Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tour de France 2007, Stage 9: Jumieges to Calais – 15 July 2007

Somme Poppy
Newfoundland MemorialWe awoke to the familiar sound of thunder and set a world record for dismantling a tent and getting it into the car, just as the rain began to make its way through the tree cover.

Our rapidly changing itinerary had rather confused us and, as it transpired, we should not have chosen Jumieges as a campsite at all, Ulster Towerwe should have left Rouen in a totally different direction.

Nevertheless, we set off for Dieppe, as it was sort-of on our way to Calais. It was on this leg of the journey that we read other information that indicated the Somme battlefields were not where they were indicated on our map and Dieppe was not an appropriate waypoint. After a very cursory sweep through Dieppe we set off for Thiepval and ultimately traced a huge Z across France between Jumieges and Calais.

Thiepval MemorialThe first memorial we came across was one commemorating the Newfoundlanders and was a preserved piece of the battlefield with trenches and so forth. A foresighted Officer had purchased the land from the farmer to preserve it, just as it was. It is now a Canadian park. Clearly, over time the contours of the trenches and foxholes had softened but the effect was still incredibly sobering.

NZ MemorialOver one million men lost their lives in this four and a half month battle in 1916 and there are cemeteries and memorials dotted across the landscape.

Caterpillar Valley CemeteryWe stopped at the Ulster Tower – the Irish Memorial, the Connaught Cemetery and then at the main memorial for the area at Thiepval. It was there that we got accurate instructions for finding the NZ memorial, out in the middle of a field. Our last stop was the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery where, among the other Commonwealth dead, New Zealanders soldiers are buried and the names of the 1205 Kiwis whose graves are unknown are inscribed.

The Kiwis arrived in the Somme from Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles and moved on to Flanders in 1917. One cannot but leave a place like this humbled at the dedication and sacrifice of these brave men: Dardanelles, Somme, Flanders - names that will forever ring down through history.

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery
It was time for the final sprint stage to Calais, so we left the byways and back-roads of France and paid our toll for the privilege of ticking of the final kilometres at 130 per hour.

Tour de France 2007, Stage 8: Chartres to Jumieges – 14 July 2007

Monet's lily padsOur reason for heading to the south of Paris on our westward trip was to visit Monet's Garden, so that was our first stop for the day. It would be a really great spot if you could get rid of the tourists cluttering up your photos.

Old Mill on the SeineSeveral dozen lily-pad shots later, we set off for Les Andelys. Petite Les Andelys is right on the Seine and is very attractive. The main town is not worth a stop. The area is overlooked by the Chateau Gaillard, built by Richard the Lionheart in 1197 to defend Rouen from the French.

Lyons-la-ForetOn the route to Rouen we stopped at Lyons-la-Foret, an extremely attractive half-timbered town favoured by the Dukes of Normandy as a hunting base. It was easy to while away time there ambling around the streets snapping photos.

Lyons-la-ForetOur intended destination for the night was Rouen, so that was our next waypoint. The Cathedral is a grand gothic masterpiece with the tallest spire in France and is the burial place of Richard the Lionheart. The west face of the cathedral was the subject of a series of painting by Monet. The town had an extensive pedestrianised centre so we wandered around admiring more old half-timbered buildings. Joan d'Arc churchIn stark contrast was the new Church dedicated to Joan d'Arc who was burnt at the stake a few metres outside. It replaces the church destroyed in 1944 and is a fabulously beautiful modern structure incorporating the stained glass windows of the original church. The architect has achieved a truly inspirational building that one was loathe to leave.

Since there were still a few hours in the day we decided, after looking at it, not to spend a night in the Rouen Municipal Campground and pressed on towards Dieppe. The next campground was not much more exciting, seemingly right next door to a busy motorway, so we dropped back down to a loop in the Seine to find, eventually, the campground at Jumieges.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tour de France 2007, Stage 7: Chaumont to Chartres - 13 July 2007

Fosse DionneTonnerre is famous for the Fosse Dionne, a spring that the town was built around; and as it was on our westward route, it was our first stop.

AuxerreNext on our way west was Chablis. Clearly one cannot drive through Chablis without stopping and having a glass of Chablis. We visited a 'Cave' where they offered tasting and sales and heard the potted history of the Chablis area and the four regions within it: Petite Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. We sampled one each of the first three and purchased some Petite Chablis and two bottles of a very fine 2003 Premiere Cru that will keep for 25 years and is thus destined to be opened on some very special birthdays.

Next stop was Auxerre on the Yonne river. The town fathers have organised a very well executed town trail which we followed, from time to time; picking and choosing our sites and routes. Although there are many fine buildings, the overall effect was not as good as Troyes or Colmar.

JoignyOn, then, to Joigny, for a brief stop at another town that the real Tour de France had just passed though. I am sure that the cyclists appreciated the fact that they were there before the temperature soared past 30C as it did for us. To go from 4C to 34C in so few days was quite amazing.

Bastille Day, tomorrowKilometre after kilometre of boring flat cropping land followed but, as the harvest was in full swing, there was the excitement of having to overtake large, non-see-through farm vehicles: always a challenge when driving a RHD car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Tractors and trailers notwithstanding, we finally arrived at our destination for the night: Chartres.

ChartresAfter checking in at the campground we staked out our territory by pitching the outer fly of our tent then drove into town to visit the Cathedral and have a walk around the historical centre. The cathedral has amazing carvings around the choir, a true 'Bible in stone' and is famous for its stained glass windows which they are still re-instating after removing them for the two world wars.

Bible in stone

Tour de France 2007, Stage 6: Munster to Chaumont – 12 July 2007

Munster StorksLeaving our 'camping au sauvage' site, we dropped down from the hills behind Munster to the town itself to look at the Munster storks. Apparently some civic soul decided to encourage the storks to the town to act as a tourist attraction. I have no idea why anyone would want to encourage birds to come and deposit their guano all over their beautiful town roofs, for that is exactly what they do.

TurckheimWe picked up the Alsace wine trail again and headed north to Turckheim and then Riquewihr: "one of France's most visited towns"; and it showed. It was far too touristy and we decided that Eguisheim was actually prettier.

RiquewihrAfter a brief look at Ribeauville, famed for its Riesling, we set off for the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg, a castle, high on a promontory, dominating the valley below. Begun in 1144, destroyed in 1462, rebuilt by the Hapsburgs and burnt down in 1633, the castle was totally restored at the end of the 19th century and is now a precise reconstruction of the original building.

RibeauvilleKaiser William II ordered the restoration, not as a royal residence but as a museum and symbol of the restored empire and German past in Alsace. However, since this area was given to France in the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, it is the French tourist trade that now benefits.

Chateau du Haut-KoenigsbourgIt is no wonder that it is the most visited attraction in the Alsace region and is well worth a visit. The views from the castle, almost 750m above the plain, are magnificent; along the Alsace vineyards and across the Rhine to the Black Forest and the Alps.

It was time to leave Alsace and begin the journey westward. Our destination for the night was Chaumont and the road and villages between the two were totally unremarkable apart from the fact that the roads were very lightly trafficked making for a very easy drive and the fact that we were pulled over by the Gendarmes in a routine check. ContrexevilleWe needed a driver's licence, easily found and then car insurance. I was aware that it was required to carry insurance documentation, so I knew we had it, but where? After a couple of false starts I remembered where it was; produced it; satisfied the Gendarmes; and we were on our way.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Tour de France 2007, Stage 5: St Laurent-en-Grandvaux to Munster – 11 July 2007

Le LionSurprise, surprise, it was raining when we woke so we packed our tent in the rain again. The rain was in on-again-off-again mode all the way north until we were well into the Alsace region.

EguisheimThe link between the Statue of Liberty and France is well known, what is probably not as well known is that the only other major undertaking by designer Frederic Bartholdi is a pink sandstone lion, “Le Lion”, in the city of Belfort. As this was on our route it seemed like a good place for a break in the journey.

EguisheimWe detoured off the main road to Eguisheim, a very pretty town of half-timbered buildings built along streets laid out in concentric circles which provide ready-made tourist walking routes around the town.

EguisheimThis town is not far from Colmar, the main centre for the area, so that was our next stop. They used the river to create canals that were originally used to move the wine stocks around the town. Now they are a tourist attraction called Petite Venice.

EguisheimAlong the way there were signs that warned that the road ahead was 'Route Barree a 1500m', in 1000m, at the deviation point the signs said 'Route Barree a 400m' but did our leader take any notice? No he did not. On we pressed, the only cars on a once busy road, until we arrived at the road-making equipment where it was abundantly clear that further progress was impossible, the route was indeed 'barree'. Did we retrace our steps? No we did not. We went through some private property, arrived at a cycle track and drove along that in our intended direction; ultimately arriving at the road that was the signposted deviation, where a kindly driver let us back into the nose-to-tail flow.

Petite VenicePetite Venice

Petite VenicePetite Venice

After Colmar we travelled away from the German border to the town of Munster, now famous for its storks and from there up into the hills behind Munster to camp at a spot discovered by Bob on a previous trip. Wild camping (“camping au sauvage”) is encouraged in France.

Tour de France 2007, Stage 4: Alpes to St Laurent-en-Grandvaux – 10 July 2007

Baby, its cold outsideAs predicted, it snowed: but not down to 1900m, it snowed down to about 1780m, a mere 100m above our tents and the temperature was correspondingly low. Between the two of us we wore 30 items of clothing to bed that night and still woke a few times with the cold.

After daybreak the morning temperature climbed to a balmy 4 C and our leader decided it was, in fact, time to move on - the Alpes had won and tourism had lost.

Beaufort is ready for 'The Tour'We dropped down to Beaufort for breakfast and the chance to remove some of the layers, exchanging our Michelin-man profiles for our more normal svelte ones.

Resistance fighters cemeterySuitably sustained, clothed and warmed we moved on to Thones: the location of the Museum of the Resistance the Museum of the Deportation. They are at the national cemetery and memorial to the Resistance fighters in the Haute-Savoie. It was sobering to see that nearly all the photos taken were in snow and to remember that these brave fighters did not have the luxury or breaking camp and driving off in quest of some sunshine.

Palais de l'IsleFurther along we stopped at Annecy: a lovely town on the shores of Lake Annecy which would no doubt look absolutely fabulous on a fine summer's day. We saw it on a damp rainy day. We walked the town centre, looked at the Palais de l'Isle - a rather grand name for a building that has spent 500 of its years as a jail, including wartime confinement of Resistance fighters and subsequently SS Officers as the fortunes of war changed.

AnnecySkirting the Swiss border we made out way over the mountains to St Laurent-en-Grandvaux where we set up camp, ate our dinner then crawled into our tent and listened to the rain on the roof, for a change.

Tour de France 2007, Stage 3: Alpine passes - 9 July 2007

Putting the tent in a slightly drier locationsWe went to bed with a thunderstorm raging and were woken at 2, 5 and 6 a.m. with flashes of lightning, peals of thunder and lashing rain. In between there was the roar of the swollen river as it rushed past our campsite and, when the rain let up, the ding-dong of the cowbells across the river. All in all, a good night’s sleep!

When we finally climbed out of bed we found a stream running through the ‘front room’ of our tent and discovered that we had pitched our tent slap in the middle of the run-off path from the ground around and we were camped in 30mm of water. All credit to Ted Baker and his tent design team; we, and our gear inside the ‘living room’, were dry. With a team of helpers laid on, we unpegged and bodily shifted the erect tent to drier ground.

Breakfast timeIt stopped and started, drizzled and fizzled but was dry enough for breakfast after which we drove down to Bourg St Maurice. The road up to this campsite and down to Bourg St Maurice will be transformed beyond recognition in a few days time when “The Tour’ sweeps through. The prospect of riding a racing cycle up or down these roads strikes terror into the heart. The riders must truly be mad.

We attempted a walk up the valley to a cheese factory but the weather beat us back.

Bourg St MauriceBy 4 p.m. it was actually quite clear, but the local forecast was for snow down to 1900m. Since our campsite was at 1560m that did not seem a large enough margin for error for our liking.

The majority of the party were keen to break camp and move on but our intrepid leader was sure that tomorrow was going to be a fabulous day and that we would, at last, be able to see the Alpes in all their splendour.

Tour de France 2007, Stage 2: Troyes to the Alpes - 8 July 2007

SunflowersFrom Troyes we dropped down to Dijon for a look at the home of the famous mustard and took ourselves on a tour round the town centre, following a map in the guidebook.

DijonFurther south, through the Champagne region, was Beaune; famous for its Hotel-Dieu. Built in 1465 as a refuge and hospital for the poor it has been restored to its former glory and is quite amazing. The roof is multi-coloured glazed tiles and has been copied since on many buildings in the region to create a characteristic 'Bordeaux' style

Champagne vineyardsThe next adventure was attempting to obtain fuel in France on a Sunday. There are many 24hr service stations and nearly all are automatic, card operated. Unfortunately although we had at our disposal a VISA, Mastercard, Amex and Maestro cashflow card, all of which claim to be accepted everywhere, what they really mean is everywhere except French automatic service stations.

Hotel DieuAfter our fourth failure, and with 200km still to go to our destination we were getting desperate: however, we managed to arrange for a local who had just successfully filled his car, to put €20 on his card, which we paid him in cash. Satisfied that we would now make it to our destination we set off and after turning at the next intersection came across a fully manned (or more accurately womaned) service station. After filling up, and using the facilities we were finally on the road, passing no fewer that four manned service stations!

Hotel DieuWe passed through a tunnel and emerged to much finer weather which we took (foolishly as it turned out) to be a good sign.

We arrived at the campsite at 8 p.m. and our new tent was erected for the very first time with the help of Ezra, Bob, John and Bill. We finished just as the rain started and by 9 p.m. it was thunder and lightning, very, very frightening and absolutely tipping it down.

Welcome to camping in the Alpes!

Kitchens in the Hotel DieuSitting side by side in the tent, we were literally shouting at each other to be heard over the noise of the rain on the tent.

Why are we camping in the Alpes anyway? A very good question. We have a mad friend, Bob, from NZ who considers it a fine past-time to cycle up and down these mountains and he is currently here on a celebratory 70th birthday trip. At his invitation we agreed to join him and committed before we read the 'fine print'; that it was a camping trip.

Tour de France 2007, Stage 1: London to Troyes - 7 July 2007

TroyesIn a most unusual move, the Tour de France 2007 began in London on 7 July. Our Tour de France also left London on 7 July and visited a number of places on the real Tour route, either before or after the cyclists, skilfully managing to miss the travelling circus that is "Le Tour".

TroyesAn early start was required in order to make our check-in time of 9:15 at the Dover ferry. Whisked across to Calais, we filled the tank with cheap French diesel, got a few provisions from the supermarket and headed along the A26. The motorway was surprisingly empty and 3.5 hours and €27 in tolls later, we were in Troyes.

TroyesWhat an absolutely delightful town. The old centre is street after street with building after building in 16th century half-timbered design. There are one or two towns and villages in England that have a 'Tudor, half-timbered' look, like Stratford-upon-Avon or Lavenham or the black and white villages of Hereford but frankly they don't even begin to think about approaching the scale and beauty of Troyes.

TroyesTroyes is extremely fortunate that it escaped not only the ravages of two world wars but also the ministrations of the Victorians, with their tins of black and white paint. The colours in Troyes are quite delightful; all manner of pastel tints and contrasting highlights on the timbers.