“HOME” AT LAST

Yes, we are finally back and somewhat settled in Santa Fiora after a month of travel (and other) adventures. I put “home” in quotes as Sonoma County will always be our true home. But we brought two giant suitcases, two smaller suitcases, and four carry-ons of Sonoma County with us, so it feels very “homey.”

For those who heard, yes I carried live lavender plants with me on the plane (and some seeds), and they spent days and days in some of the poshest hotels and Airbnbs in Europe. Know they are just fine and I was not arrested.

I posted a bunch of photos on Facebook, so let me be a bit brief (ha!) in chronicling our adventures. First, we learned a few things:

  1. Porters are a romantic notion not borne in reality, as are luggage carts. Not even an arm in a sling for a bum shoulder (mine) could conjure one up. What does work is a flash of cash, and in some cases just the sight of two senior (yet adorable) citizens struggling onto and out of planes, trains, and automobiles with eight pieced of luggage.
  2. Virgin Atlantic is a cool airline. The interior doesn’t even have insulation falling out of the walls or agents dragging folks down the aisles.
  3. I can fall flat on the ground (yes, again) even in the best London neighborhood.
  4. The Queen is fine. She returned to Buckingham Castle while we were there, arriving by helicopter from Balmoral (hunting, I presume). Also while we were there (and she wasn’t), they shut down the entire area around the castle and erected HUGE lights for filming a new Mary Poppins movie. Even brought in a gold carriage and fine horses. At least I hope they were fine after seeing the rig they brought them in.
  5. Food in London is wonderful if you find the right restaurant. To find one, you have to send Tim out to scout a laundromat.
  6. The third trip to Paris was not as much fun as the first two. But the Orsay…!
  7. Eight days in Avignon was not enough.
  8. If you go to the huge antique fair in I’sle sur la Sorgue, be sure you a) have a person you hardly know who is willing to load in his car all the shit you bought and store in his garage for you, and b) understand that driving to Provence from Tuscany to pick up said shit must include staying overnight at expensive resorts on the French or Italian Rivera. (Corollary: a bargain is only a bargain if you can carry it home in your purse.)

Our flight to London was swift and rather enjoyable, especially considering it was only $397 round trip each direct from SFO. We stayed at the posh Rubens Hotel across from Buckingham Palace, which was wonderful. On top of #4 above, we enjoyed walking the London streets, riding the underground, shopping, and eating. Love London. The weather, as you can see, was sunny and beautiful.

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After four days we headed to the TGV station at Pancreas Station for the ride to Paris through the Chunnel. Tim wanted to be sure we got there early enough to deal with all our luggage, so we wound up waiting in the station for 1 ½ hours. But this wonderful woman “porter” helped unload and load everything and parked us at a café, then checked in with us every 20 minutes to let us know she’d help us onto the train. Not sure who pays for her, but she got a very nice tip from us.

The train was great, but we went through the Chunnel without even noticing! I thought it would be longer and have some kind of posters, or paintings, or windows looking out to the channel water or something. (Luckily, I’m not a tunnel engineer.) Anyway, I loved looking at the French countryside and farmlands. So many greenhouses (in Italy too).

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In Paris we stayed in the 3-star Hotel Louison in Montmartre in the 6th. We figured we wouldn’t be inside much and it was close to the Musee d’Orsay. We were right. And for some reason, we have no pictures of Paris.

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Three days later we were off again on a train to Avignon, our favorite city in the south of France. I planned our stay here to coincide with Tim’s 70th birthday on April 14, and the huge antique fair in I’sle sur la Sorgue. I booked an Airbnb that was perfect, including a garage for our rental car to tour the countryside. The apartment overlooked the town and two churches, which meant we heard bells tolling every hour about two minutes off from each other. Luckily, they stop ringing at 10 PM. The beautiful bell tower on the right below was right outside our window.

After a couple of inquiries (including Rick Steves, who seems to only find places with Americans), I booked what was billed as Avignon’s best restaurant for the birthday boy. It was indeed wonderful. Tim is toiling away on a recap of his entire birthday adventure, so I won’t spoil it. But here is the dinner and some more views of Avignon.

Our friend Heidi is always amazed that lots of places I go I run into people I know. Well, at the Palace of the Popes (the most famous thing about Avignon), there was a huge Rhone wine gathering (which I tried talking my way into without any luck). Later I found out that my Sonoma buddy Sondra Bernstein was in there somewhere!

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The following weekend we headed to the antique fair in I’sle su la Sorgue, a picture-perfect town with a river running through it and water wheels, flower troughs, restaurants, and tiny shops galore. We bought, new and old.

Last time we were in Sorgue (two years ago), we got to talking to a couple in a little shop there and we continued a Facebook friendship ever since. So here we had all this stuff and a too small rental car we couldn’t return to Italy, and we had to be out of the Avignon rental the next day. We asked our friends if there was a place to store it in town, and they offered their house. We thanked them profusely (and in French) and promised to come back in a month to pick it up.

It was a wonderful 8 days with perfect weather again.

So, so far, everything had gone well, except for the exhaustion of hauling and heaving the bags. We backed up the bags again, returned the car to the Marseilles airport, and hopped an Iberia airline to Rome. (Cost: $29 each for the flight and $150 for the bags.) We got another rental car (a big Mercedes van-like thing) and drove home to Santa Fiora.

And then we came to our senses and realized we had imposed on two people we hardly knew with all our junk, and here we were with this giant rental car that didn’t fit through the narrow streets of Santa Fiora. After a few days, I booked a hotel on the Italian Rivera halfway to Sorgue and off we went. The drive there and the hotel were fabulous. The place with the most unlikely name, Hotel El Chico, was an old villa right on the Mediterranean in the little town of Varazze, filled with fabulous original art. Not to mention the views of the gardens, the pool, and the sea. Wow.

We headed out the next day and Tim decided he wanted to see more of the little towns along the Cinque Terra and Riviera than the Autostrada. We threaded our way through tiny towns full of traffic, stop signs, red lights, and pedestrians. The views were beautiful, but after five hours I said “enough – off to the Autostrada.”

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Another six hours later, we rolled back into Sorgue and crashed at the Grand Hotel Henri. OMG, we were so tired. Another beautiful old hotel with the most amazing staff, great food, and gorgeous patios.

After retrieving our loot from our friends the next day, we headed back to Santa Fiora via the Autostrada all the way. I had tried to have the rental company let us have the car for longer than 27 days, but they wouldn’t budge. So I booked a three-month rental with Hertz, two days later we drove the 2 ½ hours to Rome and exchanged the car, shopped for more stuff at Ikea (pronounced E-kea in Europe), and drove home, appropriately, in a driving rain and thunderstorm. On the way we saw a stream of sports cars — a Ferrari, a Maserati, a Bugati, and that’s all I could identify. Here you go, boys:

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Finally home, we hung curtains, arranged furniture, plugged in lamps, and declared ourselves settled in. And now, to the important stuff – wine and cheese and prosciutto on the patio sitting in our new patio furniture and gazing out at the neighbor’s sheep grazing our pasture. La dolce vita!

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Ciao, bellas!!

P.S.: We are so very grateful to our great friends who lent us their house and car for three months while we were back and “homeless” in Sonoma County. To Betsy, Craig, and Nan, we are forever thankful for your generosity. Now it’s your turn to come stay with (or without) us!

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