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Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

Come with me for A Taste of Northern Italy and Provence  

I can promise you, this is a program of huge contrasts - from incredibly diverse art galleries and sculpture gardens to elegant shopping arcades; from almost manicured lakeside gardens to forests and vineyards. Our journey through north-western Italy and the south-eastern corner of France explores the lakes, gardens, wine-producing villages and artistic heritage of the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, together with the artistic haunts, charming hilltop villages, local cuisine and 'effusive' gardens of France's Côte d'Azur and Provence.

We begin in Lombardy, in Milan. This city has long been an important trading centre because of its location on the junction of trans-alpine routes. Nowadays it is the second-largest city of Italy and its undisputed economic and financial capital. However, business and money are most certainly not everything. The long history of the city is still visible in the many monuments, buildings, and works of art. From its Gothic cathedral to the impressive Renaissance Castello Sforzesco with its collection of priceless furniture, art and sculpture and the 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which offers the best in shopping, there is history and contrast everywhere. Leonardo da Vinci lived in Milan for seventeen years, leaving the legacy of one of his most famous and intriguing works, 'The Last Supper', which adorns the rectory wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie. I suspect there will be many of you who, like me, saw this masterpiece originally in the early seventies when it was really crumbling into oblivion. You will not believe the difference after its recent restoration. It's a humbling experience to see, as Leonardo painted it, the moment in which Christ tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The 17th century Brera Botanical Garden - containing some of the oldest exotic trees in Europe - will also delight you.


Lake Como

Gardens and villas are a great part of this adventure and while we are in this region we enjoy the magnificent 'lakeland' scenery of Como, lesser-known Orta and beautiful Maggiore. With lakes come the opportunity for exploration by boat. My last group loved the boat rides on each lake. The end of each day provided so many memories and so much discussion that in fact we never came to a consensus as to which was best! Beautiful Lake Maggiore, Italy's second-largest lake, nestles against a backdrop of the mountainous scenery of the Swiss Alps, is home to the three Borromean Islands of Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori. Despite their alpine setting, these islands share a pleasant climate, but each offers a very different experience. Isola Bella was completely transformed by its occupants, and its palace and gardens are the epitome of opulence and luxury. In contrast, Isola dei Pescatori, with its village unchanged by time, offers a fascinating simplicity. Finally, the exotic atmosphere of the lush and tranquil Isola Madre can perhaps be ascribed to the gardens that almost totally cover it. It's an absolute joy to wander there. On Lake Como we discover the wee lakeside town of Bellagio and visit the magnificent gardens of the Villa Melzi. Lake Orta presents us with a completely different experience, as we visit San Giulio Island and the UNESCO-listed Sacro Monte di San Francesco, an extraordinary complex of twenty chapels devoted to the life of St Francis of Assisi and set in a serene landscape of winding lanes and woods. Here peace continues to reign as it has for centuries.

Castello di Barolo

We have some amazing gardens in this part of the program, including the enchanting private gardens of Villa Cicogna Mozzoni and those of Villa Taranto, considered amongst the finest gardens in Northern Italy.

From Lombardy we move to a very different part of Italy. Piedmont is, apart from the cultural and historical splendours of the city of Turin, essentially rural. To the north lie the highest peaks of the Alps and to the south, the vine-clad hills around Barolo together with the countless fields of grain and rice, used in the local dish, risotto. From the 11th to the 18th century, Piedmont was part of the French-speaking principality of Savoy which spanned the Alpine divide and was ruled by the ancient noble House of Savoy. It was only when the capital of the duchy was moved from Chambéry to Turin in the 16th century that the region looked more to Italy, so much so that, during the Risorgimento of the 19th century, the western part of Savoy was handed to France and Piedmont underwrote the ambitious movement to unite Italy under the king in Turin. The vestiges of this history are to be found in the surprisingly elegant Baroque city of Turin. Piedmont is also the headquarters for many of Italy's large commercial establishments, but the region has not forgotten its agricultural roots with southern Piedmont producing many great Italian wines.

Piedmont Wine Cellar

We learn about the history and culture of Turin with an exploration of its architecture and glorious palaces. We discover for ourselves some of the smaller towns and villages of Piedmont, such as the well-preserved and historic town of Alba with its Romanesque cathedral, and the dramatic Castle of Barolo on the rolling hills of the Langhe, where the famous wine is produced. Needless to say, we will learn more about Piedmont’s wine and delicious food at various 'tastings'. That is in quotation marks because at least one of our tastings seemed to provide all the sustenance we needed for several hours. We decided that we did not believe the actual word existed in the Italian language as we devoured incredible salamis, fresh hazelnuts and typical cheeses of the region!

And then to France ....to one of my absolute favourite regions. During our French section, we explore the sun-drenched countryside of Provence, with its time-worn, hilltop villages - considered some of the most beautiful in France - villages such as Gordes, Venasque and Rousillon which were often the inspiration for artists like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Chagall. We visit some of the great art galleries of the contrasting southern cities of Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles and Nice as well as some of the more unusual artistic exhibition venues of the region such as Les Baux de Provence. This year the Les Baux Experience will be the works of Van Gogh. I can promise you, this will be an experience you will never forget as the works are projected all around you - on the floors and walls - of this converted quarry.

Abbaye de Sénanque, Provence

Again, we have so many contrasts on this program as we absorb the complexities of French history without really thinking about them. We wander through ancient Gallo-Roman remains such as those of Vaison-la-Romaine. (How did those Romans invent such complex drainage and plumbing?). We visit the picturesque medieval abbey of Sénanque with its lavender fields (hopefully in flowering splendour, if we are lucky). Founded by Cistercian monks, the abbey has been occupied up to the present day, with some interruptions due to the vicissitudes of history. The monks support themselves by growing lavender and making honey. The Abbey is regarded as one of the icons of Provence. While in this region we have the magic experience of chugging gently between the mountains and the sea on the narrow-gauge (1m) railway Train des Pignes, one of Provence’s most picturesque rides. Rising to 1000m, the track follows rushing rivers and steep-sided mountain valleys with breathtaking views. The 151km track between Nice and Digne-les-Bains passes through Haute-Provence’s scarcely populated backcountry, taking about 3 hours. The ride is an adventure. The stations are old, tiny and personal - it's almost a step back in time. The name Train des Pignes comes from the pinecones, once used for tinder to start the steam engines.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, French Riviera

After many more adventures, our journey finishes in Nice. with Matisse and Renoir, flower markets, the hilltop artistic village of St Paul de Vence and the breath-taking Mediterranean gardens of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild.

I would love to share with you a little of two of my favourite countries in the world on this program of incredible contrasts.

Port of Bastia, Corsica

For those who wish to continue with me, there is an 8-night Extension to Corsica on our Corsican Discovery tour, and that's another whole story! Think crazy history - mysterious Filitosa with its 4,000-year-old, life-size stone warriors and then Italian and French 'ownership' at various times and thus diversity of architecture, ideas and language. Think some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine - rugged mountains, a dramatic coastline with rocky headlands peering down to tiny azure-blue bays. Think, fiercely-independent people who have somehow managed to hold onto their special culture...

Can we tempt you?

Louise Shave,
Golden Compass Program Leader

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A Taste of Italy and Provence Tour: 17 May - 05 June 2019

Our journey through north-western Italy and the south-east corner of France explores the lakes, gardens, wine-producing villages and artistic heritage of the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy together with the enchanting artistic haunts, charming hilltop-villages, local cuisine and "effusive" gardens of France's Côte d'Azur and Provence.



Inclusive of field trips, local guides, gratuities and many meals.