Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Last Day (France Trip Series)

Thursday. Last full day on the bikes. The group is getting stronger every day, and each day a completely unique adventure. I am soooo not ready for this to end.

Today we bike 25 miles from Chinon to Saumur. We cross the Vienne river and now the Velo is a mostly a dedicated bike trail (paved) meandering through the vineyards west of Chinon. There are chambres d’hotes all along the Velo here. They are similar to B&B’s in the US but some are actually small chateaus and they all cater specifically to cyclists.

It is lunchtime when we've reached the Loire at the small town of Candes-Saint-Martin. We find a picnic table next to the river, and I shoot into town to procure some local wine. This town is spectacular. Medieval of course with the narrow crooked cobblestone streets, oh so cool shops and cafes, and a pretty respectable byzantine-style cathedral in the middle of town. I find a cave stocked with local wine, there are three locals enjoying a bottle of wine in the corner. One is the very friendly proprietor who turns me on to a bottle local red wine (after giving me a taste of course), and I head back for lunch.

We enjoy a leisurely lunch of baguette sandwiches, cheese, fresh fruit, wine, and chocolate. Eventually – moving more slowly now – we mount up and ride into town to explore.

Later that afternoon as we approach Saumur we begin to see more troglodytes – homes, artisan studios, small shops – along the road. Under protest (mine) I ditch the group so I can explore on foot. They seem overly interested in getting to Saumur. I tell them I would catch up. I will do better than that...

After exploring for 10 minutes or so, I mount up and start hammering to catch the group and pretty soon realize that I have somehow lost them. How is this possible? Well in my haste I had diverted off the Velo…but it seems that every road in France leads to some sort of adventure and this is no exception. I have stumbled upon nothing less than the zero meridian marker! After snapping some pictures, I resume hammering west not quite sure how this leg is going to end.

Eventually everyone in our group stumbles upon the same swimming hole on the banks of the Loire. We are like Labrador Retrievers. Unable to resist the siren call of the water, we each slip into the lazy river to cool off and eventually the entire group is back together. I am pretty excited about my zero-meridian encounter, but the girls quickly explain that in my haste I have detoured around one of the most amazing sections of Velo so far… a kilometer or so of trail that winds in and out of the caves of a troglodyte village. Ruth says I must backtrack and see it for myself, so I head back east while the gang lounges in the river.

Oh my God this is off the charts amazing. It is a terribly narrow and hilly cobblestone street that winds along a hillside, into and out of these troglodyte tunnels and homes. One minute you are riding in brilliant sunshine and the next minute you are in a pitch black tunnel where the temperature has dropped 40 degrees…and then you are riding through a large open space, still about 20’ below the surface, where the roof has collapsed allowing the sunshine to spill in. Then you’re back outside before you dive into another tunnel.

The road (a path really) undulates, some of the pitches are steep, one is labeled 18 degree grade! Interspersed throughout are spectacular homes, many of them carved into the hillside when these tunnels were built in the middle ages.

I think it is another 5 miles to Saumur (yes another spectacular castle and unbelievable food). Tomorrow we will leave the bikes and return to Paris. But we are not done with the bikes.
Friday morning Jeff and I leave the girls in Saumur (big time shopping) and ride back to the troglodytes and the vineyards to the east. We leave Oma and Opa there, and explore the troglodyte village one more time (even giving directions to a french cycling couple who appear to be lost).

I will have one more cycling experience that day, but it will not involve a bike. Later that day we catch a TGV back to Paris. The TGV of course is a bullet train that rips hurtles down the rails at about 185 mph. I distinctly remember being scared as the train accelerated out of Tours (transfer station). I had spent the last week travelling at 12 mph across France and had not been in a motor vehicle since the start of our bike leg. This silly-stupid speed was simply not computing in my head, and I felt like a chimpanzee being needlessly shot into orbit on top of a high-power rocket.

I will conclude the France Trip Series with a final post where, among other things, I will congratulate my wife and daughter on an incredible accomplishment and thank them for rolling the dice with me on this most excellent adventure.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Troglodyte Delight (France Trip Series)

Troglodytes are man made caves excavated during the middle ages for stone to build the chateaus in the Loire Valley. The miners used these caves as homes, and later they were used for wine storage. Now they are being converted into high-end homes, inns, and artisan studios. Troglodelice is one such inn. Marité and Philippe have personally converted two of these troglodytes into luxury rooms and Philippe was busy converting a third when we rolled in after our 45 mile day one epic. This was to be the biggest test of our language skills so far as there were some logistical complications which had to be worked out and Philippe's English was worse than my French! At any rate they were wonderful hosts and served us a superb breakfast in their home the next two mornings.

The next morning we launched into 25 mile loop ride out to the gardens and chateau at Villandry. On the way we were treated to a short stretch of cobblestone (gave me real appreciation for this year's stage 4 of the Tour de France), our first view of the Loire, a pretty impressive chateau (that's saying something), and a punishing hill climb out of Villandry which the girls hammered! Once back to Trogolodice, we did a load of wash in the sink, hung the clothes on the bikes to dry, and uncorked some local wine on the veranda before heading into town for dinner.

Day three was the leg to Chinon. Wine country. Vineyards as far as you can see. But before Chinon we would traverse the Forêt Domainiale de Chinon which is a large public park/forest. On the map it looked exceedingly easy to navigate with just a handful of roads. In reality it was criss-crossed by a myriad of tiny roads and dozens of 8-way intersections - some labelled and some not. The effect was pretty cool but we eventually found ourselves miles off course and faced with two options:
  1. Backtrack to one of those 8-way intersections and try a different route
  2. Continue down a road with a sign that said ZONE DANGEREUSE
Ruth made it pretty clear that back tracking was not an option, so into ZONE DANGEREUSE we went. Eventually we started a long descent toward the town of Crevent-les-Coteaux (affectionately referred to as "Kotex"). On the descent we stumbled upon an tiny medieval enclave featuring a huge spring house and an ancient church dating back to the 9th century. We reveled in the refreshing spring house, explored the church, and had some snacks before continuing to town for an amusing (and very satisfying) prix fix lunch. We knew we were in wine country because the instant we were seated and before any words were spoken, the waitress put a bottle of chilled red wine and a basket of bread on the table.

We would stay two nights in Chinon, in the Hôstellerie Gargantua, which is the former Bailiwick Palace dating from the 15th century. To get to the hotel you had to ride a labyrinth of crooked and narrow cobblestone streets lined in the ancient town of old Chinon (inhabited since 700 BC). The Gargantua was straight out of a Harry Potter novel. Our room was at the top of a 70 step stone spiral staircase, and Sara even had her own small reading room in the top of the turret overlooking old Chinon.

The next day, Katey Jeff and I took a cycling loop of the surrounding wine country sans panniers. What a difference 20 lbs makes! We rocketed out of the valley and through the vineyards like a finely tuned machine, then pulled into Chateau de Ligre for a wine tasting. Five tastings later, we were stuffing two bottles into Jeff's camelback and were on our way...and our finely oiled machine had degraded into something resembling a three ring circus. Within a kilometer of the vineyard Jeff realized he was wearing 2 pairs of glasses, had nearly broken a collarbone, Katey had a near miss unclipping into a ditch, and we were lost (again). Something to do with mixing white and red wines I presume.

A future post will cover our last biking leg from Chinon to Saumur when our tight little group disintegrates and eventually regroups IN the Loire River.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Takin' Care of Business

Jimmy and I crossed paths down in Maryland this week and happened to have bikes with us, so we did some poking around at Schaeffer Farm Trails. Buff trails, great flow, I saw an oncoming biker out of the corner of my eye. I glanced up and saw that...no he was erect so must be a hiker...wait he's moving too fast...oh my God he's a single track unicycler!

That was a first.

Made it out just before dark and replensihed our electrolytes at Chevy's. Nice.

Monday, July 12, 2010

To Saumur and Beyond! (France Trip Series)

Our bikes were waiting patiently in a small stone courtyard 237 kilometers south of Paris, and our stay on Risico was coming to an end. The next week we would embrace the nomadic lifestyle in the French countryside. Our goal was full immersion in local culture, so we had made all our own arrangements (route, motels, bikes, meals, luggage, etc) rather than relying on a tour operator. What better way to make contact with the locals than getting hopelessly lost on your bike on a country road in rural France with no bailout options?

We used Detours for our bike rentals and to provide luggage transfer between hotels. The bikes were great quality and well maintained, and the luggage transfer was flawless. We left our bags in the hotel lobby each morning and - voilà - they were waiting for us upon arrival at our next destination. Panniers gave us ample capacity for carrying water, wine, baguettes, and gear each day.

We hopped our train from Paris to Chenenceaux to pick up our bikes and unwind before our morning departure. If all went as planned, the ride would finish six days later in Saumur, with overnights in Azay-le-Rideau and Chinon. The train dropped us on the outskirts of Chenenceaux, about a 100m walk past an ancient stone church to the Hostel du Roy. After the hustle and bustle of Paris, the solitude of this tiny town welcome...and the full size bathroom was a real luxury.

The next day - our first one on the bikes - was to be our longest at 45 miles. This type of milage was
frickin' insane for the first day of a family touring vacation
probably a little aggressive for our first day (remember this is a family trip) but in six and a half hours in the saddle we saw some incredible countryside and had many excellent interactions with the locals, for example:
  • After two laps through the town of Athee sue Cher and a few unplanned miles, Katey leveraged her rudimentary French skills in a local bar (it was 10:30am) and we were promptly back on course.
  • Two very nice ladies, one riding a mountain bike on a farm road south of Tours and the other strolling outside of Mont, were very patient with us and probably saved us another 10 miles of needless miles.
  • The fellow in the 3rd floor apartment somewhere east of Azay who saw me wandering around the park with 4 empty water bottles in my arms searching unsuccessfully for a spigot. He shouted and waved to me from his 3rd floor balcony, came running down the stairs, and showed me to the spigot in the basement.
Finally on the home stretch 3 miles from Azay we stumbled into a small troglodyte shop that sold ice cream, juice, and local honey. Did I mention it was unbearably HOT and that we had ridden 42 miles at this point? We were ON IT hit it off very well with the very friendly proprietor Sebastien.

In my next post, we'll meet Marité and Philippe at Troglodelice where we will sleep in a cave for two nights!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Prime Location (France Trip Series)

Imagine my surprise as I was furiously pedaling west toward Saumur on Route des Ducs d'Anjou (hey I didn't name it I just rode it) when I stumbled upon this sign. It marks the prime meridian. That's 0° longitude! It's the reference from which all other lines of longitude on the globe are derived. It is also the line that - longitudinally speaking - divides east from west. I only wish I had my GPS with me so I could really geek-out and see all the zeros.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Call Me a Metrosexual (France Trip Series)

We are just back from the family vacation of a lifetime - two weeks in France to celebrate Mom and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. France because we spent time there as a family (my sister was born there). Also we are a family of foodies, many of us enjoy cycling, and heck what’s not to like about Paris in the springtime?

This first week was aboard an 80’ houseboat docked in the heart of Paris next to the Jarden des Tuileries. For the second week we (the kids and families) embarked on a cycling tour of four rivers in the western France - Le Cher, L’Indre, Le Vienne, the of course the Loire. Following are highlights of our week in Paris and yes, there is some cycling (albeit roadie) content included.

Risico is one of a couple dozen houseboats (converted river barges actually) on the Right Bank in the shadow of the Eiffel tower and the Musee D’Orsay. The boat is 80’ long with three cabins and is cozy for our party of seven, but you cannot beat the location. We are a five minute walk from the Louvre. We have a front row seat to watch the river traffic on the Seine.

Day two on Risico was June 21st - the summer solstice. This is the day that musicians traditionally come out and play in the streets of Paris for free. Music is everywhere in the city, including three barges down from us at a private party. Once night had fallen we made our way down to the festivities and innocently slipped “into” the party which was spilling onto the quay next to the barge and danced with the lights of the Eiffel Tower shimmering on the Seine as Paris danced and sang it’s way into the morning. The next morning I woke at 6:30, made my bed and some coffee and took them topside to watch the city wake up. Blue sky, a barge (actually 2 rafted) were doing a lazy 180 dgree turn to push slowly upstream. I watched an elevator slowly ascend the Eiffel Tower. And I was sitting here in my pajamas having breakfast. Unbelievable.

Later that morning Jeff and I scored at the Velib (see my post entitled “Making It All Work”) and the city was ours. We spend the day exploring Paris neighborhoods and wrap the evening up with another wonderful meal topside on Risico and a midnight romp with Katey and Jeff around the Grand Palais - notable due to Ruth in her PJs and the gendarmes in riot gear (no connection).

Thursday is spent at the Louvre and around Pompidou Center. Pompidou has some racy stuff on #4 but Sara survives OK. This is slowly becoming our favorite part of town, youngish crowd, vibrant street life, great food. After our traditional mid-afternoon coffee, we split up - the girls continue shopping while Jeff and I grab a couple of Velib bikes and go exploring. Nice dinner that evening near Bastille. Sara is so graceful and confident, and stylish with her silk scarf. She puts her arm in mine as we stroll home. I am the luckiest dad on the planet.

On our last full day in Paris Jeff and I are all over the Velib. We find a foodie heaven market near the Blue Marble. Incredible produce, seafood from the Mediterranean, exotic cheeses, fantastic wines, chocolate, baked goods. Endless cafes and brasseries filled with people sipping espresso or enjoying a cold beer. The streets are all cobblestone, very crooked and narrow, and limited to pedestrians and motorbikes. We stock up on provisions and then feast on the boat for our last night.

Soon we will have to say goodbye to Risico, wave Bon Voyage to Mom and Dad, and move on to our next adventure in the vineyards of Western France...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Making It Work (France Trip series)

Just back from two week vacation in France celebrating Mom and Dad's 50th anniversary. I've got weeks worth of blog posts in my head, so I'm going to just start pounding them out in no particular order. Be advised that some posts may include roadie or non-biking content. Hang in there.

Scooters and motorcycles probably out number the cars in Paris. Add in the bicyles and the cars are definitely a minority. At least half of the scooters are driven by women, many in skirts and high heels. I don’t know how they do it, but they all look soooo cool while doing it. Stylish clothing, weaving through traffic, over sidewalks, between cars, and down one-way streets (the wrong way). The scooters and sometimes the small cars (there are virtually NO big ones) are driving down narrow city streets crowded with pedestrians. It’s just like a Borne Ultimatum movie. Really, that is how it is. In the US this would be a hands-down-goat-rodeo with women and children screaming and jumping out of the way in a panic. But here everyone - pedestrians, cyclists, drivers - work together to make it possible. No unpredictable moves, give people just enough space, don’t be a jerk.

And the cyclists are right there in the mix with the motorcycles, scooters, and cars. At the head of the left turn lane waiting for a green light and diving into / out of traffic circles. .And the beautiful thing is that ALL of the other drivers respect the cyclists. Totally. Basically they view you as an equal on the road.. Once you get accustomed to this, you can really tear it up in terms of getting around town efficiently by bike.

It gets better. In Paris they have this service called the “Velib.” For a nominal fee (in our case it was about 10 euros for the week) you get unlimited use of about 20,000 bikes in 30 minute chunks. You access them using any of about 2,000 automated vending stations scattered throughout the city (we consistently found them every couple of blocks). You simply punch in your account number, pick a bike, and off you go. When you have arrived at your destination you just check it into the closest Velib and go about your business. So basically you always have a bike handy wherever you go, but you are never burdened with locking it or remembering where you left it (easy to get disoriented in a medieval city like Paris).

Jeff and I were all over this Velib thing. Once we purchased our one week passes at a local Velib station, we struck out for nowhere in particular, wound up somewhere in the 9th or 10th arrondissement. We dropped the bikes at a nearby Velib station (they can be found every 100 yards or so), and did some exploring on foot. Then we found another Velib station, grabbed a pair of bikes and headed home to Risico.

In an bike-friendly city like Paris, a bicycle is just about the perfect way to get around (weather permitting of course). The freedom of being able to go anywhere in the city without having to worry about locking your bike or finding it again after exploring or walking for a few hours is really really liberating.