HOME SWEET HOME

Well as most of you probably know we are now back in Oz and back into the same old boring routine. I will blame a lack of good Wi-Fi access in Paris and a dodgy SD card   for a delay in updating the blog

Anyhow when we last left you we were on our way to Luxembourg and into the last week of the trip. The journey south would take us through a region of Germany known as the Eifel. This area was once the center of some major volcanic activity but is now known for its hiking and cycling trails. It would turn out that we could pretty much cover the last two days of riding exclusively on bike paths. The scenery along the way did not disappoint.

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Making our way into the town of Gerolstein, our stop for the night, I managed to get up and really personal with some of the famous German wildlife that had been so abundant throughout this leg of the trip.

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Yes I had taken a number of hits to the face in southern France from cicadas however a wasp sting to the groin raised the bar on intimate insect interaction. Picture me, legs spread eagled at a café table in downtown Gerolstein applying a cold bottle of coke to my nether region in order to sooth the pain, ohhhh the humanity!

 

Soldiering on, with pain that would have left the average man hospitalized, we set forth the following day to ride the last 80 odd kilometres to Luxembourg City. The heat that had followed us for most of our trip was present yet again as we crossed the German border mid-afternoon. Now I mentioned 80 odd kilometres just before which would have been the case if we’d have followed the road. After first being swept up in riding on a beautiful converted rail line we found ourselves at the top of one of the many hills that makes up the Luxembourg landscape.

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Again just like the Euro Velo 15 sign posts to the city suddenly became scarce. It was looking good for a while when after another hot and sweaty climb we found ourselves at the towers for radio Luxembourg, the city tantalisingly close on the horizon.

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But as has been the case all too often the signs mess with you. Another 20 kilometres later stuck between a corn and turnip fields the GPS was now showing we were closer to Germany instead of our intended target. Well two more major climbs, another 20 or so kilometres and a stop for 2 litres of magic elixir for Vikki (coke) we found ourselves at the campground. Hot, sweaty and just plain tired, we settled into the parks café/bar for the next three hours before heading to bed to watch a fast approaching electrical storm.

After a bit of a sleep-in the next morning, it was off into the city for some sightseeing and then on to a TGV at 6pm for Paris.

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You know when you’re getting to the end of a trip when you find yourselves sitting in a train station for a train that’s another 5 hours off instead of exploring the surroundings. I’m sure Luxembourg City has a lot more to offer than a park lined chasm and mall in the middle of town, but we were content to sit in a station somehow willing the day to speed forward. On to the train finally and after another 2 hours we find ourselves in the middle of Paris.

8:30pm and it was onto the bikes for one last 10km ride to the camp site. The most direct route would see us make our way through downtown Paris to the roundabout at the Arc de Triumph.

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From here it was a pleasant ride though the massive inner city park the Bois de Boulogne via Allee de Longchamp. Along the way we were greeted by many of the very friendly locals. Now for those of you who lead a sheltered life and this includes my wife, the locals I mentioned usually come out at night, have work wear that is, how shall we say, revealing and tend to use a lot of makeup. They sang for me, showed their flexibility and were eager to share their, hospitality! Well for the last four months Vikki has sat pretty close to my back wheel. On this occasion she showed all the skill of a well drilled team persuiter with what I swear was no more than the thickness of a playing card being between her front wheel and my rear, ha! She must have been afraid that I would be drawn by their “magnatisma”.

Our last four days in Paris were spent washing, cleaning camping gear and sightseeing. Having been here before in 2006 we had seen pretty much all the usual tourist spots that is, except for the Palace of Versailles. Last time around I was voted down four to one to go and see this iconic marvel which showcases the extravagance of the French monarchy just before its downfall. What do I hear you ask could possibly eclipse this cultural jewel, Euro Disney! Yes that’s right Euro Disney! It wasn’t enough to have seen Disneyland or Disneyworld already. Anyhow I had my wish granted and we were on our way. Having pre-booked and doubled checked to see if the was going to be any ticket fiasco like at the Colosseum, we arrived at the site to find half of the world had also decided to do the same thing on the same day. I must say that despite the over two hours spent waiting in the que, the many children that were in attendance were incredibly well behaved. I put this down to strict parenting skills that culture vulture parents must possess or, more likely, a freely available new form of children’s tranquiliser that has just been released in Europe.

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It turns out that those tranquilisers mentioned earlier must have been administered to my bike whilst we were out. Check out the relaxed state of my rear wheel that was only discovered when giving it it’s only wash at the very end. Now I know where exactly that click click clickity bloody clicking noise has been coming from.

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With the Palace done and the night time lightshow at the Eifel Tower under our belts our thoughts turned to packing. Determined not to have needed the assistance of a Yak team and Sherpa like our last trip to Charles de Gaul airport, we set about finding the least stressful way of getting there. Lucky for us a €10 note to the campground shuttle bus driver did the trick and with only one changeover we found ourselves at CDG. Well after many sleepless hours on planes we are now back and into living out our old boring lives.

Thanks to all of you who’ve been following this blog and thanks to those of you who sent us messages along the way, greatly appreciated. A big thanks also must go to those who have donated to Youthcare. We appear to have raised just over $1,000.00 and whilst a little short of the intended mark it will certainly go a long way to changing the lives of homeless youth on the Fraser Coast. For those of you who have been having difficulty donating, this issue has now been fixed and the site should remain up for roughly three more weeks.

 

Until our next journey it’s by from Vikki (Donkey)and it’s by from Neale(Grumpy).

 

RAGE ON THE RHINE

Following our visit to Normandy we took a TGV clear across France to visit the beautiful border city of Strasbourg.  This place is fantastic and we’re glad we decided to fit it in.  We paid a visit to the Old City and Petite French quarters of the town.  The place is a charming mix of old, French and German influences.

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So with Strasbourg done it was time to head north to follow the beautiful Rhine River downstream to Bonn. The plan called for us to follow the Euro Velo 15 trail. Euro Velo, for those not into cycling, is a series of premier cycling routes that take in the best of Europe using cycle only trails or quiet country roads. Well it sounded great in principal but in practice was a complete debacle!  Perhaps my bike falling over by it’s self that morning should have been taken as a warning and not a moment to meter out some motivational coaxing to get it going.

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Let’s start with Day No 1. It would appear that there are no route maps available at local bike shops or downloadable for viewing offline, sign posting of turns with the official Euro Velo 15 logo was optional, and zig zagging to unnecessarily double the straight line distance between points appears to be the name of the game. So with 120km in the legs and the speed approaching 30km/h we race to try and beat a fast approaching storm to that night’s campground.

After being comforted by the reassuring glow of the neighbouring Phillipsburg nuclear power plant the previous evening, we set forth the next day, with a vigour not seen before on this trip? Giving the Euro Velo the benefit of the doubt we picked up the trail again and headed onward to the city of Wiesbaden. We came across another couple of cyclists not far into the day and tagged along with them for a while. I asked them if they had met with any navigational difficulties along the way and they replied YES. Well, I thought to myself, I can’t be a complete knob if someone else is having difficulties too. That chuffed mood lasted for about the next hour! As many of you know, I am a patient person, not one to lose my temper easily. So after losing touch with any form of cycle route signage and the GPS showing me I was approaching the English Channel in lieu of the romantic Rhine I calmly took stock of the situation. As we were solely reliant on our bikes for transport, throwing mine onto the adjoining train line was not the first option. I scoured the surrounding area for a dog to kick but was out of luck with that option too. Vikki, for a brief second, looked like a viable target to unleash the building rage but I must be getting old. Without saying anything I consulted my map and began cycling to the nearest train station. Within half an hour we were on our way to the town of Bingen.

Now if you’ll excuse the language, I have coined a new saying on this trip, “Things have gone from shitty to pretty just by turning a corner” and that’s exactly what happened when we stepped off the train.   We had gone from a Rhine River flanked by gravel pits and industrial sites to a Rhine River as seen on postcards. A wonderful water front boulevard graced the banks and art work was scattered along the adjoining gardens. We proceeded to catch the ferry to the north bank with its terraced vineyards and overlooking statue of Germania. This place was truly worthy of an unplanned day’s stop over!

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Stepping out the next morning we explored the village of Rudesheimer. This place was packed with aging what I like to call ginger “bread houses”.

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Although being very touristy, this place is well worth a look. We caught a chair lift to the ridge line above to take in the statue and a wonderful view of the Rhine valley below. Walking tracks thread their way through the accompanying forest and these offered some respite from the increasingly warm temperature being experienced in Germany at the moment.

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It was off to the city of Koblenz the next day and we would be riding in the hottest temperature of the trip so far, try 40oc! At least the temp over here is not accompanied with the humidity that would be found back home so as long as you were moving you stayed cool.   Vikki’s patients with my constant stops for picture taking was starting to wane. “How many bloody castles do you need to take pictures of” was heard on more than one occasion, but this place is a veritable smorgasbord for those both crumbling and those now restored.

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Besides the castles there were the picturesque villages and accompanying churches as well as another statue, this time of the watery nymph “Lorely”. This statue depicts an old Rhine sailor’s myth that talks about a naked, wanton young tart that used to lure poor unfortunate boatmen onto rocks and a watery demise. Sounds more like the real life story of courtship and following married life to me!

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Upon reaching Koblenz we find a hive of activity taking place along the water front park that marks the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. People setting up food stalls, sound stages and amusement rides, we have stumbled upon Rhine en Flammen! After having flash backs to our last overseas trip and being shut out of Dublin because of 7, yes 7 concerts all being held on the same weekend (Robbie Williams, Eagles, Guns and Roses, Metallica, etc.) we quickly made our way to the campground to try and secure a site. All booked out for camper vans and 3 tent sites left, phew.

The following day started with a visit to a museum I termed the “Uber Museum”. Having lured Vikki here on the pretence we were visiting a Toy Donkey and Puppy exposition we arrived at a rather unassuming industrial shed not far from the camp. For the exorbitant price of 0€ each and the flashing of a passport, we made our way inside. What lay inside was a treasure trove of German military equipment all crammed into a space the size of Dick Elmer’s Furniture Warehouse. While I spent 3 hours marvelling inside, Vikki spent 2 and a half hours outside on a bench stating it was really too warm inside for her.

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That afternoon, as a reward for her patients that morning, I treated Vikki to a scenic cable car ride across the Rhine River and to guess what, an old military fortress, I really spoil her sometimes! Anyway turns out there’s not too much military stuff there anymore but an eclectic collection of the region’s history, culture and manufacturing achievements.

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In the evening our campground provided us with front row seats to a wonderful fireworks show and illuminated flotilla for Rhine en Flammen.

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It was then on to the town of Remagan, our base for exploring Bonn and Koln. Remagan was made famous for being the site of the only intact bridge across the Rhine to be captured by the Allies in WWII.

It collapsed 4 days later and the towers on either side of the river remain as a memorial to Germans and Allies alike.

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Off to Bonn the next day, the birth place of Beethoven. For 8€ a piece you could see inside the house where he was born and then, for another small fee, on to a nearby church to see his baptism font, how could one refuse? I don’t know but I did and the savings paid for lunch that day.

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The following day it was off to Koln. You can tell when you have been on the road for too long, all of a sudden each city begins to look like the last. Apart from Koln’s rather massive and I must say impressive cathedral, it looks like any other modern city back home. What has become apparent as we have made our way further down the Rhine is that the large cities took an absolute pounding from bombing during the war. The ancient town centres, which I think are the soul of a city, have been destroyed and replaced with rather sterile bland replacement buildings and street scapes, pity!

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Our next leg of the trip takes us south to the tiny country of Luxembourg, so until next time stay safe stay well.

D-DAY 71 YEARS ON

With Mont St Michelle behind us we now headed north to Normandy and the D-Day Beaches of WW2.

 

The hot sunny days of southern France are now a thing of the past as we venture into Normandy. Temperatures have now dropped and are like those back home in the middle of winter. It’s a good thing we didn’t ship back our warm clothing earlier! What I’ve found surprising on this trip is how the French country side can change so much in as little as two days of riding. Southern Normandy is quite a lush place, the gentle rolling hills are covered in wheat, corn, green dairy pasture and forest. Add to these its thriving seafood industry and you can see why this has been such a hotly contested piece of real estate since Roman times.

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As we ride into the towns and villages of the region we were greeted not only by the French flag flying in the town square but also those of the US, Great Brittan and Canada. The larger towns have a dedicated memorial and are often accompanied by a large allied field gun or tank. It doesn’t appear to be your usual tourist attracting tactic as one may first think. Many private houses also fly the flags and you get the feeling that a great sense of gratitude is still felt by the locals towards the actions of the allies over 70 years ago.

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We begin our ride along the D-Day coast at Grandcamp-Maisy. This fishing village was at the western end of the US’s “Omaha Beach” and is flanked to the east by Point Du Hoc. This point was probably the most difficult to land on of all those on D-Day with the troops having to climb rope ladders fired up the cliff from the landing craft below. The only signs of these past events are the massive concrete German gun emplacements which are now either filled in or fenced off.

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Day 2 sees us take a detour inland to visit the city of Bayeux and its famous tapestry but first we stop by the US war cemetery for “Omaha Beach”. The memorial site is large, its ground peaceful and is immaculately groomed. The scale of the site is not apparent from the entry but after a short stroll through the gardens a field of white crosses gradually appears. It’s a sobering site by its self, but when you consider that this is only one of many allied cemeteries along the coast and added to these the civilian casualties and the unmentioned German dead, the true brutality and wastefulness of war soon becomes all too clear.

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We arrive in Bayeux around lunch time and after finding the unassuming building in which the tapestry is housed, decided that we should have lunch first. Now France is a quirky place and one of those little quirks is to shut shop for around two hours at the stroke of midday. This make buying lunch a little difficult at times especially when you are in the country side. So in order to keep those hungry worms quiet, you never know when they are going to start biting, we carry lunch with us at all times. With cycle touring comes simplicity and this simplicity carries over to the regular lunch time fare. The set menu consists of baguette, purchased fresh that morning, tube of mayonnaise and tins of both thon (tuna) and maize (corn). I can hear you all licking your lips back home, yum yum pig’s bum!

With hunger now satisfied we head inside to see the tapestry. Now I’ve been having difficulties working out French signs, is it OK to take pictures if the red pictogram of the camera has a slash through it or not? Anyway not wanting to cause an international incident I manage to camouflage my black camera on top of my black handle bar bag making it invisible to the trained eye, pity I haven’t worked out how to turn off that annoying pseudo click click sound the bloody thing makes when you fire off a shot. I shuffle along the darkened hallway trying to keep distance between me and the adjoining tourists. Click click goes the camera and the lady in front turns her head and looks at me. I gesture to my hip letting her know it’s one of those dodgy joints Ronny Morgan had replaced which seems to do the trick. Now you might think that viewing some piece of 1000 year old needle work is a little on the camp side, but hats off to the ladies on this one, this thing is bloody huge! Forget the banners they run through on grand final day at the MCG, this would circle the MCG.

To cut a long story short, the Bayeux tapestry was stitched up in 1066AD and tells the story of poor old King Harold of England and what I always thought was the nasty frog Duke William (or Guillaume over here) of Normandy. It was made cause back in those day there wasn’t any “Derrick Zoolander school for kids who can’t read and write and do other stuff real good”. Turns out that the real King of England was Edward, Harold’s older brother and knowing he was just about to cark it sends young Harry to Normandy to tell Cousin Willy that Willy will be the next king of England not Harry. Anyway off sets Harry with his merry men and somewhere in the murky English Channel stays off course and lands in someone else’s back yard. As was the custom back then if someone turns up in your back yard uninvited you could hold them for ransom. So Willy of Normandy after hearing his other cousin, Harry, has been kidnapped has to flex a bit of muscle to get Harry released. Harry tells Will he will be the next King of England and after swearing an oath of allegiance to Will they both head south to turf some other poor rooster from his land to celebrate, again, as was the custom of the day. Afterward Harry goes back to England and finds his brother Edward has snuffed it so decides, since no one else in England really knows of the last king’s wishes, places himself in charge. Willy finds out what went down over in London and was slightly miffed to say the least. Anyhoo Willy puts together a big army and they go to England to kick Harry’s arse. Harry ends up catching an arrow in the eye and the rest as they say is history. This was the original “Game of Thrones”, unfortunately minus the gratuitous sex scenes and nudity!

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Later in the afternoon we headed back to the coast and the town of Arromanches. This is the English “Gold Beach” and is where the artificial harbour “Mulberry” was built to resupply the allied invasion with parts of it still remaining today. Above the town sits an information centre built behind one of the large German gun emplacements that dot any high ground. It runs an interesting movie that documents the first 100 hours of Operation Overlord or D-Day as it’s more commonly known. The exact timing of the event, the sheer numbers of men and equipment involved and the following waves of the same are just staggering.

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The following day we head toward the city of Caen. We take in the Canadian “Juno Beach” and its wonderful memorial centre before finishing up at the English “Sword Beach” and Pegasus Bridge just inland. Pegasus Bridge was the first piece of French soil to be liberated in WW2 and the accompanying story of this action is told wonderfully at the museum next to it. What makes this museum stand out is the personal stories it tells of some of the service men who took part in this action both during and after the war.

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Well we’re off now by train to the city of Strasbourg clear across the other side of France. When we next post we’ll be dressed in our best lederhosen and possibly sinking a stein or two at a German beer hall. Till then.

 

P.S. Thanks to all those who have donated to date. For those of you looking for an excuse to eat cake why not do a fundraising morning tea at work and blame me for those extra calories. I may post a photo montage later in the trip highlighting the best of Calorie Bombs I’ve been taking for the cause over here.

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TO BORDEAUX AND BEYOND

With Stage 12 of the Tour done it was time to head north once again toward the famous wine region of Bordeaux.

Vikki decided she would plan where we would cycle to after dropping off the van and so it was on the bikes and off 50km to the village of Grisolles. Chuffed with her navigation from the previous day she again decided where we would cycle to for the night. After looking at which village she had picked on the map, I chose to remain silent and let the day unfold. With a strong cross wind and a temperature of 35o for company, this day was not going to be easy! Well we reached Damazan very late in the afternoon and when Vik exclaimed that that had been a long day I had great delight in explaining she had chosen to do a 116km hop. Now with fatigue setting in and the temp still high we could be forgiven for seeing things as we rode into the campground that night. It looked like someone had built a practice net right next to the access road? On taking a second look this was no mirage but a genuine cricket pitch smack bang in the middle of rural France.

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Off again the next day with slightly cooler conditions and after yesterday’s marathon a much closer camp site was chosen for the night. On leaving we bumped into the cricket pitch curator. He was setting up for a limited overs match that afternoon and explained that there was in fact a quite healthy little competition run in the south of France. Well who’d had thought!

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We rode on through the day and as it became later Vikki asked if we were close to the camp yet? I looked at her and said I thought you were looking out for it! She turned to me and said she thought I was looking out for it! Well the site was 10km behind us now and not wanting to back track we pushed on to Langdon and a hotel for the night. That day we had concluded our traversing of France by canal tow path.

The ride to Bordeaux the next day was a welcome relief after having ridden so long on pancake flat pathways. The surrounding hill side was covered in more vine yards and chateaux’s than there were sticks to poke at them.

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A quick stop at the village of Cadillac for the now customary morning coffee and croissants revealed a hidden gem of past times. Most villages in France are based around a central square market place or church and have expanded outward over the years.

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Now you might be thinking that I have been bagging Vik a little in this blog….well here is another “Vik” fact – she is now up to drinking full strength coffee and not only 1 cup but up to 3 cups in a day. Believe it or not Harro and Dagster.

We reach our campground which is only 8k’s out from the centre of Bordeaux and pick our spot around one of the lagoons. We are told that mozzies were not a pest here but toads and ducks. Already experiencing finding a toad amongst our camp gear in Grisolles we made sure all our panniers were securely sealed at all times.

The next day we set off to investigate the city of Bordeaux. Now you can tell when you have been travelling a while when some sights just don’t impress you. Yes there was the old big church. Yes there were the old stone buildings but nothing really impressive or not seen similar before.

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The actual highlight of this stop was feeding the friendly Coypu (water rats)  and ducks at the campground in the afternoon.

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We made the decision to catch a train and then a ferry to the beach city of Royan and cycle from there to Rochefort. It seems that when you least expect to see or experience something spectacular it will occur. We had to cycle a mini version of our Gateway Bridge into Rochefort – that in itself was great. But when reaching the “Centre Ville” of this place – wow! The smaller cities showcase their own character and individuality than the bigger places like Bordeaux. Many of these smaller cities also have municipal campgrounds. These come from the post war years when Charles De Gaul wanted the everyday people to be able to afford a holiday. Our campsite here cost us all of 6.70 € for the night. It had all the facilities you could want and has put many of the four-star places we have stayed in to shame.

The next day we caught another train to La Rochelle and then rode onto Le Sable d’Onnes – some 80kms away. Finally we were cycling some of the west coast line of France. Being summer, these beach areas are buzzing with holiday makers. It looks like each area has its own entertainment precinct which includes cafés, restaurants, fun parlours (for the kids not adults) and of course their very own circus.

Our aim the next day is to ride to Barbatre and the Rue de Gois. For those familiar with this area, or the starting leg of the Tour de France from over the years, you know the uniqueness of this road. This road connects the island of Noirmoutier to the mainland and what makes it really special is that you can only cross it a low tide – at high tide the road is completely under water.

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Low tide the next day is at 7.05am so our plan is to get up really early the next morning and cycle the road out on our way to Nantes. Now picture us trying to quietly pack our gear with the rain just starting to drizzle. Then setting off riding this wet and sandy cobbled and concrete road with jellyfish, crabs and seaweed strewn over it in the drizzling dull daybreak.

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We should have taken this as an omen. For the remainder of the day it rained every time we started riding and stopped every time we pull over for a coffee to warm up and ring-out our socks.

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We reached our destination of Nantes by lunch time and Vik being a sook decided it was time to book into a hotel for the night to dry out.

The weather for the next couple of days was not looking any better so we decided to catch a train to Pontorson – which is 10k’s out from Mont St Michel. The regional train system is very cheap and we are able to take our bikes on for free.

Finally arriving in Mont St Michel, we find our campground. Again we are finding the cheapest are the best. For 24€ for 2 nights we have great facilities and are only 100m from the free shuttle buses that run every 4 minutes out to the island.

We spend the next morning out on the island exploring the Abbey and all its surrounds. Truly spectacular.

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It’s probably a good time to remind readers that we’re still trying to raise funds for Youthcare back home.  After travelling through most reasonable size towns on our trip it becomes quit apparent that there is a very large homeless problem in Europe.  Lets do our part in making sure that the Fraser Coast never has to see that sort of problem.  Please let others you know about Youthcare and help donate to a cause that works wonders for homeless youth.

 

Tomorrow we start riding towards the D-Day beaches of Normandy.

A BIG BRIDGE AND AN EQUALLY BIG RACE

Much to Vikki’s dismay, I managed to talk her into visiting another spectacular piece of engineering. No this wasn’t another grand drain, nor aqueduct but the world’s tallest viaduct.

The photos below probably don’t capture the scale of this structure but judging by Vikki’s facial expressions if it impressed her it has to be pretty big. To give you an idea of just how tall this bridge is, the centre pier stands taller than the Eiffel Tower with the road deck being just below the height of the Eiffel’s observation deck. If the word Eiffel appeared to be repeated it was on purpose as this bridge was built by the Eiffel Company. The reason for the scale of this bridge was to not just cross the Tarn River but to span the entire valley below. Wide valleys like this are common place in this area of France and driving here turns what looks like a short trip into a very long trip – even longer as with Vikki’s navigation skills it took a while to even leave Toulouse.

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After a night spent camped on a stream that fed into the Tarn,

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we set off for the Pyrenees and Stage 12 of the Tour. But before leaving it was off up an adjacent hillside to catch the bridge from another angle. This thing stands out for miles and looms over the town of Millau like a giant, well, looming thing!

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Again what looks like a short trip on the map takes a long time on the road. After some more suspect navigation we made to the foot of the Plateau de Beille by late afternoon. Another magical campsite and more friendly Brits, Colin and John.

More beers at the campground bar watching Stage 10 of the tour and lots of talking about cycling in general – Neale was in heaven.

The next day we cycled into the village of Les Cabannes to grab some groceries. Vikki suggested we come back after watching Stage 11 at the campground to see how preparations for Stage 12 were going as it looked as if a festival was being setup in the village centre.

So after 3 beers watching the race we jump again on our bikes and head off. We arrived to find beer halls now in place and decide that another refreshing ale was in order – well for Vikki a Panache (shandy). This must have gone to her head because she suggested that we should go and explore where we intended to watch the Tour the following day. We climbed our way up through the first lot a switchbacks and after passing our intended viewing spot Vikki suggested we look up the road just a little further.

As I said the shandy must have been spiked with “Extract of Armstrong” because our little ride didn’t stop until we reached the summit. Quite an interesting ride considering it was done with half a biddon of water at the start and four beers under my belt. Since our start was around 5pm, we didn’t make it back to our tent until 9pm. Lucky it is still light until just before 10.

The ride was worth it. A day before the race and already the entire final climb was covered in people camping out in tents and motorhomes. Enterprising shopkeepers were selling basic items and two impromptu restaurants bars with live entertainment sprang up beside the road. Following the tour of here is not only for young sporty types. People of all shapes and sizes, ages and nationality all gather to watch this spectacle. It was such a difference from our earlier experience watching the Tour in Paris.

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Race day came around and it was off to find a good “posie”. We were in position by 10am to play the long waiting game until 4pm.  A few things were tried to entertain ones self.

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As the crowd grew in size you could feel the buzz getting more electric. We had the Basques positioned just below our hair-pin kept the local Gendarme his toes performing road top rowing contests and worm races. It was a constant stream of cyclists and pedestrians all going further up the climb.

Just prior to the pre-race caravan appearing, the roadway up was closed to further spectators. Lucky for us one of the original legends of Australian cycling, Phil Anderson, was pulled over with his tour group to sit and wait for the arrival of the race.

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Half-an-hour out from the first of the cyclists hitting the slope, and the heavens opened up with an afternoon storm. Huey couldn’t have timed it better.

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To cut a long story short, we waited 6 hours to watch all the cyclist go by in less than 15 minutes and then went home to watch the finish on TV.

Time now to head north to Bordeaux – let’s see if Vikki can be tempted into drinking some of the local “fruit juice”.

Bye.

HOW’S YA BACK JACK? – ADVENTURES ON THE MIDI CANAL

For anyone still following this blog we last signed off with me narrowly dodging a bullet/bag in Barcelona. We returned to Beziers with my legs still suffering from the endless walking in Barcelona and decided to catch a bus back to the camp site instead of walking the 6km there. I have to say that we found the cheapest bus fare on the planet. It cost all of 50 cents to travel from the train station back to the campground and find that our bikes and tent were still there, bugger!

The next morning we headed west on the famous Midi Canal to ride the three days toward Toulouse. My expectations were that the tow path on which we would ride would be a perfectly flat, well-groomed trail; how wrong I was!

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For the next two days we encountered some well-maintained gravel road but the majority of this ride was done on rough single track. My back already aching from walking the streets of Barcelona was given a right pounding. Pulling into Carcassonne I looked like an 80 year old (or someone with a pineapple up his #####).

Luckily we had a day off to follow and after some welcome stretching the back was on the mend.

Here we also met Paula and Duncan – two Brits travelling Europe after just having retired (our equivalent of the Christies!). Many tales were told over beer and watching the Tour. Paula and Duncan, if you are reading this post there are other Brits out there driving around in a larger motorhome, so these guys take the medal for as you called “pretentious twats”!

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On our day off, we cycled into the old medieval walled city of Carcassonne. This place has been built, added on to, add on to a bit more, remodelled, fallen into disrepair and finally restored to its appearance in 1200 AD.

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They used to sell and eat lots of interesting things back in the Medieval period. Take for instance this dish being served up in one of the shops?

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Back on the road and after two days of cycling we arrive in “Too Too” Toulouse. One day out from Toulouse and the track gets a whole lot better.

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Toulouse was not exactly the pretty city that we expected, so as quick as we arrived we made arrangements to hire a car and leave for the Millau and the Pyrenees the following day. Behold our luxury ride – almost up to your standard Duncan.  The following shot shows one of the many French refiling stations that were visited along the way.

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See you in Millau!

BAGGED IN BARCELONA

This week’s thrilling instalment sees us travel to the exotic Spanish city of Barcelona.

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We locked the bikes to a fence at the campground in Beziers (wonder if they are there when we get back?) and trained it down south. As has been the norm for much of this trip, train travel comes with a few headaches. After a rather pleasant train ride our attempts to try and leave Barcelona’s main station were thwarted at every turn. After an hour of thinking I was mentally challenged (and many would agree) we managed to find out that the metro to our hotels location does not run through the station. What was required was another train trip from the new main train station to the old one at Barceloneta Beach. Once there and on the metro, getting to any point within the city was child’s play!

 

After checking in to the hotel and taking a quick nap it was time to head to the city’s old Gothic quarter. Before arriving, I had to put Vikki’s mind at ease explaining that there were no “Goths” actually present there and that the term referred only to the precincts architecture. Once there we were greeted by a plethora of cafes, gelati stalls, restaurants and souvenir shops. Fortunately for us it was a Saturday and in the cathedral square the local Catalan cultural society puts on a free display of local dancing, giant puppetry and human tower building. The tower building proved most entertaining as layer upon layer of people scrambled up each other before being topped by small children whose age was about 5 years old.

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After a bit of a sleep in (11am) day two was spent chasing Barcelona’s famous Gaudi landmark buildings. The Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera and Casa Batllo were all explored from the outside (budgetary constraints now prohibit the purchasing of tickets for anything that can be viewed from the outside for free). The observer of Gaudi’s work is left with the distinct feeling that all his designs were done whilst under the influence of hallucinogens, most likely magic mushrooms judging buy some of the recurring shapes.

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That evening we took in a wonderful free light and fountain show at the Font Magica De Montjuic.

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To get there you first have to walk through the area of town where outdoor expos are held. This weekend just happened to coincide with the Harley Davidson exhibition which was held right next to the fountain. The Harley Davidson brand is one that has always puzzled me? My question is, why is something that is so expensive so noisy and do Harley owners have to resort to selling their partners cloths to be able to afford one? All that could be heard was an unrefined burble and all that could be seen were women being only able to wear children’s size white singlets, no bras and jeans so badly tattered and worn that the legs have disintegrated and now end where the zipper starts (no complaints thought).

 

The next day, as before, began with a little sleep in. We went in search of breakfast and from the previous days experience would have to settle for coffee and croissants. Well that’s what was ordered as far as I can recall. What was delivered to the table were the coffees (no brainer) accompanied by two foot long roast pork baguettes with melted cheese and tomato. Yes I know there is a bit of a language difference but for heaven’s sake, the word croissant is fairly universal whatever the dialect! Realizing that after eating our breakfast we would not be able to visit any of the city’s synagogues or mosques, we set our sights on the Gaudi designed Park Guell.

 

This park is set in the foothills of the mountain range that lays to the city’s west. Now most readers of this blog should be aware that at this point, all cycling of terrain classified as a mountain, col or Alpe has been removed from this trips itinerary. However, because busting your arse climbing stair case after stair case in the hot Spanish sun is classified as “sightseeing”, then that’s perfectly OK according to some unnamed parties on this trip.

 

Again an admission fee was charged for a close up of the parks buildings and again a wonderful free view was available outside.

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Our afternoon concluded with a visit to the beach near our hotel. This just happened to be where Vikki’s brother Daryl, wife Kirsty and daughter Zara lived for two years. Walking the streets was a delight and Barcelona’s town planners must be commended for making the city so liveable with wide pedestrian footpaths, numerous parks, bike friendly streets and a cleaning programme that virtually has eliminated all traces of litter. I will use the term “virtually” and add to it the term IRONIC in capital letters. It was whilst sitting at the beach atop a seawall that the best laugh Vikki has had in years occurred.

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Picture this, yours truly admiring the view and just finishing the sentence “Gee they really do a fantastic job of keeping this city and beach clean” when a muffled “Look out” could be heard from Vikki. Not a “duck”, as would have been appropriate, but a muffled “Look out”. Well just then a freak gust of wind lifted the only piece of litter to be found in all of Barcelona (a white plastic shopping bag) twenty foot up from the beach below and slammed it square in my face. Struggling for breath and for what seemed to be an eternity, I eventually managed to extricate myself from the bags deadly embrace without my wife’s assistance. Below is a dramatic recreation of this horrific event.

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If in the future I show signs of brain damage then let it be known that my wife was too busy laughing at the time to render assistance and the whole terrifying event was probably a well-orchestrated plan by her to claim on my death and disability insurance.

 

If I should survive to see another day then I hope to write next of bicycle travels from along the Midi Canal.

THE DEEP SOUTH – AVIGNON & THE CAMARGUE

From Grenoble we’ve now travelled south to the city of Avignon and the monster swamp, the Camargue.

 

Avignon the city, has been around since Roman times and was also favoured by four popes with the Roman Catholic Church being run from here during their time in office. As such the old city is walled with the battlements still in place today.

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It lays on the banks of the Rhone River and is famous for its bridges or ponts as they like to call them here. The most famous one in town is called le Pont d’Avignon–Saint Bénezet. According to legend, the bridge was built in the 12th century by a young shepherd. The bridge originally spanned approximately 900 meters and had 22 arches. It was dismantled in 1226, then rebuilt. It was later washed away several times by flood waters and rebuilt until it was abandoned in the 17th century. I suppose the lesson to be learned here is don’t let a bloody sheep herder build a bridge if you want the bastard to stand up!

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Our first day in Avignon was spent mizzling through the old city looking at buildings, listening to hand pan players, having coffee at cafes in hidden back streets, looking at churches, you know just generally being tourists.

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What came as quite a surprise was to find that our friend Darryl Gaedtke opened a micro brewery on his last visit to Europe. He now shamelessly markets his amber fluid in cans bearing his nickname.

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We decided to jump on our bikes the following day and head out of town to see how a real bridge is built, behold the Pont du Gard!

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This thing is 2000 years old, was the tallest aqueduct ever built and was part of a 25km long water supply line that fed the city of Nimes with 30,000m3 of water per day. If you want something built to last have the Romans build it!

 

From Avignon we now head south via the quaint little town of Saint Remy de Provence. Vincent van Gogh spent some time here seeking respite from the mental illness that plagued him for much of his life. Many of his works including The Starry Night were painted here with the town’s church and hills to the south being prominent in a few.

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It was said that tinnitus caused Vincent to chop off his ear seeking relief from the constant ringing. I put forward the theory that it was not tinnitus but in fact these which caused him such annoyance:

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Yes cicadas can be found in their millions if not billions here in summer and apart from their constant annoying noise the mongrels really hurt when they hit you in the face whilst riding.

 

The Camargue is a series of wetland, salt pan and channel areas that stretches from Marseilles in the north, to roughly Perpignan in the south. It covers a distance of over 300km of France’s Mediterranean coastline.

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It’s famous for its bird life, most notably the flamingos, its white horses, swamp creatures (I’ll let the readers guess which one best fits that description below) and feisty black bulls used in bull fighting.

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Another famous feature that is not openly advertised is its abundance of mosquitoes! Yes these little fellows just love it here gorging themselves on tourists, all of whom look as if they are carriers of the chicken pox virus. I believe anyone who owns land in River Heads should be looking to marketing it over here as the locals should find it quite an attractive alternative.

 

Off to Barcelona next so until next time, goodnight.

THE DONKEY DIED BUT IT GOT BETTER – GRENOBLE AND THE VERCORS

Since our last post we have had a change of plan – anything with the word Mount, Mont or Alpes has been eliminated from our itinerary. As stated previously, all these have now been shelved for Neale’s “Bro-mance” holiday sometime in the future.

As we roll into the city of Grenoble (nothing to do with hills), we have a clearer picture of where our adventure is now going to take us.

We stay at a lovely one-star hotel, which has a notice from the local police in the foyer that all international visitors must have their passports copied and filed by management – what have we got ourselves into here?

The following day we set off to take in Grenoble from above by way of the Bastille (recommended by Ben Woodman). A quick cable car ride to the top reveals spectacular views of the city and the surrounds.

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It also harbours an amazing adventure playground for both kids and adults. Obviously no litigation issues here.

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Our second day in Grenoble see us hire a van to transport our bikes to the edge of the Vercor. This locality is a must for anyone considering cycling France.

Our first 22kms saw us cycle through the spectacular Gorge de la Bourne. This narrow road winds through and along the side of limestone cliffs all awhile following the cascading freshwater downstream.

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We stop for lunch at Pont en Royans where some of the houses have been built onto the cliff overlooking the stream below.

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We now start the climb up to the Petite and Grands Goulets only to find that the road has been closed for maintenance. Not letting any road closure signs or big wire fencing deter us, we scramble around to continue our ride. We are stopped shortly by one of the workman who comes running down the hill like the grumpy Troll in the kids’ story “The Billy Goats Gruff” ranting and raving about us being where we shouldn’t. After getting it out of his system, he opens the gate and lets us through wishing us a good holiday (these French can be very confusing at times).

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We reach the Grands Goulets which has now been permanently closed due to stability issues, so we are forced to cycle 1.7kms through the new tunnel. Thinking we were by ourselves, we stop to pose for an idiot shot in the middle of the two lanes. So what do we hear coming our way after taking this selfie – you got it traffic. We scrambled to the gutter like startled cockroaches when the lights are turned on.

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The rest of the ride takes us through some scenic country side with lots of fat cows and donkeys.

Safely back in Grenoble, we pack to get ready for our first train trip in France – off to Avignon we go.

Night.

THE DAY THE DONKEY DIED (sung to the tune of American Pie)

Leaving Como, we decided to bypass Milan and head straight for our crossing of the Alps into France.

The climb of Mont Cenis sees us cross the border of Italy and France and was the same route used by Hannibal to invade Rome millennia ago.

This 28km climb (gradient of 7%) was challenging yet Neale was able to take many happy-snaps of the beautiful Alpine scenery. Thank God he did because all I saw was the bitumen and climbs ahead of me.

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Spot the marmot.

Spot the marmot.

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Once at the top, the road takes us around the edge of Lac Cenis before descending into the villages below at the upper reaches of the Arc River.

We make our way down stream heading towards the town of Modanne. Along the way the narrow river gorge is dotted with the remnants of French fortifications perched on the side of cliffs.

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Feeling a little tired we set off the following day for the climb of the Col du Telegraphe, to our next destination the ski resort of Valloire.

Only a 12km climb but again very challenging being fully packed.

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That evening the donkey died! I am sorry to say that I have finally had to admit to myself that doing these climbs were not enjoyable – in fact they were killing me. So a change in our planning was required – and yes I broke Neale’s heart in the process. Thank goodness I had already been given my beautiful silver donkey for our anniversary and it had been safely posted back to Australia with Harro’s Stelvio kit.

Neale took advantage of our rest day in Valloire and took the last climb of our trip up the Col du Gailibier.

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Again the appropriate attire was not taken on this climb to 2607m. What is a lovely sunny 170 day back at the tent was a gale-force 3o up top, the three layers taken weren’t quite enough. The tips of fingers that protruded from his gloves looked and felt like frozen wieners and his face wind burnt despite wearing a bandana.

After climbing back over the Telegraphe (at least I can say that I have done that!) we are making our way toward Grenoble. Our plans have been modified and places like Alp du Huez, the Vecor and Mont Vontoux have now been removed from our itinerary. Our son suggested to his Dad that we should now focus our holiday on being a romantic time together and leave the other to a boy’s only trip which he referred to as a “bro-mance” holiday (oh and of course Barb that includes you too).

Night all!