February 2019

 

About Intimate France — We travel every spring and fall to Europe's most beautiful destinations. Our small groups (usually eight travelers, never more than 16) guarantee you the utmost in personal service and attention to detail. Learn more about us or contact Intimate France.
 

DID YOU TRY TO CALL US?

 

Our Intimate France toll-free number hit a rough patch around January 24, but starting January 28 it was feeling better. If you tried to reach us during this outage, try again — we're here! (800) 676-1247.

 

A photo essay

FRENCH & SPANISH BASQUE —
TWO COUNTRIES, ONE CULTURE

Harbor, St. Jean de Luz, French Basque fishing village

 

By George Nevin

Founder-owner, Intimate France

 

Our French & Spanish Basque group enjoyed ideal weather, delicious food and drink, and great sights during our fall 2018 tour.

 

Intimate France is repeating this tour in April-May 2019, and a limited number of vacancies remain. Details.

 

Take a look at these images, which will give you an idea of the riches you'll find in just this one small corner of Europe.

 

VIEWPOINT: Over San Sebastián, Spanish Basque resort.
 

San Sebastián hugs the curved bay of La Concha, and rising steeply from its western shore is Monte Igueldo. From here, views extend over the town and mountains to the south and as far as the French Basque coast, only a few kilometers away.

 

ADORABLE: Getaria, Spanish Basque, a real fishing port.

This coastal village boasts a museum dedicated to native son Cristobál Balenciaga, the fashion designer, and pays homage to Juan Sebastián Elcano, who took over as expedition leader after Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines on his around-the-world quest in 1521.

 

CHAT: San Sebastián girls are probably texting each other.

The gracious promenade that lines San Sebastián's bayfront is the perfect place to stop and engage in some fun with phones. 

 

SPIDER: Guggenheim Bilbao, with sculpture by
French artist Louise Bourgeois.

Bilbao has cleaned up its riverfront, after years of abandoning the waterway to heavy industry. Besides art treasures inside the Guggenheim Bilbao, there are numerous examples of street art.

 

TRANSPORTER : The Vizcaya Bridge, near Bilbao, is one of the world's few surviving transporter bridges, carrying vehicles and passengers across the Bilbao River.

This bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, still functions, shuttling people, cars and trucks across the river in a car suspended by cables from a lofty superstructure.

 

Several of our group enjoyed an optional dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Despensa del Etxanobe in Bilbao, Spanish Basque. Here, owner-chef Fernando Canales flambées a dessert at tableside.

The restaurant offers a pricey-but-worth-it chef's tasting menu, more than a dozen small portions washed down by fine Spanish vintages.

 

BLISS: On an only slightly less elevated level: the dessert you always want to order in France — café gourmand, an espresso and a generous dessert sampler.

Many restaurants in France offer a way to nibble an assortment of sweets. You don't have to order espresso — decaf and tea are equally available. 

 

 ECCENTRIC: Château Abbadia, French Basque country.

This "château-observatory" was designed by renowned French military architect Viollet-le-Duc for explorer
Antoine d'Abbadie and incorporates such unusual features as holes drilled through walls to allow solar observations.

 

STREET ART: Basque Museum, Bayonne, France.

Colorful umbrellas hover overhead in an alley next to the Basque Museum in Bayonne, the most important town in the French Basque region.

 

SUNSET: Old port, St. Jean-de-Luz, France.

The lively streets of this charming seaside village are perfect for a stroll just as the sun sets, followed by an excellent dinner.

 

 

WE'RE ENROLLING FOR 2019

 

Our Intimate France 2019 tours are filling nicely, but vacancies remain on all tours. Check out the lineup below, or on our website here.

 

If you want to join one of our small groups, early action is advised — both of our fall 2018 tours (Basque and Dordogne) filled in November 2017, roughly 10 months out. See our site for details of 2019 tours, www.intimatefrance.comor read on:

 

Exterior, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.

 

French & Spanish Basque,
April 28-May 10, 2019

 

 

      Pilgrimage village of Rocamadour, France.

 

Dordogne, France,

May 12-24, 2019

 

 

High peaks, Dolomite Alps, Italy.

 

Italian Lakes & Alps, Sept. 1-13, 2019

 

We at Intimate France are thrilled to be returning to Northern Italy in fall 2019, beginning at Milan's Malpensa Airport, and ending 12 days later at Venice Marco Polo Airport.

 

 

Harbor and village, Rovinj, Croatia.

 

Dalmatian Coast & Croatia,

Sept. 15-27, 2019

 

 

Wikimedia Commons 

Plitvička Lakes National Park, Croatia.

 

EARLY WORD ON OUR
INTIMATE FRANCE 2020 TOURS

We will offer four exciting tours in 2020. Email us for more information, or to get on a no-obligation interest list: intimatefrance@gmail.com.

 

The lineup presented here is tentative, meaning changes are possible as planning proceeds. Still, this is our current thinking:

 

• Burgundy and Alsace, France, May 3-15, 2020

• Germany — Alps, Romantic Road, Rhine and Mosel Valleys, May 17-29, 2020

• Dordogne, France's single most beautiful region, Sept. 6-18, 2020

• Languedoc, France, including the enchanting fishing village of Collioure and majestic Carcassonne, Sept. 20-Oct. 2, 2020

 

We are not yet accepting enrollments for 2020, but by getting on our interest list (email intimatefrance@gmail.com) you'll be given first dibs.

 

Most groups will max out at eight travelers, and several are certain to fill fast.

 

 

THE CATS OF ITALY'S
BORROMEAN ISLANDS

 

George's note: Our Intimate France tour of Italian Lakes & Alps, Sept. 1-13, 2019, spends a full day on Italy's Borromean Islands, and a few vacancies remain.

 

 

 

By George Nevin

Founder-owner, Intimate France

 

Guidebooks gush about the legendary beauty of northern Italy's Lago Maggiore.

 

Michelin's editors award the lake three stars — worth a journey — and call it "the most famous of the Italian lakes ... at times both majestic and wild."


Especially beguiling, the guidebook continues, are the three Borromean Islands — Bella, Madre and Pescatori. These fabled specks of green and pastel lie, locked in the lake's blue embrace, just offshore from the Belle Epoque resort of Stresa.


Napoleon coveted them, it's said, and spent two nights on Isola Bella as a guest of the noble Borromeo family.


Hemingway fell under their spell, and sequestered himself in Stresa, with the islands before him, to write about the bitterness of war, love and life in "A Farewell to Arms." Isola dei Pescatori was his favorite, by all accounts.


Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini visited Isola Bella in April 1935, during the ascendancy of his vainglorious power. Nine years later, escaping the ruins of Wold War II, he was hunted down and killed by a mob of partisans while fleeing toward Switzerland along the shores of Lago di Como, to the east of Lago Maggiore.


Other guidebooks, and word of mouth from visitors, laud Maggiore's privileged position surrounded by soaring Alps, its balmy microclimate in which villas bloom and gardens flourish, and its pastel villages dotting the shores, lapped by the crystal lake waters.


But not a single book mentions the most astonishing aspect of Lago Maggiore:


The cats of the Borromean Islands.

 

Fishermen's Island, or Isola dei Pescatori


In the pearly light of a January afternoon, the islands sleep. Gone for the winter are the day-tripping hordes. The baroque palace on Isola Bella is closed for the season, and the ferry doesn't even service Isola Madre, as that island contains a private villa, a garden (magnificent and extensive though it is) and nothing else.


Susan and I are the only passengers to hop ashore from the 3 p.m. ferry to Isola dei Pescatori, Fishermen's Island. Of the three, it is the most ordinary, or so the books say. We are here to see for ourselves.


The island in winter smells like most other Italian places — the bitterness of espresso, the bite of wood smoke, the mineral grit of wet cobblestones. Though seemingly deserted, this place must be alive — someone is here to brew the coffee we inhale as we tramp up from the lakeshore.


Pescatori is essentially flat, unlike its sisters Madre and Bella. Measuring a scant 400 yards long by 200 wide, it exudes a scruffy charm. The stuccoed houses, finished in whitewash or pale pastel, hunch together. Streets are non-existent, as are cars. The only way to get around is afoot, along cobbled lanes. Only a handful of narrow paths stairstep up from the lake to the island's low spine.


The lakefront esplanade is open to the pale winter sun, and as we make our way along the shore, the sun struggles to pierce the mist that makes Maggiore look like an impressionist painting most days of the year.


Rounding a corner, one tiny alleyway leading to an even narrower one, we come across someone's sunny front step chockablock with ... cats! Haunch to haunch like kernels on an ear of corn they doze, tails tucked in, paws together, facing out lying on a green doormat that a friendly resident placed there as though just for them, protecting their furry bellies from the cold marble.


Three of them appear to be littermates — a couple of black-and-brown striped specimens, looking pleasingly plump, and a white-breasted cat who opens her eyes a slit just to assure herself we mean no harm.


A fourth kitty, pure black, bookends the litter.
How cute, we exclaim. Out come our cameras as we record the scene.


Winding through the maze of alleyways, we soon reach the far side and make our way along the side of the island facing open water. The opposite shore of Maggiore rises in the distance. Windows in villas and villages wink out from among the green, catching the golden light of the setting sun.


Hello, what's this — more cats? Wait a minute: are these the same? No, they can't be. Remember, those were striped. These are gray, and tabby-coated, and there's a pure white one.


Clearly, something is going on here. We count seven cats going about their important kitty business — grooming, dozing, yawning, slinking, stalking, pondering the world through slitted eyes.


An unaccustomed noise has been droning for several minutes but we only now notice it. It's a motor, but not a car — a tiny tractor, with not wheels but tracks like a tank. On its back sits a metal box, and inside the box are rounded, gray stones. A workman — the only human we have seen or will see on the island today — is piloting the noisy contraption down a ramp of boards from the center of the island to the ferry landing. We follow, and another piece of the cat puzzle falls into place.


Beside the lake, on a torn piece of aluminum foil, is a large, cooked fish. Someone must have just set it out — dinner for cats.

 

Dinner for cats on Isola dei Pescatori is fish-on-foil

 

There are already three or four, eating greedily in a way only really hungry animals do. Our cats in California never eat like that, spoiled as they are. The last time I saw cats this hungry was in Sicily, where they have to scavenge in garbage bins to find sustenance, or make do with the kindness of residents who put out leftovers, of all things — pasta and fried potatoes. The vegetarian cats of Sicily — who knew?


These felines, however, are fortunate to live on Fishermen's Island, because there really are fishermen here, and real fish, which once in a while someone cooks and places outside on foil.


The eating hierarchy is clear. As we watch, the largest cats stroll over to the dinner table and eat without hurry. The timid ones — the small, or young, or weak — creep in low and soft, lunge for the fish, break off a piece and scurry away to eat their morsel at a safe distance.


Susan and I, both cat owners, admire them all on this dying January day. She puts into words my thought: "How many cats does this little island have? And do they belong to anyone?"

 

Continued in our next Intimate France newsletter.

 

                                                                                  

 


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