star hotel was constructed 13 years ago (and designed by an architect friend of mine). All 196 of its spacious rooms have recently been refurbished. Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the castle, and take advantage of their spa and fitness center.

24 hours in Krakow

EAT: My absolute favorite restaurant is one of Kraków’s historic haunts, Pod Aniołami. Translated to Under the Angels, it’s located in an 18th century building at The Royal Route, leading to the Wawel Castle. Once upon a time the the building housed Krakow’s goldsmiths as well as their workshops. You can feel the history when you enter it’s cellar. And the food? Classic Polish dishes ranging from pierogi to an assortment of grilled meats. Smacznego!

24 hours in Krakow

DRINK: After asking a few local friends what was new in the city, they led me to Zakłady Tytoniowe, a 19th century tobacco factory. Intrigued, I headed there with my cousin for a drink and discovered an entire world in the making. Opened this past July, there were just under a dozen bars and restaurants taking over the industrial space, many more to follow in the months ahead. Shared office spaces looked over the cafes and terraces. I enjoyed a drink at Międzymiastowa while my cousin met her friends at an outdoor bar. I returned the following day for coffee and cake at Bonjour Cava.

24 hours in Krakow

SEE: I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited the Wawel Castle, set on the banks of the Vistula river, its director a close friend of my moms. With each visit I become more enchanted by the castle’s history. (Read more about it here.) For centuries the residence of Poland’s kings, the Wawel is the symbol of Polish statehood, and now houses one of the country’s most recognized collections of art. A must see while in Kraków!

24 hours in Krakow

SHOP: For souvenirs, amber jewelry and wooden chess boards being among the best gift ideas, I recommend the Sukiennice in the main market square in Kraków’s Old Town. Dating to the Renaissance, it’s also known as the Cloth Hall. With dozens of stalls your options are plenty and you certainly won’t leave empty handed.

Escape to Chantilly


It rarely becomes extremely hot in Paris. But when it does, little relief can be found. Last weekend we experienced such a heatwave, called a canicule. That was reason enough to leave the heat and flee to the countryside. But who needs a reason. So we jumped on the train and in 30 minutes arrived to Chantilly. We first visited the château with my mom a few years ago, and knew one day we’d return. Now was as perfect a time as any. After a quick lunch stop we headed directly for our luxurious haven in the shade, Auberge du Jeu de Paume.


This stunning five-star Relais & Chateaux property sits overlooking the majestic Château de Chantilly, bringing new meaning to the term ‘room with a view’. Our suite overlooked the English gardens. Immediately the late summer heat faded into the distance as I relaxed to the calming sounds of the fountains down below, and watched as the swan made her laps in the pond. A perfect weekend getaway.


This four-year old hotel’s spacious rooms are fashioned with classic toile de Jouy fabrics and handcrafted woodwork, no details spared. The Hermès bath products in the marble bathrooms were a treat. Not to mention the decadence of the plush bed! We both slept very soundly, with the help of a little air-conditioning.


After a morning of yoga on the terrace and a visit to the full-service spa and fitness room, we splurged on breakfast on our terrace. Heavenly! Not a soul in sight aside from an occasional triathlete running by in the gardens. Little did we know, it was the weekend of the Castle Triathlon Series. What a gorgeous setting! It almost inspired me to join for next year. (I’ll stick to yoga!)


For dinner we opted for Le Jardin d’Hiver, the chic bistro featuring seasonal fare created by Arnaud Faye, 2* Michelin Chef at La Table du Connétable, their more elegant and gourmet dining option. What a decadent feast! We ended the night with a glass of wine on our terrace, beneath a starry sky. Ah, romance…


What’s a trip to Chantilly without a visit to the château, a five minute walk from the hotel, and a stop for the very thing the town is known for, aside from lace that is. The BEST and original Chantilly cream is found at Le Hameau on the grounds of the château. (I could write an entire blog post about it, heaven on a plate!)


The rest of our afternoon was spent watching the triathlon and cheering them on, picnicking in the garden, and admiring the history surrounding us.


Before returning to Paris we made one final stop to the Grandes Écuries for a horse show and visit to the museum. Also known as the Living Museum of the Horse, here can be found the largest stables in Europe. It was constructed in the 18th century as an actual horses’ palace, how fancy! Growing up horseback riding and with a love for these gentle creatures, this was quite a highlight for me. I would gladly have galloped back to Paris.


Insider’s Guide to Monterosso


I first encountered Monterosso during my around-the-world journey in October of 2007. On a whim, I took the train from Santa Margherita and immediately became enamored with this soulful village set upon the Mediterranean. I spent five blissful days swimming in the sea; exploring the old town and tasting its culinary specialities; hiking from Riomaggiore to Vernazza, awed by the views. As I wrote in my travel blog, “I had discovered paradise.” As chance would have it, the handsome Italian I serendipitously met on the streets of Soho, NY in 2009, comes from this very land. Monterosso has since become a place I know and love well, through its people, culture and traditions. It was the scene of our wedding in 2011 and every summer we live ‘la dolce vita’. I feel grateful to call this part of the Italian Riviera my home, and to share it with those dear to me. As a Monterosso insider, I’m often asked where to dine, sleep, etc. Hence, I’ve decided to put together this Insider’s Guide to Monterosso.

TRAIN TRAVEL. Arriving to Monterosso al Mare from Pisa or Genoa takes about 1.5 hours via Trenitalia. From Milan allow for 3 hours. I would not recommend driving as aside from taxis and delivery vehicles, the village is car-free, and parking is sparse. Stepping out of the train you are in Fegina, the newer part of the village. Exiting the tunnel on the left will bring you to Monterosso, the old town, and what I consider the most charming.

WHEN TO VISIT. The Cinque Terre is composed of five vibrant villages, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso, built upon cliffs and once upon a time accessible only by sea or train. The region didn’t become a major international tourist destination until the 1990’s, thanks in part to Rick Steves who fell in love with the five lands, making his home in Vernazza. Now these villages, some with populations as small as 250, are bustling with tourists during the summer season, mainly due to day tripping visitors and those arriving to La Spezia by cruise ship. My advice is to visit during the quieter yet equally sunny months of April, May, September or October. The season is long and it’s always best to book accommodations in advance, especially for the summer months.


WHERE TO SLEEP. There are numerous hotels and B&B’s in both Fegina and Monterosso. Here are my recommendations in the old town, all family run and filled with charm, rooms ranging in price from 100€-200€/night.

La Casa di Andrea: Five tastefully decorated double rooms with a garden and views of the village. Well worth the many steps up!

Bellambra: Four comfortable double rooms and one family apartment located in the heart of the old town, overlooking the main street.

Il Timone: Three cozy double rooms classically decorated, with sea views from the breakfast terrace. 100+ steps up from the village.

Il Maestrale: Several double rooms including a superior duplex room, all with views to the street below. Beautifully restored building from the 18th Century.

Hotel La Colonnina: Many double rooms including family rooms, some with terraces and views of the village. (Ask for a renovated room.) Lovely rooftop terrace with sea views.


WHERE TO DRINK. The aperitivo is an integral part of life in Italy. Just before dinner, it’s a time to meet friends and engage in the life of the village. You’ll always be served a small snack to complement the drink.

Enoteca Eliseo: Follow the classical music to find this upscale wine bar in the heart of the village. With a wide selection of wines to choose from, including a Cinque Terre selection. I suggest the Lemon Spritz, a concoction they created in recent years. (Closed Tuesdays)

Eldorado: Want to mingle with the locals? Head to this pre-dinner or late night hotspot for one of their many cocktails or my latest favorite, the Saint-Germain Spritz.

Bar Alga: Before sunset, make your way to this beachside bar for a fresh Pina Colada served in a pineapple.

La Tortuga: For a seaside aperitivo head to La Tortuga on the cliff between Monterosso and Fegina. Lorenzo will greet you with a smile. Warning: you may cancel your dinner plans.

Bar Eden: Located right on the beach in Fegina, the sea views don’t get much better. If you’re not in the mood for a cocktail, ask for an affogato al caffe, a coffee with ice cream.

Hotel Porto Roca: For the best aperitivo views of Monterosso from above, climb the path leading to Vernazza and you’ll arrive to this 4-star hotel with an outdoor terrace.


WHERE TO DINE. With so many restaurants serving similar dishes that look equally appetizing, it’s hard to know where to dine. I can’t say that I’ve tried them all, but I do have my favorites that continue to top the list, year after year. During the busy season reservations are a must!

Ristorante Ciak: Opened in 1974, the owner and chef Ciak will usually be found in the open kitchen wearing his signature sailors uniform. Ample space to dine both inside and out. Make sure to try his famous seafood risotto! (Closed Wednesdays +39 018 781 7014)

Il Casello: Situated seaside, this picturesque dining spot for both lunch and dinner serves local specialties including trofie al pesto and fresh anchovies. The owner Bacco will be happy to suggest a dish and might even share the recipe with you. (+39 333 492 7629)

L’Ancora della Tortuga: Located inside a cliff on the path between Monterosso and Fegina, this restaurant is one not to miss. During the summer months you can dine al fresco, away from the crowds of the village. Ask for their divine seafood antipasto misto, you’ll thank me! (Closed Mondays +39 187 800 065)

Ristorante Miky: This elegant family run restaurant opened in 1980, was once a pizzeria, and has since evolved into the destination for ‘haute cuisine’ dining in Fegina. The presentation alone will impress you, not to mention the cooking. I’m a great fan of the constantly changing antipasti and grilled calamari, or try the tuna, or the seafood risotto. Honestly, you can’t go wrong. (+39 0187 817608)

La Cantina di Miky: If you’re looking for something more casual in Fegina, the Miky family more recently opened another restaurant with both seaside seats and a spacious cantina. Their dishes are a creative take on the classics, with a wide selection of local wines to choose from. If you run into the owner’s wife Christine, she’ll be happy to advise you. (+39 018 780 2525)


LOCAL SPECIALTIES. All twenty regions of Italy boast local products and dishes. Which ones are the Cinque Terre known for? Here are the must try specialties in Monterosso. I tried to keep it short, as you could easily spend all day eating!

Focaccia: The best can be found at Il Massimo de la Focaccia in Fegina.

Anchovies: Fried, stuffed, salted, with lemon, in pasta… try them in all their preparations.

Farinata: Head to Il Frantoio in Monterosso’s old town to try this chick pea delicacy.

Pan Frito con Formaggio: Fried bread with cheese? Yes please! Also found at Il Frantoio.

Pesto: One of Liguria’s  healthiest specialities, a must try is the pasta dish ‘trofie al pesto’.

Rice Cakes: A perfect option for lunch. Go to Midi Bar in Monterosso for a taste.

Sciacchetrà: A delicious local sweet wine. Read all about how it’s made here.

Cannoli: The Northern Italian version of heaven, the best can be found at Pasticceria Laura.


BEST OF. I couldn’t put together a list of favorites without including my ‘best of’, could I?

Focaccia: Il Massimo de la Focaccia has ‘right out of the oven’ focaccia in many varieties. Perfect for lunch.

Pizza: Il Fornaio is a focacceria in Fegina that recently added pizza to its menu, made with all natural local ingredients.

Gelato: Midi Bar in the old town makes its own artisanal flavors, while Slurp in Fegina will awaken your taste buds with flavors including lemon and fig. Why not have two?

Pastries: Pasticceria Laura is THE spot for anything sweet. Must tries are the aforementioned cannoli and the torta Monterossina. Freshly baked by Laura herself every morning.

Cappuccino: It’s hard to find a bad cappuccino in Italy. Midi Bar and Bar Eden are two of my favorites.

Souvenirs: You can certainly take home jars of pesto and a lemon or two, but what about ceramic anchovies? These and other pottery, all handmade in Monterosso, can be found at Fabric d’Arte‘s two locations in the old town. I already have quite a collection!

Of course you’ll want to explore the rest of Cinque Terre too. You can take a train, boat or hike to the neighboring villages. Definitely worth a visit! If you’re already familiar with the five lands, I suggest a train to the less touristic and charming villages of Camogli or Sestri Levante. By boat you can visit historic Portovenere or Portofino. More information on day trips and hikes can be found here.

In case you need help planning your trip, my friends at Bella Vita Travels will be happy to assist. Buon viaggio and enjoy my home in Italy!

1 2 3 4 21