Discover where the creator of Italy's famous song "Volare" got his inspiration in this small town just south of Bari. We love to wander around the little streets of the whitewashed medieval centre, perched precariously on the edge of the limestone cliffs and watch the waves crashing against the rocks beneath. For a truly special experience, eat at the Grotta Palazzese – this ‘summer cave’ with its views over the Adriatic was carved out of the rocks by a local lord to create a party venue in the 1700s.
Builders of some of the world's most beautiful bridges, French civic engineering is world renowned. But is Gallic good taste and love of technical design inherited from the Romans? The spectacular Pont du Gard, on the Unesco World Heritage list, combines elegance with practicality. Built around 2000 years ago as an aqueduct, its three tiers are still in excellent condition and open to all. With an activity centre, shops, restaurants and museum it's a fabulous day out for the whole family. And you can even get married there.
Driving from Lourmarin to Saignon, up and through the Lubéron is a beautiful drive through lavender fields with bories, the typical stone shepherd huts. Saignon is a quaint village with a view of the Mont Ventoux and a beautiful little square with a café.
Google map: bit.ly/OGN90o
Grotte des Demoiselles is an amazing network of underground caves near Provence and the Cevennes National Park. Reached by a small funicular railway, the caves can only be explored in small groups with a guide. The spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, some of which are four or five stories high, are simply out of this world. The largest cave made me go weak at the knees with vertigo so be prepared! The caves were fitted with pathways, staircases and stone balustrades in the 1930s which add to the experience - I was constantly reminded of the optical illusions of Escher (the never ending staircase!).
If you can ignore the obligatory tackiness of the visitors centre/cafe, tune out the prattle of the guide and simply admire the natural beauty of this place then you'll be sure to enjoy these grottos.
Price wise it was a little steep (c. £10 each) but the group sizes were small and it didn't seem too busy (we went in late June).
I can't help thinking if this was somewhere a little more accessible it would be deemed a natural wonder.
A stream tumbles down a small but enchanting waterfall. It used to power the grade II listed 19th century sawmill in Gayle. The bridge over the stream provides scenic views of the falls, Dod Fell and the sawmill (set against the beautiful backdrop of Wensleydale)
Just follow the road right down into Gayle from Hawes. The falls and bridge are right in the centre of the hamlet. Just watch out for cars using the narrow road on the bridge.
Google map: bit.ly/Mbclbl
Gayle is a quieter and more serene place than the bustling and noisy nearby tourist hotspot of Hawes. It has stupendous views of Wensleydale and Dod Fell which rise high above the hamlet of Gayle
Just a 20 min walk from Hawes (just follow the signs for the Wensleydale creamery and follow the road right down into Gayle.)
Google map: bit.ly/Mbclbl
For views of Barcelona minus the crowds head to the Carretera de les Aigües, a track that runs for several miles around the shoulder of Tibidabo, the mountain that dominates the top end of the city. Buy a standard metro ticket, take the Ferrocarrils to Peu Del Funicular then change onto the funicular railway and get off at the next stop up, called Carretera de les Aigües. A left turn at the station entrance and you've got three miles of country track among trees with only the panoramic views, a few joggers, and birds for company. At the end of the track you come out next to the Tibidabo funicular where you can either head up to the very top of the hill or take the Blue Tram back down into town. Before you do either, stop for a quick drink at the Mirablau café, and gaze out through the picture windows at yet another fabulous view of the city.
The Pyrenees are an essential part of Catalonia's soul. We've had several holidays up there and there's always something new to see but here are two top tips:
(i) the little train from Barcelona to Latour-de-Carol snakes through some of the most fantastic mountain scenery this side of Switzerland including some of the most historic villages in Catalonia. And, unlike the more well known Train Jaune, the journey will cost you less than a round of drinks. From Latour-de-Carol you can change onto a French train and head down the other side of the mountains to Toulouse or return to Barcelona after a bite to eat in the station café and a brief stop for some photographs. Buy your ticket to Latour from the automatic ticket machine at Sants Station otherwise you'll have to wait an age in a queue. Then, if travelling on to Toulouse, buy the ticket at Latour - don't attempt to buy a through ticket to Toulouse at Barcelona unless you really want to wrestle with the full horror of Spanish transport bureaucracy for half a day!
(ii) There are a number of spectacular minor roads leading north-west from Figueres up into the Pyrenees. Set your Sat Nav for Coustouges and follow the directions up into the heights of the mountains. Very quickly the tourist-strewn plain is left behind. The drive is amazing and when you reach Coustouges and nearby Sant Laurent de Cerdans you are in authentic Catalunya - check out the ancient Romanesque church in Coustouges. Both villages are actually in modern day France but are very much part of historical Catalunya and Catalan is still spoken. Sant Laurent has a long history of textile production, made possible by the numerous water-mills in the area, and you can pick up some traditional striped Catalan cloth for a song.
Google map: bit.ly/M8nIW2
This Catalan location is home to a picturesque mid-19th century lighthouse set on a cliff some 170m above the sea and offers spectacular views across the coastal plain that is home to Calella de Palafuguell, Llafranc and Tamariu. Walk along the cliff top path for views out to sea and down into coves. There is also the excavation of a small 6th century Iberian settlement and a medieval 15th century watch tower. And if you are there in the early evening, enjoy the changing colours as the sun sets, while sampling tapas on the veranda of the hotel restaurant. You can drive up, but the energetic can follow signed paths through the woods from Llafranc down below.
Approaching by boat, the monastery of Santa Caterina can be seen clinging perilously onto the rock overlooking the Lombard shores of Lake Maggiore. The carefully restored frescoes in the chapel are definitely worth a visit and the 180 degree views of the lake are spectacular, especially at sunset. It's a tranquil oasis away from the tourist bustle of many other places on the lake.
From the lakeside town of Laveno, you can take the cable car up the 1100m Sasso del Ferro. From the top, there are wonderful views of Lago Maggiore, the Alps and some of the smaller Lombard lakes too. The best part though is the ride itself - you stand up in cable cars which are more like human-sized buckets, completely open to the elements.
Follow in the footsteps of Napoleon and Churchill and go and paint at the lush promontory of Punta San Vigilio. Park the car and walk down to the lake through the olive grove where you will be rewarded by a spectacular view. Or walk there along the lake from the town of Garda, on a trail edged with lemon and cypress trees.
If you really want to indulge your artistic, romantic side, you can stay at the hotel there, right on the edge of the lake.
Isola dei Pescatori (the Isle of the Fishermen) on Lake Maggiore is strung out like an extended teardrop in the wake of the Baroque battleship of Isola Bella. Its attractive informality is a breath of fresh air after the formal gardens that almost choke the larger island.
Head for the Belvedere restaurant on its northern shore, where the more formal seafront gives way to gardens and terraces – of which, the Belvedere has just about the best, with a spacious veranda overlooking the lake. We arrived unannounced in a sizeable party late in the afternoon, but were swiftly made to feel welcome and served a sumptuous feast at the terrace’s grandest table. ‘Fish from the lake’ is their disarmingly simple pitch, but the mixed pickle lake fish is an eye-opener of a dish.
Via di Mezzo, Isola Pescatori, 28838 Stresa (VB)
The Villa Balbianello is situated in a small town called Lenno on the west side of Lake Como. It is open from Easter and throughout the summer and you can get there both by boat shuttle or through the back gate (when opened) although this is a hilly way to get there but very pleasant. It was built in the 1500's by Cardinal Angelo Durini but was last privately owned by the famous Italian arctic explorer Guido Monzino who died in 1988 and left the entire villa estate and gardens to the Italian National Trust. It stays the same today as it did when he died and you can almost feel his presence as you take the guided tour throughout the property. Entrance into the main house is only permitted with an authorised guide (which can be booked) but if you like you can enjoy the magnificent terraced gardens for a small fee. The Villa is famous for its film scenes from Casino Royale and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones as they were both filmed there. The views are stunning, the flowers glorious and the range of artifacts contained within the house both stunning and priceless. In my view this is the best place to visit on Lake Como. Don't miss out!
At 2800 metres, the Pont de Normandie was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world when it was completed in 1995. Then the Japanese built a longer one in 1999. But that doesn't diminish the impact of this spectacular example of the French ability to meld engineering design with art. For one of the best views in Normandy, take the ferry to Le Havre, and don't forget your bicycle; the bridge, which is seldom busy, has its own cycle lane. The steep hump in the middle will keep you on your toes, but the panorama from the top is worth it. At the end of the 25km journey, you'll be able to sup calvados or cidre beside Honfleur’s pretty harbour.
To fully enjoy the scenery, travel during daylight, and remember to go off season to avoid the hordes. If you go by car, it's still great.
Across the Seine, between Le Havre and Honfleur, on the A29 coastal road.
Toll bridge: €5.10 (cars) €5.90 (car with caravan)
Google map: bit.ly/MabqqN
The westernmost of the major lakes, Orta is a (relatively) undiscovered gem. Car free, the town's steep and narrow cobbled streets create an entrancing atmosphere. The lake itself contains the serene Isola San Giulio, dominated by an exquisite medieval basilica. Multiple excellent restaurants are situated on the main square overlooking the lake - a personal favourite was Leon d'Oro. Scrumptious local food served in the most delightful of settings; the best recommendation is that we returned twice!
After you have visited the villages around Lake Como head north for the Balcone d' Italia. Standing on the edge of a cliff you cast your eyes over the green valleys and vineyards of Italy and Switzerland but are drawn to the mountains behind them. In one astonishing sweep you have the south slopes of some of the biggest mountains in the Alps - Monte Rosa at 4634m and the Matahorn at 4478m and nestled beneath them are Lake Lugano, Lake Varese and Lake Maggiore. Travel north from Argegno to Lanzo d'Intelvi where you can drive, bus or walk through the forests up to the Balcone. For those who want to stop awhile and absorb the spectacular views and atmosphere have a coffee in the small cafe or relax on one of the seats nestled in the trees. The day we arrived we were lucky enough to be entertained by some local 'singing' walkers who just added that something special to make our trip unforgettable.
Take the S340 along side Lake Como, turn left at Argegno and travel through the Intelvi Valley. The road climbs steeply offering increasingly wide beautiful views of Lake Como, the villages and villas along both shores. 12 miles further on through the spa resort of Lanzo d'Intelvi, the road leads to the viewing point of Balcone d'Italia.
Google map: bit.ly/MmWDyL
If you are going to, or passing through, Milan make time to get the train to Como (just over an hour) and then the slow ferry to Bellagio. Perch yourself by ancient cobbled streets at the Trattoria San Giacomo and feast on freshly made pasta washed down with exquisite local Bardolino wine. Heaven.
Almost hidden valley, just inland from the village of Toscolano-Maderno on the western shore of Lake Garda is the Valle delle Cartiere. Now a peaceful and green place - not on most tourist agendas - this valley has a history of paper production on a huge scale, making use of the river to power the machinery. The ruins of the old factories litter the valley and some are made visitor friendly with exhibits and information plaques and there is a visitor centre at the start of the trail. Allow a couple of hours to walk to the top and back. Pack reasonable walking shoes for the walk, and swim wear if you want to cool off in the icy stream - good shallow swim area at the top of the valley.
Interesting day out, with a chance to see some different scenery from the lakes - despite being very close.
Driving north on the main road up the lake, take the first left after crossing the small river, follow the road past some houses and then through some tunnels until you come to the car park - you will have to continue on foot after this.
Google map: bit.ly/LJFHMW
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