Last week, we got back from our three-week vacation to France, with a quick stop in London. This is a long post, though.
We arrived in London at 10am to find the Tube closed down and the buses no running due to the bombs that went off in London an hour or so earlier. Hmm… not a good way to start a vacation. We waited in line for a taxi and ended up with a taxi that can’t take credit cards. The driver was not pleased when our ATM card wasn’t accepted at the ATM machine. Not sure if it had anything to do with the bombings, but we went inside the bank to get a cash withdrawal but they wanted two forms of ID, not including a US driver’s license. My passport wasn’t enough for the bank to withdraw $100 but the UK government was perfectly willing to let me into the country on my passport alone, just after terrorists bombed London. Oh well.
The taxi driver took us into London to our hotel anyway, a two-and-a-half hour drive due to the excessive traffic since the only way in and out of the city at this point was by car. The taxi driver chastised us for much or the way about coming to a foreign country without getting some of its currency first. Living in the cashless society that is the US, where we buy $1.10 in coffee with a credit card, we were surprised that London hadn’t advanced to the same state since we were there last in 1998. Even the pubs in London won’t take credit cards unless you’re spending £10. Fortunately, we found an ATM in downtown London that would take our ATM card and our driver was much happier and then took us to our hotel, which was a very nice little hotel in a great neighborhood — although we had to pay £27/day (~$47) for internet access! After checking in, we went to a pub around the corner for some Fuller’s beer! Here is where we got the first accurate news about the bombings on the TV in the pub.
We didn’t do much in London on our own except walk around Clerkenwell, go to pubs to watch the Tour de France on TV and have dinner. On Friday night, we met with Friedel and Andrew for drinks and dinner. They took us to a Belgian pub (where I could get Leffe!) and then to Smithfield Market for a very good dinner. And then to one more pub before going home. The next day I had the first of only two hangovers the entire trip.
On Sunday morning, we took the Eurostar train to France via the Chunnel, something I’ve wanted to do ever since they built it. The Eurostar (and all the TGV trains in France) was very comfortable. And we got to see some scenery of the French countryside. The food on the train was very good as well, including wine, of course.
Arriving in Paris, we had to hurry to the other train station, Gare de Lyon, to catch our connecting train to Lyon. Traffic in Paris was bad, but we made that just as the train was pulling away, then discovered that we were on the wrong train. But it was going to Lyon anyway and in the same amount of time, just to a different station. You know vacation’s going good when you catch the wrong train and it still works out for you.
We got to Lyon, France and I used my first French with the taxi driver: “Est-ce que vous acceptez le carte de credit?” (Do you accept credit cards?). And then we were off to our hotel in Lyon. That was a nice place too, a restored old mansion in the old city of Lyon. But they also charged for the internet, but only €27/day (~$32).
We stayed in Lyon for two nights and just walked around the city and ate dinner. We were just learning how to order food in French, so it was difficult to get what we wanted, mostly just pointing at the menu.
On Tuesday, we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car. They didn’t have the VW Touran (not to be confused with the Toureg) so we got a Mercedes A170 instead. I was pleased. It was smaller than the Touran, but that turned out great because parking in Europe is easy with a tiny car. We hopped in the car and started to learn how to drive in Europe and hit our first roundabout just outside the airport, which was scary. But we made it through and we made our way to the Autoroute, the French equivalent of the Autobahn, I guess. Speed limit is 130kph (~90MPH) or 110kph (~70MPH) in the rain and the drivers in Europe hold you to it… if you’re not doing 130kph you have no business in the left lane! And you don’t use your turn signals when changing lanes, you just float across the white line at will.
The Autoroute is surprisingly well-marked and very easy to get where you’re going. Even the toll booths are easier than in the US: you grab a ticket when entering, and pay with a credit card when leaving the Autoroute. And the attendants on the exit are quick… “Bonjour”, hand them your ticket and card, seconds later “Merci. Au revoir.” and you’re on your way. No waiting behind some twit who just realized that they have no coins to throw in the bucket, or worse, people who can’t throw accurately and have to get out of their car to pick up their 25¢ off the ground. Europe is all about clever design and efficiency. Well, my gripe about driving is that they prefer to list the destination city on the road signs instead of the names of the roads and the compass direction. In the US, if you know what road to get on and which direction you need to go, you’re set. I don’t need to know that the way to Burien, Washington is on the road to Portland, Oregon. In France, you do. And it’s difficult when you’re looking at a map and you’ve gotta find the destination city somewhere and then decide if that’s the right direction or not. But you don’t need to know whether it’s north, south, east or west. Six of one, half-dozen of the other, I guess. But a little N, S, E or W on the sign would improve the road signs, I think. But we quickly learned that roundabouts are a godsend… if you don’t know which direction to take, circle in the roundabout until you can go through the process of elimination each road.
Now to catch the Tour de France…. we originally wanted to stay in Briancon to catch the end of the day’s stage and the beginning of tomorrow’s stage. But the Tour de France caravan is a couple thousand people, so little towns like Briancon fill up quickly, as in months ahead. So the hotel we thought we had a reservation in was full and we couldn’t get a room (we’re still trying to get our refund back!). Instead, we headed to Grenoble to catch the start of the day’s stage, Stage 10. We were up early enough that two hours driving was enough. It’s amazing how far you can drive in just a few hours, you can get from one side of France to the other in six hours! It takes six hours to drive from Seattle to the other side of Washington state. We arrived in Grenoble, parked the car and walked around until we could find the start of the race. We found it, but discovered the size of the Tour too… masses of people, buses, cars, trucks, etc. You can’t get anywhere near the start or the riders. A far cry from the day I met Lance Armstrong at the start of the Tour DuPont in Virginia in 1995… then I just walked right up to him as he sat on his bike and talked with a photographer. Those days are long gone for Lance, he’s a rock star in France.
After a lot of walking, we found the Discovery Channel bus. Boy, the mob of people outside of it waiting for Lance to come out! The Lampre bus right in front had barely anyone outside it. Sheryl Crow was the first to come out. She hung out talking to the crew while the riders had their team meeting in the bus. You could tell she enjoyed the crowd, she was practically begging people to ask for her autograph. Then, one by one, the riders came out, got on their bikes and headed to the start. Lance came out last. He was immediately ushered from point to point inside the barricade to be interviewed by camera crews. He signed a few autographs, but i was too far away to get one. Then he took his bike and left in a crowd of people. I did get Johan Bruyneel’s autograph so it wasn’t a total loss. He’s the real reason Lance wins, anyway.
We had breakfast at a cafe after the race left town where I spied my best souvenir of the Tour. Along the barricades lining the street, there was one for the city of Grenoble with the Tour de France logo on it. Gay ran over and cut it off the barricade just as the cleanup crew came through to pick up the barricades. A minute later and it would have been gone. I waited at the cafe in case she was arrested and could bail her out.
We went and found a hotel in Grenoble to stay the night. We happened to stay in the same hotel that the Discovery Channel team stayed in the night before. It wasn’t a nice hotel, very Best Western on the outskirts of town. We checked in and then made our way to a pub to watch the race live on TV. All the pubs have the race on all day, but the French don’t seem to care too much about it. The sound is usually off and no one is paying attention to it. And since it’s in French anyway, we couldn’t understand it. It was then that I realized that the best place to watch the Tour de France on TV was in the US on OLN… I sure missed Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen’s commentary that I’d grown used to over the years.
At the pub, two obvious Americans walked in to watch the race as well and noticing that we were the only ones watching the race, asked us to explain cycling to them throughout the stage. Americans sure stand out in Europe — they’re the loudest talkers, unwilling to even say “Bonjour” or “Merci” to people, and they make no apologies for being completely ignorant about other cultures. And if you think teenage girls in the US talk too loud in public, go find some in Europe — their high-pitched squeals and forced giggles are deafening. After a few of those encounters and I’m considering telling people I’m from Canada.
Grenoble is a cute city, in the midst of lots of road construction, so it’s difficult to drive in. But we liked the pedestrian district that was full of restaurants and pretty views of the mountains. We wanted to stay a couple more nights in Grenoble just to eat at more restaurants. But we had to keep following the Tour!
The next day, we drove down to Gap, found a hotel, and immediately made our way up to Briancon. This was the best drive of the entire trip… we drove through the mountains on windy roads through the tiniest of French towns. At any turn, you find amazing Alpine views. Driving through the Alps is a little like driving through the Cascade mountains in the Pacific Northwest, but instead of driving across the mountains, you drive all over the mountains. It’s a less direct route, of course, but if you’ve got the time, i.e., you’re on vacation, it’s stunning. If only we had more time, I would have loved to stop into some of those towns and stay the night.
Along the road from Gap to Briancon, we caught up to several Tour de France buses, actually the mechanics buses for some of the cycling teams. We followed directly behind the Davitamon-Lotto team truck into Briancon, and found ourselves driving the last four kilometers of the race that was ending later that day. We drove to a grocery store to get some food and wait for the race to come to town. This was the first grocery store we shopped in and we loved it…. the cheese section was better than Whole Foods’ cheese section (which is a treat itself) and, wow, the wine section in French grocery stores is overwhelming! The wine prices range from €1.50 (~$1.80) to €20 (~$24) at the high end. You can go higher at some places, but I can’t imagine you’d need to. We always bought wine in the €4-6 range (~$5-$7) and never had a bad wine. And with the selection, we never had the same wine twice.
Taking our groceries, we parked and walked around the finish line of the race. We went looking for Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, knowing they had to be somewhere near the finish line. We spotted them in a two-story bus that served as the studio for about 15 pairs of commentators. I snapped a photo of them commentating the race.
By about 2pm, we were getting very hungry and sick of walking around, but the sheer size of the Tour de France is so stunning that it’s hard to ignore it. It was here that I started to understand the logistics of moving the race around the country for three weeks. It’s so big the Tour has its own bank it takes with it and it’s the only bank in all of France allowed to be open on Sunday. And in spite of it being a large tourist attraction, it’s surprisingly anti-commercial. There were only two booths (one on each side of the road) where you could buy Tour de France souvenirs. And it’s not a hard-sell either, the booth is almost too easy to miss. I bought a t-shirt and Gay bought a polka-dotted Tour de France bracelet made in the spirit of the Lance Armstrong Foundation LiveStrong bracelets (which are very prevalent at the race).
We walked around looking for a place to sit and eat our lunch. Eventually, we found a secluded area up on a hill, away from the crowd, but in view of the huge monitor where we could watch the race live. But it got really good when one guy who was sitting on a stone wall left and we could hop up. From there we had a perfect view of the monitor and we were in the shade. Gay made prosciutto (prosciutto in France is even better than in the US, if that’s possible) and cheese on a baguette sandwiches and I opened the wine. For a couple hours, we just sat on the wall and ate and drank wine watching the race live. This was the highlight of the trip for me…. I never truly thought I’d ever see the Tour de France live, but I found myself in the Alps, alone with my wife eating prosciutto and cheese and drinking wine out of a plastic cup while at the Tour de France! It was one of those moments you can’t possibly plan, but when it happens, it’s a wonderful feeling. I will live the rest of my life remembering this day as one of its highlights.
As the riders came to town, we walked down to the road to see Alexandre Vinokourov win the stage. The first of his two stage wins, the other being in Paris, which we also saw live, coincidentally. We walked around to see if we could see the award presentations, it started raining, and we saw Lance walk just feet from us, Lance again being ushered through the crowd and being interviewed at the same time with Sheryl Crow tagging along. I wasn’t quick enough to snap a photo, unfortunately.
We drove back to Gap for dinner. We happened to sit down at a restaurant across from the town square and, as if the day couldn’t get any better, we discovered that Gap was celebrating July 14′s Bastille Day that night (it was July 13). So after dinner, the locals congregated in the square and the fireworks started. After the fireworks, there was a concert in the square where people danced. They make a bigger deal out of their Independence Day celebrations than the US does — all we do is shoot fireworks, drink beer and eat hot dogs.
The next day, after a quick stop at a cafe for coffee and a croissant, we were heading to the Cotes du Rhone area to see some French countryside. This is one area of France where I could live. It’s not in the mountains, but it’s scenic nonetheless. We drove to a tiny town called Viason La Romaine and found a hotel right on the square. We were warned by the hotel clerk that it could be loud and she was right. Their Bastille Day celebration started early and ran late. We were in the back of the hotel, away from the square, but we could hear the music til 2am. And it was hot in the room, with no air conditioning. But it had free internet!
The next day we drove a little south to the town of Malaucene. This town is at the foot of Mont Ventoux, a famous mountain climb in the Tour de France (but not on this year’s route). This was a popular destination for cyclists as several groups of cyclists came through the town, some stopping for a beer while watching the race on a pub’s television. My guess is that the cyclists stay in the town so that they can try climbing Mont Ventoux. The morning we left, we had coffee at a restaurant where a cyclist had his coffee before getting on his bike and heading up the road to Mont Ventoux. If I lived here, that’s what I’d do too.
Without getting into each meal we ate (although we took photos of every one), the food in France is wonderful. This was easily the best eating vacation I’ve ever had (food in Greece ’89 was great too, but I don’t trust my college food opinions as much today). Everything is fresh and delicious. In the smaller towns, Entrecote (grilled steak) and frites (French fries) is very common, as is pizza, surprisingly. The steak is much thinner than one you’d get in the US, and perfectly cooked, i.e., rare. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a sauce on the steak. My favorite was a morel sauce. I could eat a bowl of just that!
As for wine, you have a large selection, of course, but the cheapest and most fun way is to order “vin du pays en pichet” (local wine in a pitcher). For about €4-5 (~$5-6) you get 500ml of a local wine (try getting a good bottle of wine in a US restaurant for $7!) In the Cotes du Rhone Valley, you’ll get Cotes du Rhone wine. In Bordeaux, you get Bordeaux. And in Malaucene, you get Cotes du Ventoux! The French don’t drink wine in goblets the way Americans do, they give you little wine glasses. This is nice as it encourages you to not get drunk. The French don’t get drunk, either. They all drink wine, and they start at lunch (or even at breakfast sometimes), but you don’t see drunks — we saw two and one was during Bastille Day.
Saturday was our first day in the villa we rented with our friends, John & Deborah. They were flying in from London that evening and arriving in Nice. We drove from the Cotes du Rhone area to Grasse to check into the villa. Then we drove to the airport at Nice to pick up John & Deborah.
To be continued…