Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Up, Up, Up... On the Trail of the Tour De France

Remember the opening line of the "Friendly Giant," that lovely children's television show from the sixties? "Look up.... look wa-ay up?" Well, it kind of sums up the next couple of days of our trip. That's because we were on trail of the Tour de France. Not literally, of course, since we will be home in Ottawa when the Tour takes place in July. But we were following the path of two of the iconic mountain climbs of the tour.

Hubby and I are big fans of the Tour de France. We have watched it for years on TV. We love the scenery, the drama, the idea that anyone can cycle that far and that hard for that many days in a row. I always pick a team to follow. Sometimes for silly reasons. One year I chose Astana, the Kazakhstan team, because I loved their turquoise and white jerseys. And because Alexander Vinokourov showed such tenacity after a bad fall early in the race, actually riding off the road and disappearing over the edge of a cliff. Another year I chose the team that had the most Aussies on it, since we had been in Australia that year and loved it. And then a couple of years ago, we had to cheer for the Garmin team because Canadian Ryder Hesjedal was their lead rider and a GC contender. Don't worry, I hold no illusions about the purity of the sport; Vinokourov was sent home for failing a drug test, the year I cheered for him. Hesjedal admitted to doping early in his career, after being "outed" in another cyclist's memoir. Pretty much every big name cyclist has been caught for doping and denied it, or been caught and then "apologized" for "making poor choices," or retired and written a book about their doping. All except for (as far as I know) Aussie rider, Cadel Evans, who won the Tour in 2011. But I still love the sport and in particular the Tour de France.

When we planned our trip to France this year, driving to the top of at least one of the famous mountain climbs of the Tour was on my "must do list." Please note that I say "driving" and NOT cycling. Hubby and I love riding our bikes. Most weeks from May through October we ride at least twice. We take our bikes with us when we travel to Quebec, or up the Ottawa valley, or downeast. But we are in no way serious cyclists. More like dabblers. And not mountain climbers by any means.

So on the cloudy morning we left Macôn, we headed up into the French Alps enroute to Alpe D'Huez... and hoped to be able to see the top when we got there. It looked like this at first.


But the father we drove the sunnier it became. And more gorgeous.

view of Alpe D'Huez

We passed all kinds of cyclists on the road. Brave boys and girls... well, at least braver than we were.

Alpe D'Huez, going down

Alpe D'Huez is known for its hairpin turns. Over twenty-one of them, apparently.

on the way down Alpe D'Huez

It's fourteen kilometres to the top. And at 1860 metres...that's a looong way down.

switch-backs on Alpe D'Huez

We stopped for pictures of this small stone church on the way up, up, up.

chapel on Alpe D'Huez

And I couldn't resist a shot of these very happy riders. There were on the way down.... no wonder they were smiling. The last guy gave me a cheery wave as he passed.

cyclists on the way down Alpe D'Huez

We ended the day in Gap. It seemed everyone was out and about that afternoon. We booked into our hotel, showered (climbing monutains can be hot work...even in a car) and walked downtown for supper.

busy city center of Gap, France

This is the view of the terrace of our hotel. The mountains are just behind, but the shot that included them was too bleached of colour. But who cares... it was warm and NOT raining! Getting a great picture isn't everything.


Even in a great hotel, I'm still struggling with my "beauty" routine. Lots of light here (unlike Paris) but the cord for the blow dryer was so short I had to bend over to dry my hair. Hubby came into the bathroom shortly after this and was pressed into service. He stretched some of the coils out of the cord and then stood there holding it while I finished drying my hair. What a good man! Sometimes, people, it takes a village.


After breakfast we drove off in search of our second Tour de France climb. The most famous one of all...Mont Ventoux. It's the big one. Not as tall as Alpe D'Huez, but at 22 km, it's longer and much more difficult.


Up, up, up ... again.

on the way up Mont Ventoux

Sometimes it looked as if the road simply disappeared.

on the way up Mont Ventoux

I'd recognize this distinctive image anywhere. We'd seen it many times on TV. Only this day the road was not lined with the camper vans of ardent cycling fans who'd camped out waiting for the big day, or filled with swerving motobikes, film crews, team cars...and even the odd crazy fan decked out in a gorilla suit. Today it was just us, a few other cars including that guy in the white car we'd followed all the way up, and lots of cyclists.

iconic view of Mont Ventoux

This is me at the summit. It was windy up there.

summit of Mont Ventoux

We snapped a few shots and then began the descent. Down, down, down we went...which is even more hairy than going up, up, up... whether you're on a bike or in a car.

view from the top of Mont Ventoux

A Dutch cyclist that we met a week or so later in the trip, and who had actually ridden up both Alpe D'Huez and Mont Ventoux, told us one of the problems with the descent is that riders' hands become very sore from holding onto the brakes for so long. Seriously, you don't want to whip around these curves out of control!

going down Mont Ventoux

Almost at the bottom again, we stopped for one more shot. We still had kilometres to go by the end of the day. A GPS, written instructions and several maps to decipher before we were finished.

view of Mont Ventoux

Not to mention a couple of hours of being lost in Avignon before we found our little cottage by the vineyard. Isn't it lovely? Sigh.

our cottage near Avignon, France

We'd be in Avignon for almost a week; and we were tired and definitely ready for a slower pace. Travel can take it out of you, and mountain climbing even in a car without the aid of performance enhancing drugs can be exhausting. Little cycling joke, there, folks.

As I write this we are in the Loire Valley. We have only a few more days left of our trip... and I haven't written about Provence or the Gorges du Tarn... or our lovely B&B here in Chambon sur Cisse just a short drive away from so many wonderful chateaux. But I'm pretty sure all that will have to wait until I'm back home, next week.

Right now, I have to go get ready for dinner. Hubby is taking me into Blois for my birthday supper. My actual birthday was yesterday. But last night, we barbequed here on the banks of the River Cisse, put our feet up in our host David's lovely garden, drank some of the Chateauneuf du Pape that we bought in Avignon, listened to the ducks and the cuckoos ... and just breathed.










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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Enroute to Provence. Looking for Sun and Stress-Free Living.

Yep, we're in Provence....finally. After several emotional days in the World War I battlefields of the north we were ready for sun and stress-free living. Ha!

Let's see, where shall I start? Rain, wind, GPS troubles, narrow one way streets with the GPS lady patiently telling us to turn right, down a street that is blocked by bollards, or not telling us where to exit a round-about because it is so newly constructed that she (we call our GPS she) doesn't even know about it. And on it goes. Hubby and I can both imitate her "leave the round-about at the second exit" in a perfectly plummy English accent.

Our first day of driving after Verdun was wonderful to start. Lovely tree-lined roads.

tree-lined road outside of Verdun, France

Through the many, many vineyards of Burgundy.

vineyards in Burgundy, France

Then when the afternoon was waning, we decided to carry on driving when we should have known better. But, we wanted to get as far south as possible. So it was almost five o'clock and we were cranky, hungry, and tired of driving when we arrived in the town where we had chosen to stop. Macôn, on the southern tip of the Burgundy wine region. A lovely, historic, little town. Despite the rain, one way streets and very few parking spots, we found the tourist information site without mishap. Okay... without too many mishaps. A nice young girl there, who wanted to tell us all about her trip to Canada when she was twelve years old, which was probably last year, she seemed so young, booked us into the third hotel she tried. And then we began the journey of finding the darn place, and then trying to find a place to park.

The whole town seemed under construction. Many streets were blocked off, making the small map of the downtown area virtually useless. Most of the other streets were one-way. We had to drive by the hotel at least twice, each time seeing no sign of the promised hotel parking lot. Eventually Hubby pulled into a "10 minute" spot several blocks short of the hotel, and suggested he would wait with the car while I walked up the street "a little ways" to the hotel. A "little ways" turned out to be four very long blocks, up hill, in rain that fell harder and harder as I walked, and cursed. I cursed this town, I cursed Hubby, I cursed my jacket hood for obscuring my view so I was almost run over by a bus. I cursed the fact that I really had to pee ... and then I cursed Hubby some more.

I won't go into the machinations we went through dealing with the shirty hotel receptionist, waiting for one of only three remote controls that would open the parking garage gates to be returned by another guest, finding a parking spot in the small, dark parking garage across the street, and dragging our luggage back to our tiny room, in the rain. But I guess I just did... go into it, I mean. Ah well. One can only get so wet, and then it ceases to matter. Once in our room I changed into dry jeans, and we set off to find a restaurant for dinner. 

The rain let up. We found ourselves in a traditional bistro down by the river Saôn frequented by locals... and their dogs. Had a glass of lovely, local red wine, and then a huge serving of boeuf bourguignon, served in a cast iron pot. Just the thing for a chilly, rainy evening. As I said to Hubby, if you can't eat boeuf bourguignon in Burgundy, where can you eat it? It was yummy. We stumbled back to our hotel and fell into bed, and to sleep immediately.

The next day would be better. We'd head up, up, up into the Alps... on the trail of the Tour de France.


view of Alpe D'Huez

Then, we'd get to Provence. And it would be sunny and warm. And dry. 

We hoped.






Monday, May 18, 2015

Paying Our Respects ... in Northern France


Our trip in France continues apace. Pace being the operative word. I think we bit off more than we could comfortably chew, in terms of how much ground we had hoped to cover in a month. Reminds me of when I was teaching and my very keen department and I used to jump into the deep end when it came to adopting new curriculum. I can still hear my friend Nancy H. groaning, "How do we do this? We keep saying that we won't bite off more than we can chew. And yet here we go again...bite, bite, bite!" Yep. That's our trip in a nutshell, Nancy. Bite, bite, bite.

Anyhoo. After six hectic days in Paris, we picked up our car and headed north. To Arras. A town almost completely destroyed in WWI and rebuilt to look almost exactly the same as it did pre-1914. The is the beautiful Place des Heroes.

Place des Heroes in Arras, France

And the World War I battlefields. Pretty bucolic looking now. That is, until you realize that these are shell holes.

WWI battlefields of Vimy Ridge

And, of course, the site of the Vimy Memorial. The battle at Vimy Ridge is an important part of Canadian history, and according to Hubby, considered by many to mark the birth of Canada as an independent nation. The first time that all the Canadian battalions fought together as one, under Canadian, not British, leadership.

The Vimy Memorial is a stunningly beautiful monument. I first came to be interested in it years ago when I read Jane Urquahart's wonderful novel The Stone Carvers, which tells the story of the memorial, and the stories of the artists and carvers who created it. I taught for years at John McCrae Secondary School named after the World War I poet who wrote "In Flanders Fields," a poem which every Canadian school kid knows; at McCrae, our school ceremony on Remembrance Day was a major production. And for the last few years I taught, my writing class worked on the research and writing of the script. So all that, plus the fact that I love and taught a lot of WWI poetry and prose means I'm a bit obsessed with that era in history. Making this part of the trip a big deal for me.


Vimy Monument


Vimy Monument



Vimy Monument



Vimy Monument



selfie at the Vimy Monument


We had the Vimy monument site completely to ourselves that morning. Well, for a while anyway. Enough time to walk around, take pictures, read the name of Hubby's great uncle (or cousin, we're not sure) inscribed on the wall, listen to the quiet broken only by the sound of sheep in the neighbouring field. And just admire this beautiful structure. And feel proud to be Canadian.

Then we visited some of the war cemetaries which dot the countryside. Whether this Canadian and British cemetary, near Vimy.


Canadian WWI cemetary near Vimy Ridge

Or the French cemetery at the Douaumont Ossuaire near Verdun. They are all sobering to see.


French WWI cemetary at Douaumont Ossuaire, near Verdun

Not least of which is the newly opened "Ring of Memory" memorial at Notre-Dame-de-Lorrette, outside of Arras. Literally a ring on which the 580,000 names of the soldiers of all nationalities who fell in northern France in World War I are inscribed alphabetically, not categorized by nationality or by regiment so as to focus entirely on the sacrifics of the individual.

Ring of Memory at Notre-Dame-de-Lorrette

This is just a portion of the Smiths listed. And there are just as many Schmidts, too.



We stayed for three nights in Arras and two outside of Verdun. And the last morning before we left for parts south we set off on a very special pilgrimage... to find the grave of British poet Wilfred Owen. Owen was wounded in 1917 and sent home to recover from his physical as well as his psychological injuries. While recuperating, Owen met and was mentored by the older poet Sigfied Sassoon, and he went on to write his most powerful and famous anti-war poems. And even though he no longer believed "that old lie; dulce et decorum est pro patria mori"... that it is "sweet and fitting to die for one's country"... once recovered, Owen chose to return to the front to be with his men. And died there. Age 25. One week before the end of the war.

His grave was not easy to find. We circled around and through the tiny village of Ors. Missing the cemetary twice despite being given directions, "a la gauche" "train tracks" "droit, droit, et alors gauche," avec lots of hand gestures. Finally, we were there. Ors Communal Cemetary contained the graves of the local village families, as well as three short rows of British war graves.

Ors Communal Cemetary, France

The inscriptions on all the stones were pretty eroded. But, on Owen's, you can just makeout "W E S Owen. MC. Died November 4, 1918. Age 25. Someone had laid a wreath of poppies on which they had printed part of his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" as well as their thanks.

grave of Wilfred Owen in Ors Communal Cemetary, France

I must say I was grateful for Hubby's patience that morning. We spent well over an hour seeking and and not finding ...and we had a long drive still in front of us. But I am so glad that we eventually did find Owen's grave. It was important to me.

Of course we saw lots of other sights in the days we spent in the north of France. Like wonderful countryside. Both around the battlefield areas.

fields adjacent to WWI battlefields near Vimy Ridge, France

And beyond.



Saw beautiful old towns and villages. Like Montmedy, below.

Montmedy, France

Stayed in some really neat places. In the towns...

at Cours du Grande B&B, near Arras, France

And in the countryside.


And made some surprising new friends.


I must say that this was the first time I have been awakened in the morning to the sound of a donkey braying. And, you know, it was pretty cool.

So after Verdun, we were headed for parts south. As another famous poet (kind of) said "we had miles to go before we could sleep." Tour de France landmarks to climb, wineries to visit, a bridge to dance upon. As I said... bite, bite, bite. But those stories are going to have to wait for another post.

Good night friends.







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Monday, May 11, 2015

Adventures and Misadventures in Paris



We've been in France for a week now ...well, almost. We landed one week ago tomorrow morning. And our flight over was a sleepless, and uncomfortable night. I used to be able to sleep on a plane, not anymore.
Somewhere over the Atlantic... Hello moon. We're on our way to Paris!


full moon over the Atlantic

Morning brought our miniscule "cup" of coffee and a slice of ... cake? Huh? What happened to sausages and eggs? Ah well, we're on our way to Paris. How bad can it be with such a spectacular view of the French countryside?

view of French farm fields from the air

We booked a "Zip" transfer from the airport and were glad we did. Our apartment was on a small street,several blocks from a Metro stop, and we were glad not to be negotiating the RER train from the airport, and then the Metro for the first time ever, and lugging our bags, and trying NOT to get lost.

This is the winding stairs up to our third floor flat. So old and so atmospheric. The barred window and door at the bottom of the stairs, no longer lead into the concierge's quarters, but to the tiny cafe Strada with coffee and wonderful food. I came to know their latte very well over the week.

our flat in the Marais, Paris

Home sweet home for the next six days.

our flat in the Marais, Paris

The apartment was lovely, all wood beams and hardwood floors. Maybe the pumbing could do with an update. But, what the heck, we're in Paris. Only thing I struggled with was trying to find somewhere with enough light to put my makeup on. I'm certain that I ventured out on several occasions with my eyebrows on crooked.


Our apartment was in the Marais, very central with small winding streets and we walked everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. To the Arc du Triomphe.

Arc du Triomphe

Where the view was fantastic.

view from top of Arc du Triomphe

And it was a teensy bit breezy.

bit windy at the top of the Arc du Triomphe

To the Eiffel Tower.


Eiffel Tower

Where we bought our ticket to go to the top and stood in a very, very long line. And then it started to rain. And then to blow and rain harder. And then it hailed. And what can you do at a moment like that except laugh ruefully and say... ah well, it's Paris. It's not like we have to paddle back to our campsite and sleep in a wet tent, is it? You see, those Algonquin Park adventures come in real handy sometimes.

See we're wet, and freezing, but still smiling. Sunglasses are a great hair flattener when the natural curl and frizz kicks in.



waiting in the rain to go up the Eiffel Tower

While we were waiting in line they closed the top of the tower due to the strong winds, saying we would only be able to go to the second level. But, not to worry, we would get a refund, for which we would have to stand in line when we came back down. Great. But.... by the time we reached the front of the line, the sun was out and we were able to go right to the top. Once up there, though, it was still unnervingly windy, so we stayed in the extremely crowded plexiglass enclosure, getting in line again to go back down. So all my pictures are from the second level. 

But the view from the top looked just like this, except smaller. But, hey, it's the Eiffel Tower. You gotta do it once, eh? And never, ever do it again.


view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower

We spent a fabulous day walking all over the left bank. Aka Hemingway territory. Mecca for us literary nerds. I spent many years talking about A Moveable Feast in my writing classes. So we needed to track down Hemingway's old apartment, at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. I know, I know...it's just a blue door. But it's a very special blue door.


selfie out side Hemingway's apartment in Paris, 74 rue Cardinale lemoine

And visit Shakespeare and Company. I know it's not the same one that Sylvia Beach ran, where Hemingway used to visit to borrow books, but it is still a landmark. There were no pictures allowed inside, but I wandered around, sitting on the cots tucked into alcoves where impoverished visiting writers used to spend the night, looking at the new books and the old books and the resident cat. You gotta love a bookstore that has a cat, don't you? And I bought a couple of souvenir book marks and a postcard that came in the best bag ever!



And we had to stroll through Hemingway's old neighbourhood. Past the cafes, and squares.

Left Bank cafe's near rue Cardinal Lemoine

Through the Jardin du Luxembourg which he loved.

Jardin du Luxembourg

I can tell that Hubby is thinking he has had his fill of Hemingway shrines for today.



But I wanted to see one more. The Closerie des Lilas where he used to drink cold white wine and write stories. Maybe we could sit and have a coffee and a croissant?


Okay. Maybe not. This establishment is definitely not a simple cafe anymore. And it charges prices Hemingway never saw, or paid, even when he was much older and very much richer. Ah well. It's still Paris. And it's a beautiful sunny day.

So we ambled on and found a simpler cafe. You might even quote Hemingway and say a clean, well-lighted cafe, if you wanted to be really pretentious. Where we ordered a glass of wine and watched Paris walk by.



We had lots of other adventures (and misadventures) before we left Paris. A visit with old friends, shopping, watching Paris street fashion, getting lost, and even following a French accordian player around on the Metro. But those are all stories for another post.

So.... watch this space. Bonne nuit... mes amies.



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