28 August 2011 – 01 September 2011: Galicia, Spain

Sunday, 28 August 2011:  Sarria

Not many people up this morning when we were busy packing up and heading out of the campsite.  However, the festivities can’t have gone on too late as this morning the bbqs and tables etc had been packed up and we hadn’t heard a thing.

We are going to drive to Sarria today and follow the La Vuelta course backwards to see how difficult the mountain stage will be.  The drive involves lots of long uphill stretches which in some instances we had Vinnie in first gear going around hairpin bends etc.   Some of the roads weren’t fantastic, but I am sure the riders must just zone out.  We make it to Ponferrada where we get out for a leg stretch and visit the tourist information centre for a map and some information on where the Vuelta will be arriving.  We decide to visit the Castle of Ponferrada which was originally started in the 12th century and being updated and changed for the centuries afterwards.  There is a lot of restoration (unsure how much is left of the original) and in some cases demolish happening.  The town is pretty though with lots of cafes/restaurants etc, but we grab some bread and make a sandwich before hitting the road again.  On making it to Sarria we find the Aires de camping car site (free camping), which isn’t fantastic, but is located close to the town.  We head into the town centre to find a boulevard which is shaded by trees along the river and sit down at one of the local bars/restaurants and enjoy a nice quite class of wine and for Scott to unwind after the nightmare of a drive.  This has been one of the hardest drives we have done for a while and I am starting to think the La Vuelta is a much more difficult race than the Tour de France. 

Monday, 29 August 2011:  Orense

After a good night’s sleep we head to Orense which in the Lonely Planet describes the town as a thermal spring town.  Now we had the best thermal springs in our lives in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, so I am under no illusions about this as we have also been to some total shockers.  We get into the town and then end up driving back out as it was packed and nowhere to park.  We parked near the local swimming pool on the edge of the river (Rio Mino) and walk back into the town and got a very helpful map from the tourist office.  We head off to the string of thermal springs and the carpark on the river that we can camp for one night free.  We struggle to find the carpark and even the thermal springs as the map is more an artistic perception than the real thing, but after going over some flyovers and finally finding the pedestrian bridge we pull into the carpark.  We quickly don our bathers and grab a towel etc and walk to the thermal springs.  There are different centres along the river (with most of them having a water temperature of 60 degrees) and we picked the first one (Burgas de Canedo) which has several pools at various temperatures. 

Bliss
Bliss

 

Big bonus here – these thermal springs are free with the exception of two private ones where you pay EUR5 or you can select to have massage packages etc.  We are in the thermal springs before you can blink and seen enjoying relaxing in the sun.  Can’t remember the last time we just sunbathed – I didn’t even have a book.  After a few hours we were sufficiently wrinkled so decided to head back to Vinnie.  There is a restaurant nearby the carpark so we venture in there for a copa vino blanco and also a tapas plate which turned out to be fantastic (tortilla patatas for me and a tuna thingo for Scott).  Once we were back at Vinnie several other motorhomes pulled in to camp for the night so we didn’t feel lonely. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2011:  Combarro

We were woken at 3am by a motorhome coming in but soon were back in the land of nod.  Scott got up at 8am for a 10km jog and I read a book (perfect).  As soon as he came back we headed back to the Burgas de Canedo thermal springs.  We were going to try the Zen thermal springs but it was closed today (we got our Spanish days muddled up yesterday), so resorted back to the free thermal springs, except today it was absolutely backing hot with everyone turning pink.  Today is also not sunny and there are low clouds.  We decide to drive to Combarro to catch up to the Vuelta.    It is a rest day today on the Vuelta, but we do see Garmin, Liquigas and another team out for a short cycle around the surrounding mountains, we also see the Garmin and Radioshack team buses with all the bikes out getting a service.

The drive is miserable, raining and windy which doesn’t bode well as Combarro is a seaside resort.  On driving into Combarra we were expecting a postcard-perfect seaside village, but maybe it was the weather, but it just lacked appeal.  We parked Vinnie and found the tourist office hidden down many laneways and got a map etc.  We stopped and had a relatively nice lunch, nothing too fantastic and then made the stupid decision that we would go into up to Sanxenxo and O Grove.  There are loads of camping grounds but they are all big and sprawling, so we find the Aires de Camping and top up water and empty waste and continue up along the seaside drive.  This place obviously gets super popular in better weather as the carparks are absolutely mammoth.  We give up and then make an even more stupid decision to drive back into Pontevedra which has an Aires de Camping and we thought we would sleep there as Pontevedra is the finish town for the Vuelta on 1 September.  This was a huge mistake as the Aires de Camping spot is actually a rubbish tip and along with the other autocaravanas there we all left almost instantly and we found another car park but it just had a terrible feel and I was very wary at leaving Vinnie there.  We decided to go back to Combarro and stay in the Port carpark which the tourist office said we could (free overnight camping).  Once arriving back in Combarro we get out for a wander and find the most beautiful jumble of seaside shacks, bars, restaurants and shops all tucked away in a fantastic historic quarter and crooked lanes that melt into the rocks.  Now we got it. 

Great restaurants tucked away down the alleyways
Great restaurants tucked away down the alleyways

 

We walked back through the Igrexa de San Roque and the Peirao da Rua before stopping at two different bars for some wine and sampling the free tapas before deciding to eat at one of the parrilla places right on the bay (O Peirao right at the front of the waterfront horreos). 

the local tiny bar
the local tiny bar

 

The rain had now eased off and although it was cold we had a great view of the surrounding bay.

 

  

 

Up early as we didn’t have a fantastic sleep – it was windy and rainy, although we backed onto what felt like a private beach it wasn’t a very protected spot.  It is still drizzling (there’s a surprise), so we are now heading to Ponteareas which is the start town for the Vuelta on 1 September 2011.  The drive isn’t difficult and we are at the local campsite by lunchtime.  It seems to be relatively deserted so we venture into the town and get some maps and find out where the race starts etc and what is happening.  Although due to the weather probably not much happening.  We have noticed that there are no advertisements etc for the race, in direct contrast to the Tour de France which you knew was coming.  Hopefully tomorrow we will walk into the town and it will be transformed.

We head back to the campsite and get a spot with electricity and more importantly access to hot showers as it has been a few days.  The weather is still miserable so we are spending the afternoon using our Orange Wireless Anywhere precious internet account to do some catching up and connecting with the outside world.

Thursday, 1 September 2011:  Orense

We decided to head back to Orense after watching the start of the Pontearnas to Pontevedra La Vuetla stage.  We get into Pontearnas and are able to see the main stages set up in the centre of town and walk along the race route.

Another cycling mega race starts for us
Another cycling mega race starts for us

We then head to where the team buses are arriving to catch a glimpse of the cyclists getting ready for the long day.

Stuart O'Grady
Stuart O

We arrive latish in the afternoon after the drive and head to the Outariz thermal spring (EUR5 per person) for a wonderful laze in the baths.  Scott went for a jog and met me there later.  It is a great way to spend the time, but Scott preferred the free thermal springs, although this private one did have nice hot showers.  We went back to the restaurant near the campervan for a drink when it started to rain heavily and decamped inside of the restaurant for another drink and tapas before heading back to Vinnie and a late dinner.

 

 

 

21-27 August 2011: Basque Region, Spain

Sunday, 21 August 2011:  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

We finished packing up Vinnie and sorting out our last bits and pieces before leaving the family and heading down south to the border with Spain and a small town called St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  This town is at the foot of the Pyrenees and is 8kms from the Spanish border.  We find a campsite nearby with a pool and as it is extremely hot have a swim and then a nice dinner out under the awning with our new chairs and table.  The only downside was the flies – they seemed to have come out of the woodwork and were also the horrible bitey ones.  On the shopping list – fly swatters.

Monday, 22 August 2011:  St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France > Olite, Spain

Up relatively early and Scott picked up our pre-ordered baguette from the front office.  We had a big brekkie made up some sandwiches and drove into St-Jean-Pied-de-Port for the Monday morning market.  This market is geared towards local produce and was full of local cheeses, meats and a local cake.  We did some sampling and bought a divine local cheese that was just so tasty it melted in your mouth.

We walked back into town and headed into the old town walled quarter which is full of cobbled streets with the houses filling their balconies with lovely bright flowers.  This is a departure point for hikers attempting the Santiago de Compostela which is in Spain and there are a few shops and hostels geared towards them.  We walked up to La Citadelle which is at the top of the town via a very rough (and [presumably slippery) cobbled path.  The Citadelle was originally constructed in 1628 and is now a school and closed to the public.  It is an awesome building and gives you fantastic views of the town and the surrounding countryside.  On arriving back into the town we visited the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont which is accessed via the Vieux Pont where you can get some great pictures of the houses and architecture. 

At the end of our sight-seeing we popped into the local Carrefour Market and found everything we needed, including tofu (for the first time in France), this is one of the best supermarkets we have been too, plus it had incredibly cheap fuel.  We had planned to head back to Col du Tormalet, but instead looking at the distances to drive etc, we thought we would head to Olite in Spain.

So off we went and were soon across the border, which we only knew because we stopped to top up fuel and were asked some tourist questions.  So much for Scott getting his passport stamped here in Europe.  The drive across to Spain was beautiful and steep with the fantastic scenery of the Pyrenees.  All too soon this started to change as we headed into the plains of Spain and particularly the Navarre region. 

The drive in Spain seemed to be through very industrialised towns and not particularly inspiring so we are hoping things will change.  On arriving in Olite, we park in the local car park as we were unable to follow the sign to the camping ground and there is no Aires de Camping here.  We walked into the town centre.  Olite started in approximately 1147 and is surrounded by medieval walls that take you into the town centre.  Of course it is siesta time and the tourist office doesn’t open for another couple of hours.  We therefore spend our time wandering around the renaissance and baroque palaces and streets and past the Palacio Real, stopping for a quick drink near the church of Santa Maria (13th century gothic church) and on the dot of 4:00pm we were in the tourist office door.  On getting the map we continued to walk around the town, but this time knowing what we were looking at.  It really is a lovely town with several plazas’ and quite a lot of interesting monuments which have been well preserved. 

Olite
Olite

 

We decide to move to the Camping de Olite campsite which looks really nice from the front.  Of course by the time we get to our campsite it is way down the back on a dusty piece of ground.  Nevertheless we stay where we are and after a latish afternoon snack we headed back into Olite through the 2km shortcut in-between the grapevines and almond grove.  We were hungry and wanted something to eat so we walked into the main town square and sat and watched everyone wander by.  There are lots of people walking around or sitting in the bars drinking, but a total lack of food being served.  We walked to a couple of the restaurants on the map and they don’t open until at least 8:30, so we settle on the Restaurante Asador Pizzeria which did meat and pizza and walk a few more times around the town centre and along the surrounding walls before heading back to the restaurant.  We got there and again nobody seemed to be eating, so we thought we would have a drink, so had a lovely glass of red wine which came with some cheese tapas.  Eventually a couple of people sat down and we took the plunge and grabbed a table.  Scott ordered a Lomo Parilla and I had a vegetarian pizza with ensalada mixta and papas fritas.  We had some more wine and the ensalada mixta and papas fritas came out as our starter, in the meantime Scott was keeping an eye on his giant slab of steak slowly cooking on the parilla.  When the rest of the meal eventually came it was absolutely lovely and for a total price of EUR39 for four glasses of red, two main meals and two starters.  If this is the price of things here in Spain we are going to be very happy. 

Scott loving the food one day one
Scott loving the food one day one

 

We stagger back to the camp site in the relative dark hoping we were going in the right direction.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011:  Olite, Spain > Mutriku, Spain

The weather is baking hot, so instead of staying here another night, we decide to head back up to the mountain region and discover a bit more of the Basque area and coastline, so actually headed up past San Sebastian and onto the coast road going past Zumaia and Deba.  By then the driving was getting a bit tiring due to the windy roads and also it was no longer hot it was in fact drizzling.  The drive on the map looked like it went along the coast; however it was mainly in a green tunnel with lots of trees and only glimpses of the ocean.  We did stop and take a few photos of the cliffs.  We stopped at camping Santa Elena just on the outskirts of Mutriku.  Be warned this is not a campsite for motorhomes, or biggish ones.  We struggled to get into a campsite and ended up at the front of the campsite with the other motorhomes who too were having problems.  We put out our awning as it was raining and headed to the local bar to watch a bit of the TV and also use their free wifi.  During the night we had to get up and use tent pegs to stabilise the awning and close all the windows etc as the weather really started coming in bad.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011:  Mutriku, Spain > Lekeitio, Spain

We left the campsite in the drizzle again and headed along through the ocean drive.  If it doesn’t improve we will switch onto the motorway.  We make it about an hour up the road coming across a town called Lekeitio which luck would have it has an Aries de Camping, so we pulled in and walked into town.  Lekeitio is on the central Basque Coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao and has a fantastic old city full of cobbled streets, tiny little shops and bars and a huge Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Asuncion which is one of those typical Spanish churches with huge intricately carved nave. 

The weirest church sculpture goes to....
The weirest church sculpture goes to....

 

The drawcard at the town is apparently the beaches and they are certainly very nice, immaculate and raked to within an inch of their lives.  The water was also very warm.  There are wooden boardwalks at the top of the beach with lots of showers etc.  There is also the view of an island which you can walk to when the tide is out and if Scott had agreed to take his shoes off we would off. 

The harbour
The harbour

 

We walked into town and find a bar which was set up with tapas and glasses all ready for the rush, so we grabbed a couple of chairs and while all the tapas had anchovies in them we managed to scrape off enough of them for me to sample and they were delicious.  Eventually we headed back to the Aries and had a siesta – as they say, when in Spain do as the locals.  As it started to get dark we headed back into the town, but as usual the restaurants don’t open until it is so late, we couldn’t be bothered and went back to Vinnie and made our own dinner.  It is quite at the Aries, which is a great thing.

Thursday, 25 August 2011:  Lekeitio, Spain > Comillas, Spain

Up early and out to buy our bread and hopefully find the supermarche open as well for a couple more supplies – finally in luck and we have jagged the magical time of day when some shops are open for trading hurrah.  Back to Vinnie with our food and off on a day of sightseeing.  We have elected to get back onto the motorway as the coast route isn’t that fantastic and we head to Castro-Urdiales.  To get there we have to navigate the Bilbao by-pass.  This is like a giant bowl of spaghetti, there are roads, bridges, flyovers, tunnels etc all going around the mountains surrounding Bilbao.  We thought we might stop but once we got there figured we may never find our way out, so we continued on. 

We arrive at Castro-Urdiales at lunchtime (well for us it is lunchtime) and thought we would stop.  According to the Lonely Planet this is a medieval town.  Unfortunately what it doesn’t say is that is has a one way system, impossible to get motorhomes through and when we did we couldn’t find any parking whatsoever, so we gave up and headed through to the other side of the city.  So not a promising start to sightseeing.  We pulled off into a small town and had our lunch and noticed one of our headlamps has blown, so Scott went in to get a replacement and finding out it was EUR24 for one bulb made us think we would turn them off and wait.  We only paid EUR7 for the other bulb the day before.

Next up was Santillana del Mar which again sounded beautiful, being described as a medieval jewel in a perfect state of preservation.  We looked for a parking spot to no avail and you can’t take cars into the actual town centre.  We headed for Camping Sentillana which is just on the outskirts on the way to Comillas and got a campsite for EUR30 (the most expensive so far on the trip).  However, it had been raining heavy here and the spot we picked turned out to be a wonderful muddy bog and we got stuck.  Another guy came to help and eventually after much pushing, and using the doormat to get some form of traction we got Vinnie back onto the driveway, got a refund and continued on to Comillas hoping our luck was about to change.

It was now getting relatively late, so we pulled up into the local car park and thought we might camp there for the night, but the parking inspector said you couldn’t so we went back to Camping Comillas and got a spot right on the beach side.  It had been raining here as well and a lot of the campsites looked very boggy and you could see where even some of the cars had had some trouble.  We picked a relatively flat campsite and that was it.  As the campsite is on a cliff overlooking the beaches we had a fantastic view and even though the Lonely Planet says you have to book for a minimum of five nights, we are only staying for one night. 

Not a bad view
Not a bad view

 

We walked up into the old town centre which is a pleasant cobbled walk (stopping for at the local helador for a quick icecream) and of course has the fame of having one of Antoni Gaudi buildings, Capricho de Gaudi.  We went to the supermarket got some dinner for the night and had a jug of sangria in one of the restaurants near the plaza who also gave us some tapas to try. 

Sangria - yeah
Sangria - yeah

 

We then walked to Capricho de Gaudi which I thought was fantastic.  He had used tiles of sunflowers on the outside and then designed everything on the inside to take advantage of the light.  It isn’t a huge building, but you can see how well thought out things are and how he gained the inspiration of his design for this building by the surrounding countryside, I have to say I am a fan, Scott of course can’t see what the fuss is about. 

La Caprice - gorgeous and inspiration in design
La Caprice - gorgeous and inspiration in design

 

We wander back down slowly meandering our way back to Vinnie where the weather was lovely that we sat outside while Scott cooked up his sausages and watched the ocean which is beautiful and flat. 

Scott finally getting to use the bbq
Scott finally getting to use the bbq

 

We tested out a local Temperanillo wine which cost us less than EUR2 per bottle and were pleasantly surprised, it is very nice, not the same words you would use for the white wine.  We are going to go snorkelling around the rocks tomorrow.

Friday, 26 August 2011:  Comillas, Spain > Astorga, Spain

Up early and look outside, during the night the weather had changed completely and the ocean was made for surfing today, plus it was very windy, so we decided to move on.  We walked into town and bought our baguette from the local market plus another two bottles of the Temperanillo we had last night.

Due to all the rain along the coast, we have decided to head back inland to Astorga so commenced the drive.  It was very windy today and hard going, plus we are driving through the Picos de Europa which so far has the highest hills we have driven across, it felt like we spent most of the day going up.  There is a Peage at the top which for EUR10 was the best bargain on paid motorways we have come across so far, but even after then we felt like we spent the remainder of the drive going up, up and up and of course watching the fuel take going down, down and down.  At one point we were going downhill and Scott still had his foot flat to the floor on the accelerator and we were losing speed.

We eventually reach Astorga and pull into the Aries de Camping ground which is located near the bullring.  It isn’t a very inspiring place and we decide to park a bit closer to town and work out what to do.  Astorga is famous for its roman ruins and you can see the walls and the archaeological work that has been done.  Of course it also the home of a Palacio Episcopal, another Antoni Gaudi designed building. 

It is siesta time so everything feels like the people have been abducted by aliens and we wander almost alone, except for a few other tourists.  We get into the tourist information office and the man is very helpful and speaks good English, so we are soon armed with a map and also where the mobile phone shop is, so we can hopefully get a sim card for the iPhone.  The man told us that we can park anywhere in the van, so we move to a closer carpark near the roman steps and head off for some sightseeing.

As there is some sort of fiesta on, we find that the Vodafone store is closed, the Orange store opens at 5pm and the Movistar store opens at 5:30pm.  We have a drink in the main plaza near the townhall and at 5pm head to Orange who have run out of micro-sims, so we head to Movistar who only do contracts, so we had back to Orange and buy an internet anywhere dongle for the computer which will cost us EUR3.5 per day when we use it, so we buy four days and the dongle and head off.  We have also managed to buy a Vuelta magazine with a map and times for all the stages and can now plan where we are heading to next.  After some sightseeing, we decide to try a local campsite and head to Camping La Manga in Villarejo de Orbigo where we managed to get a camp spot near the river and unpack ourselves.  The wind isn’t so strong here, but it has certainly chilled down somewhat and we are back into jumpers – we are loving the European summer.  It is relatively quiet here and we have dinner and watch a movie.  Of course the Spanish people around us decide that 11pm is the time for dinner, so you can hear everyone starting to cook, I don’t know how you can eat your main meal at that time.

Saturday, 27 August 2011:  Villarejo de Orbigo, Spain

We have decided to stay another night here as it is cheap (EUR13.20) and has everything we need.  So we managed to talk to the man in the office and pay our money and walk into town along the river.  The town is really strange, lots of electric shops but one supermarket that is packed.  At the meat counter they were up to number 20, and Scott got number 41 – we gave up and then queued at the checkout instead for probably the same amount of time.  We walked back to the campsite via the sign that said restaurant to see what was there, walking past an old man doing his veggie garden which was awesome, so much produce in a small plot of land, certainly lots of ideas for home.  At the end of the road, we surprisingly found a restaurant that had some people in, so we settled in for an obligatory copa vino blanco and cerveca.  We got a plate of olives and then Scott got some sort of mince balls in a tomato paste, everything was lovely as we were sitting in the sun and defrosting nicely.  We noticed that they were doing lunch so after much discussion with the staff I could have an ensalada mixta with queso and Scott got to order anything else off the menu, which wasn’t targeted towards vegetarians.  He settled on the squid.  My ensalada mixta came with atun (tuna), so I had to send it back, but when it returned, I had the distinct impression they just picked off the tuna.  Anyway it was huge and filling and Scott enjoyed his meal.

It was time to head back to Vinnie and maybe an afternoon siesta as it was 3pm.  On arriving back everyone else was just sitting down to lunch and also starting to organise a few bbqs in a row, so not really sure what is going on.  We had a glass of the local cidre which I thought was a bit overrated especially as you have to pour it from a great height which just causes everything around you to get splashed.  The bbqs around us got lit at about 9pm and the Spanish settled down to a giant feast of meat at 11:30pm, I have indigestion just thinking of the amount of meat and the time of night.

8-20 August 2011: Dordogne, France

Monday 8 August 2011 – Sunday 14 August 2011

We pick up the keys for my cousin’s house and decamp there.  We abrre only going to stay a few days but are going to take the opportunity to tidy up the van and hopefully get some repairs done to the damaged awning.  We also decide to do a small bit of sightseeing in the area and Scott wants to start doing some longer runs (he is preparing for the London 2012 Marathon) whilst I am going to spend the time reading and getting some sun.  Well that is the plan anyway.

So we managed to get in a bit of sightseeing in Riberac and Brantome which are both the usual French villages with half timbered houses and full of english people.  We got excited in Brantome about a restaurant we saw in the distance called Indien Coleur, but alas it was an english restaurant.  We are so missing indian food we are dreaming about it.

We also managed to find two replacement parts for our awning, but they are in Dorset, England.  There is an Omnistor dealer here in Brantome, but alas even though it advertises as being open Monday-Friday from 8:00am, for two days in a row we have been unable to get to see anybody as the gates are locked.  So in the end we are having them couriered to London and my cousin is bringing them over on Thursday so we can head down to Spain and catch the Vuelta. 

Full moon up the driveway and across the sunflower fields
Full moon up the driveway and across the sunflower fields

The weather all week has been sunny, windy, rainy, misty, foggy, drizzly, more drizzly and even more drizzly.  We are baffled by the idea of a european summer.  Definately not much good for my suntanning.  So I get stuck into the garden which has thrived a bit too much with a bit of sun and lots of rain and manage to amass six large garbage bags of weeds and it hardly looks like I have done anything.  In the meantime Scott has emptied the van and done a few repairs, so now we are just biding our time and doing nothing.  Hmm something I can’t remember the last time we did.  Although we have managed to do some changes to my cousins website for the house (www.highlivingfrance.com), some changes to ourbookclub website (www.ourbookclub.net.au) and of course our blog.

Sunset from the terrace
Sunset from the terrace

On Scott’s first long run he got totally lost in the area and ended up doing 17kms.  On his next run he did 22kms and didn’t get lost, so not sure if that is a good thing or not.  I haven’t started my marathon training, yet still waiting for inspiration!

Other than that we spent a lot of time reading, downloading books and movies and generally pottering around.  Our new computer laptop battery arrived and we are now free of cables for a while which is fantastic.  In addition the new camera batteries also arrived so we can take more than a couple of pictures without having to change batteries.  We did order some travel books, but no luck in those arriving and have given up.

On 16 August 2011, my cousins’ (Linda) son Mark, his wife Annie and their kids, Josh, Ellie and Chloe arrived for a family holiday and we settled into a louder but fun routine.  I haven’t seen Mark since he was about 7, so it was great to meet some of the family.  The kids were great fun, playing games and had Scott answering a million questions and coming up with things to do.  The underwater dive torch is fantastic for hunting for night-time critters.  Of course the decision was made to build the trampoline that had been donated to the house free, this seemed like a relatively easy thing to do but turned into an almost blood bath with springs flying everywhere and in the end to find the mat had a small tear and the netting walls were unusable – c’est la vie, in future buy good quality should be the motto at the end of the day.

On 18 August 2011, my cousin (Robert) and Kevin arrive with a massive van full of English food and equipment and our peace was shattered.  My Auntie Eve and Uncle Bob are arriving on Saturday, and the house has to be totally reorganised and cleaned for their arrival, so all hands on deck with Robert being his usual frantic self doing a bit here and there while Annie cleaned top to bottle.  Scott spent the morning installing the awning parts and they work fine, so that is fantastic news and means we don’t have to buy a whole new awning.  In the afternoon Scott, Mark and I decided to build the plastic swimming pool.  Of course the first instructions are to find a level spot – hmm Robert wanted it to go in the driveway below the back terrace which is on a slight slope, so we built it there with loads of warnings from us if things go wrong.  This was a good exercise in teamwork and also should be noted not the best thing to do in the middle of the day when it is really hot.  Also should be noted that nobody had bought any chemicals or salt for the water, so will be interesting to see how long it takes for the water to go manky when full of people and kids.  Eventually it was completed (with the exception of the cleaning thing that attaches to the hose as that got moved in the manic cleanup and I couldn’t find it again). 

On 20 August 2011, the final cleaning frenzy continued and then eventually my Auntie and Uncle arrived with my cousin (Linda) and they did the grand tour and hopefully appreciated how much hard work everyone put in.  After they settled in, it was time to christen the pool and we all got in for a few hours of cooling down.  For some reason today it is baking hot.  We had a nice time and a nice family meal.  But as the TV is now here and installed time for us to move on and enjoy the countryside some more.

 

1-7 August 2011: Central France

Monday, 1 August 2011: Avallon, Vezelay and Auxerre

 

Only a short amount of driving today and we are heading to Avallon, Vezelay and then stopping in Auxerre for the night. 

Avallon:  is a walled town overlooking the River Cousin.  We find a terrible parking spot for Vinnie on the main road, but couldn’t find anywhere else, so walked into the historic quarter and the Tour de l’Horloge (15th century clock tower).  It is very quiet in the old quarter this time in the morning, so we wander into the old church (Collegial St-Lazare) which apparently was flocked too about eight centuries ago as it was believed the a part of the skill of St Lazarus gave you protection from Leprosy.  Unfortunately it is relatively derelict and in need of some serious renovations.  It is also sad to say that one medieval town after another is starting to cause a blur in the old memory and things are seriously starting to look alike.  Scott has a theory on the number of flowerpots and is now just looking at them to see which ones are nicer.

Another medieval town
Another medieval town

Vezelay:  Now a Unesco World Heritage Site with great camper van/motorhome parking facilities (6EUR per day – you can’t camp overnight, but there is information where you can).  It is a tiny hilltop village topped by a medieval basilica (still in use today).  This town is on the Santiago de Compostela in Spain and we saw a lot of trekkers, including Scouts.  You start the walk in town at the Place du Champ de Foire (the tourist office is located near here although they didn’t have any information in English) and can visit the Porte Neuve, Maison Jules Roy and Chapelle de la Cordelle before going into the Basilique Ste Marie-Madeline.  The streets are all cobblestone streets which are bordered by art galleries, restaurants and wine shops.  Everyone aims to get to the Basilique Ste-Madeleine which was founded in 880 AD and subsequently rebuilt between the 11th and 13th centuries and then again in 1940.  It is a peaceful church considering how many people were there and very simply furnished – other than the nun who was oblivious to the note that said about silence as she dragged her vacuum cleaner along the aisle.  The Basilique is a mixture of gothic and Romanesque architectural styles and you can then wander in the grounds to see the countryside below. 

A beautifully detailed ceiling
A beautifully detailed ceiling

What is nice is that the church is still used today and is very much a working church and the nuns and priests are very prevalent in the church and also the village where they run a local shop.

On change of shift from the local shop
On change of shift from the local shop

 

We headed back down the streets to a restaurant with a terrace and just made it in before the usual French lunchtime hoards arrived.

Auxerre:  We arrived in Auxerre and joined a small queue for the municipal campsite (Eur 13.60 per night including electricity) which is approximately 20 minutes walk from the medieval part of the town.  We unpacked and set up camp and then headed off to walk along the river.  This campsite has the weirdest configuration for electricity.  Once you set up camp, the lady from reception comes out and unlocks the electricity box and then puts in your cable – when you leave she has to come back and unlock and unplug it!  Auxerre used to be a port in Roman times, but the river is now probably only used for tourists travelling along the river system in their boats and barges. 

More half timbered houses
More half timbered houses

 

At the top of Auxerre is the Cathedrale St-Etienne, so up we go again. I do wonder if these towns were just designed to ensure I have to walk uphill constantly.   Not as old as the nearby Abbaye St-Germain, the Cathedral has been dated to the 11th century.  We wander back down through the pedestrianised streets and a different way back to the municipal campsite to enjoy some of the last of the days rays.   

 Tuesday, 2 August 2011:  Chambord, Blois and Amboise

Well the beautiful day from yesterday certainly changed overnight with thunder and lighting and lots of rain.  So we set off on our long drive today driving through some villages that were deluged.  Eventually we made it to Chambord.

Chateau de Chambord:  We aren’t visiting many chateaux, so I choose this one.  Supposedly for its full-blown chateau splendour and one of the best examples of French Renaissance architecture.  However it is also the busiest and most visited in addition to being one of the most disappointing.  There is plenty of motorhome/campervan parking however, with an area dedicated which is good as the car parks were complet and this was lunchtime.  Chambord started out life as a hunting lodge when it was conceived by Francois I in 1519 – it is so small don’t know why he bothered, after all 426 rooms, 77 staircases and 282 fireplaces wouldn’t fit in the usual hunting party!  The double helix staircase was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci who Francois I befriended.  Strangely enough the chateau turned out to be too cold and nobody ever lived there permanently.   Francois I only spent 72 days here during his 32 year reign so a perfect investment for the starving people of France during those times.  Eventually the French Government bought the property from the Comte de Chambord’s heirs in 1930.  The tour takes you through several rooms that are decorated as they may have looked during different times, notice the may bit, nothing here is original.  Chambord was disappointing to say the least, there aren’t many rooms open, not much is left of the original building and the grounds are in total disarray with weeds bigger than anything else planted here.  We were going to camp overnight to see the night show, but decided it would probably be as crap so headed off.

Chateau de Chambord
Chateau de Chambord

Blois:  The town of Blois isn’t far from Chambord so we head here.  We find a parking spot, luckily, along the riverside and witness one crash on the roundabout with a car so desperate to overtake the horse and cart is overtakes on a one lane roundabout.  So far first impressions are a town of young overhyped teenagers with cars they can’t drive and road rules they ignore.  Anyway as usual we walk up to the Old City.  Blois suffered heavy bombardment during WWII so a lot of the modern day town is post-war reconstruction and rebuilt to how Blois might have been in medieval times.  At the top of the hill is the Cathedrale St-Louis although the stained glass windows date as far back as 2000 it is a bit uninteresting inside.  One good thing about Blois is that all the tourist information is also given in English.  Across from the Cathedral is the facade Maison des Acrobates and one of the few 15th century houses to survive.  We were going to stay here but can’t compete with the hotted up cars that have stereos we can only hope drive their occupants deaf in a short space of time, so we move on.

A lot of detail for a new house
A lot of detail for a new house
At least the signs are also in English
At least the signs are also in English

Amboise:  This is the final resting place of Leonardo de Vinci.  We head to the Camping de L’lle d’Or and the even bigger than usual queue.  I snagged a spot for two nights and we head into the melee of motorhomes, campervans, antique campervans, tents and various other holiday style accommodations.  We are on an islet surrounded by the Loire River, however, due to the amount of people don’t expect it to be vaguely quiet.  To give you an idea, we are in spot 300.  We head into Amboise for a quick look around.

Amboise
Amboise

 

 We find a Carrefour and buy a few local supplies before sitting down for a beer/wine at a sidewalk cafe. 

A beautiful setting below the chateau
A beautiful setting below the chateau

 

Wednesday, 3 August 2011 and Thursday, 4 August 2011:  Amboise

Up early – Scott finally had a decent night sleep for the last few days, so hope his mood improves J  We are heading to Chateau du clos Luce which is where Leonardo de Vinci took up residence on the invitation of the French king, Francois I in 1516 at the age of 64. 

Not a bad house
Not a bad house

 

The chateau was built in 1471 on 12th century foundations and is arranged around an octagonal corner tower with two 2-story buildings at right angles.  I think Leonardo was onto a good thing, as well as the house, grounds and access to the Chateau Royal d’Amboise he also had an allowance of 700 gold ecus (no idea what an ecu is, but it sounds a lot) a year and all he had to do was to talk to the King, think, design and draw.  The tour through the house is interesting and well organised with information about not only da Vinci but the other people in his life.  I loved the fact that his cook was vegetarian, although in his will Leonardo only gave her his coat which was made of leather.  However, it is not until you read the Model Room in the basement you see Leonardo’s drawings and the models that have been done to show how his inventions or amendments to other people’s inventions were done.  As Scott argued that he didn’t invent anything just stole ideas from previous generations, it was still interesting and he was certainly a prolific and prodigious worker up until he died.  After the house you then walk through the gardens to see life-size examples of his works as well as large copies of his paintings in various areas of the grounds and is a great place for kids to actually get hands on with moving models and learn something at the same time.  It is certainly a beautiful house and the grounds were lovely, even the vegetable patch had been recreated.  Leonardo died here on 2 May 1519 and his body interred in the Chateau Royal d’Amboise.

One of the many life size models in the gardens
One of the many life size models in the gardens

We walk back through the town centre to the Chateau Royal d’Amboise and pick up an audio guide that takes you through the times of this Chateau.  The fortifications were gradually built from 503 and overlook the town below and the Loire River making a majestic impression on the cityscape.  Some of the 16thcentury structures survive as well as the Chapelle St-Hubert which is now the final resting place of da Vinci (he was originally interred in another part of the grounds).  You go inside the chateau through several well decorated rooms, although the audio guide is more interesting for its comedic value in some parts. 

Leonardo's final final resting place
Leonardo

 

After Henry IV moved the royal court to Paris the Chateau became a stopping point only for the Bourbon kings and gradually grew into disrepair.  Napoleon gave the final order for its destruction, but one fifth of the castle survived.  The grounds are well maintained and refreshing from the shambles of a garden in Chambord. 

Finally a well maintained Chateau
Finally a well maintained Chateau

 

We wandered back through the town which is full and headed back to Vinnie before setting off for dinner.  We found a nice restaurant that was slightly further up the pedestrian streets and had a huge meal before wandering back into the mail part of town below the chateau to watch a band whilst sipping a late night cocktail at the local bar.  The band suited the situation and was very Cirque du Soleil, or as Scott called it, whimsical music. 

fantastic entertainment spot
fantastic entertainment spot

 

The weather seems to be turning to drizzle, so we watched as much as we could before it started to rain heavier and headed back to the campsite.

Friday, 5 August 2011:  Cognac

Up early as we have decided to head to Cognac which is about a four hour drive south.  The weather is relatively miserable so sightseeing wouldn’t have been much fun and after the last couple of days we have had our fill of tourist sights.  We are bypassing the motorways and heading the backroads today as it should be a more interesting drive, although if it becomes too hard to drive, it is easy here just to switch onto a motorway either paid or free.  Have to say am impressed with the roads in France, but then there are so many of them.  Unlike Ireland, however, they aren’t full of potholes.

We arrive at Cognac late afternoon with the same sort of drizzle as everywhere else.  We are staying at the muncipal campsite, which is a tad fancier than most with a swimming pool.  However, it quieter than the last few we have been too and it is only a short walk into town.  We unpack and sort ourselves out and stretch out with a glass of red wine after the long drive.

Saturday, 6 August 2011:  Cognac -> St Severin

Up early and into Cognac and the tourist office.  We get the times for the tours of the different cognac houses and walk around the town.  It is still early and the shops etc are only just starting to open up and stalls set up.  We find a great parking spot for Vinnie on the river, so Scott jogs back (apparently it would be quicker than me doing it) and I stand around in the rain waiting for him to come back.  By the time he gets back, he has driven from one end of town to the other with our step down (lucky there were no cyclists around) and the gas bottle still on.  He didn’t do the checklist!!!  We both change into dry clothes and pack everything away etc and head off to the Hennessy factory where we book into the late morning tour in English.  We walk back through the medieval part of the town and have a coffee and croque monsieur to tide us over.  The town centre is very pretty with the usual half timbered 15th century houses and narrow cobble lined street. 

At 11:30 we join the tour of Hennessy which takes us to both sides of the River Charente to view the process involved with cognac.  The tour is interesting with lots of interactive screen shows and graphics as well as the ability to go through the huge cellars and look (but don’t touch) the casks from the 1800’s that are still the basis today of the more expensive bottles of Hennessy.  There are some bottles for sale at EUR6,300, bit out of our price range. 

One of the expensive bottles
One of the expensive bottles

 

The tour ends in the tasting room where we had booked for the XO tasting and as I don’t like spirits, Scott got to drink mine as well.  He was also able to have a tasting of one of the other types of cognac to compare the differences.  It was an interesting experience and if you buy two tickets, you get the second one half price which was good. 

If only this was wine
If only this was wine

On leaving Cognac it is still raining, so we decide not to stay in the town for the night, but to head near Verteillac as my cousin has a house there, but as we haven’t been able to get in contact we spent a few hours in Verteillac at the local bar, realising after a while that everybody here is English, anyway Scott got to watch the rugby with England beating Wales.  We then drove to a nearby town called St Severin which had an Aires de Camping Car.  We pulled in and walked through the town, what a revelation, it is only small but has everything, so we sit in the local bar watching the French playing pool (badly) with a couple of drinks.  On the way back to the van we notice that in the town square a large marquee is being set up with a band playing tonight, so we head back to Vinnie to have something to eat and then wander back to the town centre to watch an english rock band playing.  All very surreal, but after a few more drinks we call it a night leaving the revellers to continue dancing into the wee hours. 

Awesome
Awesome

 

It starts to drizzle when we get back to Vinnie and after trying to sleep eventually give up while Scott moves the van to a place with no trees near us which helps a bit.

Sunday, 7 August 2011:  St Severin

Up and the sun is shining, miracles do happen.  We buy a few things at the local supermarket and head back into Verteillac to do some emails.  When we get there, there is a huge monthly antique (or junk market as Scott calls it) in full swing, so we nestle down at the local pub and have a coffee doing emails and watching the world go by.  As my cousin is still offline, we decide to head to a local camping spot which turns out to only be 2kms away from his house, so we get there and settle back in the sun totally chilling out.  This part of France seems to be another suburb of England and we have no problems with language etc, a tad disconcerting.  The campsite is great though, loads of things to do, pool, tennis court, petanque ground etc.

 

25-31 July 2011: France

Monday, 25 July 2011: Uriage-les-Bains -> Annecy

This is really strange we actually have nowhere to go.  For the last month we have had a map which we have followed to see as much cycling as possible and now we are at a loss as to what to do.  After a look at the map we decide to head up to Annecy, so say our goodbyes to everyone and jump in the car.  We are heading to Annecy which is on the Lac d’Annecy and supposedly surrounded by mountains and one of the purest lakes in the world.

We arrive there to find the place is packed.  On a further review of the Lonely Planet it does state that in July and August there town can be heaving with summer visitors.  The Aires de Camping is tucked away and badly sign-posted so instead we pull up at the nearest camping spot hoping for somewhere to stay and luckily there is a spare spot for two nights, so we snap it up.  The traffic in the town was a nightmare so Scott was frazzled and this is a good spot close to the lake and only 2kms back into town.  It is on a main road, so road noise as an issue, but we were knackered enough not to even notice. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2011: Annecy

Up and out of the van and started our walk into Annecy.  The lake is beautiful and so clear, there is no rubbish, and everything is clean and tidy.  There is even what you may call beaches (white sand along with lifeguards); some of them public, some private, but the lake is definitely the centre of the activities in this region.  We continue walking into the medieval part of town which today is a huge produce market, the biggest we have encountered so far. 

 

Sun and sightseeing - holidays at last
Sun and sightseeing - holidays at last

 

 

We buy a couple of bits and pieces, but it is hard to focus as there is so much to look at and see.  Behind the market stalls are loads of cafes etc which tend to face onto the canals (Canal du Thiou and Canal du Vasse) that flow through the town.  The architecture is beautifully maintained and there are loads of little alleyways and areas to wander through.  We get a map from the local TIC and head down to the lakefront to eat our picnic, just watching the world go by.  This is a fantastic spot and you can see how it has become so popular.  It is currently in the bid to host the Winter Olympics 2018 and I would have thought it would have a good chance with all the facilities nearby.

After wandering back to the motorhome, Scott decided to go for a job, so I took the opportunity to sit in the sun and read my book (yes there is a surprise, but it has been hard to get much reading done following the tour and I feel bad at letting Natalie down with all the updates for www.ourbookclub.net.au).  Lots of people pull into the campsite but it is now full, so the lady sends them off somewhere up the road (not sure where as we figure they would also be full). 

Tuesday, 26 July 2011: Annecy -> Chamonix

We have decided to visit Chamonix and see the snow resort areas in summer.  The weather is relatively warm and there is even some sun around so we are hopefully of some great views.  The drive to Chamonix is something else, talk about hairpin bends and it is exhausting for Scott and I (I tend to sit on the side with the drop off).  Chamonix is only at 1037 metres but there are loads of chair lifts etc to get up to various mountains including Mont Blanc.  For all you film buffs, Chamonix was used in The world Is Not Enough (Bond 007) for his ski chase. 

After taking a wrong turn in town and driving through the tiny streets, we find the Aires de Camping spot and pitch up.  We walk back into town and get some maps and information.  The weather isn’t too bad, but it is a bit cloudy so after a lunch in the main piazza, we take the opt instead for the train to the Mer de Glace (1913 metres) which is France’s largest glacier and also has a ice cave (Grotte de la Mer de Glace) which is reached via the train, cable car and then 400 steps down (and in reverse). The train takes approximately 20 minutes and was built 100 years ago, designed on a rack and pinion system.   

 

Nowhere near as good as the glaciers in South America
Nowhere near as good as the glaciers in South America

 

 

The glacier isn’t the most spectacular we have seen and it is receding quite quickly so until you get up close you can’t really see the stunning colours of the ice. 

 

Disco ice cave?
Disco ice cave?

 

 

Inside the ice cave sculptors have created carvings and they are lit up plus there are some information boards about how it was discovered etc, then comes the lengthy walk back up all those stairs. 

 

Why does everything I do involve stairs
Why does everything I do involve stairs

 

 

On the train on the way back down the mountain we felt left out as we didn’t have our icepicks and ropes, so had to do with a backpack and feeling seriously under prepared for the next ice age.  It starts to rain on our way back, so we wander through town and bought some new clothes (magically we have lost a bit of weight since arriving, so purchased something that fits better) and the Icebreaker shop had a sale.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 to Thursday 28 July 2011: Chamonix

After waking up at 2:45am with some youths doing bog laps etc nearby we got up to find that the rain had not helped the weather and the clouds were now down to the town with no view whatsoever of anything else.  We are going to hang around and see if it improves, so walk around the town, but even though the clouds do start to improve slightly it certainly doesn’t clear so now we have a conundrum with what to do.  We did find a bookstore and purchased a French dictionary as the language here is hard going, so about time we started to learn some more words.  Of course the weather continued to be crap all day and even the cable car people wouldn’t sell us a ticket as there was no view.  We decamped to a local bar for a drink and watched the world race by under umbrellas etc.

After another relatively restless night we got up and the sky was clear on the Mont Blanc side of the mountains so we headed off to the cable car and the long trek up to the top of the mountain.  It has snowed yesterday so everything looked picture postcard perfect and we spent ages wandering around the different levels that you can access. 

 

Yes Scott that is snow
Yes Scott that is snow

 

 

L’aiguille du Midi is approximately 3842m and you can get a 360 degree paranormal of the surrounding mountains including Mont Blanc at 4810m.  The idea for a more accessible way to Mont Blanc started in 1909 with the work commencing in 1911.  The Col du Midi was finally reached by a service line in 1940 and in 1966 you could reach the summit, not a small feat of engineering by any means. 

 

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc

 

 

To get away from the crowds you need to be an alpinist and I don’t fancy strapping myself to the side of a cliff by a small rope.  We did watch some of the alpinist and climbing groups heading off with ice picks etc into the distance and then decided to catch the cable car back down and decided head off to our next destination of Beaune. 

Beaune is about 6 hours away not using the motorways, but after an hour we gave up the back roads for the Peage which cut approximately 2 hours off the journey.  We headed to the municipal campsite (Camping Lescent Vignes) where there was a queue and we were lucky to get a spot.  We set up camp and was just sitting down to the a glass of wine when we released the people next door were listening to the cricket, so went over and introduced ourselves to Linda and Eric and ended up spending the evening trying out some localish wines and snacks.  So nice to be somewhere warm.

Friday, 29 July 2011 and Saturday, 30 July 2011:  Beaune  

After finally leaving the mountains, today we walk into Beaune which is level and actually warm with the sun shining.  We walk into the local markets and purchase our salad ingredients along with a variety of different cheeses and salami (for Scott of course).  It is great the variety of the local markets and from local producers, if only Australia could provide a small percentage of these ingredients we would be in heaven.  After buying our obligatory baguette we drop our shopping off at Vinnie and continue back into town.  Beaune is a medieval town and supposedly the unofficial capital of the Cote d’Ore and hence a haven for wine tasting.  When we arrive back into the old city which is enclosed by stone ramparts, the food market and the antiques market are both in the final throes of packing up, so we sit down to lunch and watch the world go buy with a small carafe of local wines each. 

A beautiful lunch spot to watch the world go by
A beautiful lunch spot to watch the world go by

Subsequently replete and refreshed we head to Patriarche Pere et Fils for some wine tasting.  You are taking through the sales spiel of how the cellars came to be and then get to meander and wander through the kilometres of underground cellars (the largest in Burgundy) which house from 3m to 5m bottles (with the oldest from 1904). 

If only it was our cellar
If only it was our cellar

At the end of the cellars you get to sample 13 different varieties of wine and purchase them if you want, luckily for us there weren’t to our taste – if that could be possible! although we did try them all.  We eventually made it back to Vinnie.

The old and new mingle quite well
The old and new mingle quite well

We decided to stay an extra night, so left most people packing up and headed back into the town for a walk around the walls and ramparts which make a lovely stroll with lots of interesting buildings, laneways and courtyards to stick your nose into.  We had lunch in the centre of the medieval streets so we could enjoy both the sun and the atmosphere.  After lunch we continued exploring the town which is an ideal place to start walking tours and there is also a huge Athenaeum de la Vigne et du Vin (bookshop) with everything wine/cooking to keep you occupied and indulged.

The ramparts
The ramparts

Sunday, 31 July 2011:  Noyers-Sur-Surein

Back on the road today and off to Noyers-Sur-Serein which is a medieval village.  On the drive we pass the usual French countryside of Chateaux and more Chateaux, even deciding to stop at one village which looked beautiful, only to find that it is shut today.

We find a parking/camping spot near the river and pique-nique (yes that is the French word for picnic) and join the other motorhomes who have set up camp there.  As there is no municipal campsite, this looks like an ideal alternative and free.  We have lunch underneath the trees before heading into the local tourist information and getting a map. 

Not a bad view from our free campspot
Not a bad view from our free campspot

Noyers is surrounded by pastureland with a river (Serein) on one side.  The town is fortified by 13th century stone ramparts and battlements with two stone gateways leading in and out of the main part of the village.  Inbetween you have everything you need for the picture postcard town – cobble roads, half timbered houses, laneways, 15-16th century gables houses and stone archways. 

Amazing they are still standing
Amazing they are still standing

The map from the tourist office provides an itinerary and some highlights of the different architecture, so we followed that as it seemed the best way to see the different building methods from the middle ages to the 18th century and you depart from the Place de L’Hotel de Ville which is where we were standing.  At the far side of the town is the ruined chateau which we thought strangely wouldn’t be so ruined.  We climbed a million steps up to find literary a pile of rocks and some restoration work being completed, but were unsure as to why anybody was bothering restoring it as the restoration works looked terrible.  So after walking up and following some trails that provided some glimpses of the town, we ventured across the ramparts and through the Chemin des Fosses to the River Serein and a streamside walk where you can see the remaining towers. 

The village from the chateau ruins
The village from the chateau ruins

On return to Vinnie we are surrounded by a group of pensioners playing Petonque (or Boules) and getting very lively, although the rules did seem a bit random at times.  Our idyllic spot was only spoilt by the sounds of the church bells which apparently kept Scott awake most of the night!

 

 

 

 

 

 

22-24 July 2011: Final stages le Tour de France

Friday 22 July 2011 : Modane -> Alpe d’Huez (Tour de France, Stage 19)

Only a short ride today (109 kms) unfortunately it is nearly vertical and that isn’t even Alpe-d’Huez.  They have to negotiate Col du Galibier at 2,556m first.  Why on earth anybody would choose to do this as a sport is baffling.

We got up early and saw the constant stream of people heading up the mountain, so made some lunch etc and Scott headed off to run to the top and I headed off to walk up to Turn 14 or thereabouts.  The weather is sunny and it is actually quite warm.  The mountain is packed with cyclists, walkers and the constant stream of tour official cars (what a joke and waste of time most of them are).  The walk is slow and very steep, it looks okay and then you turn a corner and it is almost vertical, hard going just walking, never mind cycling.  There are a lot of cyclists that look like they won’t make it by turn 20, so not sure of their chances to make it to the top.  I was overtaken by a guy dressed up as a roman gladiator (don’t know and couldn’t even begin to ask).  There were also lots of tiny kids going up with their families and I am sure they got the biggest cheers of the day. 

Alpe d'Huez from our viewpoint
Alpe d

Since walking up the previous day the road painters have been out in force and there are loads of encouragement and banners everywhere.  Except anything for BMC, I can honestly say that on the whole of the Tour there hasn’t been much noticeable team support.  I pick at spot near Turn 10 which turned out to be between a couple from Tasmania and a family from England and waited for Scott to jog back down to me which didn’t take him as along as he anticipated.  There are so many people either camped or walking around it is awesome.  The caravan finally comes through and we score a few bits and pieces.  By now we have most of the stuff we want, so tend to just give away everything else.

We know the riders are coming due to the huge contingent of helicopters and we here that Contidor is leading the field and he just whizzes by.  Luckily Cadel isn’t that far away and looks so focused it is amazing.  It is baffling how the riders even make it through the crowds, so many people in their faces, I would be furious as surely it makes it had to focus and keep a constant rhythm going. 

As soon as the main group of riders go through people start slowly wandering back down, however, one of the campervans on the mountain has a tv and there is soon a huge group of people standing around watching and listening to what is happening – even the police.

As soon as it is finished we put on our skates and do a dash down the mountain so Scott can have a shower and we can join the huge queue of motorhomes heading to Grenoble.  The drive is extremely slow and painful.  We are heading to Saint-Martin-D’Uriage as there is a downhill stage and also a roundabout with cobbles which should make for some exciting riding.  We follow the signs and find a huge camping car carpark for the event and set-up home there, only to realise it felt like we had arrived in Luxembourg with a lot of Schleck supporters.  We hoisted the Aussie flag and opened a bottle of red.

Saturday 23 July 2011 : Grenoble -> Grenoble (Tour de France, Stage 20)

Well during the night it rained and rained heavy, so this isn’t going to be the worlds quickest time trial as it looks like a giant slide.  We missed the riders going around the track for their warm ups, but  headed out into the rain for the last caravan giveaways.  I am sure there are only so many hats that we need, but Scott is now focused on getting as many as possible.  We head back to the motorhome afterwards for lunch and then out again to see the early riders come through.  Scott went up to the roundabout with cobbles and I positioned myself at the bottom of the road.  Eventually it started to rain harder so I decamped back to the motorhome and then walked up to see what Scott was doing before he decided to come back down the mountain with me.  We were listening to the radio to keep up to date with Cadel having an absolutely brilliant time trial and were in full cheer mode when he came by with some of the people near us.  Of course the problem with some of these stages is that they just go by so fast and then it is all over. 

Awesome ride Cadel
Awesome ride Cadel

We decide to leave the camping-car spot as we are getting dagger looks from the Luxembourg groups and head into Uriage-les-Bains where we spy a laundrette.  We go into the tourist office which is open but nobody comes out, so Scott asks the local police who say we can stay in the car park across the road until Monday.  We then head off to do our laundry for an exciting Saturday night made even better with Cadel finally in yellow and well deserved.

Sunday, 24 July 2011 : Creteil -> Paris Champs-Elysees (Tour de France, Stage 21)

We get up to find a note on the windscreen from Claire and Ben who had just popped out for a coffee, so we hung around and waited for them to come back.  We decided during the night not to drive to Paris, so are going to look for somewhere to watch the race here in Uriage-les-Bains.  Claire and Ben had the same idea and soon another Australian van pulled up with Martin and Pam.  So we chatted and decided to watch yesterday’s highlights before heading into the town and pub to watch the race.  It was a fantastic race although the locals didn’t seem that excited with us there cheering and clapping (although we did that for the French riders as well). 

Yeah the end of a long trip through France
Yeah the end of a long trip through France

We had a great afternoon and all agreed that Cadel couldn’t have done it without us (not sure if he agrees). 

A bit of Australia in a French pub
A bit of Australia in a French pub

Anyway we head out to dinner with Claire and Ben to celebrate and then decide to pop into the local casino which was a shocker, just rows and rows of pockie machines.  We give up and call it a night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15-21 July 2011: Week Three le Tour de France

Friday 15 July 2011 : Saint-Gaudens  -> Albies (Tour de France, Stage 13)

 

 

 

 

 

We will miss the Tour today; they are going from Pau to Lourdes (152.5 km) because we have figured we need to be at least a day ahead to get a half decent spot on the mountains, so we’ll try to get a spot to watch Saturday’s stage 14.

The hotel car park was relatively quiet overnight, but we were awoken early by the local council workers starting their pre-Tour cleaning; leaf-blowers are internationally noisy!  We had our breakfast then headed out of town, following the Tour yellow arrows along the route the riders will take.  Just out of Saint-Gaudens, we came across the two vans and their drivers who placed the arrows along the route.  They leap-frogged their way along the roads placing a directional arrow wherever they needed to, then jumped back in their vans a drove at break-neck speed until stopping abruptly at an intersection, junction or roundabout to place another arrow.  It was great for us; we could confirm we were going in the right direction as the Tom-Tom maps of the smaller country backroads can be flaky at times.

At one point, we overtook both of the arrow-placing vans so were again reliant on the Tom-Tom to keep us on track; we ended back behind the vans when we stopped in a small village to buy a baguette.  Eventually, we overtook the vans again when they had stopped in a village at the foot of the Col d’Agnes for lunch at the pub, parking on the footpath right outside after placing an arrow on the streetsign. We started up the mountain, passing hundreds of motorhomes and campers who have entrenched themselves, ready for the tour.  The good sites have all been taken, so it’s a task to try and find a level (enough) spot large enough for a motorhome that none of the thousands of other parking-spot-hunters have seen.  We were quite near the summit of the Col when we spied a small barely suitable spot.  We surveyed the area (remembering the last time we parked off the road and got bogged in a field) and thought it suitable enough, it wasn’t going to be level and we wouldn’t be able to use the main door as you’d end up stepping down off the cliff, but as we would try to escape again as soon as the Tour passed, it would only be for one night.  Scott gingerly drove off the road onto the narrow verge covered with long green grass.  As soon as the front right wheel was off the road surface it had zero traction on the grass and again, we got stuck.  Any stuff ups in getting the van off the verge could end up seeing the van tumble over the edge of the mountain.  After several different attempts at getting back onto the road, a few Tour spectators tried to assist by pushing the 3500kg van; eventually a bloke came down from the make-shift bar on the next bend in his Fiat Panda.  With a frayed-rope between the Panda and the van, a few people pushing, and some smoking tires we were back onto the hard road surface. A check of the front right tyre shows it to be in even worse condition now, so it will have to be changed very soon.

We couldn’t get into that spot on the Col d’Agnes so decided to try further on.  As we were driving, we came to the decision that any decent places on the next mountain (Plateau de Bielle) would already be taken so we’ll try for somewhere from where we can easily escape to the next stage after the Tour passes; we headed into Les Cabannes at the foot of the Plateau.

There were a few motorhomes already in established positions in town; the Aires de Camping was already overflowing.  We used their facilities to empty wastes and headed just out of town to a small village, Albies, where there was a municipal campsite with a couple of spaces left.  We could have roughed it in a car park, but thought after the hectic day it would be nicer to have a proper pitch, hot showers and electricity.

After dinner, Scott was scouring the Tom-Tom maps to try and find what might be a suitable vantage from where to watch the Tour and discovered that we could have accidentally tripped over the right spot to be!  On the map there are four possible junctions of the main N20 road and smaller roads all labelled D522 (or D522A) on which the Tour will ride; one will have the Tour coming within 50m our campsite. 

Saturday 16 July 2011: Albies -> Montpellier (Tour de France, Stage 14)

Today is the last day in the Pyrenees; 168.5km from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille.

Scott had a terrible night sleep, listening to two sets of church bells chiming out the time every hour and half hour; Tracy didn’t notice them at all!  Having yet another look at the Tom-Tom maps and trying to reconcile them with the tour maps, we decided the D522 road nearest us was not going to be the one used by the Tour, so we decided to move to try to get a vantage spot closer to one of the other three D522 junctions on the map.  After breakfast and a shower (the municipal showers were hot although still push button) we headed along the main N20 road; there were campers and motorhomes scattered everywhere and we are convinced that some of them are in the wrong spot to be able to see the tour.  It took a couple of laps up and down a 10km stretch of road, but eventually we found a spot at the turn off onto what we think is the right D522 road; there are enough campers and Gendarme here to add credence, but still no yellow Tour arrows (unless they have all been souvenired already).

We walked the couple of km into town, through a local village which had an impressive aquaculture system growing trout, using the water from the adjacent fast flowing river.  The town was starting to heave under the Tour, with queues forming outside the local markets to purchase bread and cheese; stalls were setup selling everything from “official” Tour merchandise (not!) to straw hats.  The couple of beer tents already had many customers and the food vendor’s trade was constant, the Tour comes through here in about 6 hours.  There was a long line of cyclists trying to navigate the barricades to get onto the start of the hill climb, impeded by idiot drivers (all official Tour cars, of course) and the hundreds (if not thousands?) of spectators who were starting their trudge up the hill too.  Tracy managed to get into a shop and bought a baguette, cheese and ham, so we walked back to the motorhome on the side of the main road to await the arrival of the Tour later in the afternoon.

Parked ahead of us on the roadside was a group of four Belgian men, who had started their days drinking with some brekky wine and local ouzo-like spirits.  By lunchtime they had moved on to white wine, followed by the rosé, and then chased that down with some reds.  By the time the Caravane came through, they were onto the champagne.  Needless to say, they were quite pissed and became more and more friendly the more they drank; unfortunately their very limited English got worse until it became completely indecipherable. All four were beside the roadside to watch the Caravane and offered some of their free-junk to us (but we didn’t want it either, so it was yet another source of amusement for their pissed states to figure out!)  By the time the race actually came through, only the younger two guys were standing, the other two were nowhere to be seen!

The Peleton came passed trying to chase down a breakaway. 

 

Our first views of the Alpes
Our first views of the Alpes

 

 

We shouted and cheered for Cadel and he just happened to be finishing his water bottle and threw it towards us.  The biden hit the Armco barrier and bounced back onto the road; the other cyclists managed to avoid it but it was clipped by one of the team cars and then finally another which caused some minor damage to the very base, but we managed to collect it.  We were quite chuffed to finally get a genuine-Cadel-product from the Tour.

You can just see the water bottle - it's ours
You can just see the water bottle

As soon as we could, we got moving towards Montpellier.  We got onto the road from our parking spot quite easily but within a few minutes we stopped in a long line of traffic trying to do exactly the same thing.  Eventually we got moving at a steady rate and then onto the motorway.  The drive was easy enough, if a little dull.  Eventually we made it into Montpellier, taking a diversion from the Tom-Tom directions to follow the same route the riders will take into town (fortunately the Tour arrows had already been placed so it was quite easy to navigate around).  We ended up parking with a few other motorhomes and cars in the Carrefour carpark just a few hundred metres after the finish line.  When we arrived, we had a chat with a Belgian couple who had driven all the way from their home to see this stage and had tried to find last-minute hotel accommodation, of which there was none because the Tour had everything booked solid; they spent the night sleeping in the back of their Caddy wagon. They were a few seedy looking (homeless?) characters in the carpark, drinking and smoking dope, so we were a little wary of them, but as it got dark a beat-up van came by and they all piled in and drove off; we slept more easily knowing they were gone. 

Sunday 17 July 2011 : Montpellier -> Gap (Tour de France, Stage 15)

The Tour has finished in the mountains for the mean time, today going from Limoux to Montpellier (192.5km)

We had a reasonable sleep, only awoken occasionally by loud music blaring from cars visiting the 24hour McDonalds across the road from our parking spot. The previous night, the Belgian couple said they didn’t think the Carrefour would be open as it was Sunday, so we were pleasantly surprised to see people walking in and out of the shops, buying groceries.  Scott popped in and grabbed some fresh bread (still warm, mmmmmm) and some other bits and pieces for breakfast.  We were bemused by the fact the Carrefore was selling wine today (Sunday) but was prohibiting the sale of beer and spirits?  Was it a Sunday thing?  Or, a Tour thing?

Scott went for a run to stretch his legs and see what was going on up at the finishing area.  The place was already starting to come together; the shops and stalls were already established and the grandstands erected etc.  The only difference today from other days we had seen was, it was comparatively very quiet.  Scott followed the Tour route in reverse from the finish line and noticed some finishing touches were still being applied by the Tour machine, including the distance to go banners; he was intending to turn around after 5km but they hadn’t erected that banner by the time he went passed, then got lost in a circus of roundabouts, especially since the gusty wind had spun some of the Tour arrows around on the poles and some of the roundabouts were to be ridden by the Tour in the opposite direction to normal traffic.  Eventually he decided he must have been at least the desired distance and had to get un-lost on the way back through the roundabouts.  Eventually he came across the team erecting the 5km to the finish banners and was happy to be back on the track, running back to the finish, the motorhome and a hot shower.

At about 11:00 we wandered up to the finish area to establish our position.  We wandered around looking for a site to be able to see the big screen and the course itself.  Eventually we got our spot on the opposite side of the course, at the 150m to the finish, and waited.  Next to us was a Dutch family, with three kids who spent the entire afternoon screaming at the free product distributors and collecting vast quantities of the giveaway crap; they had a system and it worked well for them.  Next to them was a French man, who was just as greedy and snatched at the stuff as it was being handed out, pushing kids and women out of the way in the process to collect his bounty.  Sad.

We watched the race on the big screen, with no audio, just the background din of the French language from the local commentary at the finish line.  The spruiker was good; he could talk for minutes without taking a breath!  Of course, we had no idea what he was talking about, unless like the France 2/3 commentary team he said, “Mark Cavendish”; the only name we recognise and it is said very frequently, they love him here! Finally the Caravane and then Peleton, led by HTC who performed yet another sprint finish master-class to project Cavendish over the line in first place (again!).  It was curious to watch the remainder of the riders as the rolled over the line some minutes after the race had been won, and then look back to see the results on the big screen as they passed; the HTC guys were of course ecstatic their team-mate had won another stage, many of the other riders just nodded or sighed as they saw the results.

Cavendish wins again
Cavendish wins again

Once we decided to head back to the motorhome, we had to climb over the barriers to get back to the right side of the course and then fight our way through the crowds milling around the team buses hoping to catch a glimpse of the riders.  Some of the buses had already collected their riders and were trying to make their way to their next destination, so it we jumped in behind the Astana bus and made it through the masses with relative ease.  Unfortunately, when we got in the motorhome and onto the roads, we were not so lucky and spent a long while crawling around the outskirts of Montpellier and the motorway.   Eventually, the traffic thinned out, sped up and we were on our way to Gap.

The motorways were again pretty dull drives, until the sun went down and we got to see some of the lower-Alpine villages lit up.  There was a series of cliffs near (some town) which made the lighting of the trees along Kings Park (in Perth) look completely amateurish and pathetic.  The citadel at Sisteron was well lit and looked spectacular, pity we couldn’t stop and take photos from the edge of the motorway.  Finally we made it to Gap and drove through the town looking for a motorhome service point.  Like we have come to expect, signage in France is terrible and we spent a long while driving through some very narrow streets until we eventually found the right place.  There were quite a few motorhomes parked near the service point, so we decided we would stay the night here and move again the next morning.  We looked at the service point, trying to figure out how this model worked as we needed to ditch wastes and top up our fresh water; we gave up, deciding to have another look in the morning.  We had a late supper, then slept. 

Monday 18 July 2011 : in Gap (Tour de France, Rest Day)

The Tour has a rest today.

When we woke up, some of the motorhome which were near us when we went to bed had left, to be replaced with others and more.  Over a coffee, we watched as other people became just as confused as we were at how to operate the service point; everyone simply gave up and wandered off!

After brekky we went for a walk into the town to find the TIC.  Again, the signage let us down and we walked for quite a while, trying to re-navigate some of the narrow lanes and roads to find the TIC we had seen the night before.  We were just about to give up and turn back towards the parking spot when we finally spied the TIC.  They gave us a map of the town and pointed out where we could park our camping car.  The first place the TIC guy pointed out on the map was the place where were actually parked; and had to be vacated by 12:00 that day.  He didn’t know that, so pointed out another spot on the other side of town. We got back to the motorhome and armed with our TIC map started our drive to the other side of town.  Driving along one of the more main roads in the peak hour traffic, Scott pulled the motorhome to the very side of the road to allow an ambulance travelling in the opposite direction through.  It was a tight squeeze to have cars three-wide on the road, but the ambulance got through.  As soon as we went to get moving, there was a resounding crash from the side of the road; the awning had clipped one of the overhanging trees and had been ripped off the side of the van!  Bugger.  We couldn’t move anywhere until we collected the debris and secured the extension arms; we had blocked one of the lanes so all the traffic had to gingerly get around us as the ambulance had to do.  We weren’t popular with the rush hour traffic.  After a while, we managed to fix things enough to be able to get off the roadway.  We headed to the second site as indicated on our map by the TIC guy.  When we got there, there was a large empty parking area.  We thought we finally had some good luck, but no, our run of bad luck continued as we discovered this parking site had been completely reserved for the Tour official cars etc.  Bugger again.

We drove around the edge of Gap to find two commercial camping areas to see if they had any spaces, they didn’t.  We kept driving out of Gap and started following the route the riders will take up Col de Manse.  Just near the summit we saw a pub and some campers; perfect.  Somewhere to park, and somewhere to drown some sorrows. We parked on a side road and said g’day to our neighbours, Claire and Ben from Adelaide.  We had some more cleaning up to do from the awning fiasco, then Scott went for a run, before we walked up to the pub for a few late afternoon drinks, later joined by Ben and Claire.  It was cool during the day with a chilly breeze, as soon as the sun went behind the hills and the shadow of the pub was cast across the tables it started to get cold.  We decided to share a bbq and a few more drinks with Ben and Claire; their charcoal bbq and our attempts to get dinner cooked was a source of amusement, but eventually we ate enough to call dinner finished.  By now the sun was down and it positively freezing, so we moved inside Vinny to watch some tv whilst having a few more drinks and post-dinner nibbles.  The night drew to a close at about 22:30, having started badly but finishing on a better note.

Tuesday 19 July 2011 : Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux -> Gap (Tour de France, Stage 16)

This stage of the tour is 163km.  It was a cold night and in the morning it was raining with occasional thunder and lightning. We spent the morning in the motorhome catching up on some reading and other odds and sods to while away the hours until the Tour comes through at about 17:00 or so.  After the clouds cleared we found there was snow on the mountains which is spectacular. 

Snow on the mountains - summer!
Snow on the mountains - summer!

 

We are still perched on the Col du Mance and scored quite well when the caravan visited with the usual assortment of crap and more crap.  We met a lot of other Aussies all there cheering for Cadel, we wonder if he knows or realises we are cheering him on.  Eventually the riders made it over the top of the mountain and we got a great view as they levelled off and road off back into Gap. 

Go Cadel
Go Cadel

 

We headed back to Ben and Claire’s campervan as they have satellite and watched the remainder of the race before packing up and heading on out.

We are now heading straight to Alpe-d’Huez and missing the next two stages to secure a spot either on the mountain or within walking distance.  The drive isn’t too bad except for the traffic which slowly wends it way towards the Alps.  We arrive at Bourg d’Oisans at night and find a spot in the local Casino Supermarket near the Camping-Car Service Point and meet Daniel and Michael, who although are English both lived in Perth for a while. 

We take the opportunity for the next two days to chill out, do some walking and see where on Alpe d’Huez we want to stand and to get some shopping and restocking of the campervan done.  The town is packed and there isn’t much space to move.  There is plenty of things to do in the town, but seems everyone is here to ride up and therefore down the mountain and I have never seen such a huge grouping of lycra clad people (some of them should not be in lycra either).  I would also hate to calculate the amount of money there is in bikes, some of them seem more up to date than what the riders in the Tour are using.  We are also following the tour on TV to keep up to date with what is happening and also spend an afternoon in the pub watching it there over a few drinks.  Cadel was severely let down when nobody would help him at all and he subsequently ensured that Voekler continued with the yellow jersey – hope he gets a huge thank you and also has some power over who in his team actually gets a pay cheque, as from what we have seen they have certainly never supported him.

On the night before the race we get moved on from the supermarket car park and move up the street to a roadside verge which is at least quieter.

7-14 July 2011: Week Two le Tour de France

Thursday 07 July 2011: in Dinan (Tour de France, Stage 6)

Up early and into the streets of Dinan and the huge crowds that had gathered.  We walked the city route again and found a spot that was interesting, just above the roadway and with a small hedge in front, so after wandering some more and seeing the caravan come past we walked back to the spot for a perfect view of the tour. 

Perfect spot - history and cycling (according to Scott)
Perfect spot - history and cycling (according to Scott)

We shouted at Cadel and got a wave and a smile back – Scott was so excited he stuffed up the video.  Oh well.  Of course as soon as they go past the crowds soon dissipate and we sit down in the town square and have lunch in the sun.  We visit the tourist office and get a map and find a small supermarket for some provisions and continue wandering through the beautiful town.  We walk down the Rue Du Petit Fort which is a steep cobblestoned laneway that leads down to the Pont and of course it now starts to rain but it is still a lovely walk. 

 

Down at the Port there are loads of restaurants, boat trips and via of the viaduct etc, but the rain is increasing so walk back up the Rue Du Petit Fort and back into town.  I found a hairdresser who after much talking and hand signals I manage to get my hair coloured, cut and blowdried for the bargain price of 29EUR (which seems to be the going rate here).  It was nice to relax for a while and listen to everyone talking around me.  For dinner we ventured back into town to a small seafood restaurant.  The town is so quiet tonight after last night, but we had a lovely meal and another meander through the almost deserted streets.  Dinan must rate as one of the most favourite places so far.

Friday 08 July 2011: Dinan -> Chateauroux -> Boussac (Tour de France, Stage 7)

We have had our day in this lovely medieval town but now have to push on to catch up with the Tour; they are travelling from Le Mans to Chateauroux (218km).

We packed up our pitch and waited for the council man to open the gates to the park to let us out.  Whilst we were waiting, we had a chat with an English bloke who was camping out of the back of his car; he had decided to spend an extra day in Dinan too, so we weren’t the only ones taken by the town.  We headed out, navigating the narrow cobbled streets, and through one arch (we thought we might not fit but made it without a scratch and the TV antenna still on the roof).  We crossed over the old aqueduct high above the river where we were rained on yesterday, we were on our way.

We had a long drive ahead of us, so were well prepared with food, drinks and music available in the cockpit; we shouldn’t have to stop except to rest and to refuel.  Much of the trip was on motorways and other main-ish roads so the drive was pretty boring, and used a lot more fuel than we liked.  Eventually, we made it around the Tour diversions and into Chateauroux, finding a park for the motorhome is not the easiest thing to do in a city at the best of times, made all the more difficult when the Tour is in town.  We found a spot (it might have been illegal, but it seemed everyone else was doing it today and nobody seemed to be issuing tickets) and walked to find we were 3km from the finishing line.  There were crowds three or four deep at the barricades all the way to the finish.  At 250m to the line there was the big screen, so we stopped there to watch what was going on, of course the commentary was in French, so we could only look at the images without knowing the full story until they flashed up timings etc onto the screen.  As we waited, the Caravan came through, but we didn’t bother to move from our spot on the grass.  A company rep was moving through the crowd giving away free samples of some sort of alcoholic cider drink (needed to be free, no one in their right mind would pay for it?)  The Peloton was still a couple of hours away, so we just waited and chatted with an English bloke who was riding around France, not following the Tour per se, but seeing enough stages when he could.

Eventually, the race came into town.  The breakaway was caught and team HTC set up the perfect sprint for Mark Cavendish to win the stage.  We hadn’t heard so many English voices as we heard when he crossed the line, but then there were odd one or two voices that then started spruiking about English superiority over the French.  Who said the English were rude and arrogant?

As we walked back to the motorhome, the crowds had already dispersed and the “machine” was in full swing taking down the advertising and the barriers.  By the time we got back to where were illegally parked, all the cars that were near us had gone, and Vinnie looked very much out of place and obvious; thankfully we didn’t get a ticket.

We drove out of town, and as we pulled into a service station to refuel, noticed several Team buses and their support entourages at a small hotel on the outskirts.  We didn’t have time to take it all in; we had to keep moving to overtake the Tour, but did ponder about why the Team managements selected a hotel so far out of the finishing town, and why more than one Team would book the same hotel?  Maybe they weren’t going to stay there, but would just use the facilities and then move on?

We drove on for another couple of hours, eventually passing through the small village of Boussac and finding a nice spot on the side of the road where a few other motorhomes had already pitched.  We settled in amongst them, no one giving us a second thought or speaking to us, until we hoisted the Aussie flag.  Once we proved we weren’t British, people would chat with us, even though we couldn’t speak French! 

Saturday 09 July 2011: Boussac -> Dienne (Tour de France, Stage 8)

Massif Central, first day of the hills; 189km Aigurande to Super-Besse-Sancy.

Our roadside pitch was not too noisy, compared to a few nights ago, so we were pretty well rested.  After breakfast we walked the 1km into Boussac to find they were getting well and truly into the Tour spirit.  Although it was not yet 10:00, the Gendarme was out in force and the roads were already blocked off.  There were flower pots adorning the side of the roads, bunting as far as the eye could see and old crappy bikes were painted in bright colours as garden ornaments.  In the centre of the village, they set up a small market with locals selling breads, cheeses and other assorted smallgoods.  The pub across the road from the square was already doing a roaring trade in coffees and beers.

We had a bit of a potter around and bought some of the local produce, then found a supermarket for some general necessities.  On the way back, Scott found a “sporting” store selling telescopic fishing rods which could be used as a better flag pole than the broomstick we currently have, so bought one for only 5 Euro.

Back at Vinnie, we ate some of the fresh produce we had just purchased and waited for the Tour. 

Tough job watching the tour
Tough job watching the tour

 

As usual the Caravan came through first; they must have been running a bit late because they simply tore through and gave away very little.  We did manage to get a couple of bits and pieces; whatever we didn’t want was eagerly (and gratefully received) by the French kids in the neighbouring motorhome.  Finally the Tour came into view, down the small hill and around the bend in front of us.  There were eight (or nine?) riders in a breakaway about 5 minutes ahead of the Peloton (we cheered again for Cadel and he smiled and nodded) then of course the cars following.  We did not notice the “end of the convoy” truck and didn’t think too much of it, but it would be important soon.

We packed up and entered the next destination into the GPS and headed off (started in the wrong direction, thanks Tom-Tom).  We approached the outskirts of Boussac again and tried to turn around in a side street, as we came back to the main road we were stopped by the Gendarme.  We were held there with a small line of cars; eventually the Gendarme (in pretty good English) informed us there had been a traffic accident involving one/more of the Tour Team cars and the road would not be re-opened until the very end of the convey had been through.  We couldn’t do much but wait.  We watched as, much to the chagrin of our Gendarme, other traffic was proceeding up and down the main road.  He looked a little bemused at who was letting the traffic onto the road when his orders were to hold us all there.  Eventually, the end of convoy truck carrying the Vacansoleil-DCM car came passed and we were allowed onto the road to continue, in the right direction this time!

The roads were pretty good compared to what we had been on in the last couple of days.  We weaved through the countryside, the roads lined predominately with pine plantations and other timber industry requirements.  For quite a while we were the only motorhome in sight so we are hoping that by escaping the previous stage early, we might get a good position for tomorrow.  We pulled up on the side of the road at the intersection where the riders will turn, but if we walk a further 3km up the road we will be able to see them a second time as the travel in a loop up and down these hills.  Our spot is quite good and the people near us are quite friendly, especially when they see the Aussie flag. 

It's not big, but it gets noticed
It

After we got settled, Scott went for a run.  We’re at nearly 1210m altitude so it took some adjustment; and it’s all uphill!  Well it seemed that way anyway.  As he was arriving back at the campsite, one French man (from the motorhome next to ours) was cordoning off the entire area with tape to prevent late arrivals from mooching on our patch!  We should have unfettered access to watch the Tour come passed and to be able to escape as soon as they have come through.  We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the constant stream of motorhomes coming up the mountain looking for their spot to park.  When we arrived there only about 10 or so homes here, there are now more than 50 in easy view.

It is like a travelling city on the tour
It is like a travelling city on the tour

 

Just after dinner-time, a local chap drove up the line of motorhomes and campers selling cheese, yoghurt and other milk products.  I have said for days that this is what the locals should be doing to make some money whilst the Tour is nearby.  In the towns, the shops are mostly shut when the Tour is there; but when will they ever that many people walking by their shops again?  There have been only one or two small markets set up in towns; again, when will there ever be so many potential customers again?  Anyway, Tracy bought two tubs of goats’ milk yoghurt for just a couple of Euro; we’ll have these for breakfast.

Sunday 10 July 2011: Dienne -> Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Tour de France, Stage 9)

Today’s stage is the second hills stage in the Massif Central, 208km from Issoire to Saint-Flour. 

Last night it rained, and rained.  This morning there are two fast flowing streams under the motorhome, flowing down the verge passed all the other campervans, narrowly missing a tent!  We had our goats’ milk yoghurt with some muesli for breakfast – it was ok, Tracy liked it but Scott thought it lacked zing.  The local council have been around distributing rubbish bags and reset the rubbish bins, so the place should be nice and clean when it comes time to leave.

Its 10:30 and it has finally stopped raining, only because we are now in the clouds!  The visibility is terrible; we can just see the other side of the road.  Within 15 minutes or so, the cloud lifts and it starts drizzling again.  Eventually, the weather improved and stayed “reasonable” for the rest of the day.  The Tour Caravan made its presence felt in its usual subtle fashion; loudspeakers, blaring music and tooting horns.  We managed a pretty good haul, giving away all the crap we didn’t want to some French and Norwegian kids, keeping the hats (for friends at home) and foodstuffs (snacks whilst driving).  Within a couple of hours, the riders came through; the breakaway followed by the peloton.  We saw a lot more of the “names” today, but no one was smiling in the miserable conditions.

As soon as the roads were opened, we drove the 3km to the next junction to watch the Tour come past again.  We parked in the long queue of people doing the same thing; Tracy decided she would stay with Vinnie and Scott would walk down the hill to the intersection to see the riders.  We had to wait about an hour for the first riders to appear, the breakaway was still pretty much together, but the peloton was strewn all over the place.  We heard there had been a crash, but it took a couple of days for us to learn of the number of riders involved (just about everyone!)

No idea how you tell the Schlecks apart
No idea how you tell the Schlecks apart

The next day is a rest day for the Tour, so just about everyone is heading to Le Lorian Cantal, but we are going to visit Tracy’s cousin, Robert, in Dordogne so when everyone else headed straight through the intersection, we turned right and pretty much had the road to us.  It was going to be too long a drive to make it to Robert’s, so we stopped overnight in a small municipal camping area in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. The campsite is off the main road and located between quite a wide river on one side and a sporting field on the other.  There are a few other campers; one group had canoed here, one group had driven in a car and set up their tents and an old couple had towed an old, very small caravan.  The site had power and the amenities building had everything we needed, including hot showers with proper taps! There were signs on many of the pitches they had been reserved for some time mainly in August to October, so we assumed the place gets a lot busier than it is now.  We found a site and pitched up for the night.  We went for a walk to try and find someone to pay, but the reception was closed, so we had a free night!

We walked the km or so into town and spent the time trying to decide whether many of the businesses were in the process of opening or closing.  Some of the restaurants were definitely closing (it was almost 18:30) but some we just weren’t sure about.  We found the TIC to be shut but the adjacent market to be open so took the opportunity to grab some more supplies.  Just as we were paying, they shut the doors even though there were still people trying to get in for their last minute needs, so we had lucked in.  With arms full, we thought we’d take a quick look up a “side street” (turned out to be the main thoroughfare connecting the two halves of this part of town) and found a square with tables and umbrellas; the jungle themed restaurant cum pub across the road served the customers. We got a table at the restaurant and watched, bemused, as the waiters dodged the traffic trying to serve the clients in the square. Our waitress told us she didn’t speak very good English and that we were the first English people she had actually spoken with; as soon as we said we were Australian she spoke even better English! We ordered a pizza each and some drinks.  The pizza station was right next to us so we got to see our order being made from scratch, brilliantly fresh and delicious.  Tracy, with the assistance of our waitress managed to get a bottle of nice local wine and Scott ended up with a (very) large bottle of local cider.  The local cider is exceptionally dry (you almost need to wash it down with a glass of water) but quite low alcohol (less than 5%, which is why you see people drinking so much of it in one sitting).  The whole meal came to less than 28Euro and was exceptional value. 

A small bottle of cider then!
A small bottle of cider then!

Replete, we wandered back to the campsite, admiring the setting sun across the river and the walnut grove adjacent to the site.

Monday 11 July 2011: Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne -> La Coutance (Tour de France, Rest Day)

The Tour has a rest today, so we are going to Robert’s house in Dordogne to lend some support to renovations (even if it is only moral support!).   In the morning, the reception was still closed so we still had no one to pay for the night in the campsite; there was a cleaning lady doing her chores, she didn’t even look up as we drove out of the gate onto the main road.

The drive through the small Dordogne region roads was pleasant at times, treacherous at others.  The small winding roads and blind corners might be good training for what is to come when we get into the Pyrenees and the Alps, but Scott would have been happier on roads requiring less work!

Eventually we arrived at the town which the Tom-Tom said was the destination; all we had to do now was to find the house, there are no such luxuries as street names and house numbers here!  We drove around a little and eventually found something close to what we thought we had seen in photos of Robert’s house.  We were close, but it took final directions from a New Zealand couple to finally get us to the right house; we made it!

We needed to get some washing done, and pulled out our little portable washer.  Much to our dismay, we discovered the little unit had holes in the drum and the water leaked through into the electric motor.  When we had arrived, Robert and Ray were out, as it happened, buying a washing machine.  As soon as they arrived home, we unpacked it and took it downstairs into what will eventually be the laundry room.  We all tried to get the unit working, but the plumbing is incompatible, so we took the new washer upstairs and out onto the front veranda.  We managed to plumb the washer into the outside water taps, but there was no power and further investigation there was no power anywhere in the house.  Several people had looked at the fuses and all was good, but it took the workman from the power company to switch the main on/off switch on again! (Yes, our little portable washer managed to trip the power mains without tripping the safety fuses/switches?!)

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing loads of laundry on the front veranda, wandering around the house and grounds, looking at the renovation works in progress and learning more of the impending works.  As the sun set, we sat outside with Robert, Kevin, Linda and Ray, drinking and eating too much, before finally retiring inside the house onto a real bed! 

Tuesday 12 July 2011: La Coutance -> L’Isle-de-Noe (Tour de France, Stage 10)

We aren’t going to make the Tour today; they are going from Aurillac to Lavaur (158km) but they are a long way from us and we have a long way to go to get in front of them again.

In the morning, the sprightly people made those less-sprightly feel even worse!  There was work to be done today, and hangovers or no, it had to be done.  Scott was feeling good and decided it was finally time to get the roof of the motorhome clean (whenever it rained, dirt and crap on the roof would wash down the sides and the windscreen) He parked Vinnie next to the lower garage and from the balcony above, he could use the hose and broom to wash the van’s roof.  With the roof cleaned, he took the opportunity to clean the rest of the outside of the van whilst Tracy cleaned the inside.

With all of our washing done, the van cleaned inside and out, it was time to head off and try to jump ahead of the Tour.  We said our goodbyes and headed west to get onto the south-bound motorways.  The drive through the countryside was as it had been the day before, slow, undulating and winding, until finally we got to the motorways, which are straight, wide, fast and boring.  Tracy drove for a bit, her first time driving on the right hand side of the road in the motorhome.

Eventually, we had to get off the motorway and pulled onto the exit ramp.  We had to pay our 28 Euro toll dues at an automatic gate, so we put in a 50 Euro note and waited to receive the change, all in coins.  As we were no longer on the motorway, Scott was driving again through the narrow country roads.  In some places the councils had planted trees right on the roadside; 50 years ago, traffic must have been smaller, slower and lighter because now fast moving cars, trucks and motorhomes barley have enough room to pass in these tree-lined roads.  The rain and wind didn’t help matters much either.   It was a tough drive, so we decided we would have a break for the night at a small town that appeared on the Tom-Tom, but not on any other of our maps, L’Isle-de-Noe.

At the entrance to the municipal camping park, there was a sign which said something about being permanently closed (or as best we could tell in our pathetic French).  There was one motorhome in the park, who happened to be leaving as we arrived, and he reiterated the park was closed but you could stay here (just as he had).  There were some old people sitting under the veranda of the amenities block, who signalled us it was ok to stay for the night, so we made our pitch.  Once sited, we understood what the sign at the entrance and the other motorhome has tried to say about the park being closed; although there were connections there was no power, although there was a water heater in the amenities block there was no hot water, there were no large bins only small waste receptacles. We parked under some large leafy trees adjacent to a series of sporting fields.  There were signs of impending festivities with a couple of marquees in the next field (or had the festivities been?)  As soon as the sun went down, the old people left their conversation post under the veranda; we were the only people around.

Just after dinner, it started to rain again.  The big drops of water fell from the leaves of the trees overhead and crashed into the roof of the van.  Sometime later, we remembered we had left our shoes outside the door and of course they were fully soaked when we retrieved them.  The rest of the night was spent trying to watch some TV on the computer, with the volume turned all the way up to compete with the rain and thunder, and making dashes through mud-puddles to the amenities building.

Wednesday 13 July 2011: L’Isle-de-Noe -> Col du Tormalet (Tour de France, Stage 11)

Up and out of the campsite early and back on the small narrow roads – oh joy of joys.  We get close to the turnoff for the Tour de France route and stop in the town having a look around and also getting directions for a nearby Intermarche (huge supermarket) where we head off so that we can stock up the now empty cupboards.  We are soon back on the road and decide to try and jag a spot on the mountain.  As we are driving up and up and up, we find a spot about 5 kilometres from the summit and park up.  There is a constant stream of traffic, so we decide to stay here as sure there can’t be many spots higher.  We are parked opposite a New Zealand couple so we will have a competition for small flags tomorrow J  We walk up into La Mongie the nearest town for a walk around, but the weather is closing in and we are drenched by the time we get there so decide to return to the van and do the summit tomorrow. 

Lovely view of the Pyrenees
Lovely view of the Pyrenees

We invite the Kiwis over to watch the remainder of the tour on the TV.  Scott and I thought we would have an early night after watching a DVD, but it didn’t help that every car going up decided to toot their horns and the traffic was constant still into the night.

Thursday 14 July 2011: Col du Tormalet  -> Saint-Gaudens  (Tour de France, Stage 12)

Up early – couldn’t help it as still there is a stream of cars, motorhomes, trucks, cyclists heading up.  There was a small gap between the back of our motorhome and the front of the next motorhome and sometime during the dark of night a couple of Spanish guys managed to manoeuvre their campervan into it!    

The weather is better and we decide to head to the summit, so up we went, and up and up and up.  This is steep and brought reminiscences back of Nepal.  The roadside and everywhere is covered in people and flags, with a great contingent of Aussie and Kiwi flags to be seen, although not that anybody could compete with the Spanish.  We made it to Col du Tormalet which is just swamped with people and the Gendarme has little hope of keeping any sort of control over the crowds. 

Yes I made it
Yes I made it

We walk back to Vinnie and wait for the caravan to come buy with Scott, Rueben and Clare sharing some sort of horrible ouzo drink with the Spanish guys who have advised they will be driving after the tour unless they are very tipsy, hmm seem to have reached that stage now.  Anyway we scored big time on the caravan with lots of lollies and snacks and giving all the other assorted crap to the kids around us.  We have a policewoman near us who is ruthless in keeping everyone behind the white lines and making all the cyclists dismount and walk etc – maybe they should clone her.   Of course between the caravan and the tour itself, it is picnic time and the French have this down to a fine art, it is amazing what they produce out of the backs of their cars.

We then settled in for the wait for the riders to make it up the mountain to us.  Eventually they came, slowly, very slowly, looking shattered and exhausted (made me feel better after walking it). 

Here they come...
Here they come...

 

 

Voekler making a meal of the race
Voekler making a meal of the race

We got to see most of the favourites as they were going much more sedately today and were very spread out. 

Yes this is Cadel's ear
Yes this is Cadel

As soon as the main group had gone by we all jumped into Vinnie to watch the remainder on TV (although the commentary is in French, we can just guess at what they are saying).  Eventually it is all over, so we pack up Vinnie and join the throng of people now descending the mountain.  It takes us over an hour just to get to the bottom, painstakingly slow and putting us behind where we intended.

After a long tiring drive we made it to St Gaudens where we find a MacDonald’s and quickly do some emails etc before finding a camping spot in the town centre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1-6 July 2011: Week One of Le Tour de France

Friday 01 July 2011: Port-en-Bessin-Huppain -> Les Essarts

The guy at the campsite pointed us in the direction of Bayeux and the mobile phone shops so we could sort out our mobile and internet access.  Hmm this turned out to be a debacle.  We don’t have a French bank account and therefore can’t get an account, so we bought a prepaid card.  You have to pay for the sim card, then for the prepaid card and we get the grand total of 8 hours in 30 days access to the internet, although we can top up so more.  There is no unlimited internet and no mi-fi for our 3 modem.  The solution according to both Orange and SFR is to use MacDonald’s!  We pottered around Bayeux for a bit, which is a lovely old town and again great parking before heading off to Les Essarts.  We followed the main motorway which isn’t a toll motorway and was in fantastic condition, so fast and easy.  In fact the whole journey was extremely easy, apart from some roadwork’s in Nantes where we just couldn’t work out where they went, so after a couple of goes around in a circle decided to head to somewhere in the general direction of where we are going and picked up the road again. 

le Tour de France - we are finally here
le Tour de France - we are finally here

On arriving in Les Essarts we find a huge fluorescent sign saying camping-cars, so when going past the municipal camping site which is complet, we find a field with quite a few other camping cars.  It is very self sufficient, so we head back to the municipal camping site to ask if we can top up our water there and are pointed to a motorhome service point in the adjacent park, so for the grand price of 2Eur we fill up with water and head back to the camping car site, this time deciding not to traverse the hill field and stay near the entrance.

A bit quiet - or so we thought
A bit quiet - or so we thought

After parking and setting up Vinnie, we come across the only other GB van in the field and chat to the British couple who had also done the Tour before and who gave us some good advice.  We wandered into town and had a drink at the local Tabac / Bar, finally finding a relatively decent white wine.  They serve them in the smallest wine glasses here, so you think you have had heaps. 

Saturday 02 July 2011:  in Les Essarts

We had a nice quiet night in the camping field.  The plan was to have a lazy day and a bit of a potter around town, seeing what there was to see and watching the Tour de France “machine” setting up.  After breakfast, we walked the short distance into town.  The village itself is unremarkable and many of the businesses were shut for the weekend.  The bakery was open and was doing a roaring trade; the cliché appearance of people walking down the road carrying their baguette was well and truly alive!  We walked around in circles for a little while (it doesn’t take long to walk the entire village) and then stopped in at the TIC. We were greeted in English by a girl who gave us a handful of maps and brochures, then apologised they weren’t in English.  C’est la vie.  One of the brochures showed we could get into the Chateau on the outskirts of the village, so we headed in that direction.  We found an entrance gate and stepped through into the grounds behind a large, old stone wall to be greeted by an old man who informed us the Chateau was closed to visitors because it hosting some of the Tour machine.

We left what looked like an interesting old building and grounds, and then headed back into the village, stopping at the local butcher for some sausages and the market for some other provisions.  We slowly wandered through the convoys of arriving visitors and motorhomes back to the campsite to catch up with a few chores and a general lazy day sitting under the awning on a fine, sunny day.  Another English couple came over and asked about the campsite etc, they had snatched a campsite on the road, so if they got moved on they would come into the field.  All afternoon the motorhomes rolled into the van and each time we wandered around the town, there were just more and more people – although I would say about 99% were French.  We headed back to the van and had dinner.  Dinner was started on the small portable BBQ, but unfortunately the wind came up just at the wrong time so dinner was finished inside on the hob.  Scott said the local sausages and chorizo were excellent, even though they were washed down with one of the remaining cans of Guinness left over from Ireland.

After dinner we headed back out to the local square where there is a food festival with some jazz music.  We meet some Australians who are following the tour for a few days and have a chat.  My glass of wine was unachievable, so I was given a bottle which Scott and I shared – it wasn’t the best, but we are in France, it is hot and sunny – even at 9pm at night and the atmosphere is great.  We then snagged a spot closer to the band and were joined for a French group who could speak some English and they gave us their contact details if we are in their region and we had a great time.    

 

A few drinks to celebrate the tour
A few drinks to celebrate the tour

 

 

Eventually staggering back very late.  It is still relatively light, and the nice council has put toilets near the entrance to the campsite along with rubbish bins, very organised.  Although now there seems like thousands of camping-cars everywhere you look.    

 

Hmm now where did we park
Hmm now where did we park

 

 

The fireworks start at about 11pm, but there wasn’t many and it didn’t seem to last long which was good. 

Sunday 03 July 2011: in Les Essarts (Tour de France, Stage 2)

Overnight, Le Tour “machine” had almost completed all the changes to the town, so in the morning they were just adding a few finishing touches and erecting some barricades.  The small town had started heaving under the weight of the machine and the visitors.  After brekkie, we wandered into town to have a look around and were hoping to locate a vantage point or two from where to view the racing.  It was just after 10:00 and people had already established their camps along the barricades, so we decided we had better find our spot and stay there too.

We found a suitable place just near the start point, far away enough from the loudspeakers but close enough to the action.  There were company reps (some dressed in costumes) giving away trinkets and freebies; a family next to us had the collection of these gifts finely tuned and managed to amass several bags of promotional material (most of it useless junk).  We did get a few snacks and a couple of hats, but as we don’t speak French we weren’t able to shout at the gift-distributors to pay us some attention.

At 12:30 the Tour Caravan started their procession along the race route.  As they came passed they were also throwing freebies into the crowds, which attracted even more crowds to the already filled barricades.  A small French boy continuously kept pushing at Scott and made himself a general nuisance trying to get some of the freebies; had he been smarter than he was he would have noticed that just about all of the freebies were thrown over the heads of the people at the front so that people could scramble for the pickings some way behind the barricades.  Eventually all of the floats and oddly decorated motorcade passed and most of the crowds left, including the annoying little boy. (It seems the interest in the le Tour is mostly about getting “stuff” and not the cycling?)

At 14:30 the first team headed off on the Team Time Trial.  We didn’t have a programme of events and of course we couldn’t understand the announcements, so we only knew which team was rolling off next when they arrived at the start line.  The spectacle of the teams whizzing by obviously grew thin for many spectators (it was quite hot after all) so by the halfway stage, most of the crowds had left from near us and headed off for cooler climes or off to the finishing area.  The penultimate team to depart was Team BMC with Cadel Evans, so we cheered them off.  

 

A rare sight - BMC in team formation
A rare sight - BMC in team formation

 

 

As soon as soon as he came by, we too headed for the finishing area.  To say it was packed there was an understatement. We tried to find a vantage to see the presentations but only the press had access and the spectators had to resort to pushing and shoving and climbing all over each other (Who said the French were rude and arrogant?) We couldn’t see anything of interest so started making our way back to the campsite, along with the thousands of others heading in every different direction.  The French have some strange inability to walk in a straight line at a constant speed?

By the time we made it back to Vinnie, the field was starting to empty as a convoy of motorhomes started making their way to the next stage.  We had a quiet dinner and a cold shower and packed up early in preparation for a fast getaway tomorrow. 

Monday 04 July 2011: Les Essarts -> Lorient (Tour de France, Stage 3)

Le Tour stage today is Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon (198km).  Having done most our preparations to travel, we got up early for brekkie and a coffee then headed out of town making towards the Tour, intending to find a place on the roadside in the vicinity of the feeding station mid-point during today’s leg.  There wasn’t much traffic on the road (thankfully) and we ended up driving down some of the roads the riders will use, to find a spot a little further down track than we had anticipated, or so we thought.  We pulled off the road into a mown field where a few other motorhomes had already set up and we got set up too.

We walked into the local village of Saint-Mars-De-Coutais and found the bakery.  We did the usual French thing of queuing for to be served only to find they had already run out of baguettes, so we settled for another “ordinary” loaf.  We popped next door to the small supermarket and grabbed some salami and cheese too. By the time we got back to the motorhome, a few more motorhomes and cars had parked near us in the field. Everyone is flying flags and setting up picnics; the kids keep clapping as anyone on a bicycle who comes past.

The start of the promotional crap caravan
The start of the promotional crap caravan

At about 13:30 the Tour Caravan came past.  Yesterday, in town, the entourage set a sedate pace but today it was whistling through, throwing small packages of marketing material to those lining the roadside; some pieces flew very fast but I suppose they have been doing this long enough, we haven’t heard of any injuries! Through the middle of the Caravan came the team cars, jostling for positions on the limited space by the road – we discovered we are AT the feeding station.

We had a bit of a wait until 15:00 when the first riders were expected so we had some roadside lunch, how very French of us! 

Ah the sun at last
Ah the sun at last

 

Afterwards, we went for a wander up the road a bit to see if we could find the Team BMC feed-station car, it was a long way up the road, so obviously they didn’t want to talk to us!  We started heading back towards a better looking site than where we parked and before we knew it, the first 5 breakaway riders came through the feeding station, escorted overhead by five helicopters, ahead by a plethora of police, press and officials and then from behind by it seemed every man and his dog!  We only had to wait a few more minutes until the peloton came through the station, collecting their feed bags and ditching what they didn’t want onto the roadside.  We managed to get a Team Katusha and Team Lampre bidons (we later swapped the Lampre bidon for a BMC bidon with the Belgian couple who had parked their motorhome next to us).  Kids (and adults) scrambled into the roadside ditches to collect every piece of paraphernalia, and people came through after the car convoys on bicycles scouring for any last remnants they could souvenir.  By the time the last truck came through, there was not one piece of litter or Tour debris to be found; recycling at its best?

 

Mine, mine, mine, mine
Mine, mine, mine, mine

We wandered back to Vinnie and hatched a plan to get to the next stage that night, so started moving on as soon as we could.  Within just a few kilometres we were stopped at a roadblock by the Gendarme who were directing traffic onto a small side lane where the cars were doing u-turns then waiting for the roads to open, but as we could barely fit into the lane, the chances of a u-turn were very slim so we just kept going deeper into very rural France.  Eventually we found ourselves detouring the roadblocks and emerged at one of the main roads we needed, and ahead of the traffic that was probably still sitting in some side lane somewhere.  We stopped to grab some (cheap) fuel (and of course a few km later we saw even cheaper fuel!) and changed the plan to head towards Lorient tonight.

A few hours of motorway driving later and we arrived in Lorient; which is much bigger city than we thought.  There were some Tour-no-parking signs around but we didn’t see any down near the marina and the TIC so pulled up.  The guy at the TIC did speak reasonable English, but wasn’t actually that helpful; he sort of knew something about the Tour being in Lorient but not much more.  We grabbed some maps and glossy brochures and went for a walk through town.

Lorient is a nice city (although parts did look a little dishevelled and disused, especially down by the docks) but the central section was good.  We found a restaurant in a main-square and decided to have a meal and a beer/wine. The local seafood was flogged as the special of the day, but Scott preferred a steak with “homemade” sauces and chips, whilst Tracy in her “best” French managed to order a pizza-like dish with the world’s thinnest crust.  Both dishes were good, so we had a cheese platter too.

On the way back to Vinnie, we stopped by a car park where Rabobank mechanics and Garmin mechanics were going through their end-of-day rituals of washing everything and checking all of the bikes, then storing everything in the massive trailers.  There was a small crowd of interested onlookers; Tracy was bemused they allowed people to get so close to the machines.  We wandered back to Vinnie to grab the camera and when we left we were the solitary campervan and now there are six of us, including another GB van – safety in numbers we always say.  Anyway by the time we got back to the team vans, only a few bikes were left to be scrutinized, including Thor Hushovdt which Scott got a photo –

Yellow jersey leader so far
Yellow jersey leader so far

we weren’t sure if they would appreciate anybody actually getting on it!  We decided we should have one more drink and found, of all things, an Irish bar just across the road from where the mechanics were working.  On the footpath next door was the portable kitchen for one of the teams ; we nosed around to see what was on the menu, all we saw was a tomato salad being prepared (without any “special” additives!)  We had a beer and wine, exploited the free Wi-Fi to get our emails for the first time since arriving in France and then headed back to where we parked. 

Tuesday 05 July 2011: Lorient -> Plouha (Tour de France, Stage 4)

Today is Stage 4 of the Tour, starting in Lorient and going 172.5km to Mur-de-Bretagne.  We had a plan to see the start and then try to leap-frog the Tour to get to just before the finishing line, to see the start of the ascent and hopefully the start of the attacks.

We woke up to discover the Lorient volunteer workforce had already started blocking off the roads for the Tour; each worker in their issued safety vest, carrying a plastic bag with a drink and some Tour souvenir goodies!  Before retiring last night, we spoke a British bloke and his son who had seen the Tour before and they suggested if we went to the start area early there might be a chance to see some of the riders as they begin their warm up routines.  We headed towards the port area where the Tour machine was located but took a wrong turn somewhere and found ourselves in the very much less attractive port operations area.  Fortunately, we weren’t the only ones to have this detour so we followed the string of people ahead and eventually found the intended destination.

The start area was already filling up with onlookers and freebie-hunters; there was no sign of any Tour cyclists, a fact confirmed when we re-met the English bloke and his son (from the previous night).  Around the back of the starting marquee was a marina filled with some VERY expensive racing yachts, so we took a look there and then headed further down to the old WWII German U-Boat pens.  This is where part of the ending sequence of Das Boot was filmed? Anyway, the concrete structures were massive and still standing, even after the continual Allied bombing campaigns.  Very impressive, but the museum and tours weren’t available today because the Tour was in town!

The Germans certainly know how to make things solid
The Germans certainly know how to make things solid

Back at the starting area, we watched as the freebie giveaway continued, and then decided to watch the Caravan from near where we parked.  The weather was starting to turn as we walked back into town; it was drizzling by the time we arrived.  We threw some stuff we didn’t need back into the motorhome and grabbed some wet weather gear and umbrellas and staked out our spot on the small bridge near one of the many Lorient marinas.  We had our Australian flag on display and that drew a few cheers and even a g’day or two; one French guy even offered to buy the flag.  As we were standing there in the rain, a French man walked up and introduced himself to us; Eric was an teacher of English and asked if we would like to have a chat in English with one of his students at the very nearby cafe (he’d be shouting the coffee!)  We went to meet Bernard (age 62, had been learning English part time for 4 years, retired 5 years after working in BNP Paribas for 43 years!) We had a great chat with Bernard whose English was more than acceptable (and certainly better than any pathetic efforts we make at speaking in French).  Our chat was briefly interrupted to watch the Caravan come through town and to collect some obligatory freebies as they were thrown from the moving vehicles (today moving much slower than in the countryside, and many of the smiles were more grimace-like as the rain was now pouring down).  We said goodbye to Bernard and Eric then went back to our spot to watch the Tour on the rolling start.  We were interrupted by another Frenchman asking if he could interview us for the local newspaper and taking some information about our trip and what we were there to do as well as our tip for the winner of the race.  The rain continued and eventually the riders came into sight.  Today, Scott caught glimpses of Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovdt and a few other “names”, but didn’t get to see any of the other Aussies in the peloton, but we gave a general cheer for them all to do well.  As the Team cars came passed after the riders, BMC gave us a toot and the HTC Team Manager waved at our Aussie flag.

A lovely French summers day
A lovely French summers day

We grabbed a couple of the marker signs (a favourite souvenir) and headed out of town.  We plugged the destination of Plouha into the GPS and got onto the motorway.  A couple of hours later and we arrive in the lovely village and found a parking spot behind the TIC.  The lady in the TIC was very helpful and gave us some directions and maps.  We went for a short walk through the village looking for someone to serve us lunch at 16:30!  Needless to say, the only places open were bakeries and bars.  Deciding we had some lunch-worthy food in the fridge, we started heading back to Vinnie when we chanced upon a Cave de vin (wine merchant).  The lady in there spoke very good English, although she said her German was better; she managed to tell us enough about the area etc that we bought a couple of bottles of wine and some locally produced beers.

We drove out of the village onto the road the Tour will use tomorrow in search of a spot to camp for the night, hopefully near the feeding station for Stage 5.  We crossed a narrow causeway over the roadside ditch into a field.  We didn’t survey the site well enough before pulling into the field and in the attempt manage to drop the rear-left wheel off the top of a small anthill into a sufficiently deep hole, well camouflaged by the surrounding grass.  With the recent rains making things slippery, we were stuck with three wheels on the flat, wet, long grass and no traction, and one wheel in a deep hole!  We tried in vain to un-stuck ourselves, until eventually Scott flagged down a bloke on a tractor as he was driving down the road.  He didn’t speak any English, but with enough hand signals and pointing he understood our predicament.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have any rope or chains on his tractor so couldn’t immediately help, but he did call someone on his mobile and eventually another bloke showed up in a car with some chains.  Of course, as a Murphy’s Law would dictate the chain hooks were too large to fit in the towing eye, but with a bit of ferreting he managed to get it “close enough”.  A gentle pull from the large tractor was all that was required to free Vinnie’s wheel from the hole; we paid the fellows handsomely for their generous help with a bottle of red and large bottle of locally brewed beer (purchased only an hour earlier from the Plouha Cave de Vin!)

Whilst working to free Vinnie’s wheel from the hole, Scott was constantly under attack from the ants whose nest he had disturbed.  Their bites were painful and were causing a very irritating and painful rash on his legs and arms.  As soon as Vinnie was free, a wash with some warm soapy water, a few anti-histamines and a painkiller slightly improved the situation; drinking the sole remaining locally brewed and purchased stubby bottle of beer made things just a little better again.

We settled in for dinner and another night in the rough, waiting for the next stage of the Tour. 

Wednesday 06 July 2011: Plouha -> Dinan (Tour de France, Stage 5)

Camping rough on the side of the road has its benefits; it’s cheap, but it’s also very noisy.  The traffic wasn’t heavy at any particular time but it was constants all during the night, and our bed is just a metre or two from the road. Already being in the place where we need to be has its benefits too; we didn’t have to get up early and rush anywhere.

We eventually pulled ourselves out of bed and had some coffee and muesli for breakfast.  We are just 2.5km outside Plouha, so Tracy decided to walk into town to get some provisions; some fruit, ham and cheese, and of course the obligatory baguette.  Scott went for a run, initially in the opposite direction and then back into town to meet up with Tracy in the village and then run back to Vinnie with Tracy walking, arriving a few minutes later.  Shortly after the caravan went through we found ourselves blocked in by the Leopard Trek feed car, so yet again we found the feed station all by mistake.  This turned out to be a good idea when the Saxobank feed person dropped all their bags and we managed to score a complete feedbag consisting of 1 bottle of water, 1 bottle of powerade, 1 small can of coke, two power bars, two power gels and a Panini of nutella and banana.

 

Certainly no shortage of funds for some teams.  Matt black Mercedes for Leopard Trek
Certainly no shortage of funds for some teams. Matt black Mercedes for Leopard Trek

After the race had been through we decided to head into Dinan where the tour was starting tomorrow, so joined the queue of people that also had the same idea.  We headed for the Municipal camp ground of Chateaubriand and got a spot, no idea why this was not absolutely packed as it was perfectly situated for everything plus had the luxury of hot showers.

We left Vinnie and walked into town and past the tour village being set up and followed the medieval steps and walls into the main cobblestone streets.  This is a beautiful town and full of interesting buildings and streets.  We wandered around following part of the tour route and found a pizzeria for a pizza and wine.  Dinan was originally founded in the 11th century and is famous for its half timbered houses.  Although these now appear to be falling down it is still interesting.  The town is also surrounded by Ramparts which extend for nearly two miles and include a Keep, 10 watch-towers and four monumental gateways which give you views of the city and surrounding countryside. 

Dinan steeped in history and architecture - love it
Dinan steeped in history and architecture - love it