We usually spend our summers back in the States. We visit family, catch up with friends and reconnect to our roots. When coronavirus hit and everything starting shutting down we realized that would not be a reality for us this year. The idea of not going home was a heavy thought. It’s hard being away from family and we all look forward to our time together. Within a couple of weeks of cancelling our tickets, the news broke that the European Union borders were planning on opening on June 15th. Best news ever…Summer 2020 might be ok after all. While we wouldn’t be able to go home, we had the opportunity to explore new parts of Europe and spend time with our boys which is becoming more and more precious the older they get. I threw myself into planning mode and within a couple of days had booked a two week road trip adventure through France and Italy crossing my fingers that the borders would stay open and we would all survive two weeks on the road together. Our adventure took us through Beaune, Sainte-Maxime, Castellane and the Gorges du Verdon in France and then back up through Italy stopping at Lake Como.
Our drive to the South of France looked like it was going to take us twelve hours give or take depending on the traffic. We decided to leave on a Friday to try and get ahead of the holiday traffic because rumor had it that all of Europe was also heading to the sun soaked French Riviera. My thought was to drive half way on Friday so I did some research and settled on Beaune as our little over mid-way point. Beaune is smack dab in the middle of the Burgundy winemaking region and is super charming. We didn’t have much time to explore the town or surrounding vineyards but did have a lovely dinner on the patio of La Grilladine. The service was very friendly, the wine was local and delicious and the patio provided a perfect setting to take in the sites of the historic walled city. We really should have scheduled more time to enjoy Beaune but were excited to get on with our journey to the South of France. Beaune and the Burgundy region will be re-visited on another adventure. There is so much to see and do, excellent wine to drink and definitely needs dedicated time to properly explore the region.
Our plan was to wake up super early Saturday morning, grab some breakfast to hit the road and beat the traffic. Well with 12, 14 and 16 year old kids that’s a really challenging task. We were pretty proud of ourselves for being in the car seat belts buckled by 8:30. I think the rest of France was on the exact same schedule because the drive that was supposed to take a little over five hours to Sainte-Maxime took close to ten. The red bubble on Google Maps followed us all the way and there was no Plan B. As we drove into the quaint town of Sainte-Maxime and into the driveway of our our home for the coming week, the Villa Kalypso, we knew it was all totally worth the ten hours of stop and go traffic and testy teens.
Sainte-Maxime is located in the bay of Saint-Tropez and Villa Kalypso which I found on Airbnb is positioned perfectly and was an ideal setup for our family. City center with many restaurants, shops and a marine was about a ten minute walk and we had our own pool that overlooked the bay where we spent hours watching yachts come and go and the sun setting while the moon was rising. It honestly felt like we were in a dream.
The majority of our time was spent at the villa, however, we did get out and explore the town and area and had a week full of amazing food and wine soaking up the sun and salt.
Eating and Drinking in Sainte-Maxime
- Fatto Bene: This is a great super casual little pizza joint right in the heart of town. We didn’t eat in the restaurant but did take-away a couple of nights and the pizzas and salads were fabulous, ordering was easy and staff was super friendly.
- Restaurant La Réserve: Traditional provençal cuisine in a great location. The fish dishes and daily specials are impressive and the atmosphere is modern with an energetic vibe and helpful staff.
- La Tarte Tropézienne: This is a little take-away bakery that you can find all over France (and randomly in Dallas) that serves Saint Tropez specialities, fresh bread, sandwiches and other gourmet treats. It was a five minute walk from our villa and where we went for warm croissants and quiches for breakfast and pan bagnats for lunch. It was quite a treat.
- Le Bistrot Paul Bert: There are a couple of Michelin restaurants in Sainte-Maxime so we decided to ditch the boys for an evening and have a date night and check one out. Le Bistrot Paul Bert is located on a small pedestrian only street in the city center. It is a quaint bistro with limited seating so a reservation is pretty important. Scott had made a reservation, however, there was a bit of a language mix up and they didn’t have a table for us when we got there. Pretty much the chef had answered the phone and said “sure! come on in!”. The staff was great, quickly fixing the problem and seating us at a two-top on the charming patio. We really love eating great food and drinking great wine but hate it when it is served up with a pretentious snobbery that is found at most higher end restaurants. This place was not like that all. The atmosphere was super relaxed, our server was extremely knowledgable without attitude and the food was out of this world.
- Plage Du Centre Ville: this is a public beach in the city center of Sainte-Maxime. It was about a ten minute walk from our villa and in the heart of the city. It is a nice public beach with a few restaurants and bars, an ice cream truck that comes by serving sweet treats and cold drinks and plenty of place to spread out even though it was pretty crowded.
- Plage de la Madrague: this is another public beach within walking distance of our villa but the opposite direction from town. It is a bit more chill and where more of the locals hang out. There is a small rental shop for kayaks and stand up paddle boards but other than that fairly quiet and not crowded.
- Plage de la Nartelle: this was by far our favorite and where we spent most of our beach time. It was about a ten minute drive and a public beach mixed with private beach restaurants where you can eat and then enjoy chair/umbrella/drink service (super fancy and super worth it). There is plenty of street parking as well as public free parking lots or you can valet at one of the restaurants if you get there early enough. We at lunch at two different beach restaurants: La Voile and Mahi-Plage. La Voile was a bit higher end with more formal service and Mahi-Plage felt a bit more family friendly and relaxed. We enjoyed our meals at both and spent time lounging in their beach areas after.
Exploring the Wineries
There are many amazing wineries within an hour drive of Sainte-Maxime. We decided to take a break from the beach and head up into the hills for a little wine tasting and sight seeing. The boys decided to pass on this excursion so it ended up being a fun date day sipping rosé and deciding just how many bottles we could fit into our already packed car.
- Domaine La Tourraque: This winery has been a family business since 1805 and is located in the Port-Cros National Park. When we were driving there I was a bit concerned because it is way down a single lane dirt road. I thought for sure we had gone the wrong way until we came upon vineyards and olive groves that lead to the stone house and tasting room where we met one of the brothers who currently runs the winery. We did a rosé and white tasting and after snacked on basket of goodies while enjoying a glass of the Cuvée Harmonie Blanc in the garden under the olive trees. Domaine La Tourraque is a really special winery and probably my favorite of the day.
- Minuty: We were introduced to Minuty rosé on our first trip to the South of France in 2015. I don’t know if it is the love of the taste or the memories it brings? Either way, we are huge fans so we knew this had to be one of our stops. The drive into Minuty with the oleander lined driveway is quite impressive and the tasting room is very organized and a well run. It has a bit more of a corporate “big winery” feel which isn’t a bad thing, just very different after our stop at Domaine La Tourraque. We really enjoyed tasting the different rosé wines as well as whites and reds. We definitely walked away well stocked for rosé season 2021.
- Château Barbeyrolles: Next door to Minuty is Barbeyrolles which is quaint and feels more like a farm and family run business. The tasting room was cozy and small so we actually sat on the cute terrace outside and tried a few of their whites as well as wines from their sister vineyard Château de la Tour de l’Evêque which were very all nice.
- Château des Garcinières: Originally built by Cistercian monks, Château des Garcinières was bought by the Valentin family in 1898 and now is run by the fourth generation of the family. Three century-old plane trees line the drive leading to the château set the stage for the feel of the winery. The tasting room is very cool offering modern flair to the old estate. It was the perfect way to end our wine tour and close behind Domaine La Tourraque as our favorite of the day.
A Day on the Water
Our family loves to be on the water so spending a day cruising the Mediterranean was a must. I booked a boat excursion through Click & Boat which is basically like the Uber equivalent for boating. After reading about all of the available boats in our area and reviews of their Captains I knew that Pascal was the guy for us. We met him at the marina in Sainte-Maxime and his gregarious smile and larger than life personality welcomed us aboard. Pascal is a local and is the king of the bay of Saint Tropez. We started the outing by getting fuel in Saint Tropez which was a treat in itself as we got to see all of the amazing yachts that we had been watching from afar up close and personal. After we filled up we set out on the 20 minute boat road over to the famous Plage de Pampelonne where Pascal had made lunch reservations for us. Pampelonne Beach is stunning. It’s a long sandy beach lined with restaurants, bars and clubs. We anchored off shore and popped some champagne as Pascal shared with us stories of the area and about his retired life taking people on boat excursions and moonlighting as a musician. After a bit, a taxi boat picked us up and took us on the five minute ride to shore where we were eating at Tropicana la Plage. Lunch was straight out of a movie set with the white umbrellas on the white sand beach contrasting with the vivid blue sky. We felt like movie stars for a bit sipping rosé while eating freshly caught fish with the Mediterranean as our backdrop. I mean seriously. I could easily get used to the French Riviera lifestyle. I would have stayed all day but the menu was quite pricey and Pascal was ready to get on to his next favorite spot. We took the taxi boat back to the boat and headed to the Baie des Canebiers where we anchored again and went for a long swim. The golden hour was approaching and it was time to head home. Pascal dropped us back in the marina and we said our goodbyes heading home with happy hearts and memories of a gorgeous day.
Our week in Sainte-Maxime came to an end. I would normally be sad as I hate leaving the beach but we had a fun little adventure ahead and still a week of holiday. We packed up the car and headed for the mountains. Our next leg was camping and outdoor fun in the Verdon Natural Regional Park. We were leaving the glam of Saint Tropez for a few days of glamping in the woods. Our trek started a little sketchy with the main highway being closed. Google re-routed us up through the mountains via a road that was really no wider than one car (although it was supposed to be two lanes) with no guard rails and it was crazy hot. The drive was beautiful but a bit too windy for our little guy who forced a pit stop half way to decorate the car with his breakfast. After a short pause and attempt to clean the car we got back on the road and made our way to Bauden, a cute village on the Lake of Sainte-Croix which is at the base of the Verdon River. We had a nice stroll around town to stretch our legs and ate lunch at Le Bouchon. From Bauden we took the D957 up and around the lake on the East side crossing the Pont du Galetas (Gelatas Bridge). As we started our climb up onto the rim of the canyon we connected with Highway D952 which takes you winding along with the river below but from the top of the canyon providing insane views and drops that were a bit nerve wracking at times.
We rolled into our campsite early afternoon, unloaded the car and then headed into the nearest town of Castellane to stock up on groceries and gas. Well, it turns out everyone else was doing the same so it was a bit chaotic and rushed. We should have thought through traveling on a Saturday into the mountains during high season. We successfully bought food, however, gas was a different story. All of the gas pumps (that would be two) in town were sold out of diesel. The decision was made to get back to the campsite and deal with the gas problem the next day which made me a bit uncomfortable with the gas indicator reading only 50 km left! We did successfully find a filling station with gas the next day but were literally cruising down the mountain on fumes and with only 5 km left on the gauge. Not a great start to our outdoor adventure but it did turn out to be an amazing few days in the gorgeous mountains.
Gorges du Verdon and Castellane
The Gorges du Verdon is the deepest gorge in France and truly a natural wonder. The Verdon River running through the gorge into the canyon is turquoise blue and beautifully clear. There are many campsites throughout the area and close by Castellane. We chose to stay at Huttopia and it was outstanding. The campsite is directly on the Verdon River and straddles the D952 highway. I didn’t want to deal with packing our tent so instead reserved a two bedroom mobile home with a small kitchen, toilet, shower, pull out couch and nice little deck. We stayed in “lodge” T9 located on the other side of the highway away from the river and a bit quieter. The lodge was a really nice location with a lovely view and an easy walk to the rest of the campsite. If we had little kids I would have preferred to stay on the side of the main campground, however, for us we really enjoyed being away from the crowd. The campsite had two pools, a playground, restaurant/bar, access to the river, evening entertainment and fresh French bread delivered every morning. The simplicity of our lodge combined with the amenities really made it a nice place to disconnect and reset with nature. No wi-fi for the boys was a bit of a challenge but by the end of the stay it really was forgotten.
One of the reasons we chose to spend time in the Gorges du Verdon area was because of the outdoor options. After a fairly chill week on the beach we were looking for some excitement and now that the boys are a bit older we can do some more adventurous activities. We decided on aqua trekking and white water rafting. The river dam is released on Fridays and Tuesdays so those are the rafting days and the other days it is possible to go aqua trekking. I booked our excursions through Apolline at Secret River and we settled on the Mystic River Float and Sport Rafting.
Our trekking guide was Alex and he was totally awesome. I have to admit that I didn’t really read the fine print so wasn’t exactly clear what we were getting into. I had done some canyoning 20+ years ago in Switzerland so thought I knew, but was a bit naive when I signed us up for this full day trekking excursion. There were no shuttle busses in or out. Nope, we strapped the equipment on our backs and hiked into the canyon. The boys always tease me because I do sometimes trick them into our hikes not alway divulging the full truth on the length or elevation. Honestly, I really didn’t know what this adventure had in store so I was as surprised as them. After the steep but relatively easy hike down we got our gear on and hit the water. This full day on the water with Alex was probably the most fun thing we have done together as a family. We jumped off cliffs, body surfed the rapids, ate lunch on the the edge of the river and swam through one of the most beautiful natural wonders I have seen. We were exhausted but exhilarated by the end of our swim and I was starting to put the pieces together that we were going to have to hike out of this big boy. And so we did. Pretty much straight up for an hour and a half out of the canyon carrying our gear. Sometimes with only a handrail on the right and nothing but air and a straight down view of the canyon on the left. The last bit of the hike out was a ladder going straight up out of the canyon. Definitely a huge challenge for our crew and we tackled it together one step at a time. It was an incredible accomplishment and might be one of the best memories from our trip.
We took Monday off from any crazy canyon excursions and spent a lazy day at the campsite. The boys spent time at the pools and we bought inner tubes to float the river. We put our chairs in the water at the edge of the river and watched the day go by. After, we played some bocce at one of the numerous courts on the grounds (Scott had packed our set and was hell bent on playing at one point or another) and then grabbed a casual bite at the campsite restaurant. The boys all took in the magic show and I packed up the lodge as we were checking out the next day and staying in Castellane.
Tuesday was our rafting day and we were scheduled to hit the water at 1:30. That gave us time to load the car and get settled in Castellane at Nouvel Hôtel du Commerce where we were staying for just one night. The hotel is located in the city center and was a nice little hotel with a pool, breakfast and free onsite parking which is kind of a big deal in these small towns. We checked in then walked around town for a stopping for a bite at the yummy little Nature Café. Castellane is a beautiful mountain town that is watched over by the Notre-Dame du Roc chapel which was built in the 12th century. I was mesmerized by this little church sitting way up on the top of the mountain and no matter where you are in town it catches your eye. I could have wandered the shops a bit longer but it was time to meet our guide so we jumped in the car for the quick ten minute drive to Pont de Taloire where our boat would be departing. After Xavier our guide gave us a quick tutorial and we stuffed ourselves into the wetsuits we were on our way down the river. Rafting the Verdon River was a totally different experience than aqua trekking as you are in the gorge and not the canyon so the sites are all different. The rapids were nice and not too intense so that gave us a chance to really sit back and enjoy the river. Our float was only a couple of hours and in what felt like no time we were at the mouth of the canyon where we had to pull out and exit the river. The last surprise of the outdoor leg of our holiday came after we pulled the boat out of the water. You guessed it, we had to carry the boat out of the gorge. We are a pretty tough crew but the news of this was not taken well. What? Someone wasn’t going to come and get the boat for us? The six of us rolled up the boat heaved it to our shoulders and carried that baby out. It was hard. A different hard than the hike out of the canyon but still a 20 minute walk up winding stairs with a rubber boat on your shoulders. The French don’t mess around. We congratulated ourselves on another big accomplishment making a mental note that reading the fine print for outdoor activities in France might be important!
Our day was celebrated with a delicious dinner in town at Cote Fontaine. The food was excellent and the staff was really friendly which made our last night in Castellane and in France very special. In the morning we were packing up and heading to Italy for our last few days of holiday where I promised the guys there would be no canyons to climb out of or boats to carry. Well maybe….
I had heard so much about the magnificence of Lake Como and it had been high on our list so it seemed like a natural way to end our summer holiday. A few nights in Lake Como would get us heading back North toward Germany and be a nice relaxing way to end our time on the road after a few exciting days “roughing it” in the woods. The drive took a little shy of seven hours and was actually super cool. We left Castellane driving southeast out of the mountains and then took the A8 along the French Riviera passing Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Monaco crossing us into Italy and along the Italian Riviera. We passed vineyard after vineyard and quaint old villages with the Mediterranean constantly peeking into our sight. Near Genoa we headed North through Milan and then into Lake Como. We wound our way up through the lake past Lecco to Bellagio where we were parked the car with anticipation of an amazing few days.
It was really hard to decide where to stay in Lake Como. I narrowed it down to Menaggio, Varenna and Bellagio. They are all centrally located on the lake and connected by a ferry system. We settled on Bellagio and the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni and it was the best decision ever. Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is one the most beautiful hotels I have ever stayed in. The service is top notch, restaurants are fantastic and the history and grandiose feel is realized as soon as you step into the lobby. The outdoor pool overlooks the lake where there is a private beach, dock and diving platform. Breakfast is served daily in the Salone Reale and the attention to detail is impressive. Serbelloni is definitely on the high end and a little tough on the pocketbook but you get what you pay for and we for sure walked away with a fabulous experience. I would stay there again and again.
Just a step outside of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is the charming old town of Bellagio with great shops and restaurants. The first night we ate at the La Goletta Restaurant which was in our hotel overlooking the pool. It is the hotel’s “casual” restaurant but honestly there isn’t much casual about Serbelloni. The atmosphere was a bit stuffy for the boys but I loved the old school charm and formality of the service. The guys call these “fancy” shirt dinners and did bring their best manners to the table politely smiling while drinking their 8€ lemonades. The service was fantastic, the food fresh and delicious and we ended up having a really nice evening fancy shirts and all. The second night we went to Ristorante La Punta which is located on the top of the promontory where the two branches of the lake (Como and Lecco) are divided. It is known for having one of the best views of Lake Como and we can definitely verify that. Dinner was outstanding and one of our favorite’s of the whole holiday. The fish was fresh out of the lake and the waiters were charismatic and had a great time joking around with the kids giving the place a laid back feel even though the food and wine were tip top. Our last night in Bellagio we went to Ristorante Bilacus located in the heart of the old town on the famous Salita Serbelloni stairs. We had a nice table on the terrace and our waiter was again super warm and friendly. The food there was also amazing and it was fun to be in the middle of hustle and bustle of the town.
We really did do more than just eating, drinking and swimming while in Bellagio although that was for sure our main focus. We knew we wanted to go to either Menaggio or Varenna for lunch and it just happened the ferry to Varenna was boarding as we were buying our tickets so that made our decision easy. The ferry ride is a quick ten minutes and provides stunning views of the lake. Wandering through Varenna we scored a table at Bar Tutti Frutti a cozy little spot with outdoor tables overlooking the lake. Tutti Frutti serves a simple lunch of salads, pizzas and wraps and was a nice light bite. We spent a few hours in the super charming Varenna, of course ending our visit with delcious gelato and then ferried back home.
There are countless boutiques and fun shops but our favorites were Quelli della Pelle and Enoteca La Principessa. Quelli della Pella is a leather goods store. Scott had been shopping for a new belt for forever and so we popped into the shop to see what we could find. Within fifteen minutes a new belt was custom made for him and new leather sandals were ordered to be picked up the next day after they were made. Super cool. Enoteca La Principessa is a wine shop just a bit down the stairs from Ristorante Bilacus. We stumbled in after dinner and were immediately engrossed in conversation with Lorenzo who loved to talk wine and everything Bellagio. We had a blast tasting wines and learning about the different regions in Italy. We walked out with a few nice bottles and having to have the uncomfortable conversation about which child would need to be left behind so that we could get all of our wine home.
I really don’t know how else to describe Bellagio other than magical. From the oleander lined promenade to the charming old town and colorful houses, it is a place that needs to be strolled through and just enjoyed. Life is beautiful there.
After enjoying our last breakfast at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni it was time for us to play Tetris and repack the car one last time. Since we were heading North and because the location of Bellagio is positioned so that we would have to drive South to go back North, we decided to take the car ferry from Bellagio across to Cadenabbia and drive up the West side of the lake. We didn’t regret our decision as it gave us more time to enjoy the lake and drive through the multiple little towns along the shore. There are a couple of ways to get to Germany from Northern Italy and we chose to go through the Splügen Pass which is an Alpine mountain pass taking you from Italy into Switzerland. It is crazy windy and crazy beautiful and felt like an add on to our holiday that we weren’t quite ready to let go of. After a quick minute traveling through Liechtenstein and Austria we were back in Germany and the idea of home became comforting. This two week adventure was one of the best holidays we have had since moving to Europe. I think maybe because it is such a crazy time and the world is upside down right now. Getting away gave us a sense of normalcy and two weeks to not think about how hard 2020 has been and just be together. I was so grateful to be traveling again and this trip reinforced that it is just part of me and what makes me tick.