For months, my husband (second-generation Italian) and I have been planning a trip back to Italy and to southern France. We were anxious to take our 8-year-old son there to experience some of the places we love.
Because we were returning to some of the places we’ve already visited (Nice and Florence in particular), I wanted to make sure we went to some unexpected, off the beaten path places. No doubt, those excursions often become the highlights of a trip…for us, it was definitely the case.
Our travels took us first to southern France where we rented a car at the Nice airport and then drove about 45 minutes to lovely Mougins, a small hilltop town just inland and close to both Nice and Cannes. We had a short walk from Le Mas Candille with the most beautifully manicured garden spaces to a quaint spot with local restaurants with al fresco dining near a fountain mixed in with local artistan shops.
Mougins was home to Picasso for the last 12 years of his life and his influence is clearly visible. Mougins is the perfect setting to stroll the cobbled alleyways, check out local art, relax over a Michelin-worthy meal or take in a hike in nearby Valmasque Park. Other points of interest include the Museum of Classical Art with paintings and additional works of art from Picasso, Rodin, Matisse and Damien Hirst, plus the Chapel Notre-Dame-de-Vie, across the valley from Mougins. I walked away believing that Mougins is the definition of charming.
From France, we traveled by train to Florence, Italy (taking a rental car from one country to another is exorbitantly expensive). There we picked up a different rental car so we could drive into the Tuscan countryside. We based ourselves at a villa outside Lucca, home of Puccini and some of the best olive oil in the world. We woke up each morning to rolling hills of olive trees, grape vines and one time-challenged rooster.
Having a car allowed us to come and go as we pleased and explore the nearby countryside of twisting, narrow roads dotted with stone houses and chapels. One important tip – be sure to get the GPS! The roads are labeled by the direction you are going, not by the name of the road.
One particularly interesting trip took us through steep hills and numerous tunnels to Modena, former home of Enzo Ferrari and our favorite of the two Ferrari museums. (The other one is in nearby Maranello and houses a great collection of Formula One cars; an easy shuttle ride away.)
We also ventured to the Auto Dromo of Modena, where a friend test drove a new car on their track. It was a special experience – a safe and legal environment for him to push his limits! We also loved the tiny medieval town of San Donato, where we learned how people survived living in times of war in a small village centuries ago.
Agnese Farm was another noteworthy stop for us. We did a tour and tasting of the local wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which was paired with a delicious home-cooked meal by the owners. We felt so welcomed and really appreciated not being among a crowd of tourists for this very different type of Italian getaway.
I continue to enjoy going back to Europe. No matter how many times you visit, there are always new experiences to be had and fascinating people to meet. Especially if you also enjoy going off the beaten path!
If you want to learn more about traveling through France, Italy or other countries in Europe, please email me at LizM@PiqueTravel.com.