Seeing is believing: 5 awesome salt mines

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The world produces a billion tons of salt each year, irrespective of claims that salt is bad for our health. Salt however is essential in our diet, without it our brains wouldn’t work and our muscles would grow weak. Tons of salt is used to melt ice on roads and is an important product in cleaning products. Currently the debate continues: whether we should take more or less in our diets. Whilst the salt debates rage consider some of the most awesome salt mines in the world.

Khewra Salt Mine Pakistan

Located 100 miles south of Islamabad in Pakistan, Khewra Salt Mine is visited by 25,000 tourists every year. The mine still produces more than 35,000 tons of salt per annum. Counted as one of the oldest mines in the world, it has 18 working levels and 40 kms of tunnels. Once inside the mine visitors are awed by the majesty of this underground world. There is a mosque, built entirely of salt bricks, a working asthma clinic (salt mines are said to help or even cure asthma) and an electric train to transport visitors through the myriad of tunnels. In some tunnels the salt rock is said to be 99% pure with a seam thickness of 150 meters. Underground you are assailed with a kaleidoscope of colours as the light from underground pools reflects onto different coloured salts. On the chamber walls crystal deposits sparkle like sugar. The Assembly Hall is one of the largest chambers, well over 73 meters in height. Salt stalactites, like frozen sculptures, line the route reflecting blue, ochre and green, making the whole place feel like an alien world.

Salina Turda Salt Mine Transylvania

Transylvania is not just for vampires or vampire slayers. Located in Turda, the second largest city in Cluj County, the mine opened to the public in 1992, closed for a while for refurbishment and has received up to 2 million tourists. The mine is deemed as the most beautiful underground places in the world. People who have visited all agree. It is ranked 22 among the most spectacular tourist destinations in the world. That’s quite a reputation! From the moment you enter the mine you are struck by the awesome size of the chambers. Before the refurbishment visitors walked down hundreds of steps to reach echoing gigantic chambers. Now there are escalators and lifts. 120 meters below the surface the mine houses underground lakes, boat tours, play areas, complete with table tennis and an amphitheatre. In August 2015 the mine hosted a 60+ piece orchestra. No wonder: the acoustics are fabulous.

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Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

The wonderful thing about this mine is that there are two options for the visitor. You can travel along the tourist route or you can be a salt miner for the day. You are provided with authentic mining clothes and real small gauge mining equipment. Ever wanted to be a Salt Miner? Now’s your chance! On the tourist classical route there are 20 chambers including the very excellent Chapel of Kings, all made in salt. It takes around 3 hours to make the tour with saline works of art decorating the chamber walls. 800 steps take you down beneath the ground so you have to be relatively fit. You can even pause for a while at the underground tavern. In Saint King’s Chapel the whole chamber is lit with chandeliers. You can even see a depiction of the Last Supper sculptured entirely in salt. The sculptures are what make this mine so special: spread over 300 kilometres of galleries. If you take the Miner’s route you can experience the day to day life of a salt miner: having a go at hewing the salt (most visitors generally hack rather than hew) and working with real miners. The day can be very strenuous so beware. The miner’s route does not follow the classical route. Entry is by the miner’s shaft

Hallstatt Salt Mine Austria

You have to go up before you go down to this salt mine. A funicular railway takes visitors up a path which leads down into the ancient mine. It is said that the first salt to be extracted was 3,000 years ago. A spectacular salt lake stands at its centre of the mine.  The man of the Salt is a central theme. In 1734 a corpse preserved in salt was discovered complete with mining clothes and tools. A guide (the man in salt) accompanies you on the tour. Apart from the fabulous lighting from the lake and pools which make the salt walls shine blue, ochre and green, what makes this mine special, is the wooden slides which visitors travel on to get from one chamber to another. Just like play ground slides, visitors whizz along from one place to another. They were once used to move miners around the mine and are the longest wooden slides in the world. There is a stair case you don’t want to miss either. The salt drips like icicles from the balustrades. You just have to touch it to make sure it’s not ice. Narnia has nothing on Hallstatt Salt Mine.

Nemocon Salt Mine Cundinamarca Colombia

If ever you find yourself in Colombia, take a trip to this fabulous mine. Each chamber is a blaze of colour. It’s like shaking a kaleidoscope. Salt deposits over 250 million years old are illuminated by the reflection of light on pond water. Everywhere along the route religious icons made of salt are carved into walls. The salt is so thick in this mine that in places it looks like gigantic snow drifts. This mine is truly an alien landscape. Salt Stalactites of all sizes seem to stretch to join forces with majestic stalagmites growing out of salty floors. 800 metres deep the salt mine is Colombia’s most popular tourist attraction, not least because of an intriguing heart shaped rock crystal, a favourite sight for tourists. Huge salt waterfalls look like time itself has frozen. To top all this, there’s breathtaking chapel that miner’s carved in salt for their daily prayer meetings. This mine has the largest salt deposits in the world. Historically control of the salt production was the major source of political power.  Now it attracts visitors from all over the world.

And The Best Way To Get Your Salt!

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Famous Five Department Stores For the Compulsive Shopper

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    Galaries Lafayette Paris 

Galaries Layfayette

Think gold and you’ll get what it looks like in this fabulous department store located in the Opera district of Paris. With 10 floors glittering with golden lighting, it’s a stunning example of what every woman wants in a shopping experience. The whole store is canopied with the most glorious glass dome ceiling. The centre well of the store is open to all floors. Each floor circles around the central well, each department having glittering balconies in the style of an opera house. Fashion is exclusive and very expensive but you can enjoy a free weekly fashion show and rest a while in roof-top lounge which offers amazing views of Paris: all for free.

Macy’s Herald Square New York

This store is a New York icon. It is said to be the first building to have escalators. There are 11 levels and plenty of restaurants. It is arguably the largest department store in the world. If you can’t resist your compulsive shopping urges, international visitors can get a discount card giving them 11% off most purchases. Designer fashion wear can set you back a bit. But if you decide on a shopping spree you can even have your purchases shipped home. The store gets very crowded, but don’t worry you can have your bags and coat checked and you can obtain a visitor’s guide book of each department at the visitors centre. Stay for the day why don’t you?

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Harrods London

A massive store occupying a five acre site, Harrods is the biggest store in Europe. There is no shortage of shopping with 330 very exclusive departments to choose from. It has 32 restaurants, a Hair Salon and Barber shop, so no excuse for not hanging around for the whole day. If you really want to push the boat out you can hire a personal assistant to help you shop: by appointment only of course! Although, it is true to say that all shop assistants in Harrods are very welcoming and friendly. If you’re looking for something a little special, did you know that Harrods now sells gold bars ‘off the shelf’ from 1g to 12.5jk? Now there’s something to think about!

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Who can resist Christmas at Harrods?

Corso Como Milan

This is a fashionable courtyard cafe with shop and hotel. The fashion is high-end so beware. But it’s free to browse and it’s lovely to look at.  The staff is very helpful and you get a great feel for Italy. The roof-top garden has stunning views of Milan, the cafe is delightfully Italian. What’s extra special about this complex is the fabulous book store. Spacious, with beautifully designed glass tables, you could stay and browse through this store all

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Corso Como

Dubai Mall Dubai

Whilst it isn’t strictly a department store it’s far too special to leave out. Undoubtedly the largest shopping mall in the world, it houses shops, a cinema, a leisure centre and a fabulous aquarium. The complex cost 20 billion dollars to build so it really is worth a look. If you fancy rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, here’s the place to be. On the other hand if your fancy is for candy, then Candylicious is the place to head for in this fabulous mall. This candy store is massive. A huge candy tree dripping with oversized lollipops urge people into the store, although it really takes little urging. You can smell the sweet aroma of chocolate and caramel long before you venture inside. There is no shortage of candy to choose from. The store offers 5,000 different varieties. Go the whole hog and combine your shopaholic and chocoholic tendencies and have the shopping time of your life.

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Dubai Mall: You’ll never want to leave!

Take One Desert and a Whole Load of Spaghetti

Hidden away in the Tabernas desert, traditionally known as the Badlands, Mini Hollywood is Spain’s best kept secret.  If you are a still a kid at heart you will love playing cowboys and Indians in Fort Bravo and Western Leone, two film sets once used to make Spaghetti westerns such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fist full of Dollars. Mike, my partner, and I went there last May and had a fabulous time kicking around in the dust, taking a buggy ride around town and watching a make-believe saloon fight. We drove down to Almeria from Central France and after stopping off to get some sun on the glorious Mediterranean coast, we moseyed on down to the Tabernas Desert. The roads are bad so watch them thar potholes! There are no tour guides and we arrived just at the start of the season so at times if seems like we were the only people there. We ran around like a pair of urchins, exploring every set, whether barber’s shop, sheriff’s office or chapel. I even locked Mike up in the town’s jail. I guess he should have helped me down from that stage coach after my arduous ride through ‘injun’ country. At one point I’m sure I saw Charlie Bronson peeking from behind a clock on the roof of the saloon. And yes, that was definitely Henry Fonda with his evil gang surrounding the house that Claudia Cardinale inherited from her murdered husband. I can see her now. Oh sorry that’s me standing on the stoop of that very house looking more like Calamity Jane that Cardinale.  Walking up a perilously steep hill I saw a collection of Indian teepee’s nestling on the side of a mountain. Believe it or not Indiana Jones stood in the very spot I stood, to have my photo taken. I am sure he would be very proud to know this. The Last Crusade was filmed there, as well as being the location for some of the scenes in the first Star Wars films.

Look out there’s Clint Eastwood!

The sets, scattered around the dusty valley, are still very much the same as when the films were made. Whilst they look a little flimsy now, and in some places downright shabby, the rugged Spanish landscape provides the perfect bad land backdrop. You can even still see the stone archway where the evil Fonda hanged Harmonica’s brother in Once Upon a Time In the West. It’s not long before the red dust blows up around your shoes and you could almost believe you can see a posse riding into town. Reminders of A Fistful of Dollars are everywhere, in the wooden gateways, and the secluded cemeteries, complete with wooden crosses. Astonishingly, the chalets that the film stars stayed in are now rented out to the public as holiday accommodation. We were tempted but we already had accommodation booked. Had we have known though… But, we had a lovely meal in the cantina and a couple of beers in the Saloon. There were lots of photos to be had with cowboys, and saloon girls. We even got dressed up as Mexican bandits. I looked very fetching standing beneath the largest cactus I had ever seen. Unfortunately the printer broke so we couldn’t get the photos. This was our only disappointment of the day. This visit was a chance to behave like a child again, but I did bulk at putting my head in a hangman’s noose. The scaffold looked at little to flimsy and somehow I couldn’t see Clint riding into town to rescue me! But it was good walking up the wooden steps and imagining what it was like for all those ner-do-wells who found themselves at the end of a noose in the bad old days.

Awesome is the only word to describe the Tabernas Desert

The Tabernas (Desierto de Tabernas) is one of the largest deserts in Europe. Located in Almeria, the area is the driest in Europe. The landscape is rugged, primeval and breathtaking. Spanning over 100 square miles, the desert is protected as wilderness area. We got lucky and saw some wild bulls grazing in the distance, far away enough not to cause us concern, but near enough for us to marvel at the awesome sight they made against the clear blue skyline. Almeria is one of my favourite places in Spain. Located on Spain’s southern coast, it edges onto to Andalucía: white hot in the summer months. Almeria has a remarkable unspoiled natural coastline and is probably one of the least known Costas. The scenery is typically Spanish and we spent many hours admiring the white-washed buildings shimmering in the bright May sunshine. The region is steeped in history for those going for a little culture and we certainly did after playing cowboys all day.  We never got the chance to visit the Moorish castle of Alcazaba which towers over the city of Almeria, but hey there’s always next year!

 

Grandma Grey Surfs to Paris

Grandma Grey is a fictional character who has recently discovered the art of travel. Since there is no stopping her now, I would like to introduce you to her first blog. She is a new-comer to blogging and to travel so I hope you will follow her on her adventures

Grandma Grey

It was my father who came to my aid when I was last in Paris. Now it’s going to be my son John. “It’s outrageous”, he yells.  “It’s gone viral” he splutters before slamming down the phone.  Actually with these mobile things you can’t really slam down the phone can you? Which is a shame really, I do enjoy a bit of drama. As for going viral I’m almost certain that I haven’t contaminated any part of Paris, either unintentionally or on purpose. He’s “coming to get me”, like I need rescuing or something. Well, I don’t. I might be drawing my pension, but I’m not drawing my last breath. And another thing, if he hadn’t insisted I have a mobile phone I wouldn’t be in this pickle! It’s called a smart phone: a G something or another. It comes in a pretty pink case and does everything bar cook the Sunday roast.

“You have to learn to text Mum”, he’d insisted. Even showed me how to do it, but really I wasn’t interested. Half-heartedly he showed me how to use the internet: surfing I think he called it. But it just fell on deaf ears. I thought what a palaver! Why couldn’t I just find a telephone box? In any case why does he have to know my every move? So in a way you could say this ‘fiasco’ as John will undoubtedly call it, is his fault.   Anyhow, what happened was this. Vera died and to pass the time on my way to her funeral I took the phone out of my bag and started fiddling with it. As the coach sped down the motorway towards London I really got into it. So since then I’ve texted John regularly just as he instructed. I haven’t exactly told him where I’m texting from, but so what? If I text him I must be okay. Those were his very words.

We’d been friends for years, Vera and me. We met at Art College in the early 60s.  Neither of us was any good at art. We barely scraped through our final year.  A right pair of idlers we were then. We were proper dreamers though. No boring jobs for us. We were going to travel, see the world. That’s how come we ended up in Paris, which was just about as far as we got on our round the world back-packing adventure.

We decided to camp out in Luxembourg Gardens the first night we arrived in Paris. It’s real Parisian. It was the favourite haunt of poets and writers like Hemmingway and Scott Fitzgerald. It sounded very romantic and very avant garde.  When we woke up though, the misty romantic morning revealed our belongings had up and disappeared along with the night.  My father came to our rescue. I don’t quite remember how we found the British Embassy but we stayed there until he arrived in his little grey Morris Minor, cussing and blinding, to drive us back home: me to work in a shoe shop and Vera to work in a library.  So long Paris then. I’d never been back.

That was until now. I must say Paris jails are surprising clean and tidy. And the extremely young Gendarme has just brought me a lovely cup of raspberry tea. It’s all a bit of a muddle really. Anyhow, there I was sitting in London’s Victoria Station waiting for the bus back to Birmingham after the funeral. I got a bit gloomy. Funerals do that don’t they? Had I done enough with my life I wondered? I decided I hadn’t. Had I done anything remotely daring and exciting? No, I couldn’t think of one solitary thing. Okay, my Jim had taken good care of me and heaven forbid I should speak ill of my dead husband, but really he was as dull as dish water, always was. I studied the passengers getting on buses going to who knew where. I bet their lives were exciting. I pondered this as I idled with my new phone. I was far too early for my bus, but what can you do after a funeral? I’d lingered over the tea and cake provided by Vera’s daughter but there’s only so long you can make a slice of Battenberg last.

Grandma Discovers the Net

They call it surfing the net, this idling with different internet pictures. What a ridiculous term, but I can definitely see the attraction. My grandson said the phone knows my location. At first I didn’t believe it. “What rubbish,” I remarked.  But, believe it or not as I was sitting there in the coach station, the internet on my phone began offering me all sorts of fascinating travel destinations from right there at Victoria Station. Now that’s clever, very clever indeed. It seemed I could go to Paris from Victoria on a bus for £39 if I booked online now! So I booked it. Why not? By 6.30am the very next morning I would be in Paris instead of watching the telly in my little house in Birmingham. All I had to do was check in when I got on the bus: just waved my phone at driver and hey presto, he even helped me on with my overnight case.  Good job I always carry my passport. Vera would have laughed her socks off.

The bus pulled in at Bercy railway station in Paris right on the dot. Being the middle of August the station was already pretty busy. Even as I stepped onto the pavement I felt a tingle of excitement. Fancy? Me in Paris! My new phone had served me well over night. The pretty French girl, who’d sat next to me on the journey, showed me how to connect to the bus’s WiFi. With her help, I downloaded a map of the Paris metro and I memorised a YouTube video of how to use the metro ticket machines. Not bad for a Grandma! But, before starting on my pilgrimage to the gardens, I texted John: “Staying a little longer in London met some old friends at funeral”.  Popping the phone back inside its little pink leather case I marvelled at how easy it was to lie by text.

I suppose the trouble began when I arrived at Luxembourg Gardens. Dropping my bag on the grass by the Medicis Fountain I cleared my throat and began to sing Old Shep. Two young French men ambled over and joined in on the chorus.  You might say Old Shep was mine and Vera’s swan song. After we’d had our money stolen, we decided to busk by this very fountain for the price of a cup of coffee and a croissant. We made 5 Francs!

Anyhow, after I’d finished singing I shouted “That was for you Vera, love”. An elderly gentleman sitting on a nearby bench started with fright. That was when everything got a bit muddled. You see, I’d attracted a bit of a crowd and they were cheering me on. So, I got into the spirit of things and started singing Slow Boat to China. Just then a policeman broke through the crowd and started remonstrating throwing his arms this way and that like a mad thing. Well, I wasn’t doing any harm so I carried on singing. Then it happened. As I swung my arms out to hit my final note, I somehow managed to whack the policeman right on the nose. I watched in horror. It was like slow motion. His fingers clutched at the air as he tried to save himself. I grabbed at him but I knew he’d reached a point of no return. Toppling backwards, arms and legs flaying, he fell, full length into the fountain.

So here we are: me and my handsome boy band, waiting to pay our fines for causing an affray. Apparently there’s a major chess tournament going on in the Gardens this week and the policeman was simply asking us to move on. The two young men, Louis and Christian, are looking at their phones now and laughing hysterically. I frown at them. They should at least show some remorse I think. The younger of the two men, Louis, hands me his phone. I stare at the screen. I can hardly believe my eyes. That’s me, singing my little heart out. Then oops there goes the policeman! Stunned I hand the phone back. The boys are trying to explain that this video is showing all around the world. But I’m not listening. I’ve just received an email telling me I can go from Paris to Morocco by bus for as little as 150 Euros including the ferry crossing.  I’ve never been to Morocco.

 

 

New York

You might think a trip to New York is quite conventional and quite expensive. Millions of people travel there as tourists and on business every year. When I told people I was visiting for the first time, I got loads of advice about the “10 things” I must see and do. Of course I wanted to see everything, but I only had five days and I wanted to get a feel for the place, the kind of feel you can only get by hitting the pavements. Initially I intended to travel alone, but my sister decided to join me. The journey to Manhattan was a little unconventional. We flew from Heathrow to Moscow to John F Kennedy Airport. Aeroflot (Russian Airlines) offered me a price I just couldn’t refuse. We arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport  in Moscow at 4.00am and loved how modern and efficient everything was. Of course we bought souvenirs with “Welcome to Moscow” on them and took loads of selfies in front of Russian billboards. Four hours later we were on our way to JFK. We were booked in at the Pennsylvania, Midtown Manhattan. It was the shabbiest hotel I have ever stayed in, but I adored its old world charm, despite the frayed carpets and chipped paintwork. The Pennsylvania is five minute walk to Times Square, a block away from The Empire State Building and directly opposite the subway: New York in all its fabulous glory.

What can I say about the city that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing. But it truly is a city of contrasts and there is still much to be discovered by the curious traveller. After blowing off steam in Times Square on the day we arrived, we spent the following morning quietly contemplating the West Side by walking along High Line Park. This fantastic walkway is 2.33 kilometres long and is the result of the transformation of an old elevated railroad which runs above 10th and 12th Avenues. It is now an aerial park. We walked from our hotel on 7th Avenue, to Chelsea, a rather lovely part of Manhattan, to the steps which led up to the old rail track. We ambled above the avenues of Chelsea and the famous Meat Packing District, eating ice cream and enjoying the view. The High Line was closed to trains between the 1960s and 1990s. It wasn’t long before plants and wildflowers reclaimed the abandoned tracks. Volunteers in New York began tending the overgrowth and the line was eventually reconstructed by the city to become a beautiful escape from the busy streets. The High Line is free for all to enjoy. If you look carefully as you walk along the tree-lined pathways you can catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

After spending the morning exploring the High Line we jumped on the subway to South Pier: where better to see the fabulous Manhattan skyline? We’d splashed out on tickets for the Empire State Building the evening before, and it included a free ferry trip. So having got my first view of the iconic skyline from the giddy heights of the Empire State, I saw it again from the Hudson River. The lady herself, resplendent in her green robes, glittered in the afternoon sun. I was reminded of the millions of immigrants whom she’d welcomed to her city. The Statue of Liberty was not always green. Originally she was copper but time has oxidised the lady, turning her a majestic Emerald green. That evening we went to see a Broadway show. It was our only concession to ‘blowing a load of money’, but we couldn’t resist seeing Les Miserable’s, our favourite musical. The New York version, starred Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean.

Wednesday was spent in Central Park. We hired bicycles and in scorching heat, cycled past Sheep’s Meadow, where sheep once actually grazed and onto Bethesda Fountain and the beautiful lake. The park is man-made, though you wouldn’t believe it.  It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s. Perspiring profusely we ate pineapple ice lollies on Bethesda Terrace and listened to a young woman singing opera in the Bethesda mosaic arches below us. Both my sister and I are Hollywood movie fans and we spent our time in Central Park identifying places where movies were filmed: Maid in Manhattan, Home Alone 2 and many more. Walking along the pathways in the Rambles, a wooded area which stretches above the boating lake, it was hard to imagine we were just a short distance from the busy 7th Avenue and the bustle of 59th Street. Exhausted, we spent that evening munching on Pastrami and Rye sandwiches in one of the many delicatessens in Manhattan, before staggering back to the Penn.

Our final day in New York was probably the most memorable. We took a water taxi (35 dollars for the day) at South Pier and did a stop-off tour of Brooklyn, the financial centre and finally Times Square to eat. In Brooklyn we visited the iconic Juliana’s Pizzeria, and Jane’s Carousel, a 1920s renovated carousel located in what is known locally as the Dumbo area. (Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Rain eventually broke the heat wave but it didn’t spoil our visit to the top of One World Tower, the new Tower One of the World Trade Centre. The observatory was almost deserted because of low visibility but we couldn’t resist the ride up its 104 floors (in 28 seconds) to see what we could.  Rain or not, the views from the observatory windows were stunning. A visit to the memorial site of the twin towers finalised our trip to this iconic city.  It was September 9 the next day: the anniversary of the world trade centre disaster. It was a sombre visit as many friends and relatives of the victims were placing red and white roses on the memorial walls. My sister said the rain represented the tears of all those families who lost loved ones. It was a fitting reminder of how dynamic New York is. The city is tough and resilient. It shows in her architecture, her brashness and her determination to be free. I can’t wait to return.

 

This trip with four nights at the Pennsylvania, together with flights, food and entertainment cost me just under £1,000.

This blog can also be accessed on  http://www.thetraveltrail.com/old/

 

 

 

Here’s to Travel

Welcome to Shirley Just Writes. Sounds simple, hey, anyone who writes will tell you its more about the craft than about the art. Its also about the DISCIPLINE! If anyone out there is an expert in how to work from home, and go travelling, and go shopping, do housework and go watch TV, I can’t wait to here from you. Writing, particularly freelance writing is hard. This year its all about niches. I have now discovered mine is travel, in particular, travel on a shoe-string (or budget if you want to be posh!).   Over the coming weeks I am going to introduce you to Grandma Grey, my all time favourite fictional character. I created her last year and she has become my alter ego. She travels solo with her trusty iphone, and boy does she get around? On the discussion board too will be travel destinations, tips about travelling solo in big cities like Paris and New York, and how to get around on a budget. My first blog will tell you a little about my first trip to New York in September last year. It was love at first sight. I will also be blogging news from Paris and the Loire Valley in France. But there will be lots of of other destinations too. Check out my article on Rome

Hope to hear from you soon on the open road!