Friday, July 30, 2010

Ile de Re

The lap of luxury. Hotel Toiras is a small, charming hotel, like an elegant town house on this beautiful flat island. Big rooms, all different (more about that later). I feel like a guest in a very elegant person’s house.
A charming harbor just out the front door...
We decide it is Mykonos crossed with Nantucket. Did I mention it's heavenly? Oysters...

...and pink shrimp so sweet! 
Hollyhocks everywhere...
...and fantastic biking. No, that's not Wally. Check out the binkie leash.
The beaches are filled with seaweed and sunbathers,
There is a market in every town, with sausages,
lettuces, vegetables...
and of course the local fermented stuff. This is France, remember. 
As I'm sitting here in the lobby of the Hotel Toiras, a fellow guest is saying to his wife "You cannot order just water in a French restaurant, my dear - it's against the law!"

The kiddie sail school is enchanting. We watch for a long time - when you dump your sunfish (and you will dump your sunfish) you can be sure some kid will paddle her kayak over your sail. As you’re trying to get it up. Kids are the same everywhere, thank goodness.
We ride our rented bikes along bike paths thru the salt marshes and stop for lunch at the narrowest part of the island - you can see the sea on both sides, the pyramids of salt in the marches. Enchanting. I could stay here forever.

Some of my favorite things: 

1. The croissants that are so light I have to put butter on them to keep them from floating off the plate. The fresh fruit salad with apricots peaches raspberries pineapple and a very light sugar and vanilla syrup.

2. The Strawberry Parfait family who are also staying here. He looks like a pinched worried Tony Blair. She is all pink and white and looks just like a strawberry parfait, the zipper in her sundress working overtime to keep all that parfait in place. And there is a flock of little Strawberry children. 

3. The feel of the sea breeze on my skin. The sound of the gulls. The sun glinting off the boats in the harbor. 

4. Olivia who owns this hotel. Gorgeous. Quiet. Young, thin, elegant, impossibly chic and elegant. Did I mention elegant? I am taking fashion tips. Actually I am just going to copy every thing I've seen her do.

5. The miles of bike paths, the fact that most people here get around by bike. To the medieval towns where there is no parking. It works. 

Tomorrow: The New Hotel - coming soon. And more of the island if I can outsmart iphoto and get to those pictures.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Finish Line

We take the train to Paris - we are in first class (this is B&R - what else could it be?) and Annick is laughing. “This is the first time I’ve ever travelled first class - and my seat is broken!”
We are served an amazing lunch. With gobs of foie gras. Gary says “Somebody should take a picture of this lunch and send it to Delta.” 
Delta Airlines, are you paying attention? If the TGV can do this so can you. Step it up!

We dump our bags at the Hotel Montalembert. They have five of us in the same room - we joke about this being a hot sheet hotel. They will sort thing out while we watch the final stage of the Tour. 
We Metro to The Claridge Hotel on the Champs-Elysees. B&R has booked a room with terraces overlooking the race from the sixth floor. The street is a zoo...
...but we have a birds-eye view from out terrace.
We drink champagne, eat Fanny’s delicious improv picnic. Room service was ordered and confirmed. Room service does not work today. We are also told room service is not available in this hotel. Go figure. Fanny improvises, it is fabulous.
Contador wins the Tour. Lance is far back and gracious as always.
We have a final dinner at 5 Mars. We are the only people in the restaurant, a good move. We have bonded - we are loud. There is chocolate mousse for dessert, we are asked if we want individual servings, or for the big bowls to be brought out and we can serve ourselves. We yell “Just flop that moose on the table and we’ll scrape the hair off of it.” We think we are hysterical. The guides think they are sooooooo lucky - and smart - that we’re the only ones in the restaurant. They're right.

We walk home in the dark, soaking up the sights and sounds of the Parisian night.
We say goodbye to our new friends after breakfast - is this trip really over? and head out for a second breakfast with Wally’s grandson and his parents. The grandson’s parents, not Wally’s.
We call him The Bug. He is all arms and legs and sharp angles - in motion he looks like a Picasso drawing. And he is always in motion.

The Bug and Wally go six rounds on French bumper cars, I go shopping. It’s a much rougher sport than in the US (both shopping and bumper cars, but I was referring to the bumper cars) and after many bruises Wally figures out the point is to avoid collisions. They come back exhausted but happy.
Dinner at Jules Verne, half way up the Eiffel Tower. Fabulous views...
the food is uneven. The bug is a delight. We talk while the grown-ups ignore us.
He asks why white wine and red wine come in different size glasses and we do some serious sniffing, then swirling and sniffing again. No drinking. Not my job to corrupt him - it is my job to answer all questions to the best of my ability. He is amazed at the difference between swirled and un-swirled wine. I teach him to blow into the glass to go back to the un-swirled smell. We have fun.

Tomorrow - off to the Ile de Re and the Hotel Toiras. Paradise at the mouth of the Loire.

Time Trial

On our bikes and along more typical B&R roads - a fantastic morning.  I’m zipping along,feeling great, keeping up with the beautiful people when I feel a sharp pinch in my armpit, then a few more down my back. I screech to a halt. When Wally comes back to see what happened I am standing at the side of the road in my bra and bike shorts, shaking out my top, swatting and swearing. What is it with me and bugs on this trip?
We stop for a typical B&R lunch - again in a tiny town, on limestone terraces that step up the narrow street. 

Goose rillettes, salads, omelettes - Wally orders a glass of wine and is handed what looks like a cigar in a glass tube.
What a great idea!
A few more kilometers and we pile our bikes on boats in Blaye...
to cross the Garonne and cycle on teensy gravel roads.
to a winery along the time trial route. Fanny is riding in flip flops and toe clips and she is still fastest. 
You can hear the roar as each rider approaches. They zoom by with the afterburners on. For 52 kilometers. They start two minutes apart, but more than once we see a rider pass another in front of us. It’s thrilling. And they are going more than 50 kilometers per hour. Boggles the mind.
They look skinny on TV, but in person they are almost delicate they are so thin. Tammy tells me a story about asking a thin young man she met on a ride back home if he raced. He said “Oh no, that’s for the stick figures.” 
Every time trial rider has a team car following him. This is Lance.
The top riders have a helicopter overhead and motorcycle cameramen, so you can tell who the stars are by watching the sky.  Schleck looks like he might win the Tour, he is gaining time on Contador, but he runs out of gas near the end (boy do I know what that feels like!) and Contador has the Tour in the bag - all that’s left is the ceremonial stage in Paris. 
By the time we get back to Grand Barrail it’s eight. We rode 72 gorgeous kilometers today, we’re back late because the bus to take us back to the hotel didn’t show up. He got stuck in traffic. Apparently didn't get the memo about the Tour de France. Hello!?!

This was supposed to be a night on our own; we could have a romantic dinner a deux, eat with a few of our new friends, have room service. But it’s late, and we are bushed, room service isn't available, so Annik organizes a pizza restaurant for all of us in St Emillion.
We sit on a stone terrace and feel the air grow cool and watch the sky turn into a Maxfield Parrish painting, an unreal deep turquoise. It is enchanting. Good thing, because the white wine is so bad we can’t drink it. Channing slings it over the wall towards a pool, leaving a tell-tale dribble down the wall. Looks like an incontinent Frenchman or a really tall poodle happened by. 
Shonagh takes our glasses and flings the wine far into the pool. If this were basketball she’d be a three point star. No tell-tale dribble. We switch to red wine. 
It takes forever to order, and things come out piecemeal. I know there is a logic to the order in which dishes appear, an inviolable logic. I just don’t know what it is.
Food finally appears. “Royale!” calls out the waiter. Wally raises his hand and the waiter smacks a pizza in front of him. It is delicious. We wolf it down. Shonagh and Channing get salads and snails; Jack gets wine. No food. We ask, the waiter shrugs and disappears.
The waiter reappears and yells “Calzone Royale!” and we realize we have just eaten Jack’s pizza. We promise him dinner at the French Laundry as compensation. We learn Jack didn’t get his lunch either. Food jinxed and starving, yet he’s still calm and polite. 
It is near midnight when we stumble back to the hotel and fall into bed too tired to download photos, check email. Lucky we got our teeth brushed. Off to Paris tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dear Me, Where Are My Manners?

I just realized I have not introduced you to our fellow travelers! As they are a big part of the experience (the Guides can only do so much) they are the people with whom you get lost, eat breakfast, dinner, trade stories, go out and play. I should introduce you.
First meet the guides -  Annik: Canadian, small and sweet and smart. And strong. You’d want her to have your back. And she does. Skiier when she’s not babysitting us. Unflappable.
Fanny: Swiss. Seriously tall, thin as a pencil, with a million dollar smile, the ultimate can-do attitude and the most incredible enthusiasm for the world. Skis places in Switzerland no self-respecting mountain goat would go.
And Sebastian, or as his co-guides call him Sea Bass. German. He cooked the picnic (but didn’t clean up. Tsk tsk.) We thought he was largely decorative until we saw him fix a broken chain in about five seconds. He gets things done, he just doesn’t make a fuss. Professional photographer; wears these funny shoes we have decided are a form of birth control.
Wes from Edmonton. Claims to be a simple color blind accountant. Dry, wry and pee in your pants funny. We have fun at his expense. “Hey Wes, take a look at the green page.” 
Another Edmontonian, of grandfather age with a seven year old son. He fixes you with his piercing stare and says “I’m more dangerous than I look.” Then he gets the biggest grin - lucky seven year old boy. 
Two optometrists (married. To each other. Don’t you go starting rumors. You know who you are.) From, as they say, “The golden buckle of the Bible belt.” Seriously fast. Brought their own bikes - the guides are drooling over them. The bikes, not the gorgeous couple from the south. Get your mind out of the gutter.
These guys are also seriously funny. They tell a story about one of their patients (Bubba, of course - real name) who has a weird guns and drugs and babes newspaper. He invites Mrs. Doctor to be in his newspaper and says “Doc, you’re hot. Would you like to be Babe of the Month? You could even wear a one piece.” I laugh so hard I cry. She tells stories like I do. If she writes a book, buy it.
A couple from San Francisco - sophisticated, well traveled, quiet and fabulous cyclists. They blow past us (okay, me, Wally is being kind and staying with me. To make sure I don’t open a wrist. I am tempted...) They live in the Presidio, have been everywhere and know a lot of the same people we do. We feel like we’ve been standing back to back at a cocktail party. For about ten years. 
A group from Southern California we never see - for them this is not a luxury bike trip, it’s a race. Yawn. 

A former lawyer from Detroit now making an honest living in furniture sales. His wife joins us for the last night -not a cyclist, she's been on a walking trip. He lights up and stays lit. Sweet to see.
An adorable couple from Toronto. They are: lawyer, engineer - he tells the most fabulous story . When you become an engineer in Canada apparently there is this big ceremony and you get a ring for your pinkie finger on your right hand. Put on by an established engineer.It sounds like a combination between a fraternity hazing and an engagement ceremony. I think he made the whole thing up.
They are also author, cellist, semi-pro classical singers, pianist, parents, newspaperman. We are in awe. And did I mention they are nice - and - you guessed it - fast? Yup. 
Our friends Pam and John are on this trip. He actually got us into this - it’s his big birthday (rhymes with heavenly, remember?) and he was planning to ride up Mt Veeder in Napa for the last time for this birthday. He does every hill. As far as I am concerned he never has to ride up another hill. Ever. I am so impressed! At the tops if the hills I’m toast and he is entertaining. If they weren’t so nice it would be really annoying.
And (saving the best for last) the most gorgeous guy from Chicago. Looks about nineteen. He’s a plastic surgeon, has been everywhere, is the world’s best dinner companion and a great judge of character (more about that later). He tells us half the Board certified plastic surgeons in the US are in LA. You might say “Duh!” but it was a surprise to me. Okay, maybe not. And yes, he is faster than I am. Duh.

Tired But Happy in Bordeaux

We find our bikes in St Emillion, and after a lunch of tartines we hop on our bikes and cycle thru the vineyards and forests of Bordeaux. We are not racing to be ahead of the Tour, so we ride at a leisurely pace, stopping to admire a view or take a picture. Gorgeous little roads - what they call a small road we would call a gravel driveway. 
Almost no traffic, ancient villages, stone chateaus. And wineries. Maybe you’ve heard of this one?
The hills are small; we race up them. I’m feeling strong. And so happy! It is sunny, there is a light breeze, not a car in sight (or a Col, thank God) and we can chat as we pedal along. We laugh, we tell stories, we point out the sights.
In the late afternoon we watch the end of the Tour in a lovely wine bar in St Emillion, with champagne and delicious wines and platters and platters of tasty morsels -  smoked salmon, foie gras, tapenade, salamis and cheeses, mozarella and the sweetest tomatoes. After all, this IS a B&R trip, and we hadn’t eaten in at least an hour! Gotta keep our strength up. When you’re training for your B&R adventure be sure to train in the eating and drinking as well. It can be tough to keep up!
In the wine bar there is the most adorable 8 year old boy. He is curious about the US, about us, about what we think of France, about who we like in the Tour. Fanny translates, we bond. He wants to visit the US; I want to adopt him. His mother, the restaurant owner, has other ideas. Oh well.
Hotel Grand Barrail. Oh yeah. 
No biting bugs (we were afraid they would come with us from the Roach Hotel, and B&R would be booted out of this fancy hotel. So far so good.) Our room is the entire tower. A bathtub the size of a cruise ship. 
Our own private espresso machine. Acres of space - there is room for all our luggage and us. The lap of luxury. We unpack to organize; we have been pulling things out by the sleeve and leaving wads of clothing trailing out that gets stuffed back into the suitcase - no room to open - and things are a mess.
It looks like a bomb went off in our room, but it’ s so big we don’t care - we just kick the stuff into the corners and after a long soak in the tub collapse on the bed. Tired and Happy. 

At dinner Annik yells "The Tour de France caravan is coming by! Come outside!" We do, and find Fanny on a bike on top of the B&R van flinging bike jerseys about. 
If George could see her now!

Tomorrow: The Time Trial, the race of truth. And meet the players, our fellow travelers.

Monday, July 26, 2010

More Delights from the Roach Motel...and Beyond

We were so excited to be moving to a better room! alas the extra two and a half feet of space is fully occupied by an additional twin bed. 
Undoubtedly so they can squeeze another 50 euros out of the room. There is space in the room for our luggage. Or us. Not both. And we’re not sure if there are bugs in this room too. But there is no hot water. And no nightstands - there’s no room!  just a niche in the wall next to the bed.
I stand in the shower for five minutes, naked and freezing, waiting for the water to warm up. I finally crawl into bed weeping and shivering. Major melt down.  Wally figures out that the hot and cold have been plumbed backwards - my hero - and I finally get a hot shower. Hunched over like a crab, because the shower is designed for the same twisted midget who uses the hairdryer. I did mention that you have to crouch to use the hairdryer because the cord is soooooooo short?
At breakfast here at the Roach Hotel you may have coffee (eventually - this is France after all) stale croissants, do-it-yourself toast, delicious yoghurt with canned fruit cocktail, but if you want an espresso you have to pony up 2 euros ten. In cash. Up front. Apparently they know their clientele. But its the last morning here, and we are off to Bordeaux! 
A bus takes us via the back roads to Bordeaux. This country could use a few more highways - how does anyone get anywhere? Or maybe it’s the B&R scenic route. I prefer seeing it on a bike.

We go thru dozens of tiny villages, thru huge fields of sunflowers and pastures with big rolls of hay. There must be a more direct route but the driver refuses to take it. I am heartily sick of bus transfers.
It’s not the typical B&R trip. Not the same bonding, the same sharing of tales from the trail. And I’m trying to figure out why.
The cycling is harder and longer - less time together.  Less down time to talk about the funny things that happened to us that day, to hear what our fellow travelers found beautiful or astonishing. 

And because the Tour route changes every year, B&R does not have the relationships in the area we are visiting that make their trips so rich. They’re not here for the fabulous hotels, the rich culture, the tiny picturesque roads, the people who have lived here since before time began and are happy to show it to you. They are here for the Tour. And as happy as I am to be leaving the Roach Motel, leaving the crowds and the tackiness, I suddenly realize that everyone is moving. The Tour is moving, so so are the crazy mad cyclists, the caravans, the other cycling tour companies, and altho we will be in a nicer hotel, the carnival is coming with us.

But B&R does lots of trips in Bordeaux (take one!) the roads are smaller the hills not as steep - we are in heaven.

I finally figures out the photo thing and before we leave Lourdes, the Catholic Disneyland, you have to see the souvenir shops selling only religious items...
 A Tabac that sells Rosaries and Virgin Mary statues. Go figure. And the wheelchair parade... heartbreaking. Cheerier thoughts to come.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

All The Way to Tourmalet...or not

At 2 a.m. we are awakened by an air raid siren. I think it is a religious commemoration - Wally nails it - it’s the lightening alarm. Thunder and lightning all night. 

And itching. And scratching.Something is eating us alive. Later we discover we are covered with welts...

Up at dawn - Col de Tourmalet is far away. It is pouring, and if we ride up Tourmalet we will have to walk the last couple of miles, the roads are so tiny they won’t let bikers up the last bit. And then we’ll be stuck up there until the Tour has passed, and we will descend the wet roads with the cavalcade of cars, motor homes, drunk drivers, drunk walkers, and mad cyclists. After dark. Then we find out Sarkozy will be at the finish and it will be even crazier than we thought. We go back to bed. 
It’s still pouring later that morning when we drive to a small town to watch the tour. From a bar. Aah, the luxury.  Through a combination of bribery, sharp elbows and timing we manage a collection of disconnected seats, and have to defend them against invasion until the tour caravan comes by. Then everyone dashes for the street, mobs the barricades, screaming and waving flags and zip! the cyclists blur by and they’re gone. 

It is astonishing how fast these guys go - I've watched it on TV since Miguel Indurain was racing, and I know some pretty fast guys at home, and these guys would eat them for breakfast. There's a reason they're called elite cyclists. If they are F15 jets we are rubber duckies in the bathtub, even the fastest among us.
Tour Contact, the B&R guides call it. It's a carnival, a moving drinking cheering madhouse.

The B&R van dies at the entrance to the hotel, smoking and smelling. Got us back before the end of the tour, didn't leave us on the road or halfway to nowhere. We dub this the B&R miracle of Lourdes. We make jokes about putting holy water in the radiator and seeing if that fixes things.
We watch the last few kilometers of the race from the comfort of our hotel bar, and epic duel between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. The same hotel bar where we maybe got all these itchy bites. On the floor because the bar is mobbed with other cyclists following the tour and all the seats are taken. 

Not the day we had planned, but exciting and dry. And we have been moved to the luxury wing of the Roach Hotel. I have a photo that I can't find (new computer) and I'm late for dinner. And tired. More later.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Better Days

We leave Lourdes at 8 on a bus - they are dastardly, these B&R guides. They know we would rather sleep in than bike, so they take us forty kilometers out in a bus, hand us our bikes, point us at the Col D’Aspin, give us route notes (great route notes, you really have to try to get lost - and we did...but more about that later) and say “See you on the route!” 
A short ride through a beautiful steep valley along a rushing mountain stream, just the kind you’d like to have in your back yard, lulling you to sleep. Then a sharp left and the climb begins. Twelve kilometers. No mercy. 

Col D’Aspin is famous for its views. Today it’s like waking up face down in your pillow - total white-out. Plus there’s a heavy mist that is turning to rain. 
The B&R travelogue says “Also a Category one climb, although not considered that difficult, probably due to the many hairpin bends where one has a chance to catch a breath.” Are they serious? Hello! the switchbacks are there because the road is too steep to do anything else! It’s an engineering necessity, not a scenic overlook, and definitely not a place to catch your breath. 
I know why the triple was invented and I take full advantage of the gears. Mostly the lowest one, but on this climb there is the occasional not so steep part, and I’m feeling pretty good when we reach the top. Actually I’m feeling  fantastic. Sore as hell, my shorts are soaked with sweat, I'm tired, and I'm smug. And redeemed after yesterday. I made it!

Channing comes up the hill and begins to ham it up - and drops his chain. We crack up and nickname him Andy Schleck. 
We scream downhill until we run into the cows. Almost literally. then...
Back to Lourdes. To the hotel from hell. With a greasy bedspread, a hairdryer mounted so low on the wall you have to dry your hair in a crouch, or be a midget. And the bidet - oh yes, it’s France so even the cheap seats have a bidet - but this one is blocked by the tp holder mounted on the wall. You would have to be a contortionist to use it. I’d love to meet the twisted midget who designed this room. Plus we are both covered with bites.

And I learned those fantastic route instructions don't work if you skip from #28 to #41. We had a lovely tour of a church paring lot before Wally figured out I was on the wrong number... 
In Lourdes there are parades of plastic covered wheelchairs, people and delivery vans and cyclists and tour busses clog the alleys that pass for streets. We refer to them as the hoardes of Lourdes. I 'd post a photo but this hotel's internet is glacial. So more later. Off for a well deserved rest. We will sleep well even at the Roach Hotel.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On the Tour de France

I finally met it - the Hill I Could Not Walk Up. The Col du Soulor. 1474 meters. You do the math.My apologies if I've spelled it wrong, it's spelled three different ways on the  B&R handout.

Back to the hill - a sweet 10 k ride long an alpine valley with steep sides (that should have been a clue) then a 13 k uphill. Gorgeous, I have heard. Haven't a clue. It was beautiful at the top when I finally made it there... this was one of those climbs that's way above my pay grade. If there had been a van option I would have taken it, but the road was closed to cars at the bottom. Good move, it was bad enough without the cars. Skinny little cyclists screaming by (uphill, remember). Signs every kilometer telling you the distance to the top (just shoot me now) and the average grade for the next kilometer. I thought I was a wimp, the signs never said more than 9 1/2 %. Didn't find out 'til later parts are fifteen percent. Ouch.

I made it. I bonked. There were places where I could not push my bike uphill. Out of gas. I have no idea how I made it. I almost passed out when I got off my bike. Its the hardest thing I've ever done, but I did it. And I have the picture to prove it. Not a great photo, but I'm not gonna be picky. And I am not going up that hill again.
The Tour de France was a tacky silly carnival of kitsch...

Followed by some of the most serious cycling in the world. It is astonishing to see the speed when they come storming up the hill, the casual way they sit on their machines.

And then there is the chaos of the downhill. For us, not them. 

We made our way down in this mad mix of walkers (many drunk) motor home drivers who were clearly used to driving a Smart Car or some thing even smaller, irate French motorists (also probably inebriated) and a sea of cyclists, some dashing between cars, some swooping past your ear so closely you can't believe you're still upright, all mixed in with mad French traffic jams when the uphill-going motor homes (driven by those crazy Mini drivers, remember) meet the downhill-going motor home drivers and all grinds to a halt, stacking up cyclists (those not cheating death by ducking under the almost touching rear view mirrors) and pedestrians and car drivers leaning on their horns and darting onto the wrong side of the road.

Happy just to get to our hotel - until we opened the door. This place makes a Best Western look like the lap of luxury. B&R is famous for its luxury hotels - how did this one sneak in? Oh well the sagging twin beds in the un-airconditioned comfort of our room beckon. And tomorrow - the Col d'Aspin, a category one climb. We will see...

Monday, July 19, 2010


The beach on a gray day is morose...

...but when the sun is out it's a whole 'nother Oprah.

There is more leather at the pool than at a gay pride parade. This would be a great place to be a dermatologist. All shapes and sizes...and vintages, all looking for the darkest tan. One woman was the color of a cuban cigar, another had enough rolls to hold up her substantial tanned bare bosom. And she was wearing enough gold necklaces to fund a revolution.

Hired a car and driver to go to St Jean de Luz.  

Pretty port town, great beach. Crowded. Meandered down old streets, ate chewy one-story macaroons, not the sandwich kind you find in other places. Stopped for a Wally says ordering is always an adventure, you never know what you're going to get!
It was a bit surreal, sitting in a medieval square in France, drinking Viennese coffee, listening to a Basque band play Turkey In The Straw. What planet are we on?

Met five of our fellow travelers. All five brought their own bikes and look impossibly fit, like they live on yoghurt and green beans and tofu. They look fast. I feel like the last kid chosen for the volleyball team, standing on the sidelines wishing the earth would open up and swallow me. I know I can hold my own in the eating and drinking department, but I only expect to see our fellow travelers as they peel out of the hotel driveway in the morning...and when I drag my tired butt in at night. Oh well, it's not just a bike trip, it's and adventure! And tomorrow at 0-dark-hundred we're off. 

Wish us luck!