Friday, 18 November 2011

Last few days

Topanga State Park
Our last trip into Topanga Canyon on the bikes for this year at least. Another lovely sunny day. The kids say you get bored of the weather being much the same, eventually! Lizzys made us a superb picnic of the previous night's meatloaf, grapes and nuts. We'd started to think about having to leave all the family behind very soon, and Ian wanted to see if we could smuggle Lily back home in the suitcase! Check out the photo!
A meal out with a group of their friends, including Lexie and John, and then our last night on Lily's bedroom! She's been sleeping with Mum and Dad, so I wouldn't blame them, if they were glad to see the back of us for a while!
The following morning we gave Lizzy a break and took little pickle for a spin around Balboa Park again. We're looking forward to taking her when she's a bit older, to the adventure playgrounds there. They're superb. Got some great video footage of Lily smiling and laughing at some of the moving objects on a mural.
Plenty of room!
She's not far off walking. She took two steps from mummy to the green dinosaur walker, which we bought her. She'll have changed so much when we visit next time, but at least we can keep up to date on Skype, and we're hoping that they'll be coming over to the UK in the first half of next year.
Burrito Babe

Frazier Park

Parker Mesa Lookout Santa Monica Hills
Ian wanted to check out the budget hotels called Super8, and we coincided it with a walk in Topanga Canyon Park. We'd had a downpour during the night, but today was looking promising. After a good walk, we drove to the Super8, but mmm, not sure we'd go back there. Not in a good location, and the worst thing is the rooms all look out over what proved to be a busy hotel car park, with residents coming and going until 4am! So had a really rubbish nights sleep, but at least we'd checked it out.
The following day was Lizzy's birthday. It was bright and clear, the best day. Blue sky and bright sunshine. We collected the family, Andrew having taken the day off, and set off for Frazier Park, about 80miles north of Andrew and Lizzys. They'd camped up there with John and Lexie some time ago, before Lily was born, and had been excited by being so far out in the wilderness. Only an hour and a half away and like a different world. 8500ft up, pine forests and trails in the Los Padres wilderness park. There were a few small hamlets and ranches but very quiet. With the few cold and wet days we'd had, came the added bonus of area near the summit of Mt Pinos being thick with snow. Whilst Lily slept soundly in the car, her parents and grandparents played in the snow and had fun! We'll have to come back another time when she's a bit older, so she can join in too!
A right pair of muppets!

Mt Pinos Frazier Park

Hollywood in 10 mins

Santa Barbara
Back to Andrew and Lizzys for a few days now, after a great few days further North. Reflecting on the journey back, we both agreed we'd go back to Santa Barbara again, because it's so close to the kids, and we'd really enjoyed our time there.
Lizzy had prepared a lovely cannelloni meal for us, and once Lily had gone to bed, we caught up on "Downton Abbey" and the next installment of "Homeland".
The following day, we caught the Metro bus and then underground to Hollywood. The kids had warned us that there wasn't much to see, but we wanted to see how quick it was to get into the city. And it was. A speedy efficient 45min trip for 5 dollars each. But not as speedy as our brief visit to Hollywood Boulevard, Walk of Fame, where we paused briefly to glance at some of the hundred or so stars on the pavement, with celebrities names. There were people having their photos taken pointing to their favourite "star", re-enacting poses with a pirate with a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp, and lots of souvenir shops! We'd expected this but didn't expect to see how down-market and scruffy the area was! We high-tailed outta there and got back to the flat in time to give the kids a break, and take Lily out for a stroll. Lizzy made us another great meal of my favourite "pulled pork", and we spent the night relaxing with the kids and playing with Lily. She's such a sweetheart, and she's not as wary of us now, even crying when we leave the room, so we're making the bond with her that I'd hoped for.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Onto Santa Barbara

Balboa Park with the ducks
We spent the next four days with the family, taking Lily for a spin around Balboa Park to stare at the ducks, the passers by, the trees etc! She does a lot of staring and "weighing things up"! We love it when she follows you to the loo/bedroom/kitchen, crawling all the way, and then peeping around the doorway, to see what you're up to. She's not walking yet, but has taken a few cautious steps, and she stands momentarily, when she's got her hands full, and is quite firm, so it looks like it won't be long before she's off!
We went to a Trader Joes, a bit like Chatsworth farm shop full of grumpy Americans, possibly because it was raining and chilly. In fact it bucket ted it down that weekend! On the way back, Lizzy was just warning us that they can't drive in the rain over here, possibly because it doesn't happen very often, and they're rubbish at stopping distances, drive too fast, don't indicate etc! Just as she'd finished this warning, the car behind us rammed into the back of us, with such a force that it left her licence plate fixed into the bumper of our rental car!
We packed again and set off north, to Santa Barbara. We spent our first two nights away in the Holiday Inn Express in Downtown, just off State St, and within a short walk of the sea-front. We arrived in time to walk to the end of Stearns Wharf and have, what turned out to be, the best seafood in town. We were both bowled over by this "crab shack". Superb fresh shellfish cooked right in front of us, whilst we sat having a beer and watching the skilled chefs at work. It was a bit chilly, but sunny, so the heat of the cookers made us feel cosy and warm. We loved it so much, we went back the following day, having watched what others were ordering and asking questions about the menu. Ian tried abalone, local delicacy, which he said tasted sweet and crab-like, and he said that the sauce was amazing. I had something called "cioppino", which seemed to be a favourite- a large bread roll, hollowed out and filled with clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp, cooked in a marinara sauce, topped with what seemed like half a crab, which I adventurously broke and poked which the various instruments I was given, but in the end came to the conclusion that it wasn't really worth the effort! But the rest of it was fantastic!
Santa Barbara
The whole eating experience in Santa Barbara was superb, with a sample dish at the Palace Grill, which did Martinis flavoured with marinating bell peppers, and the best mini-muffins, flavoured with rosemary, others with black molasses etc. I bought a recipe book from them to try out at home. Their blackened catfish was fantastic, and we both said we'd go again. Having spent a lot that day we said we'd do much cheaper the day after, and went to The Brewhouse, for beers and quesadillas, and for Ian, lamb burger and fries. Again great inexpensive food, sitting in a bar, surrounded by locals watching a soccer match. Great atmosphere, and would go again.
The main street, State St, is full of attractive shops, chafes, and bars on either side. Nice for browsing, but it seemed expensive and classy. The best experience on offer was an early morning trip to their famous court-house, which at 85ft high is one of the tallest buildings in the area, giving you amazing views over the city, out to the Pacific and the Channel Islands, the nearest and largest being Santa Cruz, and views up to the Santa Barbara hills. Absolutely beautiful. Hard to believe you are only less than two hours away from the concrete blocks of Northridge. The courthouse is surrounded by beautiful, lush gardens, set out in Spanish-Moorish style, as is the influence on the construction of the building itself. After the great earthquake of 1925, it was built over a steel frame, with concrete beams inside, painted and decorated as if wooden. The walls are hollow. The ceilings are stunningly painted in Moorish style, with massive wrought-iron chandeliers. Tiles from Tunisia and Spain add to the colour. A very helpful receptionist encouraged us to explore the second floor, where there are magnificent murals all around the court-room, depicting the history of the city, from the native Chumash tribes, to the Spanish, to becoming a Californian city. It is still an active courthouse, with business on-going, so you have to be mindful of this when exploring, but you are encouraged to wander. Michael Jackson appeared here, when he was accused of being over-fond of children!
Unusual Postbox?Where's the flap?
We cycled along the coast bike path, around to the marina, and it was lovely to see a coastal route without the usual shops, just natural beauty. Ian went for a cycle on the mountain road into the hills, with fabulous villas perched on the hillside overlooking the sea. After a walk in Rattlesnake Canyon, following a stream, we drove along the mountain road in search of a curious mailbox- a cyclist with a post box in his pants!
Then we were off on the drive up to Solvang, along the Camino Real historic road, which hugs the coast and then veers towards the Santa Ynez mountains, and the wine-growing areas of Santa Ynez, Santa Maria and Santa Rita. Solvang is a kitschy, faux-Danish, theme-parky kind of town, but to be fair to it, it is a relaxing, pretty, tree-lined town, only two hours away from the hub-bub and noise of Los Angeles. A completely different place with a feel of Europe, where you can buy Danish pastries and Danish products. It was founded in 1911 by Danish settlers, complete with windmills! Great wines include Pinot Noir and Syrah varietals. We went for a great meal of Tomatillo soup and Steak. We stayed at a comfortable hotel, the Wine Valley Inn. The weather was cold but sunny, almost down to freezing, the first night. Ian went on a 50mile cycle ride into Ballard Canyon and Foxen Canyon wine growing areas, and I visited a recommended patchwork fabric shop in Buellton. An indifferent pizza meal, and then back to the hotel for a glass of wine with a couple from Los Angeles, who worked in a prison! Interesting talking to them about state health care and abuses of the system! In bed for 9pm, having been up early again!
Santa Maria Valley

Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley
The following morning was fine but chilly at about 8deg! We cycled along the vineyard route on the Santa Rosa road, past farms and several vineyards, for about 18 miles in total. The scenery was bleached and dry, and the sky was grey, so we didn't see what is described in the guide as the most stunning route in the area, at its best. Better to come back on a sunny Spring day and repeat it. There's an attractive RV park nearby, and the patchwork shop's really close, so we'll be returning!
Just one thing- we're both finding cycling on borrowed mountain bikes really difficult. They're great for dirt roads and rough terrain, but heavy-duty burdens on roads! Can't wait to get back on our road bikes!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Reunion with family

Feeding Time
After what seemed like a long and unfortunately delayed flight, we finally arrived back in LA. Immediately Ian was driving around like he lived here, and when we got to their larger two-bedroomed apartment, we were met by Lizzy and Andrew and a bemused little Lily. She didn't cry, as we feared, but spent a long time weighing us up, with a serious little expression! She continued to do this in the days to come, but gradually got used to us, laughing and smiling, especially when we imitated her blowing raspberries, or "singing".

Never too young to start!
The next few days we spent getting to know our granddaughter, and spending time with Lizzy, whilst Andrew was at work. We had a cycle in the Santa Monica Hills, and jogged around Balboa Park, went up to Babies R Us, and bought a Xmas present for Lily- a walk-behind dinosaur, that later converts to a trike. With flashing lights and songs when she pushes buttons, this proved to be a hit. Earlier Lizzy had bought a terrific wooden toy, with a myriad of push, pull, twist, bang, bits that Lily found fascinating, so she had plenty of things to explore with little fingers and big movements!

P***ed already!
She is adorable, but I've forgotten how tiring babies are, and so four days later we were ready to relax for a few days in Palm Springs, our favourite place in the desert. We love it there. The light, the sunshine, the stark landscape and the great food. First night, starving, we went to La Cazuela for brilliant Mexican food. Great Chinese food at Mings, and tried a new place for us- Tootsies. Have to say here that the pulled pork Texas Tacos were amazing, so much so we went for lunch the following day. Superb!
Isn't she sweet?
Cactus Trail Santa Rosa Mts
Not bad for a budget hotel.
We're staying in an inexpensive Holiday Inn Express in Cathedral City, which is a great place to stay, with great breakfasts and very friendly staff. We did a couple of four to five hour walks, from the tramway station to the summit of Mt Jacinto, and an even more interesting walk into the wilderness of the Santa Rosa mountains. The latter was fascinating for flora, cacti, prickly pear, beavers tail, chollas, ocotillo, to name but a fraction, and fabulous yuccas with towering flower spikes. Up and down through gullies and washes, to spots with amazing names like Horsethief Creek, where there are the remains of a manzanilla wood chaparral, where the cowboys used to corral the horses, and then on to Cactus Spring. A very tiring but interesting walk, which we've made a note to do in the Spring when the cacti will be in flower. Walking up the wash, you half expect to come across a cowboy on horseback, or a Cahuilla Indian, who were the original people of this area. It might look like a desolate desert but it's teeming with plant life, and near the creeks, with still had running water in them at the end of Summer, you can see brightly coloured blue winged birds.
Spitting image of who?

We're off to Wangs in the Desert tonight, which does beautiful Chinese food in beautiful surroundings, and then back to the family tomorrow. We stay with them for three nights and then off to Santa Barbara for four nights. Looking forward to squeezing Lily again.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Last day in Switzerland

Final day in Switzerland. Had a great meal out last night of weidstubli rosti, and well fed for walk today to Schwarzhorn. Avoided another night of expensive camp site fees by parking for a fraction in Grindelwald. Then took the gondola up to First, the best cable car journey in the area. You don't have to share with other people, and it's lovely and quiet for the whole of the 30min journey. Fantastic. The steep climb up to Schwarzhorn, and scramble near the top was a bit difficult, but rewarded by the stunning views all the way down, of the sharp outline of the Eiger, the Wetterhorn, Geschpaltenhorn and a whole other chain of snowy mountains and glaciers. A very hot day, about 24deg.
It seems the weather is going to change dramatically, dropping from an average of 20deg to an unbelievable 9deg and rain on Sunday. Unbelievable. I'd kept saying to Ian that the weather was much warmer than I remembered. Anyway we're off north later today.
Back to the van and off to Kaysersberg, in the Alsace region. A slow journey down the road was dictated by herds of cows being processed through the streets, with their horns and heads beautifully decorated with flowers and ribbons! Only in Switzerland!
Pretty cows in Wilderswil
We overnighted on an extremely busy Aire at Kaysersberg, complete with a dozen vans on a "stork rally" , setting up camp in numbers! An extremely gentilhomme moved his van so that we could squeeze in behind him, and a lovely young German family came over to say we could squeeze in in front of him! I don't think that would have happened if we'd have been a bigger van!
After a busy night and morning of comings and goings, during which it seemed we left our second doormat behind, I had a lovely stroll around this breath-takingly beautiful medieval town, with its painted, timber-framed houses decorated with red geraniums, with its storks perched high on the church steeple. I love this place.
A long journey north to a little village on the famous Somme, and we camped for the night at Seraucourt Le Grand, near to a cemetery for the war dead.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Sore bum / sore feet

Sore bum/sore feet - tough choice!

Jungfrau from Winteregg
Decided to give our feet a rest and get back on the bikes. Ian opted for a tough route, which we'd done before, up Grosse Scheidegg, and then on to Meiringen, before the tour of Lake Brienz. I opted for missing out the gruelling first part, and cycled downhill all the wY to Wilderswil, across the railroad, and then anti-clockwise around the lake, which we've done before. It's a brilliant fast road all the way back to Interlaken, with stunning views of the cool, green lake and mountains. A final cycle back up to Lauterbrunnen, and 40miles exactly. Really hot today, about 23deg, but heavy downpour this evening, and thunderstorms.
The following day was bright and misty, as we set off along the valley floor up to Stechelberg. Mist swirling around the huge mountain tops gave way to blue sky and warm sunshine. We climbed up to Gimmelwald, through forests and crossing waterfalls, and then on to Murren, and the lovely balcony path, which skirts around to Grutschalp, with the best views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. We caught the cable car back down to Lauterbrunnen. Great day!
Only way to walk!

Jungfrau Marathon

Jungfrau Marathon

Finish at Kleine Scheidegg
Arrived here the evening before the 19th Jungfrau Marathon, so it was a good job we'd booked as the site at Lauterbrunnen was filling up. A beautiful, sunny day, and a shame that we'd spent most of it travelling. Both of us still missing Provence, and talking about the things still left to do at Bourg d'Oisans, another trip up Alpe dHuez, the balcony route around to the Col de Sarenne, cycle to Oulles, which was the last village to get electricity in the 60s.
With customary Swiss efficiency we were in situ within minutes of arrival and planning tomorrow's walk. Our plans have been slightly affected by the poor exchange rate and, consequently high cost of, well just about everything. Good job we still had quite a few frozen meals I'd made earlier at home!
The following day we set off early and caught the 9am train to Wengen. From there, we walked up to Kleine Scheidegg, taking about 2hours, and after a hearty rosti lunch, we were up towards Eigergletscher, in time to see the first marathon finisher, running to the finish in just over 3 hours. 26miles from Interlaken, road running gradually uphill to Lauterbrunnen, then on steeply upwards to Wengen and following the track we'd just taken on to Kleine Scheidegg. An amazing feat in 3hours. As we walked down the same route as the runners, we passed them in varying states of distress, clumped around a pacemaker with a 5 hour sign, and then later another carrying a 6hour sign! All ages and nationalities. So we smiled sympathetically and uttered words of encouragement, and were so glad not to be accompanying them! Train back to Lauterbrunnen and that was enough for the first day. Not used to walking now and have got sensitive, soft feet! Never mind, will toughen them up by the end of the week. Planning a cycle ride around Lake Brienz tomorrow. Good practice for the New Forest Sportive at the end of this month.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Deja Vu / Alpe dHuez

Deja Vu/ Alpe d'Huez

Arty photo for Andrew
Chilly start up to Alpe d'Huez, and we'd both forgotten how hard the first few kilometres are, when you wonder what on earth you're doing this for. Then, as it starts to get a little easier on the hairpins and going through the little villages, with views over the mountains, now bereft of snow, you realise why you keep doing this!
Ian reached the top in an amazing 1hr 04mins, getting closer to that magic under the hour, just keeping ahead of a Dutch cohort, and I was very pleased with 1hr 38mins, 15mins faster than last time. So chuffed that now my aspirations have changed from aiming to reach the top without stopping, to improving on my last time.
A bit cloudy today but still warm. With some energy in reserve, we decided to return via the mountain top village of Villard-Reculas, along a narrow road which hugs the mountain side. Then a long descent into the outskirts of Allemont, and the fast cycle back, averaging 17mph, all the way to Bourg d'Oisans. 27 miles in total and 3600ft of ascent.
Kate should be coming to the end of her first year exams now, and she'll no doubt when it's all over, and she can get her life back! We hope they've gone well.

Gorges de Nesque and Mt Ventoux again!

Climbing the Gorge de Nesque
Forecast for further north, Grenoble and Switzerland, was rain and unsettled for the next few days. Here heavy downpours today and then sunny thereafter. Glad we decided to come this far south. After lolling about all day, as the rain poured down, the evening was dry and allowed us to Skype the family in LA, just recently increased by two, with Laura and Emma just having arrived. Laura had changed her first nappy when we caught up with them, but not managed to pin Lily down long enough to put another on, so caught glimpses of her chubby bottom as she wriggles in Laura's arms, and stood up for her dad. It's just great to feel so close to them, but I keep wanting to squeeze her through the computer screen! Among other presents, like a Burnley kit, Laura had bought her a special, little Miffy (Laura's favourite when she was little and big), but Lily does n't know what to make of it yet. She crawls right up to the screen and presses her nose on it!

The following day was as promised-lovely and sunny, but cool. We cycled off to the Gorge de la Nesque. The Nesque being the river, and the gorge cuts through for about 10 miles or so. This has to be one of the best cycles we've ever done. The high level road enters the gorge and contours around climbing at a gentle gradient, with great road surface, extremely quiet at this time of year, with stunning views deep down into the gorge, and the road ahead weaving around every pine-clad, hilly bend. Absolutely breath-taking! On leaving the gorge, we aimed for the hill-top village of Sault, famous for its hundreds of acres of lavender fields. Unfortunately at this time of year, they'd all been harvested, so no beautiful, purple fields, but the fragrance of lavender in the air. Ham sandwich and juice in Sault, where we could have had lavender cordial, lavender honey and lavender tea, and then we were on the return leg. Unless we returned the way we came, the most logical, if not sensible way back was over le Mont Ventoux, for the second time in three days. But Ian told me that the way up Sault was known for being the easiest of the three celebrated ascents, from Bedouin, Malaucene, and Sault. The climb up from Sault is quite easy, with gradients of 3% and 4%, and you emerge at the Chalet Reynard, with 4 miles left to the top of Ventoux, which you don't have to do, if you don't want. But I'd have been mad to miss it, on this sunny, clear day, with views for miles around. After a brief stop on the way down at the memorial to Tom Simpson, which I'd passed the last time, it was quick hot coffee at the Chalet, to warm up, before the speedy, and easy descent into Bedouin and home. Ian had been back a while, not having stopped for photos and savouring the moment! Just less than 60miles and 6000ft ascent, but more importantly one of the best day's cycling I think I've ever had!

I took the following morning as a rest day, in preparation for Alpert d'Huez, and Ian went off on his own to explore another interesting geological site, les Dentelles of Montmirail, limestone pinnacles not far from Malaucene, about 10miles from here. Then we're away and working our way back, via Bourg d'Oisan, one of our favourite stop-overs, and MOT areas! We'll definitely be back in this area again, as long as we avoid the fiercely hot months of July and August. It's still warm enough to cycle in short sleeves in September, which is a real bonus, after the cool August we've just had!

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Le Mont Ventoux

Its steep near the summit!
The weather had scuppered the plans again! Rain forecast for the foreseeable future in the Lauterbrunnen area of Switzerland, so we changed our minds about going there first, and decided to head further south than originally planned- a lot further south! The weather in Provence was unsettled for a few days and then sunny. So Provence it would be. There was lots to explore, and I'd bought a French magazine about the Vaucluse, Vercors and Ardeche areas, giving loads of walks and places to see, and we'd passed Mont Ventoux a number of times and promised ourselves we'd give it an airing. After all the cycling we'd done this summer, now seemed as good a time as any!
After an overnight at Beaune just off the motorway, north of Lyons, in the Burgundy region, we made Bedouin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, late afternoon, and even had time to stretch our legs on a brief cycle along the first section of the route up the mountain. On the way, we met Roland Hurtecant, who said he too was climbing the mountain tomorrow. He was 72, and it would be the 156th ascent on the bike. He was one of the pioneers, who encouraged a return to the love of cycling up this mountain, after a lull of six years following the death of Tom Simpson, during the Tour de France, when people shied away from attempting the climb. In recognition of his enthusiastic efforts to revive interest, he explained that there is a monument to all those ordinary humans who cycle the mountain, and he and several others names are listed on the monument. It seems he is also known as Monsieur Mont Ventoux! An extremely nice Belgian man! We said our farewells and hoped to see him tomorrow.
Back to the van for a pasta fill, but a rubbish night's sleep, with French disco music blaring from the site snack bar until 1am, to be followed by the local mutts barking loudly and setting each other off!

Le Mont Ventoux
With thunderstorms and heavy rain forecast from about 2pm, an early start was required! By 8.30am I was on the bike and cycling up through vineyards and villages steadily climbing up through the pine forests which cover the bottom three quarters of the mountain. It's a lovely route with the smells of pines and warm tarmac! Our Dutch neighbours had warned us that there would be 500 or so of his nation joining us today from about 10am onwards, but with any luck we'd be up and down the other side, before the throng arrived. However there was also a walking event up the mountain, expecting to arrive at the summit at about the same time as the cyclists, and as I made my way up the first few miles, I passed big groups of walkers all dressed in the same cycling gear, which seemed a bit curious as they were walking. They were so friendly, cheering us all on! By now, Ian had passed me and was striking off with a good pace. I'd "picked up" a friendly French guy, who was going at the same speed as me, and I benefitted form all the support he was getting from his family members, who were following him up by car. After a pleasant start, the gradient builds up to 9% for a relentless 10k, and then there is a pit stop at Chalet Reynard, for those of a nervous disposition! My French companion was disappointed when I dropped off for a coke and a stretch at this point, cos he'd expected me to stay on his wheel to the top. It was tempting, but I thought I needed a break and had arranged to meet Ian at the Chalet. He'd been to the summit and come back down for me! I was glad of the break. Although the next few kilometres after the chalet aren't too steep, the last two are stinkers, but I was pleased with how I climbed, even managing to overtake a few in the final stages, partly thanks to an energy tablet handed to me by a lovely Dutch support member! The French guy in front of me was "too cool" to accept, but I was grateful!
The weather had been perfect so far, warm, cloudy, and still, with even a helpful wind near the top. Then the bad weather was on it's way, with cold mist swirling around the lunar landscape and weather station, emblematic of this mountain. Right near the top, a steep section right into a stiff wind, but then that was it- the summit, and it was brilliant. Just one stop at Chalet Reynard all the way up the 23k climb, and I'd felt great, finally starting to see what this cycling thing is all about! Ian ascended in an excellent 1hour47mins, with me nearly one hour later! Next time, no stopping at the Chalet! But that's for next year, Then a chilly cycle down to Malaucene on the far side of Ventoux, and a delightful climb through vineyards, peach orchards and almond groves, to the top of Col de Madeleine, and then all the way down to Bedouin. An absolutely stunning journey off, ending with a pizza and a couple of beers in a bar in the village. 36 miles, 6000ft ish ascent, 4hrs 25mins in the saddle, and a stiff back! But well worth it!
By mid afternoon, the weather had deteriorated to a full-blown thunderstorm and heavy rain, so time for a rest!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

St Point and Burgundy

Chateau Bertzel
Heading north, we made for the camp-site by the Lac near Saint Point, just inside Burgundy.  We’d been there a couple of years before, and it’s a good stopping off point on the long journey home.  We spent a couple of days exploring the hills around the little town of Tramayes, long, gradual hills rather than the steep climbs we’ve been doing.

Today we set off up the biggest hill around, La Mere Boitier, at 760m.  A good climb and then downhill most of the way to Macon, past vineyards of Saint Veran, Beaujolais, Pouilly Fuisse and Macon-Pierreclos.  Vineyards everywhere.  Macon is a busy commercial town, but we didn’t explore, just had something to eat and then off on the Voie Vert/Green Route most of the way back to Saint Point.  The voie vert are great cycle paths much like our railway trails, but better surfaced, and there’s a network of them all over France- really taking off- must find out more!

Tomorrow we set off north and will decide on the next stopover depending on weather

As it turned out-

Weather poor.  Ian desperately in need of wifi, tv for Tour de France, English voices, no more flies, his own bed etc etc  So once we were on the road north, we went for it and ended up 4 miles away from Calais, and an earlier ferry- but then it has been 4 weeks since we left those fair shores.  Ah well, at least we can contact loved ones, and see little faces over Skype!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Back in Beaufort

Mont Blanc in background at Tetes des Fours

After a few hours’ drive, we were back in Beaufort at my favourite site, Camping des Sources- beautiful, tranquil setting, with waterfall tumbling the cliffs behind, beautiful, loved gardens and facilities. The site was quieter than we’ve ever known it, but that seems to be the case wherever we’ve been.   The couple remembered that we’d been a couple of times before.  3 or 4 nights here to explore the cycling and walking, order the local beaufortain bread (with lardons and nuts), trying and get wifi to finally post some blogs, and enjoy some peace and quiet, after the busy Bourg d’Oisan.  One of the worst thing about staying at the hotel, was the terrible night’s sleep we had- local drunks shouting until the wee small hours, then the cleaning lorry street cleaning, then the road repairing lorries coming through!!

The next few days we spent cycling up the tranquil and stunningly beautiful Cormet de Roselend(1.46), up the Col de Pre, a steep climb out of Beaufort, the Col de Saisies(1.42), with its surprisingly clear view of Mont Blanc, as we cycled around the hairpins..  The cycle up the Col de Joly would have to wait for another year.

We did a cracking walk up past the Refuge de la Croix de Bonhomme and on to Tete de Fours, with its orientation table, but we didn’t need it to find Mont Blanc, white and clear in the distance.  From the Tete, it looked so close, still covered in snow.  It was an amazing day, with totally clear blue sky, and no wind, but very chilly towards the top at 2800m  Being a Sunday, and an impeccable day, there were lots of people trying to get a closer look of the mountains, all 360deg of them, right over to the border with Italy and the pretty Mont Pourri.  Five and a half hours later we were back at the van, then off to the edge of the Lac du Roselend, which is really a reservoir, for a wild camping night.  Lovely spot to watch the sun go down on a grand day out.  Chilly night, but 3000’ up!

Sad to be leaving this area, and will miss the peace and quiet, the cool, crisp air, the smell of all the hundreds of wild and alpine flowers, the sound of the tinkling of the cow bells, the beautiful brown faces of the cows (but wow they make expensive cheese averaging about 13euros for a chunk of cheese!)

My Marmotte!

After spending the afternoon and night up at Col de Lauteret, with magnificent mountain top views, we drove over Col de Galibier and off down the valley into Valloire.  I was trying to commit the gradients to memory, as we’d be cycling the exact same route back up Galibier tomorrow.

Last night at Lauteret was a bit fraught, with hundreds of flies besieging the van.  There are flocks of sheep (and angry shepherdesses, sick of campervanners distracting her pyrennean mountain dogs (pastou) from doing their jobs), and the whole area is very fertile and pastoral, and fly-ridden.  We had a great walk over to gaze up at the “Meige” mountain, and promised ourselves to come back and do a longer walk next time, down into a lovely valley. There were thousands of different wild flowers, and a large yellow one, called Gentiane, from which a local sweet liqueur is made.

Just before the hard bit!
We based the van at a camp-site in Valloire and set off up Galibier at about 9.30am.  It was already steaming hot and set to be the hottest day of the summer so far, at about 36deg.  The climb up to Galibier was a hard 10miles to 2600m, but wasn’t as bad as I’d expected.  Unfortunately they were tarmacking the road at the summit so we had to do a detour up to the top and then back down to go through the tunnel.  There were far too many tunnels to go through back down to Bourg d’Oisan, and some were very poorly lit.  Ian had a little flashing torch clipped to the back of his rucksack, so that we could be better seen by cars and occasional lorries in the tunnels.  Very nervous and glad to be out the other end of them!  There was just one extra climb up the Ferrand valley, with views down the steep gorge sides, before we free-wheeled and then cycled into the wind on our way down to B d’ Oisan.  A total of 42miles, we were glad to relax at the end.  We hadn’t needed to carry much extra clothing with us, because it was so very hot.  At least the afternoon breezes had helped to stop it being unbearable, but we dived for the shower, once we’d signed ourselves in at the Hotel Milan.  Not a great place, to say the least.  Health and Safety would have had a field day- an air of decay and dilapidation and not even clean!  The bed-linen was clean, the room was cool and the shower worked, and that was about it!  None of the loos worked in the hotel, so there were some very embarrassed faces at check-out!

We knew it was going to be another hot, long day, so we set off by 8am. Up to the ski village of Allemont, a nice gentle 10mile start, and then the climb up past the Vaugany turn-off,  with the Belledonne mountain range off to our left.  Steeply up to the village of le Rivier d’Allemont, with its memorial to those who fought in the Resistance, and then all that height lost as we plunged steeply downhill across the river, and then very steeply uphill to the Barrage and reservoir of the Grand’Maison.  I was absolutely spent but just about had enough energy for the final ascent up to Col de la Croix de Fer.  A couple of fizzy drinks at a bar, just before the last climb.  The views all the way up had been fantastic, but the last section is particularly stunning scenery- big, sweeping green mountain sides, two huge eagles gliding over the scene.  Wonderful, but very, very hard.  Col de Galibier had been less exhausting than I’d expected, but we were both shocked at how hard we’d found this climb.  Unfortunately Ian had had to wait for me for quite a while!
Climbing to Col de la Croix de Fer
The descent down into St jean de Maurienne was awesome, vertiginous drops into steep gorges, but the road surface was aweful, with deep ruts and chunks missing!  Apparently the Marmotte doesn’t go this way off any more, because it’s so bad, and they’ve replaced Croix de Fer, with Col de Glandon, and a different, safer route off.  Then there was a rather miserable, uphill, busy road section between St Jean and St Michel de Maurienne, of about another 10miles.  At least it was cooler now, as we tackled our last climb of the day up Col de Telegraphe.  After a coffee in a bar, we set off up the final climb - the col de Telegraph. Made in just over 1.5 hrs - well pleased. Overall did over 64 miles and 9000 ft of ascent today - the most climbing I have ever done.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Vaujany Cycle Event 2011

At finish!
With the race starting at 7.30am, about 30mins up the road, it was an early start, up at 6am, tea and porridge, and then off.  Dropped Ian off about 15mins down the road from the start of the race.  He was surprised to meet one of his old colleagues from Whitbread, pulling into the same lay-by to get ready!

I brought the van back to the site, and set about cleaning the “house” and catching up with a few jobs.  We’ll be wild camping at our favourite mountain spot on the Col de Lauteret, so no facilities and a few preparations necessary.  I had a few hours before I needed to set off to meet Ian at the end of the event in the village of Vaujany, so time to catch up with the blogs! 

With Keith Lunn old Whitbread colleague
We’ve booked in at a local hotel to stay overnight next week, as we cycle through Bourg d’Oisan on the Marmotte circuit.  I’m really looking forward to it.  My first big alpine climb up the Col du Galibier, followed by the Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Telegraphe.  The Marmotte starts and finishes at Bourg d’o, but because we are continuing north, we made the decision to base ourselves at Valloire.  The Marmotte also finishes at Alpe d’Huez, but I know my limits!  There’s no way I’m adding that one to the itinerary again!

Up towards Vaujany
Ian was hard on my heels, as I climbed up to Vaujany village, which was every bit as difficult as the climb yesterday, if a little shorter.  I managed to get a great shot of him going past, with superb mountain views behind him, as he strained up the final km to the village, a glass of water and a beer.  It was extremely hot and getting hotter, about 34deg!  The van being down the valley in Bourg d’Oisan,  we had to cycle back, which was lovely for me, able to enjoy all the mountain scenery, but yet another 11miles for Ian, on top of 69miles and 8000’ climbing, with a mountain-top finish!  So maybe that’ll keep him quiet for a while!  He was chuffed to bits to find that his time of 5hrs 5mins was a gold standard!

Just before the finish at 1500m
Back to a campsite that is beginning to fill up with mad Dutch cyclists.  You can see too much spandex and bib-shorts, so it is time to move on to our favourite piece of solitude up on Col de Lauteret tomorrow.  At 2000m it’ll be a bit cooler as well!

Alpe d'Huez

A well pleased Marie on the Alpe!
Alpe d’Huez, short and not so sweet!

Nearly there!
Really chilly last night, but a lovely day in store, as we set of at about 8am. On the 1000m climb up to the ski station of Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 virages/hairpins, each dedicated to famous cyclists of the past and present.  All the way up there is graffiti all over the road, mainly in Dutch, spurring on their heroes of the Tour de France.  Even at 8am, there are cyclists coming back down the mountain.  It’s hard going the first few kms, with some sections of 12% gradient, and then it steadies off to 8%. You smile for the cameras, waiting on the last virage to catch the first bit of business of the day!!  The experienced young studs don’t smile, or say allez, cos they’re far too cool for school!!  They push past on the bends, having changed gear, and get off the saddle to show you what the youngsters can do!  I plugged away in the same gear, and was really excited to find that I was able to keep going all the way to the top, about 14km.  But my backside was in agony, aching and sore, but I did it.  Ian was already at the top, having a good rest and a coffee, finishing in 1hr 07mins, faster than last time.  At 1hr 53mins, I think I was about the same as last time, but the biggest difference was managing to keep going.  As we shot down the hill, it was satisfying to see how steep it had been, and how many had felt the need to stop.  The views over the mountains were magnificent, and there was time to pause, get circulation back to the fingers, and enjoy the experience.  The road was full of cyclists and traffic, and it had been much nicer setting off earlier.

Nimes to Bourg d'Oisan

Not much happened today.  Drove about 150miles to the southern alps and pastures familiar.  First stop the Casino supermarket in Bourg d’Oisans, and then a reccy to find le Verney, and the edf parking area, where Ian’s Vaujany cycle sportive is from, on Sunday.  Then back to camp overnight at Les Cascades site, 28euros, compared with an average 13euros in Pyrenees!   Welcome to the Alps- high mountains and high prices to match!!!  They’re all about the same price around here, and it is a lovely site, set amongst the trees, with nice, big pitches.  This was going to “home2 for 3 nights (the longest stay yet!), so it was great to be somewhere so lovely, with mountains towering all around, and yet good restaurants and bars, full of crazy Dutch cyclists! Tomorrow’s steep climb up the Alpe d’Huez was only a stone’s throw away, not even enough time to warm legs up first.

We had a nice, basic menu de jour at La Rive Gauche, and checked out accommodation at a local hotel, with a view to doing La Marmotte cycle route, next week. 65 euros for the night and 10euros each for breakfast.


Walking up to the castle

In the land of the Cathars, there are ruins of Cathar castles dating back to 13th Century, perched high on vertiginous peaks, dotted all along what was until 1659, the border with Spain.  Driving past Cucugnan, towards the little village of Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse, we parked up at an aire and walked the remaining couple of miles through pineapple-scented broom, and past a profusion of wild flowers, dianthus, carnation, cornflowers, camomile and dozens of others.

The previous night had been full of lightning, thunder and pouring rain, oh and high winds!  It was a relief to waken to a half-decent day!  As we picked our way through the boxwood, towards the entrance to the castle, it became much cooler and cloudier, so the tour around the castle wasn’t as relaxed as it might have been.  A stunning castle which rambles along up the rock summits.  Must have been tortuous to build. The views over the surrounding countryside, vineyards of the Pays d’Oc, across to the intriguing castle of Queribus, the last Cathar stronghold to fall, and far into the distance to Perpignan and the sea, make you appreciate the motivation behind building these fortifications!

A plat du jour at a local tavern (11euros each), and we were off north and east towards the Rhone Valley.  We overnighted at a great spacious aire at Chusclan, just off the motorway near Nimes.  Great spot, with water, individually-shaded bays, with picnic tables, but sadly no toilets!

Within 5mins of parking up, our French “neighbours” came across and asked if we would like to join them for an aperitif.  Henri, Solonge and Henri’s mother, Odile, are from Nimes and were on their way back home.  It was Odile’s birthday today, 80, and clearly thrilled to be enjoying it with her family.  We talked of where we’d been and where to next.  Henri had cycled in the Pyrenees too.  He had worked for 32 years on the railways, and his wife had been a nurse.  They loved their new Hymer van, and talked of travels to Italy, Florence, Spain and Portugal.  They hadn’t been to Britain because of the poor weather.  (From what we’ve heard, this summer’s shaping up to be a bit of a Wimbledon-wash-out!)  They recommended various parts of France for the food, particularly Auvergne.  They too had been to Beaufort and loved the beaufortain bread and cheese, which I’m really looking forward to!  We made our excuses and went back to the van to make a meal, and for me to re-charge, after having to concentrate on understanding and responding in French for a good hour!  Exhausted!!  Later I remembered a cake I’d bought in Luz-St-Sauveur, peculiar to that area, a “broche cuit au feu sur les pendilles”, which seems to be a cake cooked over an open fire daubed onto a large wooden skewer.  I tried it first and then took our hosts a few slices, saying that it was like a birthday cake for maman.  They seemed delighted,  but I hoped they liked the cake!

Later we walked into the little village of Chusclan, with a couple of lively bars by the river, and a lively one in town.  It had more life than we’d seen so far in a small place.  Historical fact-  the locals were divided into culs-rouges and culs-blancs (red-arses and white-arses) depending upon their revolutionary or patriotic politics, and they met in different bars in this tiny hamlet!