Aug 07

My Mediterranean Affair


Stopping for petrol just outside of Monaco, on our way across the border into Italy. That’s R and my sweetpea, Doopey.




I HATE last minute vacations!! Hate it with a passion.

It makes me feel uneasy and I get highly stressed out as opposed to feeling elated … but a last minute holiday is exactly what we did.



My older sister came over, on the 23rd July, for a 2-week visit and she was very excited coz this was to be her first ever trip to the Netherlands. Prior to her arrival she asked for maps and tourist guides so she could do some homework by reading up on certain attractions. So I made her a personalised Google Map with all the markers for various attractions, complete with information on opening times, admittance fees and operating hours. She said she wanted to see all things Dutch so I planned on taking her to see the windmills of Zaanse Schans, the cheese markets of Alkmaar and Gouda, the beach at Scheveningen and the island of Texel. We made it to Volendam and Marken tho … spent the day there stuffing our faces with pannenkoeken and ice creams.



However, three days into her visit, over a pretty elaborate dinner at our local Italian haunt, R brought up the topic about the Meditteranean and from there we never returned. Before I knew it a decision had already been made and suddenly there was to be no more talk of touring the regions of the Netherlands ~ we were heading down to the Mediterranean coast instead … for a WEEK … and we were to be packed and ready by 8 a.m the next morning. Sheesh!



We got home after dinner and were online, frantically booking our last minute accommodation and studying the route we needed to take. Then we were throwing clothes into bags and sorting out the dog. By the end of it all we were formally informed my Google that the drive to the coast would be a whopping 1,200 km. I stared at the screen in silence and turned to R. He seemed unphased; saying he likes driving but I think he just did not want to pass up the chance to see the Med on any excuse.





We couldn’t get all the way to the Med without breaking the journey for the night, so a hotel stay in Provence was booked. It would still take us over 12 hours to get there. To actually get there we had to drive thru all of Belgium, bits of Luxembourg and a very large chunk of France ~ it was one hell of a drive. By the time we stumbled into our hotel it was past 11 p.m and I was knackered. A quick shower, fed the dog and then I was out like a light; completely dead to the world.



The next day our journey would continue straight across the border into Italy where we intended to set up base camp for the rest of our vacation … but first we stopped off in La Ciotat (France) for breakfast because I would not have lived it down if we drove right thru France and not stopped for a French-style breakfast (read : fresh orange juice + pain au chocolat). Pain au chocolat has got to be one of the most satisfying things to wake up to in the morning ~ the French are doing it right.



Meanwhile, once safely across the border in Italy, we booked ourselves into a mini villa, high on a hill wrapped amidst olive groves with views of the Meditteranean sea in the distance. The owners live just nextdoor and they were WONDERFUL! Finding the place, however, was quite an adventure. When the road left the motorway it was tiny, and steep. Our SatNav didn’t cope very well with all the tiny unmarked roads. Everyone in the town drove hot-hatches, but here we were ploughing forward in a BMW 3-series ~ we looked very much like foreigners. As we got higher up the hill the road got smaller still to a point where if there was a car coming in the opposite direction one had to pull over to make room … and there wasn’t a lot of that either.





After 30 mins the house was still nowhere in sight. We kept climbing higher and higher and then suddenly we had to turn off down what can only be described as a bike path ~ it wasn’t even paved! I was so sure we were going the wrong way but the owner, Ida, who was on the phone with us at the time, told us to keep going. Eventually we were so lost that she had to send her husband out to us and he guided us the rest of the way.



Once at the house Ida pounced on us even when we were barely out of the vehicle and fussed, showing us the house and taking us thru the rooms and showing us where everything was. Her hospitality was so warm and genuine, I loved her instantly. They were very fascinated with Doopey and he was loving the new place …. he was so eager to explore and pee on everything (outside of course).



View from our varendah, 7 p.m



Ida informed us that she also cooks meals for her guests, and she promptly produced her menu with prices. Seeing as which it was already 7 p.m and that we were knackered we agreed to have her cook for us. Ida speaks very little English so it was interesting discussing what she was going to serve up for dinner; lots of gesturing was involved. Before she got started on dinner she sent over a tray of homemade foccacia and a bottle of homemade rosé. Dinner happily arrived 40 mins later, and it was DELICIOUS!



Dinner at Villa Ida. DELISH!




We stayed with Ida for a total of 3 nights and 4 days … and every night she fed us good and proper. On the second night we ate until we were bursting at the seems. She gave us a hint in the morning, before she left for the market, that ‘pesce‘ (fish) would be on the menu that evening. We went our separate ways after that, spending the rest of our day driving down coastal roads along the Italian Riviera, stopping in between when we saw a beach that caught our fancy. The road was winding along, hugging the coast and the best bits came when we rounded a bend and then suddenly we see the ocean. Gorgeous weather ~ very little cloud cover; bright blue skies mirrored on the surface of the water.



Cruising along, taking in the sights; the expensive, palatial villas lining the street. I want me one of them.







The scenery all around us was exploding with colour and a palpable  electric vibe ~ WE WERE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN!! Made it as far as Savona beach and then we headed home for dinner. Wanted to go as far as Genoa but we were losing sunlight and my sister, who incidentally is a walking disposal machine, yet weighs only 58kg (life is so unfair), was getting hungry. R was well pleased to have bodily dipped himself in the Mediterranean sea … he’s been waiting his whole life to do this … and he was getting tired of driving. His elation was only slightly marred by not being able to sail as he enviously watched the pointly white sails float by in the distance.



Once at home we ordered two bottles of wine from Ida, a white and a rosé, and sat back on deck chairs to enjoy the views in the fading sunlight. Before long the entrée arrived.





Her bruschettas came in VERY generous portions, fully loaded with fresh tomotoes, olives and fresh basil … all from her garden. Even the olive oil she uses to drizzle over the bread has been produced by her, and the flavour of it really packs a punch. It’s so rich and aromatic. Just splash a little onto a green salad with some coarse salt and you’re in heaven. My sister bought herself a 2L bottle of Ida’s olive oil at the end of our vacation ~ € 10. Win!



Anyway, after the bruschettas Ida brought out this risotto on a platter, absolutely packed with shellfish. It smelt AMAZING and it looked scrumptious. Not quite the fish dish I was expecting (I was literally expecting to be having actual fish for dinner when Ida said ‘pesce‘ in the morning) … I don’t usually eat mussles or clams, but this risotto was fantastic! I ate a healthy portion.










I thought I was hungry at the start of dinner but after a hefty starter and a carb packed main-course I was feeling quite sated … but Ida had other ideas. She lives nextdoor and food is passed on to us over the balcony every night. Halfway through my risotto Ida pops her head round and hands me two more trays of food, one containing yummilicious grilled aubergines and the other held about forty steamed prawns mixed with herbs and garlic. *faint*





The grilled aubergines were sooooo tasty; absolutely bursting with flavour … the smokeiness coming from the charred bits, then a hint of garlic comes thru along with the herbs and olive oil. Very yummy … plus, I love aubergines. I have half a mind to recreate this dish along with the stuffed zucchini flowers, although where I am to find zucchini flowers here in Amsterdam is beyond me. I might have to grow my own (hahaha… fat hopes!) I have written an email of thanks to Ida and unabashedly asked if she could possibly give me the recipe for both dishes. *fingers crossed*



Every night after dinner Ida hands out ice cold digestives (Limoncello) for my sister and I, and coffee for R. He gets coffee in the morning as well, every morning. Anyway, I was done with food for that night and I was looking forward to kicking back with my Limoncello, preparing my mind for bed … but minutes later Ida pokes her head round and asks if we are ready to have dessert (what?!?!). I really had no more room for dessert but she insisted we give it a try ~ she had made a grape tart, known as a crostata ~ so how could we refuse.





This reminded me of a linzer tart. The pastry was light and flakey. The filling was satisfyingly unctious without being overly sweet. Thank the heavens that she gave us only five very manageable pieces. After cleaning up, I took a cold shower (I didn’t realize the place had a hot water supply until my last day), surfed the net and then promptly lost consciousness. We had yet another beach bum day to look forward to the next day … I needed my beauty sleep.



We didn’t even wait to have breakfast the next day. We were on a mission … or to be more accurate, R was. His sole mission was to get to Cannes and have a swim. But before we could do any of that we had to find a parking spot … and it was next to impossible!! Every single street parking spot was taken. Adding to our woes there were massive roadworks going on all along the main street, right where our SatNav told us to go. Eventually we had to shut her up and look for an underground carpark. From there we walked down the the beach but much time had already been wasted.



First impressions of Cannes : rather understated; and apart from the harbour berthing all those multimillion dollar luxury yachts, it looked just like any other French seaside town ~ pretty sidewalk cafés, wonderful aromas coming from bistros, leafy tree-lined roads … etc. R managed to pass a bakery and ducked in for more meringues (he’s already had four massive ones two days ago). Everytime we’re in France I swear that is all he lives on. Anyway, the beach was gorgeous and the weather was perfect … I was happy to stay and not go anywhere else. The initial plan was to head off to Antibes and pop in to Monte Carlo … but that would mean hanging in the car each and every time looking for a new parking spot … which annoys me immensely.









But once on the beach, which actually has sand unlike many of the beaches over on the Italian side, I began to really drink in the atmosphere. The glare coming off the white bodies of the boats and yachts parked in the marina was a bit extreme, but the place was beautiful. The only unfortunate aspect was that the beach was off-limits to dogs, so Doopey had to be babysat under a palm tree off the beach proper by one of us at all times. Other than that I was pretty chuffed with myself that I was able to swim and catch some rays. The day was blisteringly hot but the water countered that brilliantly. Loved every second of it.



After we had our fill of sun and were getting a bit pruney, we relieved my sister of her doggy-sitter duties and went off (with the dog) in search of some refreshments. The cafés nearby were selling colossal sundaes and large tall icy drinks … we made a beeline there. R was hungry (like REALLY hungry) so he ordered two mains for himself. I settled for smoked salmon on toasts with a tall glass of lemonade. My sister was nowhere to be seen; too busy sunning herself by the waters edge. All in all I had a blast, R was OVER THE MOON to have had the chance to fulfill his dream of swimming in the waters of Cannes. I have no idea what Doopey thought of all this but I am sure he’s just happy to be hanging with us.





Our stay in Imperia came to an end all too quickly. It soon came time to leave and we had a loooong drive ahead of us, so we were up at the crack of dawn. My sister could not get over the beauty of the Italian riviera that she decided to stay a few more days and head down to the town of Cinque Terre. That morning we dropped her off at the local train station, Porto Maurizio, and she caught the 7:26 a.m train. And so she was gone. Meanwhile R and I had a rental car to return in 2 days time so we hopped to it. Our drive home would take us straight up to Milan and Lake Como (love that place) … then across the border right thru Switzerland (love that place too!)… then exit via Basel back into France where we would break our journey somewhere in the Alsace / Vosges region.





Switzerland in the summer is like being in a totally different country if, like us, you have only seen it in the winter. GORGEOUS!! The roads are incredibly built, cutting thru some pretty spectacular terrain. This was the first time we actually got to drive on Swiss motorways … one word : Tunnels. Hundreds of them! The mountains of Switzerland are virtually like Swiss cheese.



Anyway, after driving thru Lugano and Bellinzona (wanted to stop there, but no time) we came to the start of the San Gottardo (St Gotthard) tunnel. The famous St Gotthard tunnel runs from the Canton of Uri in the north to Airolo in Ticino to the south … right thru a mountain. It is the third longest road tunnel in the world, spanning just under 17 km. The longest road tunnel is in Norway (24.5 km).



The queue to get into the tunnel was looooong because traffic had to merge into a single lane. We took this opportunity to pull over at the service station to stretch our legs since we had been driving for three hours since we left the Mediterranean coast. Also the dog needed a wee and a poo. Right next to the petrol station was a nature strip with a hiking trail … and next to that trail was a stream that was clear as glass. We had to get down there. Thru the gate and a mere 50m later we were there …. hahaha … not much of a “hike” but we were elated.














In the Vosges forest we stayed for two nights in a quiet country village with an Englishman, his French wife and their three dogs, two cats and three horses. The drive to their house was simply breathtaking : long windy roads cutting thru undulating hills carpeted in lush greenery and pine trees. The minute we hit the forest road the outside air temperature dropped a good couple degrees. Beautiful scenery, loved the vinyards, loved the wheat fields, the rolling hills, the forests and the meadows full of grazing livestock. Doopey had a blast and he was quite fascinated by all the sheep … thank goodness there was a fence around them coz he might have pulled a Fenton then we would have been in lots of trouble with the farmer. He only charged the fence once but smacked face first into the wire, so he learnt his lesson and never tried it again.



The Vosges is a French department, named after the mountain range that runs thru it. It lies close to the German border and its influence is very evident as many of the houses, especially those in Mulhouse, look very Germanic in design. Even the cuisine is unique to this region, most notable being tarte flambée (flammekueche) ~ a pizza-like pie baked in a wood fire oven, topped with fromage blanc, créme fraîche, lardons & thinnly sliced onions. The other famous Alsatian baked good is the kugelhopf, a Bundt cake whose popularity sees it eaten in southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and even the Czech Republic.






We did very little during our stay here, we just needed a break from our holiday (silly as it sounds) … all that driving was starting to give R a twinge in his back. We simply enjoyed the scenery and made a short trip into town, had coffee, bought bottles of fruitty wines and basically took things very easy.






On the last night of our stay there was a huge electrical storm that swept over the countryside and the power went off at about midnight. It was quite funny coz we were scrambling about looking for candles in a house that was foreign to us. All the windows had to be closed but in doing so a good many mosquitoes got trapped inside. It was such a horrible night to be endured. R was losing his cool and simply got grumpier and grumpier as time ticked by yet the mozzies just kept on buzzing around his head. Swatting at them in pitch darkness was about as effective as paddling a boat with a tennis racquet. Needless to say we did not get very much sleep and we had a long drive home to do the next day.



We were happy to be home anyway. As we neared the Dutch border and all the motorway signs started switching from French to Dutch a sense of ‘Home Sweet Home’ washed over me. Everything looked familiar once again and it was just in time for dinner. Picked up the phone and placed an order at our local Thai takeaway restaurant for beef fried rice and told them we’d be in later to pick it up. By the time we got our of the car we were quite stiff in the joints … it was good to get out for a stretch … and it was good to be back in our neighbourhood again : the familiar shops, the canals, the stables and the parks I know so well.



So it was an awesome last minute trip (after all that) … I enjoyed myself thoroughly; R was stoked to have swum in the Mediterranean on both the French and Italian sides; my sister said she was happy to have come along coz she has not been to Italy before, hence why she extended her stay a further 3 days. Food featured pretty heavily throughout the vacation … everything was yummy, everything was perfect. I cannot WAIT for my next holiday in France … still plenty more to see, do and eat.



Until next time …






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