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Provence to Porto Venere: a wine-lover’s Mediterranean summer

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Faced with a never-ending list of tempting Mediterranean destinations to book for the summer, I decided to look to my trusty wine-lover’s bucket list, on which two destinations poked their heads above the rest – France and Italy. From the sun-drenched vineyards of Provence to the elevations of the Cinque Terre, with a handful of ever-charming stops in-between, read on for my guide to an iconic Mediterranean itinerary – and speak to one of our local experts to get planning your next escape abroad this summer.

Sipping my way through sunny Provence

Truth be told, despite being a seasoned wine enthusiast, I’d never been to one of the famed French regions. When I had the opportunity to visit France, I jumped at the appeal of the sun-drenched chateaux, flowing glasses of rosé, and rolling purple lavender fields. Discovering that Provence was France’s most sun-kissed region, and having heard its name mentioned before – by winemakers speaking of refined Provence-style rosé, and designers gushing about romantic Provencal interiors – it was choice numero uno.

I collected ‘Frikkie’ from Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport: a compact black Fiat 500 that would transport me around the countryside. I was a hesitant right-side driver having to navigate driving on the opposite side of the road, and Frikkie was manual (it had been a while since I’d traded my last manual for an automatic). Relying on my comprehensive insurance, we quickly took to each other and were off searching for delicious rosé.

The first vineyards appeared after only 30 minutes of driving. Following the GPS, the country lanes finally led to a stately driveway, and the fairy-tale setting came into view: a line of perfectly-pruned cypress trees, and in the background, the impressive Château de Berne.

Living the chateau dream

Doubling as an estate and a five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel, Château de Berne was one of the first properties in Provence to spearhead wine tourism. I was flushed with pride to hear how my native South Africa has served as a model of inspiration.

The sprawling property offered a labyrinth of discoveries, including swimming pools, a spa, several restaurants, and precisely-manicured gardens. The apartment offered understated elegance, in-keeping with Provence’s heritage, along with private balcony views over the vines and olive trees. Refreshed, it was time to learn more about the rose-tinted tipple from its place of birth.

Over my two-hour tasting, I talked extensively with oenologist Alexis Cornu about the glorious revolution of rosé, a trend I’ve seen echoed globally over the past decade. With almost 3,000 hours of sunshine every year, Provence has earned the accolade of France’s sunniest spot: the warm days, cool evenings, and the generosity of nature help to nurture the vines.

I quickly fell in love with the wines. The Terres de Berne rosé pays homage to the specific landscape, with notes of peach and mango. Meanwhile, the Grande Cuvée has a creamy softness, thanks to the short oak ageing. I soon discovered the Provençal tradition whereby many wineries produce uniquely-shaped bottles for their rosé; Château de Berne’s iconic square bottles pay tribute to the estate’s towers and the embossed arches of the cellar. Smitten by them, two empty bottles returned home with me for later decorative use.

The duo of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon

After a hearty breakfast and two-hour soak in one of the spa’s heated pools, it was time to take a break from the rosé – and the two tourist towns of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon beckoned. Finding parking in Aix-en-Provence, I set out into the town’s maze of cobblestone streets. My advice is to not map out a route, simply amble about and bask in the ancient city’s grandeur, and stop for a coffee or brioche when your legs get weary.

Ready to leave the bustling streets, Frikkie and I headed off to Avignon. The town is home to a fascinating history: in 1309, in an unprecedented move, the papacy relocated from Rome to France – a push away from the factionalism the capital was experiencing, and the French-born Pope Clement V accepting a warm invitation from the French monarch.

From 1309 to 1377, Avignon was home to seven successive popes. Their magnificent residence is the Palais des Papes, or Palace of the Popes. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is nothing short of impressive and remains the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages. A scenic stroll through the city should also include the unfinished Pont Saint-Bénézet; the medieval bridge’s four remaining arches span the river Rhône. A personal audio guide is provided on-site, detailing its interesting history and allowing you to explore at your own pace.

For my final night, I’d chosen the casual farm stay of Une Campagne en Provence, a 190-hectare farm and wine estate dating back to the 12th century. A handful of cottages and a country farmhouse make up this charming guest farm, and owners Martina and Claude’s warm hospitality makes you feel at home. I chose a 12th-century ivy-draped cottage at the edge of the farm.

Returning from a walk, I tossed some homemade pasta into the pot to boil, and armed with some snacks, opened the kitchen’s double windows and perched on the wide ledge staring out over the vineyards. Opening a bottle of the region’s peach-tinted wine, I bid a satisfied santé to my holiday and the utter perfection of Provence.

From Portofino to Porto Venere

Having ticked off my first French wine-producing region, the next destination on the dream list was Portofino and the nearby picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre. My Portofino hopes were quickly dashed upon discovering the prices of accommodation, but also from reading about the town’s over-tourism (visitors can now even be fined for lingering too long while taking photographs). Having to forget the region’s poster-child town, luck had it that when typing out the letters ‘porto’, another option emerged during my search: Porto Venere.

A quick image search online and I was besotted. Porto Venere is almost equidistant to Genoa and Pisa – so use them as guidance as to where to fly in. From there, the plentiful regional trains will take you along the shore. As they passed through scenic coastal towns, I had to fight the urge to jump off the train and dive into the azure waters.

Arriving into Porto Venere, I found it was every bit the postcard village I’d seen online. I found a cozy apartment five minutes’ walk from the center of the village, and after unpacking, I made a beeline straight for the enticing Mediterranean water – followed, of course, by gelato.

In addition to its cobblestone lanes and remarkable fort that dons the hillside, Port Venere offers something unique that few other Italian towns can, in that it’s located near three islands just off the peninsula. Less than 100m from shore, they are easily accessed by ferry; Palmaria is the closest of the three, where we spent an idyllic morning exploring and finding a remote beach far from any maddening crowds. Later, we took a boat excursion around the other two islands, Tino and Tinetto, where imposing forts and enticing caves undoubtedly star in countless tales.

Hiking the Cinque Terre

I was also desperate to visit the famed villages of the Cinque Terre, a legendary strip of coastline that is home to the quintet towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The postcard towns cling to the cliffs – sometimes as if their lives depend upon it. The reward for their precariously-placed positions, of course, is unparalleled views – and in the past decades, hiking between the various villages has become incredibly popular. Each is accessible from Porto Venere via an easy boat, bus or train journey.

We opted to start from the elevated village of Corniglia, hiking across the cliffs to Vernazza. After a well-deserved beer and swim, it was off to Monterosso where we retired at one of the beach clubs that line the sand (you can negotiate a cheaper price if it is later in the day).

The wine-lover in me would have thought it impossible to grow grapes on the inhospitably steep slopes, but a handful of producers have managed this feat. Hike from Manarola up to Groppo’s Cantina Capellini to taste locally-made wines, while seated in the terraced vineyards with incomparable views.

You’ll encounter a constant stream of walkers on the ancient paths, but this won’t detract from the experience. Of course, you’ve the privilege of again escaping the crowds when you arrive back in picture-perfect Porto Venere. As you watch the sun set gently along an unbroken line of headlands jutting out proudly into the ocean, it’s easy to understand why, among other notable poets, Romantic writer Lord Byron was so fond of this sliver of Mediterranean paradise.

Make it happen

Jared Ruttenberg is a South African travel journalist and writer, based between Cape Town and England’s Bristol. If you’re inspired to follow his tire tracks across the French and Italian Med, get in touch with our local experts – they’ll help tailor a summer itinerary that’s perfect for you.

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