Don't be a tourist. Be our guest!

Stories from our groups of women traveling to France, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland. Plus info and travel tips about the countries we travel to.

Archive for the ‘Tours in Italy’

French Escapade videos

March 20, 2010 By: jgrandchamps Category: Belgian Escapades, Cultural Tours to Belgium, Cultural tours to France, Painting tours to France, Tours in Italy, painting workshops No Comments →

Last year, we decided to make videos to show what our tours really are about. Whether about our painting trips or our cultural trips, we hope they convey our philosophy of travel.

Thank you to all of our guests who have participated in giving testimonials. We were not able to insert all of them in the video but we really appreciate your enthusiasm and time.

Here are 2 videos (1. our general tours / 2. our painting tours in Belgium)

Video 1


Video 2

We also offer painting tours in France and in Switzerland. For more information about all our destinations, check

My winter in California

February 03, 2010 By: jgrandchamps Category: Belgian Escapades, Cultural Tours to Belgium, Cultural tours to France, Painting tours to France, Provence, Tours in Italy, painting workshops No Comments →

I love my job because it offers a great variety of tasks: my favorite one being leading the tours, of course, because I enjoy interacting with my guests, sharing their joy and showing them wonderful new places.


However, most of my tours happening between May and October, many people often wonder what I do then. No, I do not sit and relax for 6 months ! It is in fact when I have to do the toughest part of my job: marketing, selling and organizing.

However, having started my company 6 years ago, it becomes easier and easier: I have solid contacts and partners, and “word-of-mouth” makes wonders ! Right now, my cooking tour is really successful and Belgium is getting more interest than the past years . Belgium 2010 is  a cultural tour with an optional  writing workshop. My new tour in Tuscany  is getting filled. As for Provence and the painting workshops, they remain the greatest hits !


For more information and availabilities about all our tours in 2010, check

Picture info. 1. Visit of a ranch in Camargue / Provence 2. Picture by Jan Hagan

Our day in Verona, Italy (part 2)

October 20, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy No Comments →

Last travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After our trip, she and her friend Eppie went to Italy.

“Another interesting note: people in Italy won’t serve you something you request if they don’t think ‘its right’.  Eppie ordered coffee before dinner and was denied because one doesn’t drink coffee until AFTER dinner. (He said ‘drink wine with dinner).  A cappuccino after 11:00am? Forget about it. I tried once and the person just said no and walked away. BUT, it IS okay to have Gelato at anytime of day, even an hour before dinner. In fact, I think its even approved as a meal substitute.

Doggie bags or to-go boxes? Are you nuts? Why would you have leftovers? Eat it all, mangia, mangia! Besides, if you are holding doggie bags how can you hold your Gelato?   Having lived in San Jose for 7 years, Laura and Valerio anticipated our astonishment and would tell us what to expect. They remarked that when they left in 2000 for the U.S. restrooms were free, now there’s a cover charge (,50€) that may or may not include a toilet seat, (kind of gross) a toilet bowl (eewww really gross) paper (don’t ask, don’t tell) or all 3. (Totally disgusting and only to be used in cases of extreme emergency). So why are we paying??? Men have it good, that’s all I have to say about it.

After San Zeno (remember him?) We walked towards a bit , then picked up Nicolo from school and headed northwest to Lago di Gardo (Garda Lake) and to the lake side village of Bartolino. Talk about PERFECT TIMING, the Festa del Uva e Vino (grape and wine festival) was starting within an hour of our arrival. So we decide to kill time and sit down and have enormous bowls of Gelato.  Sure enough, at 5:45 a little band of local musicians paraded through the street followed by a mule pulling a cart filled with young girls (8-12yrs) dressed as peasants (including head scarf) handing out bunches of red grapes- they were delicious! ”

At 6:00pm the Mayor (complete with red, white and green sash) cut the ribbon and announce that the festival had begun. We strolled through the many booths, all of which were selling food or pouring wine. Valerio works somewhat nearby and he drove over after work and joined us. What a treat! The festival is very popular with ‘the germans’. Apparently many ‘germans’ have summer homes on Lake Garda and come down for this festival. We even saw some Lederhosen.  (I believe ‘The Germans’ includes anyone who speaks german, as the neighbors to the north of Italy are actually Switzerland and Austria).

We had a great time walking around, looking how each booth was decorated and what kind of food they were serving. Everything from Gnochi Bolognese to Polenta e Funghi to Seafood. Not one burger joint.  One booth served roast pig, and I mean the whole pig right down to the eyelashes and teeth. The pig had a tennis ball in his mouth!!  Any of you who know me (and our dog) well can guess how unsettling this was for me. Poor Strider!! So we all had plenty to eat and listened to the loud music (all american or at least english. Whenever I hear YMCA or Celebration again I will remember Bartolino) Valerio remarks that most of the music you hear in Italy isn’t Italian, only Americans think ‘That’s Amore’ and ‘o sole mio’ are typical italian songs. Silly me for expecting italian music in Italy. So most meals had english soundtracks. So with this day being our first full day in Verona, I’d say we’re off to a great start!”

Our visit in Verona, Italy

October 19, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy No Comments →

Travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After our trip, she and her friend Eppie went to Italy.

“What’s so incredible is that most of downtown Verona is many centuries old, so historic, but to the residents its just part of their day to day landscape. You’ll see everyday businesses operating in these wonderful old buildings, or an ATM built into the side of a castle. Its so fascinating for us, but just part of life for them.

We eventually headed to Laura’s home and met up with her husband Valerio. They live in a suburb about 20 minutes away from downtown. They just moved into a beautiful brand new Condo 10 days ago and between Valerio working and Laura keeping up with 3 year old Nicolo and 10 month old Elia (ee-lee-ah) it’s a wonder that they were  organized. Of course, they aren’t unpacked yet, but its home sweet home. (The last time I saw Nicolo was 15 months ago. While he was very shy at first, he said ‘Bella Joan’)  We went out to a ristorante that had 6 or 7 PAGES of pizza choices. That’s what? Over 75 kinds? Decisions, decisions.

While we were there Valerio reviewed the pages of activities he had researched as options for us to go see and do. He said after reading all my emails from France with the tour French Escapade, he felt he had to measure up to those experiences.

The next day Laura (and Elia) took us to the Basilica San Zeno, the oldest and most significant church in Verona, which just happens to be in the neighborhood where Laura grew up. St. Zeno is the patron saint of Verona and he was also black, being from Africa. His claim to saint hood is that he converted ALL of Verona from pagans and mere christians to Catholics. As in Pisa, San Zeno’s relics are on display. The church is fascinating, it took centuries to build. Laura has always appreciated the irony of San Zeno being black because many people from Verona are very “racist” and prejudiced; even those from other regions of Italy (such as Sicily) are often disliked and discriminated against. In 1999 Laura + Valerio couldn’t get married at City Hall because Valerio is from Sicily and the Mayor ‘didn’t like’ people from Sicily and would not allow the wedding there.”

From Genoa to Verona, Italy: not so easy.

October 17, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy 5 Comments →

Travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After our trip, she and her friend Eppie went to Italy.

“Our trip to Verona was a crazy one. After ordering our standard “cappuccino e cafe americano’ at the train station early on, Eppie had her change thrown back at her while others just stood and watched. Her crime? Being American we suppose. Nothing like starting off on a pleasant note. Italy has a schizophrenic society.

Our train from Genoa to Milan arrived 12minutes late. We had only 3 minutes to reconnect and we missed it. So did over half of everyone else heading to Verona. So suffice it to say that our eventual trip was way over crowded and we ended up sitting on our luggage in a corridor because it was so over booked. We didn’t have the nerve, energy or inclination to make a fuss about the elderly couple occupying our seats. (So much for being ugly americans). 

My friend Laura was there waiting for us and found us within a minute of walking outside. She took us to our hotel to check in,  and an hour and a half later we were in a little trattoria having a late lunch.

We walked through much of downtown Verona, including past the ancient arena, and many historic and beautiful landmarks that are more than 1000 years old. We even went to Juliette’s Balcony and the House of Montaque, which is now an upscale restaurant that does NOT exploit or even mention Romeo’s name. (Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliette after moving to Verona and hearing locals tell about Guiliette and Romero. He  put the story on paper and anglicised the names.  Juliette’s tomb is still visited everyday).”  

Not an easy arrival in Genoa, Italy

October 16, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy No Comments →

Travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After our trip, Eppie and her went to Italy.

“While at the Genova train station we wanted to secure our agenda for the next few days. The next hour involved a lot of yelling, major arm waving, and I think name calling. I would not be surprised to learn that there were some adjectives in there, too. After standing in a line for 30 min I approached the ticket agent who said he spoke ” a little” english. I presented our plans for traveling to Santa Margherita, Pisa, and Verona. The man was gruff and not friendly at all, and when I told him we have eurail passes he went NUTS. Absolutely ballistic. Yelling. A whole upper body workout including waving and pointing. He pushed himself away from his desk, turned to his co-workers and kept talking, turning towards me and pointing and gesturing. Very theatrical and humiliating, but quite non-productive because I had no idea what he wanted. Keep in mind he could speak english. He could, in theory, ask or tell me what the problem was. But he continued to berate me in Italian and I could feel my face burning with embarrasment. When I asked him what was wrong he started up all over again and flipped his ‘open’ (english once again) sign to ‘closed’. I asked again what I had done wrong. He waved his sign in my face and said ‘go to information you don’t know’.

So I did. Turns out that there is a 4€ difference in price from a general ticket and one bought with a eurail pass on 2 of the trips. 2 trips, 2 passengers = 16€. So he would have had to void and reissue the tickets, and I guess that just wasn’t something he wanted to do. The lady in information wrote down everything I wanted, train #s, times, prices, etc and told me to take those slips back to the ticket window, give them to the agent and pay for our tkts. So we get back in line. Finally, the ticket agent (different) took the slips, examined them, confirmed the days again and # of tickets (in english). Then she asked me if I had “anything else”. I said” no, just those trips please”. She burst into a tirade. “Hey, you, don’t you have eurail pass? You no tell him (waving in her now absent co-workers direction). You no tell me you have Eurail pass! Crazy, stupid, you no tell”. Call me crazy, but then why don’t they just ask (or put up a sign) requesting us to present the pass. I think the railway employees in Italy set a new standard in workplace rage. “Going Postal” in the U.S. Is going to have to relinquish its championship belt to the Italians.

So after all this trauma, we catch our tain to Santa Margherita and then take a shuttle bus to Portofino. It was close to 4pm by the time we got there. It was perfect. Quiet, beautiful, picturesque, just as I imagined. We had a very nice, quiet little dinner right by the little sailboats bobbing in the harbor listening to music and playing ‘name that recording artist’ with the manager. I earned a ‘bravo’ by recognizing Sarah Brightman within 15 seconds. All in all, it was a very nice  day in Italy but it took a glass of wine for me to recover from all of the aforementioned American bashing. Ciao!” Joan

In the train to Genoa, Italy

October 14, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy No Comments →

Travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After our trip, Eppie and her went to Italy.

Immediately upon getting to the train to Genoa, Italy we had ‘issues’. First, we had reservations on a particular train car (#9), in specific seats. How frustrating to find there was no car #9! As the train began making all those gearing up sounds Eppie and I threw our bags and ourselves into car #8. After which the train did indeed pull out of the station. We were told to report to #4, which isn’t exactly as simple as it sounds. Oh sure, we just walk up 4 cars. But while the train is moving and rocking from side to side, and we’re making 2 trips each back and forth because the aisles are narrow and crowded.

Long story short – motion sickness. It was very dizzying walking counter to the direction of the train, staying balanced, while schlepping bags. Remember, to get from 1 car to the other you have to open a sliding door, step across the gyrating ‘joint’ where car 8 meets car 7, open another door, and so on. With a couple(okay, 4)suitcases, 2 ‘carry-ons’ and a back-pack. Eppie is my hero. She would haul those puppies through those people like Moses parting the Red Sea. Dang! It took about 45 minutes but we finally got everything to our newly assigned seats, which of course, were occupied by a retired-age couple who were not happy to be ousted by us.

The seating arrangement was like a table booth in a restaurant, however with separate seats, not a bench. I guess they had wanted our side since it faced the direction of travel, plus it was roomier as it had 3 seats. Nevertheless, we ousted them and they scooted around the little tray table to their assigned seats. (Note: we did this not because we want to bully people but because in Europe a train traveler can get “fined” 50€ if they commit an infraction regarding their ticketing. So we where already concerned about being in the ‘wrong’ car. We wanted to be in the ‘correct’ seats) Then I had to create space for all of our luggage. I lifted up smaller (and nicer) luggage to make room for our bigger, more scuffed bags, then placed the smaller ones on top of the large ones. Logical? Considerate? I thought so, did they? Hell no.

The older lady immediately addressed her husband with arm waving, attitude-tossing malice sneered in my direction. Complaining and insulting hurts more in a foreign tongue since you are unable to attempt peace negotiations. Where’s Jimmy Carter or Jesse jackson when you need them? So after a 15 minute stand off and dirty glances, I opened an italian map and studied it, then took out my passport, handed it to the man and showed him my last name. “Aah! Di Pietro!”. I pointed to my wedding ring. ‘Si,si’ he said, beaming. Apparently I moved up a notch or two in his book because at least I demonstrated the good sense to marry an Italian having not had the good fortune to be born one. I muttered (butchered I’m sure) something about ” mi esposo familia abruzzesi”. and I pointed on my map in the general direction of Introdocua, where Rico’s father was from. This was met with more “Si, si” and more friendly chatter. By the time we said goodbye in Genova, I had learned that they had family in San Francisco and we shook hands.

Our experience in Pisa continued

October 11, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy No Comments →

Travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After our trip, she went to Italy.

“In Pisa, there is a Cathedral which is enormous, ornate, and constructed of beautiful white marble. Then there’s the Bapistry, another sacred building with a large dome. Not as large as the cathedral but still quite impressive. Both are sitting on a lawn, which looks so strange. I guess I’m used to large churches, museums, government buildings, monuments built on plazas and/or with parking lots. This was very impressive. 

Then of course there is the famous leaning tower, which was originally designed to be a bell tower. It is dwarfed by the other 2 buildings. The chronological (and architecural) history of the tower’s construction is well documented. For 25€ you can climb up inside. All of these buildings, which were constructed with white marble, had very recently been cleaned and were striking. In addition to these 3 buildings there are 2 museums, one of which was until recently a hospital. We were told that Pisa is the oldest city in Italy, and the 2 mile wall around the oldest part of the city is the oldest intact wall of its kind in the world.

While we admired the leaning tower from afar, we spent our €uros on being able to walk around inside of the cathedral. Amazing frescos, sculptures and windows.  The patron saint of Pisa (John Baptiste de_____?) “relics” (body) is on display in a glass tomb. They should have done that with Elvis so there wouldn’t be so much speculation about his whereabouts.  

After a few hours we hopped the bus, completed our tour and railed our way back to Genoa. There we got off at a different station, went shopping for an hour or so and when it started to rain we ducked into a tiny ristorante and had an excellent dinner and chatted with the owner who ‘loved’ the U.S. 

Then we caught the train for 1 stop, caught a bus to the airport and then walked to our hotel. I gotta mention that there were only 4 people on this bus, one being the driver. This MANIAC drove about 70 mph through these narrow city streets, we had to hang on to the bars even though we were seated. Twice on turns my butt slid off the seat despite hanging on. Only my feet being firmly planted kept me from flying across the aisle.  It was like being a stuntman on a chase scene. So tomorrow its arrivederci Genoa and we’re off to Verona.” Ciao Joan

Our experience in Pisa, Italy

October 10, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Italy No Comments →

Travel notes from Joan D., San Jose , California, one of our guests on the Provence tour. After the trip, she went to Italy.

“Pisa is a 2 hour train from Genoa, southeast. Pisa is pretty much on the ‘border’ of northern Italy and Tuscany, (Toscano) and is close to the mediterranean. We shared our seats with Maria, an Italian woman in her upper 40’s and her 6yr old daughter Franchesca. They were on their way home, traveling all the way down to the heel of Italy’s boot. (12 by train) being female, we quickly worked out a way to talk for over 90 minutes.  Eppie would ask Maria questions in Espanol (hey, who knew?) And if Maria didn’t understand or know how to respond in English, she’d answer in Italian and then if we looked lost (like, yeah!) she’d try in German, (ich spreche) so then I’d tell Eppie the answer. Then I’d ask in German, she’d try to answer in English. It was a fun and friendly experience. God Bless her, she had been in Genoa visiting her 27 year old daughter and 26 year old son. (She explained in German) then she pointed to Franchesca and said “ooops”. Some things are international.

Eppie and I had no game plan for Pisa, we figured we’d find a tour and that’s exactly how it worked out.  We hopped one of those double decker buses right outside the train station and  and rode through town. Pisa is much bigger than I thought it would be, I have always heard that it’s small, dull and nothing to do but see the leaning tower. But while its not urban, its sprawling. When we arrived at the major tourist stop we got off and walked into the large complex I was immediately impressed by the immense size of two of the buildings, and by how white they are in contrast to the very green grass on which they sit. I was also shocked by the immense crowd of people! There had to have been 75,000 people within the ancient walls of this complex. The complex is roughly a half mile long and 1/3 mile wide, so it’s roomy but since they ask ‘don’t walk on the grass’, the walkways were packed with families and TONS of students.”

   To be continued tomorrow!!