Saturday, July 19, 2008

La Tour de France

Today, the Tour de France came to a town near me.

Jerome, Gus, Mary, Mary's nephew and myself got up fairly early to go and watch the Tour de France in the town of Cavaillon, about a 30 minute drive away from Aix. I knew that it would be a bit anti-climactic, but still, I had a chance to see the Tour de France!

We arrived with about 3 hours to kill before they rode through, so we went searching for some lunch. After stopping at the supermarket, a McDonald's and a restaurant, we finally found a bakery that was open. That is correct, the big stores were all closed so that their staff could go and watch the race live! I couldn't imagine any place in Canada closing down just because a bike race was coming through...think of the lost profit! But here in France, leisure time is more important than working. Someone finally gets it!

We found a place to sit in the shade, as many more people slowly trickled in to find places to sit. Shortly, the sponsor cars started to roll by, with pretty girls tossing trinkets into the crowd. It is amazing how much people will argue over stupid little key chains and bobbles! I actually lucked out and caught something. I was in the middle of taking a photo, when I saw something launched my way. Automatically, my left hand went up, and without actually seeing, I caught it. Yippee! A deck of cards! LOL, stupid trinkets. I think that the catch was more impressive than what I got.

So after a few hours of sponsors, police motorcycles, more sponsors, press cars, and race officials, we finally got word that the racers where on their way. Off in the distance, you could see 4 or 5 helicopters circling like birds of prey looking for a kill.

We were sitting by a traffic circle, and we thought that if we stayed where we were in the shade, then the bikes would be going past on the other side of the road, and we would miss them. So last minute move to the other side, and we were ready.

Finally, we heard that 4 cyclists were in the lead, and when we saw the red car, they would be right behind them. So, armed with the camera on high speed, multi shot mode I prepared myself. The first four came around the corner, and I started snapping photos. The next group was fairly large, and I fired off a ton more shots. I paused, and Gus yelled at me that there were more, so I quickly turned and continued to shoot. Gus ten yelled, that the leader, the one in the yellow had passed us, so I quickly turned, fired off a few more shots toward him.

Thirty seconds was all over. That was it, three hours waiting, thirty seconds of action. I managed one hundred and ninety-two photos, with about 50 or so of the bikes. I did manage a few decent ones, which I will post later on Flickr (when I get through all of my Europe trip photos).

Since we had to work, we left right away. After a few back roads, we got to the Autoroute, and headed back to Aix. No more than 10 kilometres later, we crest a hill and see about 5 kilometres of traffic...not moving. We quickly dodged off on an exit, and went back to the back roads to get home. Our half hour drive ended up being an hour home. At least we managed to get to the pool for 45 minutes before we had to leave.

So, I managed to get to the Tour de France this time around. Short, but pretty cool and I am sure that I have now made my brother Mike jealous. =D

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Europe Road Trip: Post III

Well, Allen should be getting on his plane about now. He left last night on the TGV to Paris, hopefully he got a hotel for the night, and he leaves in about 13 minutes (as of writing this) back to Vancouver. It was quite the whirl-wind trip, but I think that he has found some good memories that will last a life time.

So, we got back to Aix on the 14th, which was Bastille day, and we headed into town to eat. Since it was a bit later in the day, it was getting dark on the way back to the car, and the crowds had gathered for the fireworks show in the middle of town. As we were winding through the crowd, the first of the rockets were launched. So we stood, really close as it was, and watched the rockets and other types of fireworks light up the night. We found it shorter and not quite as nice as the show in St.Julien-en-Genevois, which is weird since it is a much bigger town than St. Julien. Still, it was nice to see.

On the 15th, we headed up to Luberon, looking for Lavender fields, and other places to visit. Our first big stop was Bonnieux, a small medieval town on the side of a hill. Lots of old buildings, and the old church on top. (we stopped going into the churches after Notre-Dame, they are all rather boring!) While looking out over the valley, we saw another town across the way. Turns out that it is Lacoste, and the chateau that is sitting above it was home to the Marquis de Sade! So of course, we had to see that!

A quick, five minute drive and we were parked and hiking up the hill to the top of the town. Seems that all these towns are build on hill sides. The town was very old, and very beautiful, but what struck me was that almost everyone was speaking english! It seems that there is an art and design school there that takes up many of the buildings, and it is full of students from North America. Still, it felt weird having english all around me in a French town.

We got to the top where the chateau was, only to find that it is closed to the public. It appears to be half rebuilt, and that it is now used as a place to put on plays or concerts. It would have been nice to see inside, but I don't think that to be possible.

On the way out of the town, we stopped at a market to find a few last touristy things for Al to bring home. (Al's plane should be pushing back now...have a good flight!) The lady at the market spoke rapid-fire French and I had a hell of a time understanding her. Luckily, there was another girl who spoke a tiny bit of English, so we managed to get what we needed. It was difficult to explain to them that we couldn't take the cheese from the cheese stand back to Canada. I should have bought some for myself, but I already have too much cheese in the fridge.

Next stop was the Fountain of Vaucluse, where I have been before. Last time I was there, the water was almost not visible in the bottom of the spring. A few weeks ago, it was roaring out of the top, over the rocks and boulders that are lying just past the opening. Yesterday, it was about 5-6 meters higher than the last time I was there, but still really low. The river was running much higher though, which made the rapids a little more interesting.

So we walked the tourist path, checking out the shops, taking photos. As we came around the bend, we saw some girls with paint easels, and canvas, painting the river scenes. These were the same girls that we had seen in Lacoste! They had just started when we came by one way, and I was blown away at how much they had done when we came back. And how good they were. Painting is something that I am just not good at, unless it is a barn or something. I will stick to my photos, that I can do.

After Vaucluse, we needed to get back to Aix. Al had his train to catch, and I didn't want him to miss it. We actually got back here earlier than I had though, so we had time to eat and have a nap before heading to the station.

It was nice to have Al here, even if it was a crazy whirl-wind visit. Maybe next time we can take a bit longer, plan a bit better so that we can stay at hostels or in tents so that it won't be quite as expensive. I am scared to look at my bank account, I am sure that there are cobwebs taking hold!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Road Trip Europe: Post II

Plans change fast on a road trip, and this one worked out nearly the same.

When we got to Interlaken, our memories were jogged about Jungfrau, the tallest mountain in Switzerland, which just happened to be in Interlaken's back yard. We decided that going to the top would be the day's adventure, and set about to hope that the rain would stop long enough to enjoy things that far up.

So, we sat and watch the thunder storm half that evening, then got soaked in a walk around town. We didn't do much, since it was so wet and we were quite tired.

Early the next morning, we got up so that we could go to some of the tourist shops looking for some post cards and souvenirs. After, we headed up toward the mountain, more particularly, Grindelwald, where the the nearest train station to the mountain is located. When we arrived, we saw that we had only five minutes to catch the train, so I rushed into the station, grabbed tickets, nearly passed out from the price of them (over 150 CHF each! That is about $150 CDN each!), then quickly boarded the train.

The way up was kind of boring, the fog was so thick that we really couldn't see much. It was green on the bottom, and white on the top. But we were on a rack railway, so that was kind of exciting for Allen.

About 20 minutes into the trip, we had to switch trains to catch the train that actually went up to the top. As I walked up to the train, I saw only one door open, and just climbed in. was the baggage door and the train crew quickly shooed me along. Oops.

The next leg of the trip was about as exciting as the previous...until we entered the mountain. You see, most of the trip actually takes place inside the Eiger, then through the Monch for about 7km! There are actually two stations inside the Eiger where you can get out and see down the north face toward the valley below...on a clear day. It was mostly a white out when we went to see.

The train station at the top is 3454m up inside Jungfraujoch, where you there are restaurants, an "Ice Palace" (inside a galcier), as well as observation areas and a way outside into the snow. Our fist stop was the Ice Palace, where the Korean and Aussie tourists (well, almost all the tourists) where cold. I was walking around in my sandals, feeling quite warm. =) It was quite interesting inside, and Al and I had fun slipping and sliding around the floors. After one run and slide, I yelled out "Hurry! Hard!" which nearly had us both falling over laughing. For some reason, no one else got it...=P

Next stop was outside, where the snow was blowing sideways. It was -0.5C, and still mostly fogged in, but really cool to be standing so far up. Speaking of far up, we had to be careful not to exert ourselves too much, since we were over the altitude that even aircraft are supposed to be pressurized to keep people safe. We felt light headed if we moved too quickly, and early on there was some poor kid in the washroom chucking his guts from the elevation. Poor guy.

So after a few dozen photos, we went inside, had some good bratwurst and schnitzel for lunch then found our way to the top deck for a look. As luck would have it, the fog moved away, and the sun came out to show of the Jungfrau peak. It was interesting looking at the photos later, to see the young lady in the rock for which the peak is named.

While on the top, we met some girls from Adelaide, and a group from Toronto who was nice enough to take some photos of Al and I together.

Soon we had to leave, we needed to get toward Zürich. Back near at the bottom, we were soon back into the rain again...and slow traffic. I don't know what it is with the Swiss and their desire to go constantly under the speed limit, but it annoys me. At least do the speed limit, and it would be nice to have the speed posted on the motorways. They post to let you know that you need to go slower, like 100, 80 or 60km/h, but they never post what the top speed is. They also like to change speeds constantly, for various reasons. I got hit with a speed camera, not going too fast, but obviously over the limit. The tough part was that I had changed speed about 4 times in a couple of kilometres and really had no idea what the speed was supposed be! I just hope that with the out of country plates on the car, I don't get a bill in the mail.

So, now we are about 20km from Zürich, and it is pouring with rain still. We have decided to make a very short stop here, then drive back to Geneva again today to stay at Leanne and Alex's for the night. Not fun playing tourist in the rain.

Tomorrow we will drive back to Aix and then I can show Al around there and a bit of Provence before he needs to get on a train and leave to catch his plane in Paris. From what I have seen on the weather reports, it is at least nice down south.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Road Trip:Europe

Allen arrived Monday in Paris, where we spent a couple of days wearing out our feet.

The weather started off kind of crappy, cool and overcast, some rain. I took the train to Charles de Gaul airport, where I met Al as he arrived from Vancouver. We caught a navette to one of the main train stations nearer to our hotel, then took the Metro the rest of the way...well almost. We got out of the Metro station, and because of a poor map and streets that criss-cross each other, we turn the wrong way and instead of walking a block, we walked about 3 kilometres or more! We walked along, walked along, suddenly we were at the Seine! Oops. At least I now had a good landmark and found the hotel after walking all the way back again. Poor Al, he had his heavy suitcase and was VERY jet lagged.

We found our room and went searching for dinner. We checked a few places, and ended up in this little hole-in-the-wall place that turned out to be fantastic! It wasn't cheap, but I will admit that I have never had pasta that tasted that good before. Somehow, we ended up with a really good wine to go with it, plus some amazing appies as well. For dessert, we had home made Tiramisu, which floated down our throats as our taste buds fought to keep the taste going for ever.

So after our meal, we wandered a couple of blocks and saw the Eiffel Tower all lit up blue. One the one side, there was the gold stars of the EU flag, and with the tower blue, it was a nice tribute to France currently holding the presidency of the EU.

Back at the hotel, Al passed out right away, mid conversation. Jet lag sucks.

The next morning, we got up fairly early and went to Notre Dame Cathedral. OMG!!! That place was amazing! I am glad that I don't pay for film anymore, since I would be completely broke processing all those photos! (between Allen and I, over about 48 hours we took over 1300 photos)

After Notre Dame, we made our way a bit north, and wandered toward the Louvre. We didn't have any plans to go, it would just take too long to do, but we did enjoy the exterior of the buildings that house it.

Next was a quick ferris wheel ride, to get some elevation on the city for photos. This kind of started the obsession with the Eiffel Tower that lasted the rest of the time there.

By now, we were getting tired and hungry, and we though that we would head back tot he hotel for a quick rest, shoe change and then get some dinner and go see about getting up the tower at night. Along the way, we thought about taking a short cut through the Hotel d'Invalides. The short cut ended up keeping us a few hours longer. We took some time and went into the museum which houses a lot of old medieval suits of armour, ancient weapons, etc. This took a lot of time, but the highlight was seeing Napoleon's Tomb. Yes, that Napoleon...the short dead dude. He was something of a "local hero" I guess. =P

After seeing the dead, we had some Chinese food (yes, we ate Chinese in was cheaper than other places) and then went out with the camera's to see the tower again at night. We managed to get up to the second level of the tower, but we were to late and the top deck was closed. Still, we got some wicked shots and had a great time.

The next morning, we tried to get up early (we were both quite worn out) and get to the tower before the crowds. Ummm...didn't happen. We slept in too late, and then by the time we got to the tower, the line up was hours long. Oh well. So we walked up to the Arch de Triumph instead. It wasn't quite as exciting as the tower, but still fun to watch the madness that is the traffic circle around it. Cars just going everywhere, with no lines, not direction, just madness.

After a walk down the Champs Elysse, we grabbed our bags from the hotel, then went to Gare de Lyon to catch our train to Aix. For some reason, the train was over an hour late to leave the station, so we got home too late to do much that night.

Next day, we took the rented BMW 318 TDI and took the slower, more scenic route to Geneva, with a lunch stop in Annecy. It took most of the day, but the drive was quite pleasant. Annecy is much like every other time I have been there, but this time I managed to get up to the church above the town, and I got at least part of my body in the lake (we cooled our feet for a few minutes there.) Then it was off to Alex and Leanne's for the night.

Today, we made a stop in Geneva for a couple of hours, then went off to Bern. In Bern, we went down and saw the poor bear in the bear pit, the last one out of many that lived there for years. It is sad to see him, stuck in a stone pit, with no friends. We wandered a little bit, Allen bought some touristy things (new Swiss shirt for instance), and we had a nice salad lunch.

Now we are sitting in a hotel room in Interlaken, staying inside from the rain. Tomorrow we changed our plans and are going to be taking the rack railway up Jungfrau, then heading toward Zurich. After that, we are not sure. We might just head back to Alex and Leanne's, or take a run through Italy. Not really sure.

But, we are having a total blast doing all of this!