Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chateau de Chenonceau & Wine Caves

Today is a walk down memory lane for both of us. First we headed towards Blere where one of our favorite hotels is located; we stayed at the Le Moulin du Fief Gentil back in 2002 and have fond memories of our candlelight dinner there with our fellow guests around a huge table next to the old paddle wheel for the mill. I’m not sure just why we wanted to see the hotel; but it’s nice to know that they are still in business. Outside of Blere we saw a restored mill complete with sails that I added in the slideshow.

From there we continued down the road towards Chateau de Chenonceau; our favorite Chateau! How do we know? We visit it over and over….I’ve been here six times now and Jim has visited five times. On our very first trip to the Lorie Valley with Jim’s sister Barbara, she chose this as a favorite from a previous trip and it has become our favorite. We pick and choose among the others but always include a visit to Chenonceau.

This 16th century Renaissance palace was the home of both Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici; both left their marks on the d├ęcor and gardens. One of the reasons this is my favorite are the beautifully arranged flowers in each of the rooms. No mannequins mar the beauty of the rooms that are fully furnished. The kitchen in the basement has many copper pots along with all the tools necessary to feed a large staff, the household and their guests.

We could see this was going to be a warm day…it was ninety degrees by noon; we decided to do the gardens first. Each of the ladies has a garden named after them. We took lots of photos of the Chateau from the gardens; working hard to not show the scrim that covers the front where they are doing restorative work. After touring the inside of the Chateau we walked to the maze and the farm which neither of us had ever taken the time to see on previous visits. We did pass on the Wax Museum that is housed in the former stables along with a restaurant.

After nearly two hours we ate our lunch in the car and then headed into the village to find a bridge that would take us across the Cher River, the Chateau is actually a bridge across the Cher River; we wanted to look for the path on the far side of the river. Jim located a small dirt road and we started driving down along the river; soon we reached a barricade and had to walk another fifteen minutes before we reached the far end of the Chateau. Diane de Poitiers added the beautifully arched bridge over the river so that she could access the hunting grounds. When Catherine de Medici took the Chateau she added a three story structure on top of the bridge. Her plan was to build a matching chateau on the far side of the river but she died before it was built.

The river was the border between free and Nazi France during WW II and the Chateau was used for prisoner swaps. During WW I it was used for a military hospital. You can actually walk out of the Chateau and stroll along the far banks but we had more fun finding a way to actually take a drive/walk to the far side and view it from several angles.

Three hours after we arrived we were headed back towards Amboise to check out the Cave Homes in the hills above the city. I showed you some photos the other day. Now you can see some more of them up close so you can actually see the details. One newer one had a satellite dish and an air conditioning unit! We also discovered that this road was probably the route that Leonardo da Vinci took from his house to the Chateau d’Amboise to visit his friend the King….his house was located on the corner where we started up and at the top of the road … yes we walked all the way up and down….we discovered gates to the Royal Chateau d’Amboise.

Now it was about 3 pm and we headed back towards Tours looking for a winery that was recommended by Rick Steves called Marc Bredif in Vouvray….about ten miles from Amboise. After several wrong turns because the navigator didn’t read all of the directions first…we found it between the Lorie River and the hill….yes…the caves were built in the tenth century into the tufa hillside.

We walked in and asked about the Cave Tours…half way expecting to be told that we had to wait or that they didn’t have any today! No, we met a very nice young college student who is working here for experience this summer named Matthew. He is majoring in the International Marketing of Wine in school. To complete his studies, he will work for an International Company next summer. He was very knowledgeable and gave us an extensive tour of a section of the several miles of underground storage for their thousand upon thousands of bottles of wine some of which date back as far as 1874. They make white and sparkling wines from their grapes grown in this region. They have one room that has their best wines over the years…the oldest bottles there were from 1874 and he said it is still very good. He also said that one of the best recent years was in 1947…so if you’re looking for a special bottle…you might check that year! We understand you can purchase one for about 350 Euros!

We tasted a few glasses before heading back on the road towards our hotel. Before we stopped we decided to check out a church that we’d seen up the road. It was nearly 5 pm and if we can find a Saturday night Mass it would be great as tomorrow is a travel day. We walked into the church and there was a wedding mass in progress. We took advantage but did get out the door before the bride and groom came down the aisle.

Tomorrow we head east for several hours to the city of Mellun for a few days….August is here and our time grows short….do hope that you are still enjoying our story…..

Friday, July 30, 2010

Chateaux: Amboise, Chaumont, Loches

Today we found our way much easier than yesterday….we really got twisted around and spent lots of time finding our way; but today we didn’t have to go through the city of Tours since everything was to the East of us. We arrived at Amboise Chateau Royal about 10 am, found parking on the street about ten minutes away from the entrance. We walked up from the village at the base of the chateau and enjoyed seeing an “old friend” again as we’ve been here several times. This is the town where Leonardo Da Vinci spent his final days and he is buried in a chapel built just for him on the edge of the cliff inside of the estate. The chapel is a tiny little thing that has stained glass windows that catch the rays of the sun from all angles, creating images on the stone walls as though they were additional windows.

It’s summer so the tour groups were large and made it difficult to get some really good photos of the rooms inside of the Chateau but I think you’ll enjoy those that I’ve put into the slideshow. The unusually large bed belonged to King Henri II…yes…he was married in yesterday’s Chateau. As we were leaving I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the family on bicycles…Dad was pulling a bugger with a little one and mom had a small bike attached to the back of her bike and the little girl was peddling as fast as she could. However, this family is not camping as they carried very little gear!

Leaving Amboise we headed further East along the shores of the Loire River to the Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire. We’ve been discussing this one for several days; Jim is sure that we’ve seen it before and I was sure that we hadn’t. We parked in the village along the river and walked the long path up to the top of the hill to the Chateau. They also had a large Garden Exposition but we decided to only visit the Chateau and the Stables. By the time we were part way though I was sure we had not been here before. Many rooms were unfinished and a large number of rooms were being used to exhibit art. One artist had tied bells to large timbers and they were set up in many places in the Chateau….very disturbing I thought. Some of the other art was quite good; but I wasn’t there to visit a Museum. Some of the rooms were decorated and very nice. Much of the flooring was parquet and the herringbone pattern in the halls was very unusual….it gave one a sense that the hall had a ridge going down the center! The chapel was beautiful and it was there that I realized that yes…Jim was right….we had been here many years ago. A new area on the estate had a large display of “art”….one was a greenhouse with very large tropical plants; another was a pond with a tree in the center called “reflections”. But the flowers were beautiful and we really enjoyed the varied displays of planned wildflowers everywhere.

Back down the ramp….by the way…we discovered that during the summer months we could have parked over by the new “art” area and walked in without climbing up the ramp. We definitely are getting our exercise today! We enjoyed our picnic lunch before we headed out about 1 pm for our next chateau.

This time we drove Southwest through farmland and forest to a village called Loches, about thirty eight kilometers from Tours. On the way we were driving through a small village named Genille and the church was directly in front of us with the doors open and I could see a beautiful stained glass window over the main altar. I asked and Jim came around, parked and we visited the church to see the windows. They were like large paintings. Most stained glass windows are made up of many small groups or colors…these were an entire window of one subject. I thought you’d enjoy them so I put them into the slide show…our serendipity experience.

Loches was an unexpected pleasure. It’s off the beaten path and has a Cite Medievale at the top of the newer town with an old church with the most unusual ceilings….they were three cones (much like some of the old buildings have in kitchens for fumes to escape)…the building was very moldy…needs some work. We looked at the Chateau but it was very small and we decided instead to visit a small Musee that also had plein air art classes going on in the side yard. This village had many little B&B Hotels and would be a great place to spend a day or two.

Walked back down the hill to the car and since it was already 3:30 pm, we headed the car back towards Tours and ended up picking up the speedway for about the last twenty kilometers; this took us through Tours and made it easier to find the hotel. We did some grocery shopping and then brought the big suitcases into the hotel to see what we can get inside of them. We’ll be in Paris and headed home before we know it and “some things have to go”! I did get rid of the other chair this evening…the clerk at this hotel has been especially nice and was pleasantly surprised when I offered it to him. Easier this time as he speaks excellent English.

It’s been a pleasant evening; the sun was hot under the clear skies today but since the humidity factor is low we don’t mind the sun as much. Tomorrow will be another day of touring Chateaux so tune in tomorrow for another chapter!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chateaux: Langeais, Usse, Villandry

We awoke to a cooler day; nice but it looked like it could rain at any minute all day long. But, we didn’t have the rain…just a very pleasant day for touring Chateaux and their gardens.

We headed west of Tours along the North bank of the Lorie River. The first few photos are of homes that are built into the side of the mountain. This area has a very soft rock called tufa and they literally live in the side of the hills. Look closely and you will see what looks like a brown patch…that’s the grassy side of the hill above their homes.

We arrived at our first destination about 10:30 am; the Chateau of Langeais. Outside of the drawbridge we saw a bicycle built for four plus a small trailer for their gear. We discovered that it belonged to a family from Australia and they shipped the bike in two large boxes from home and will be traveling for two months this summer in Europe with their two young children around the age of ten.

Langeais’ claim to fame is that the arranged marriage between Charles VII of England and the fourteen year old Duchess Anne of Bretagne to unite the northwestern part of France with England was held here. They have mannequins that represent the wedding party. The Chateaux is well preserved and has many interesting features. One of the guides is dressed as Anne de Bretagne…but her tour was in French so we didn’t stay with them. Outside above the gardens is a large wall; the only remaining portion of the dungeon for the castle. The back has a wooden staircase that allowed us to climb to the top for photos. Something interesting inside of the Chateau was the flickering candles in the dining room. Very real but definitely electric….must remember to look them up on the Internet.

Back to the small roads; this one was primarily for bicycles….it is very popular in the summer to bicycle through the Lorie Valle to see all the different Chateaux. Very narrow when a car approached but we managed and found it a very interesting path for our drive. Note the wonderful sunflowers I was able to photograph up close because we were able to stop along the way with very few autos on this route.

We arrived at Chateau Usse before noon and Jim got a bit of a shock when he found out the cost to tour this Chateau. I think his words were that it would buy him a nice dinner of Canard! If you want to visit the Chateaux; plan to break open your bank as none of them are very cheap….this one is the most expensive of the day at 13 Euros each.

Known as the sleeping beauty castle because of all the turrets; they have created many scenes with mannequins’ of various periods plus in the Tower they have recreated scenes of the fairy tales. Very nice and the Chateau is well preserved. But, as Rick Steves says….stop for a photo shot and past on this pricey pearl! But, we’ve taken the photo three times and I decided I wanted to go in this trip.

Before starting out for the next one we ate a picnic lunch in the car; then off to the East towards Tours for the Chateau and Gardens of Villandry. We’ve been here many times and decided early that we’d only do the gardens. Soon after entering we met Bill and Judy from Tarpon Springs Florida; not far from my sisters who live just south of them. We toured the gardens together sharing travel tips and then from the top of the gardens they headed into the Chateau while we headed over to the Sun Garden and the Maze before finishing in the vegetable gardens.

This is really a special place and one to put on your not to miss list when in the Lorie Valle. We headed out after saying goodbye to the carp in the lake…plus one huge gold fish….fun to tease them to get them to open their mouths for food! We headed East for Tours to see the Cathedrale of St. Gatien that dates back to the year 338…that’s really old!

We’re back at the hotel now…enjoyed our picnic dinner especially since we stopped at a grocery store for a “cold” beer to share and some ham and cheese for sandwiches. Life is good and tomorrow we will see several more Chateaux. Till then…a bientot….

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Abbaye de Fontevraud

This will be a long day of driving from Sarlat to Tours. We left about 9 am with the sunshine and only thirty minutes of country road driving before arriving at the A20…as the French say: The Speedway! We took it all the way to Limoges, arriving about 11 am, and only paid for a small portion…the rest was free! It took half an hour for the first 27 kilometers and only an hour and a half for the next 121 kilometers. Three reasons: (1) dual lane roads, (2) much straighter roads and (3) higher speed limits. They are constantly expanding their network of these super highways; cutting through farmland and forests.

After Limoges we were back to the country two lane highways. I’ve put a few photos of the traffic for you to really get the feel of driving in France! As we were driving this morning, I started thinking about my sunflower girls as we haven’t seen any for a few days. Suddenly, just north of Limoges I started seeing a field here and there. The further north we went the more sunflowers we saw. Soon there was a yellow and green carpet running for as far as the eye could see; definitely a cash crop around here.

Notice the large nuclear power plants, seventy eight percent of the power generated in France is by nuclear power plants; that we passed and a rather poor photo of an old windmill off in the distance. I do have fun taking photos as we’re speeding down the highway!

By 1:30 pm….lunch was eaten in the car while we drove…we’d arrived at the Abbaye de Fontevraud our destination for touring today. We’re about an hour southwest of Tours where our hotel is located for the next four nights.

The Royal Abbaye de Fontevraud is famous for its size, its age and its inhabitants over the years. Construction began in 1105 and it has been an Abbaye, a convent, a hospital, a prison, a concentration camp for the resistance during WWII and now a tourist attraction. One of the most famous of its inhabitants was Richard The Lionheart, famous as one of the crusaders and as a King of England. Richard’s heart is buried in Rouen, France; his entrails are buried in Chalus, France (where he died) and the rest of his body was buried at the feet of his parents Henri II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Abbaye of Fontevraud. His mother ended her days here in this Abbaye as a nun. However, there are no corporal remains of any of their bodies as they were destroyed during the French Revolution. This is one of Europe’s largest abbeys and a wonderful example of medieval architecture and life.

After touring the church where the bodies were entombed; we visited the beautiful cloister, one of the huge and sterile dormitories where the nuns slept without heat and the refectory where they took their meals. We stood in the Romanesque kitchens that were built of stone and because of the fear of fire were separated from the main buildings. This was a round building with little kitchens on the outside walls each with their own flu for the smoke to escape; there were additional flues set in the center of the building for ventilation of the fires that were always burning to feed the masses of people that lived in the Abbaye.

Much of the original buildings were badly damaged and/or torn down prior to creating the masterpiece that we visited today. There were many photos showing pre existing conditions over the years. It’s easy to see the reconstructed parts because of the color and evenness of the stones used; but it was an interesting walk through history.

Back to the car for our final leg of todays trip….on to the city of Tours. It took us over an hour but we arrived and are enjoying our evening in our new home for the next four nights. We’re in a Gamme Hotels Balladins on the north side of Tours. This is a great location for visiting a selection of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley starting tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. Yes…we have an ensuite bathroom, tiny but adequate, a very nice television with French channels, and free wifi! No fan or central air but we have our nice little fan to move the air around. It’s warm today…actually HOT in the sunshine…but the humidity is low and so it’s comfortable in the shade. Dinner tonight is a picnic in the room.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rocamadour France

We slept in this morning and it was 9:30 am before we found the slow roads east towards Rocamadour. We’d visited this town years ago and actually purchased our wallets with chains that we use for traveling. We loaned them to several of you for your trips to Europe and they are finally wearing out. So our quest for today was not only to revisit the village but find new wallets!

It was nearly 11 am by the time we arrived; there is no fast way to get to Rocamadour from anywhere….you must use the narrow roads that twist and turn as they go up and down the hills surround this medieval village that clings to the side of a cliff. There are legends about this village dating back to biblical times; one is that the husband of St.Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus came here and built the church to honor the Virgin Mary after Veronica’s death. But there are traceable references to Roland and Eleanor of Aquitaine that would date back to prior to 800 AD. But it is very old and full of religious references and buildings.

We parked at the top of the plateau near the Chateaux that was built to protect the churches and sanctuaries on the side of the hill and walked down the path that has the Stations of the Cross on each end of the hairpin curves. Halfway down the plateau there are several churches. One houses the “Black Madonna”; reputed to have been carved by Saint Amator himself. There are several “miracles” accredited to this statue and pilgrimages of celebrated persons over the ages are recorded on the walls of the churches. The upper part of the village surrounds these churches and gives the tourists a place to “shop till you drop” opportunity.

The village continues down the road that clings to the side of the hill. There are several hotels, including a Best Western, restaurants and many different shops. They even had a “little train” to take tourists on the route who didn’t want to walk. There is only one road in this part of town. We actually found our wallets…a little larger than the original…and purchased two of them at seven Euros each. We decided to play the “old folks” card and paid the fee to ride the Ascender back to the top where our car was parked. It took two stages to get there.

We sat in the car and enjoyed our picnic lunch at 12:30 before heading the car back towards Sarlat on a different set of back roads. Part of my job is keeping Jim entertained conversation wise when the traffic backs up and he gets frustrated. With so many curves and one lane bridges you can’t always pass the slow vehicles. And, a prolific number of bicycle riders around every curve! We have lots of good conversations on these drives.

Decided to go to the hotel for a rest instead of another chateaux by the time we arrived back at 2 pm. Later this afternoon we’ll head down into town and have a nice dinner in Sarlat.

Notes that might be of interest….motorcycle riders in the USA wave their hand to say thank you for road courtesy; in France they lift their right foot to say thanks. And…we are in the land of Foie Gras….Goose liver pate….it’s definitely a specialty of the region.

We’re back from dinner…it’s about 8:30 pm. As we pulled into the parking lot there was a French family who had their little table, with a linen cloth and three chairs like our folding chair; one gentleman was on a folding stool. They were eating their dinner on the grassy area outside the hotel. I took our folding chair out of the trunk and walked over towards them; Jim thought I was crazy. They spoke no English…in our broken French we explained that we’d purchased the chair to use when following the Tour de France and we wanted to give it to them as we could not take it back with us to the USA…..they looked very puzzled but suddenly their eyes opened wide when they realized we were giving them the chair! They were very happy and couldn’t believe their good fortune; and we have one less thing to get rid of in Paris.

Back to dinner….we arrived in town about 5:30 pm and found that no one was serving dinner until 7 pm. So we had some time to walk around and finally went back to the car and moved it much closer to the restaurant. We had parked over by the cemetery where we’d parked yesterday as it was a comfort area for us…we knew where it was! The restaurant that we’d selected we discovered only served pork related foods….so we departed and found another one close by named “La Petite Borie”….delightful! Jim had his fill of confit of canard with small salad and fried potatoes. I enjoyed a cheese omelet, small salad and fried potatoes. We had two bottles of their ice cold tap water….can’t believe why people drink bottled water….they have the best water right out of the tap!

So we’ve blown the budget again but worth it. We are back at the hotel….highly recommend this little hotel chain known as Hotel Altica …only 44 Euros a night and they have a reasonable breakfast option also. They are only located in Western France at this time; the chain is about twelve years old the manager said. Tomorrow we pack up and head north to Tours; we’ll spend four nights there touring the Chateaux of the Loire Valley.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sarlat by way of St. Emilion

Yesterday we finished watching the 2010 Tour de France final ride into Paris. No changes and everyone seemed to enjoy receiving their awards. It was nice to see that they allowed the RadioShack Team to put on their new uniforms (promoting Cancer fundraising) before going on stage to receive the first place Team award.

Jim’s taste buds are disappearing he said….too much of the same thing all the time with these picnics we’re having. So we looked around for a place to go out to dinner. Not much choice…it’s Sunday and nearly everything is closed out here in the suburbs where our hotel is located. We decided to go next door to the Buffalo Grill. Jim enjoyed his change of menu and other than getting unexpected dinner salads first; and I had ordered a Caesar salad….it was all very good. We had some light rain in the evening.

Early to bed….that’s relative as it doesn’t get dark until after 10 pm….and on the road this morning by 9 am. Cooler but the sun is shining as we headed towards downtown Bordeaux; Jim wanted to drive over a very old bridge that is on the list of “things to do in Bordeaux”. Along the way we saw a sign stating that they were using “radar”….everyone slowed down but Jim kept going for a while and finally slowed down also. Soon we saw two policemen with what looked like surveyor’s equipment. It was a radar gun and they were tracking cars with it. Glad we slowed down….I put a photo of it in the slideshow for you. Also another photo of the huge bell tower of St. Michel.

Soon we were headed on the slow roads towards the city of Bergerac. We’re definitely in the wine country of Bordeaux; very little growing except grapes. There were a few acres of corn and an occasional field of sunflowers; mostly in the bottom acres that don’t have the drainage needed for the vineyards. Soon we were seeing signs for St. Emilion; the best wines are out of this area. We’ve stayed in St. Emilion twice so had not planned on driving through as it is a bit north of where we were going. But, couldn’t resist and ended up taking time to drive through the town for another fast visit.

Back on the road to Bergerac and then on to our destination of Sarlat-la-Canada….or just Sarlat as it’s usually known as. Just after Bergerac we entered into the land known as Dordogne. This area does not have as many vineyards; more fruits, vegetables and other products are grown here; and there are forests and hills along with hilltop castles. We arrived in Sarlat about 2 pm and found our hotel, Hotel Altica Sarlat, south of town and easy to find. Once we knew where it was we headed into the town of Sarlat; a town dating back to medieval times that draws the tourist just because it’s old and quaint and easy to visit. Lots of nooks and grannies to explore with very old building that have a touch of Italian architecture because an Italian Bishop once lived here…you don’t want to know why…but it definitely added something different to this delightful French village.

We walked and walked and walked….we found parking up at the top of the town….yes…it’s on a hillside…next to the cemetery. That was an adventure in itself with the unusual glass canopies over many of the graves. We stayed here years ago and Jim thought we were at the bottom of the old town but we were actually at the top. Two very nice French school girls squared us away and we found that we had to walk down to the old center of the city. We’ve found a restaurant where we are going to splurge tomorrow night for dinner.

By 5 pm we were back at the hotel…by the way…great hotel…newer….free wifi (that doesn’t disconnect every 20 minutes), an in suite bathroom and television. No air conditioning but does have a nice large fan in the room for us. We did our shopping and had a picnic this evening along with wine! Miss the CNN (English speaking) news channel but other than that it’s great!

Tomorrow we’re going to find some chateaux to visit; possibility the one in the slideshow that sits high on the bluff over a town; and also a trip to the town of Rocamadour.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Quiet Sunday in Bordeaux

This morning we took the short way into the City Center of Bordeaux with no traffic problems; once off of the speedway we drove along the broad river of La Garonne, once a major seaport for France and used by the Germans as a base for their submarines during the war. Now it’s used mainly for pleasure, we were walking alongside the river for a good distance yesterday as the race started from this area. The first monument that we spotted was the towering bell tower of St. Michel; it is the second tallest in France at 114 meters and makes the church next to it seem very small when in actuality it is quite large. This was the only one of the three churches in Bordeaux that has been designated as pilgrimage churches for the Santiago de Compostela trail that we didn’t visit today.

We drove around for a good fifteen minutes attempting to find street parking; there are very few spots near St. Andre’s Cathedral as it has been made a pedestrian area and iron posts keep the cars from parking on the sidewalks of the very narrow streets. We finally gave up and pulled into an underground parking structure. We spiraled down three levels before finding the parking. When we returned after mass we had to put our parking ticket in the elevator in order to gain access to the garage; nice safely feature.

Walked into the St. Andre’s Cathedral for 10:30 am Mass. The large organ was playing beautiful music; unusual as we’ve almost always have a smaller organ in the sanctuary providing the music for services. Also notice in the photos that they had five rows of chairs with the short kneelers that look like children’s chairs….after the fifth row people stood or knelt on the floor during the Mass. Very nice service. By the way….it was very cool this morning and we put on our jackets.

After Mass we walked over to the Bell Tower; checked it out and decided that we really didn’t want to walk up all several hundred steps for the view and visited the little Sunday Market outside of the church instead. It looked like rain so we got the car out of the parking garage and drove over to where we knew we’d find street parking near the Museum of Fine Arts. Surprise…it’s the last Sunday of the month and the Museum was free today. A lovely museum….Musee des beaux arts of Bordeaux…that was originated under the direction of none than Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801; so it has lots of history and some very fine paintings. It was decreed that nationally owned art was to be distributed to fifteen of the largest cities in the country…Bordeaux being one of the benefactors. There were paintings by many famous artists including Matiesee and Picasso; a very interesting one was of the Port of Bordeaux …we recognized the buildings along the port as the same ones that boarder the river today.

You’ll notice some photos of the park behind the Hotel de Ville where the entrance to the Musee is also located. Couldn’t resist the photos of the cows….one is pink and holding a glass of wine…wonder why? a wine barrel…another is on a motor scooter. A brochure in the Museum mentioned the fact that the “parade of cows” was visiting Bordeaux this summer. I’m beginning to wonder if they ever leave France!

We then walked over to the large building that puzzled us for the last two days. There are two very old round structures connected by a very old wall next to a very modern building that seems to enclosure seven huge wooden cone shaped structures. We found the name of the architect Richard Rogers and after researching it on the Internet have found out that the seven wooden cones actually house seven courtrooms and this is their main courthouse. Richard Rogers also helped to design the very modern Pompidou Center in Paris…not surprising.

Back to the car…it was sprinkling now and then…and another drive in and out of many little streets to located the church of St. Seurin, another of the Jacques de Compostella churches in Bordeaux. This was built on the site of the ancient necropolis where Charlemagne laid Roland’s horn on this return from Spain in 778, before becoming the legendary Compostellan pilgrim of the Western Empire. It was closed until 2 pm so we walked around and then headed back to the hotel as it was nearly 1 pm and we both were ready for a picnic lunch.

We’ve been watching the Tour de France on their entry into Paris on the television this afternoon. We didn’t understand the issue with Team RadioShack’s jerseys until we called my sister on Skype in Florida and she explained it to us. We knew from Twitter that the team had planned to ride new bikes and wear new uniforms today honoring the 28 million people suffering from cancer. The TdF officials decided that they had to wear their official uniforms and numbers and stopped the race while they changed. It will be interesting to see the comments on Twitter tonight after the race is completed.

Right now the team is in Paris and riding the Champs Elysses circling the Arc de Triomphe several times. So glad we are still here in Bordeaux instead of sitting on a curb in Paris after driving all night….been there….done that….tomorrow we drive to Sarlat.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bordeaux Time Trials for Tour de France

Wow….what a day in Bordeaux! First of all….last night after dinner we drove into the city center…we are staying south of the city just off of the speedway or as we would say “freeway” that rings the city. The traffic was horrible…we crawled all the way; but managed to get into the old area of the city and found the road course for the tomorrow’s Time Trials for the 19th Stage of the Tour de France. This will effectively be the final as the ride into Paris is ceremonial and the Time Trial will be the last real chance to change the winners.

When we found the center I suddenly saw some gold leaf gates and church steeples…Jim parked and we started out on foot. The gold leaf gates were to the gardens behind the Hotel de Ville (city hall) and they were hosting a party for the VIP’s of the TdF. The steeples were of the Cathedral of St. Andre, dating back before the 12th century. The bell tower was built in the 15th century. We plan to attend Mass there on Sunday. Walked around the area and then back to the car to continue following the route of the Time Trial course. It is approximately thirty miles in length; a triangle in the city and then north of the city to the town of Pauillac. We followed it until we found the speedway and we decided to head for the hotel for the evening.

This morning we were up and on our way to town before 10 am. The first of the riders were scheduled to leave by 10:25 am. They each start individually out of a “starting house…a shoot down a ramp much like a skier”. The first ones are a minute apart; then midway they make them two minutes and towards the end….the top riders….are three minutes apart.

We went the reverse way on the speedway and got off near the airport on the west side of the city. Following signs and the great map from the hotel; we were soon into the city center and found a parking place just before we were going to go into a parking garage. Street parking was almost non-existent by the time we arrived. Started walking and within a couple of blocks we were into the triangle area of the course very near the Hotel de Ville and the Cathedral that we visited last night. Soon we started to see some of the early riders on the course that was protected by metal fences. It was difficult to find places to cross the course. Soon we saw some more of the decorated cows that we’ve shown you before. We also stopped for a visit inside of the Cathedral that was now open.

Turns out we walked the entire triangle…had we known the exact starting location we could have saved ourselves about a mile and but the walking was good … we only did about three miles Jim said. He carried his chair and we each had a backpack. The sun was out and it was a warm day; but not as humid as we’ve been having this summer. Along the way there were many old buildings and sights to photograph. It’s been difficult choosing from the several hundred that I took today…so I’ve split it into two slideshows. One very interesting place was next to the river and it was a very large water pool that was only ankle deep. People were taking their shoes off and wading in the water to cool off.

We finally reached the starting house and then the fun began. Lots of photos for you of riders and then we went over to the parking area for the team motor homes. We found Team RadioShack’s and talked for a long time with one of the staff. Lance had not arrived yet…he had a 2:59 pm starting time and would probably not be arriving until 1 pm. At this time it was about 11:30; I did give the staff member one of my name cards and asked him to give it to Lance. Who knows what will happen to it but Lance…if you’re reading this…we loved following you on the Tour de France!

We walked over to a restaurant and had a beer while we waited. Good to sit down and enjoy the event. Thousands of people from everywhere in the world…exciting to be a part of it. Watched some more of the riders starting their course and then finally back over to the RadioShack area. The crowds had grown huge while we were gone….Lance had just arrived as we walked up and as you can see from the photo…I had to wade in through the crowds…I finally made it to the front and he’d already gone inside of the motor home. By this time I’d put on the 2004 Tour de France yellow shirt and hoped that might get me some air time. I stood for several hours in the hot sun with a mother and daughter from San Jose! We had fun….they handed out red shirts for us to wear and the crowd was pressing the flesh and it was HOT. Jim finally took his chair, went into the shade and let me play the game. Yes…I stayed until he came out to do his spinning before heading over to leave on his ride for the day.

As soon as I got my photos I headed out of the crowd and we slowly walked back to the course to watch the riders coming out of the starting house. Found spaces along the metal fence…by wading through the bushes…and ended up standing next to a couple from Butte, Montana. They helped us hold our American Flag and they had a Montana State flag…Levi Leipheimer is a native of Montana. We enjoyed getting to know Grant and Diane and had fun for the hour plus that we stood there until the last rider of the day: Alberto Contador.

We headed back to the car the shorter route…actually completing the third leg of the triangle of the course….and found our way back to the hotel about 5 pm. We decided to open a bottle of wine tonight; Jim accidentally opened one of the crooked bottles that we’d purchased in Carcassonne to bring home with us…it was all of 2.54 euros….he went on the Internet to see if we can purchased it in the USA…yes…he’s found it for about $12.00 + shipping! I think we’ll make do with the one bottle we have left!

Today’s results for the TdF: Team RadioShack is the number one team for the 2010 TdF, Fabian Cancellara took first place in today’s stage with Tony Martin coming in second. Overall, Alberto Contador has first place in the fifth closest TdF’s in history time wise.

Andy Schleck has second place, Denis Menchor took third away from Samuel Sanchez. Robert Gesink has 6th; Chris Horner 10th, Levi Leipheimer 13th, Andreas Kloden 14th and Lance Armstrong 23rd….39’ 20’ behind the winner.

We stay for another day in Bordeaux while the teams fly to Paris tonight for their ride tomorrow. We’ll miss the excitement of the race but it will be fun to enjoy the rest of our time touring; especially the Chateaux’s of the Loire Valley. One note…our friend Jochem that took a day to show us his home city of Brussels is now touring in the USA and has arrived at our home. Many thanks to our neighbors who have greeted them so graciously; they received rave reviews in Jochem’s blog.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Driving to Bordeaux and Stage 18

We awoke to a glorious morning full of sunshine! Off to Bordeaux on the country roads by 9 am; fifteen degrees (about 60); we headed north through the fields of corn, hay and some vineyards. Just realized that we really haven’t seen any sunflowers since we left the Carcassonne area; but we did start to see a few fields after the first couple of hours. We so enjoy the “slow” roads except for the trucks but Jim finds them very challenging on these two lane highways.

I said it was a glorious day but the clouds told a different story. I do hope you enjoy the photos of the morning…especially the clouds…as we travelled along….most of these photos are taken in a car moving rapidly! About 11 am we entered the town of Roquefort…the home of the famous cheese…wanted to see if the rumors of an odorous cloud in the city was true but we couldn’t smell anything?

By 11:30 we had rain…the car knew it before we did and turned on the windshield wipers for us! That was a first; and very unexpected in such an inexpensive car. Soon we were in Landon; stopped along the road and had a picnic lunch and then headed west in the direction of Bordeaux pass many vineyards and their owners’ chateaux’s. Beautiful driving on tree lined roads.

I thought you’d enjoy a photo of my maps that I created from the Internet last night…those with the race book and a large map of France have been my bible for the past several weeks. For the first time I do not read as Jim drives…it’s a two man process at our age!

We arrived in the south of Bordeaux where our hotel is located. We actually drove straight in on the race route. Only went around one barrier and after that all of the side streets were blocked by police but no one stopped us. We then got royally lost trying to find our hotel. Jim drove around the area for half an hour before we stopped; got out the cell phone and called the hotel for directions. Jim was sure that we were going to be stopped at any minute and held until nearly 6 pm because of the closing of the roads…it was only about 2 pm and we knew we were probably within walking distance of the hotel…we just could not find it!

We were not that far….but we needed to get on the Interstate…they call it the Speedway….and then get off at the next exit….simple once we had explicit directions! This was definitely the hardest to find; had we been on the toll roads….it would have been very easy.

But we are here….the wifi is free but only last for twenty minutes and then you have to sign back on…frustrating but it works! And we have our own bathroom…such as it is…the shower works with a hose from the sink faucet! We were so tired of driving and having driven the course for about five miles; we decided to relax and watch the race on television in our room. No surprises are expected as the course is fairly flat and the sprinters will probably take the stage; none of them are very high in the overall standings. And the Caravan….we’ve got so much now that I don’t know how we’re going to fit it all into the suitcases.

So tonight after dinner we’ll drive into the city and see the lay of the land. The time trials are tomorrow out of Bordeaux and they leave early in the morning about 10:30 am with staggered starts for the fifty two mile course to Pauillac in the north towards the coast. The top riders will not leave until 1 pm. For today’s stage there are four riders, each from a different team, that have been out front in a breakaway from near the beginning of the race and they’re only about two minutes ahead of the peloton. These will be caught before the end Jim is sure and then a sprinter will take the win for Stage 18.

The race is less than four kilometers from the finish and they still have one more to catch….but it’s a done deal they are within …opps they just caught him and now the sprinters will take over. It’s Team Columbia out in front as they head in for the finish!

What a finish….a full sprint….so dangerous but so exciting to watch! Mark Cavendish (a British Rider) of HTC-Columbia (a USA team) took the win for Stage 18 of the TdF! The overall standings remain the same as yesterday. See you tomorrow afternoon!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mountain Stage 17 In The Rain!

The weatherman was on the nose….we woke to rain, rain, rain! Considering this was our first day on the whole trip where we’ve really had a day of rain, not bad. Unfortunately for the riders … this was a do or die day for the 2010 Tour de France.

We didn’t get away from the hotel until nearly 9 am and there were still many people waiting in the hotel because they were planning to ride their bikes to view the race today! This is a day that I’m glad we don’t have bikes to ride. We had worked for two nights on the directions for the little roads that would get us on the course in the mountain; if we can get there before they close the roads. We’ve had some problems with that issue as many times they have closed them by 9 or 10 am. This morning we were in luck…they didn’t close the road into the mountain until 11 am….we arrived there just after 10 so we were able to get on the road and climb higher than we have previously this year.

On the way to the mountain we drove around Lourdes and I saw the Basilica from a distance and again on the way back…it’s the last photo of the slideshow. Having been there three times over the past years we decided to forego the stop in order to reach the hotel and see the end of the race on television.

Back to the race….for those with maps we decided to make our stop about four miles north of Ferrieres on the Arthez-d’Asson. Riders will be climbing the base of the second mountain of the day as they whoosh past just a bit slower than on the flats.

By 10:15 am we were settled in….the car soon became very humid so we opened a door and placed the two umbrellas over the opening so that we’d have fresh air…and a few raindrops … in the car. It was still raining…at times very hard…with occasional lightning and thunder. The Caravan is due at 1 pm and the riders at 3 pm. We’ve got a long day ahead of us! But, we’ve finally made it on the course before they closed the road!

Did an inventory and we have water, potato chips and four pieces of rye bread….where are the fishes when we need them! But, never fear….the caravan is coming in a couple of hours and there is always lots of food tossed to the crazy spectators.

By 1 pm it was raining extremely hard….we dug into the big suitcases (we’d left them in the back of the car) and got out our windbreaker jackets (first time we’ve used them) and I’d put the red and blue rain poncho’s in the backpack this morning. You’ll love the photos! No pictures of the caravan but wow….did we ever collect the stuff! First of all there are fewer people on the road and I think they felt sorry for us! Everything we got was wet so we now have a Chinese laundry in the room to dry out all the hats and bags before we pack them away to take home. But lots of fun and I know the caravan appreciated our efforts; so much so that they were tossing multiples of things at us.

Another two hours for the riders….but we had a nice lunch of the rest of the chips along with the mini sausages, tiny biscuits and candy that the caravan had tossed to us. The rain slowed down and actually stopped for brief periods of time and when the riders came through it was so light that we stood outside in only our windbreakers holding our flag for the riders!

Headed home in all the traffic; back through Lourdes…so difficult to be so close and not stop. We arrived back at the hotel about 5 pm just in time to watch the last half hour of the race on the television. Then off to the market for gasoil for the car and a few groceries before eating a picnic dinner in our rooms.

The race was good; no major spills which can be a big problem in the rain. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador dominated the race. At the very end it looked like Contador let Andy cross the finish line a wheel in front of his…Contador retains the yellow jersey and Schleck takes first place for Stage 17 of the TdF.

A few other stats: RadioShack riders today: Chris Horner was 8th, Andreas Kloden was 13th and Lance Armstrong was 17th. The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, was at the finish line to greet the riders; he and Lance are good friends and commiserated with other about growing older! Lance is very open about this being his final race and he states that he is looking forward to having a private life in another week.

The big news is that Team RadioShack is in first place; over eight minutes ahead of the second place Spanish team of Caisse d’Epargne. Yeah Team RadioShack! Tomorrow we head for Bordeaux and will hopefully see the race enter Bordeaux as it looks like it passes right in front of our hotel! So for now … good night … more tomorrow from Bordeaux….

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Touring Chateau de Mauvezin

Awoke to the sound of thunder and lightning about 7 am; hurried to get the big luggage back into the car before the rain began. Then, we relaxed and ate our breakfast before we headed out towards Tarbes about 8 am. We were still getting a few raindrops and the temperature was a cool 60 degrees. The first photo shows raindrops on the windshield! We had lots of time so we took the slow road to Pamiers and then down to Foix. Along the way we enjoyed the smiling faces of our girls (sunflowers), looks like they along with the vineyards enjoyed the refreshing rain.

I’ve put a few photos of the roads so that you can see the fun we have with large buses and trucks; a challenge that Jim seems to enjoy. In Foix we slowed for photos of their large Chateaux that looms over the city; then continued on our quest for the day. Last night Jim searched the Internet for Chateau’s in this area that might be interesting to tour. He found one in Mauvezin. Other than a brief run on the A64 to bypass some high mountains we stayed on the country roads.

We arrived in Mauvezin about noon and easily found the huge Chateau de Mauvezin that towers over the hill town. I thought last night that this was a newly constructed Chateau using old techniques. Wrong! This site actually goes back to 2000 years before Christ and the actual Chateau was construction in the 13th and 14th Century. In the 19th Century they started the reconstruction and repairs of the existing ruins and have created a major tourist attraction. It’s designed to entertain and instruct children of all ages about the life in a medieval fortress. We enjoyed our hour of touring and then ate lunch before leaving about 1 pm.

Now we wanted to see some of the roads for tomorrows Tour de France Stage 17 which will go back into the Pyrenees from north to south; yesterday they went south to north. Strange, but that’s what they are doing this year. Yesterday’s race went through La Mongie, a ski resort near the top of the Col du Tourmalet mountain pass; we stayed here in 2004 and our hotel…Le Taoulet…was right above the finish line. We decided we’d go the reverse of tomorrow’s route and go to La Mongie and then over the Col du Tourmalet and head towards the beginning of the race in Pau. From the bottom of the mountain we kept seeing signs that the road was closed at La Mongie but we decided to keep going even if we had to turn around.

It was an interesting drive….bicycle riders of all ages…slowly riding up the mountain clogged the road going both ways. It was further complicated by fog that got thicker and thicker as we got higher! Oh, and did I forget, we’re only a very narrow and curvy mountain road! We arrived in La Mongie and it was party time! The crowds had stayed from yesterday….partied today on the TdF rest day and will walk or ride bicycles up the closed road to the Col du Tournmalet tomorrow to watch the race summit near the end of the Stage. It’s about a three mile distance for them. It was fun seeing La Mongie; it’s really grown but they still have cows roaming all over town grazing wherever they want! The police finally turned us around at the top…that’s the photo of the donkey. Then it was back down the same foggy mess that we’d driven to reach the turnaround point.

At the bottom of the hill we decided we’d had enough and headed for Tarbes and our new HotelF1 for the next two nights. Found it easily by 3 pm and are enjoying the evening with television and free wifi connections. We have an Englishman down the hall who rode his bike up the hill today…he said it was a really tough ride!

Hope you enjoy the photos of our drive to La Mongie!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Route of the Cathars...Chateaux Ruins

Today was a rest day for us from the TDF….they are just too far away to drive to the course and back to Carcassonne. We had a leisurely morning and left about 10 am for the Route of the Cathars. Heading north of the city on country roads and then on very narrow “cow paths” we arrived at the Chateux of Lastours about 11 am. I think we must have taken the long way as we came home much faster and never on the tiny roads that we traveled on the way to Lastours. We followed the signs to: “Le Pays Cathare: Sites Chateaux Cities Medievales”….

Cathars refers to a religious group that existed before and during the thirteenth century and had dualistic Gnostic belief:

“The Cathar religion has its roots in eastern religions of 2500 years ago, with the ideas of Zoroastre (Zarathoustra) that the world consisted of two opposing forces, representing good and evil. Many subsequent religions take this starting point, and the Cathar religion that arrive in Europe via the Balkans in the 11th century is one of these.

The fundamental difference between a 'dualist' religion like the Cathars, and a religion like Christianity, is the importance given to the evil forces. Cathars and other dualists believe that these are of equal importance, whereas Christians believe that the forces of good are superior.

The Cathars in France were based largely in the Languedoc region, near Toulouse, and Albi and Carcassonne, with a popularity arising at least in part as a reaction to the over-excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. The Cathar religion was supported by many in the region, both peasants and nobles alike - perhaps 10% of the population was supporters.

Early in the 13th Century the Roman Catholic Pope created a crusade to destroy the Cathars and they also destroyed their castles so that they would not be able to regain their power with the people.” (Internet Sites are wonderful sources of information)

The four Cathar castles that we visited in Lastours are somewhat reconstructed remains from the medieval times. We paid our fees and started hiking about 11 am. It took us an hour to get to the upper most castle ruins. Lots of stone steps, steep rocky paths and uneven terrain made the going slow but we both managed and reach the top. Near the bottom of the slopes there was a research group marking off a dig; we stopped to watch them for a minute each way. Had some nice Belgium boys take our photo from one of the ruins. We were very glad we’d come early and brought our water bottles. It was getting very warm by the time we descended to the parking area just before 1 pm.

We were amazed how fast and easy the trip back to Carcassonne was; must have been the navigator reading the map incorrectly on the way out. But then it was a much more interesting road on the way there. Our first stop was at the grocery store….actually a mall…near the hotel for some food supplies before settling in to watch the TDF on television in our room as we did some laundry. We’ve discovered that if we wash a few things out by hand every day we haven’t had to visit the Laundromat yet!

The Tour de France today is from Pau to Col du Tourmalet. Lance Armstrong is having his day in that he’s been in the front break away most of the day. But, there is one rider out in front right now that they need to bring back. It sure would be nice to see Lance win a stage in the Pyrenees. It’s a tough course of three major climbs during the 174 kilometers. By the way….a friend who was also in France for the 2004 TDF reminded me by email that it was in 2004 that Tommy Voeckler wore the Yellow Jersey for so many days. Thanks Sam…we have lots of good memories from that trip and one of the best was meeting up with you and your friends for an afternoon!

Lance crossed the finish line in the first group…having caught the one rider it was a sprint to the finish and he came in 6th but with the same time as the French rider Pierrick Fedrigo of the French team Bbox (yes…same team as yesterday) who crossed the finish line first. That makes six stage wins for French Teams in the 2010 TDF….the most since 1997. The tour leaders Contador and Schleck came in over six minutes later with the peloton; so overall things remain the same for the TDF except that this should bring Lance up higher in the standings overall.

We’re having dinner in our room….cold tuna salads, bread and a bottle of wine. We found the crooked bottles of wine in the market today and purchased three bottles. One for dinner tonight and two to take home in remembrance of the 1999 trip when we found them in a tiny little shop along the Canal du Midi. In 2002 we attempted to find the little shop with no luck; in 2004 we brought detailed information on how to find it and took several bottles home. The last one we opened a month before leaving….wasn’t very drinkable but we saved the bottle. Many of the wines in France are designed to be consumed within the year…table wines.

Tomorrow the Tour de France has an official day of rest and we will spend the day driving to Tarbes to our new hotel. Back to the Formule 1; or as the new ones are known: HotelF1. We will be able to see more stages of the TDF from this location.

a bientot….