Monday, August 5, 2013

July 21 - Tour de France

I have mixed feelings about today.  On the one hand I’m a little bit sad.  This is our last day of what has been a fantastic adventure.  Just the two of us with no agenda making our way around this beautiful country.   Man, do I get the saying, “How you gonna keep ‘em on the farm...”  On the other hand I’m completely stoked.  Today is the raison d'etre.  The climactic finale to the Tour de France!!  
Here we go!!

We strike out early on foot for the hotel lobby where we pick up our “invitations”,  AKA our tickets for the grandstands. Custom Getaways was the company we went through to secure our seats.

 Our area will not open until 5 pm so we head out for a hearty breakfast then return to the apartment & crash for most of the day.  We decide to be in place at 4 since the seating is first come first served.  Our invitations are necessary to even get in the area of the grandstands.  I’m glad we splurged on this; there are people who have been lined up at the barriers up & down the Champs Élysées since this morning to hold a good spot.  As we are waiting to enter we see BOB ROLL walk by!!  I muster up some courage & ask if we can get some photos.  He is obliging and we are thrilled!  For those who don’t know; when we watch the TdF at home Bob is one of the main commentators.  He was a teammate to Lance Armstrong in the early years.  His goofy but knowledgeable personality makes him one of my favorites.  

The excitement is building here as the announcer is practicing his English over the PA system to announce the winners.  Soon the gate is opened and we are among the first in.  We are greeted by beautiful young hostesses who present us with  a gift, a commemorative candle and bracelets so we can move freely around the area.   We find two seats in the shade & settle in for some pre-race entertainment.  One thing they do that I think is great; hold youth races on the course.  Not only must this be such a thrill for them, but it allows the coordinators the opportunity to test all of the equipment before the Tour arrives.  

A big part of the Tour is what is known as the “caravan”.  Sponsors have come up with elaborate vehicles to promote their businesses.  Usually attractive young people are throwing out samples of product or in some way promoting the companies and it is a real carnival type atmosphere.  When the caravan arrives you know the Tour isn’t far behind & the energy bumps up a notch.  

We have followed as best we can on local TV as the riders have snaked their way around France.  Mostly all I can make out in the French broadcasts is the names of the riders & the stages.  Thanks to technology we’ve been able to find English transmissions online to pick up the details.   

Today the riders will take it easy on their way to Paris from Versailles.  They will pose for lots of photos & even drink a little champagne.  One of the riders,  Juaquim Rodriguez whose nickname is purito, or little cigar, hands out cigars to the leaders.   It is an easy going  party until they reach the Champs Élysées.  

One thing that is confusing to many; the winner of today’s stage won’t be the winner of the tour.  The tour is a 21 day race and the overall winner and the one who earns the yellow jersey (the GC or General Classification) has the lowest cumulative time.  The winner of the tour this year has already been decided and today’s stage is mostly symbolic.  Christopher Froome has been in yellow since the 8th stage.  It is hard not to suspect him of doping in the post-Lance era.  He has grown weary of being bombarded with these types of questions each day.  He was a favorite to win, last year he was second on the podium and many thought he would have won if he wasn’t riding to support his teammate, Bradly Wiggins who took yellow.

We had high hopes for Alberto Contador this year but he saw his chances slip away and now won’t even be on the podium.

 There are other prizes besides the yellow jersey.  The Green Jersey is for the rider who has won the most sprint points.  Throughout the race there have been flat out drag races at strategic points along the route.  Today’s finish will be a sprint.  Although Peter Sagan is so far ahead in the points, no one will take the green jersey from him, it is highly prestigious to win at the finish.   Particularly since this is the 100th TdF.  

By far the most exciting rider to watch this year has been Nairo Quintana.  He has a wonderful rags to riches rise to stardom.  He is from a very humble family from the Colombian Andes.  His family scrimped to buy him a second hand bike so he could ride the 9 miles to school as a child.  This is his first Tour de France and he has slowly built to a stellar finish.  On yesterday’s stage he sealed his fate as the winner of the white jersey, best young rider (he’s 23) the polka-dot jersey, best climber and he is now in 2nd place overall.  Yesterday he won the stage on Colombian Independence Day!!

Our seats are fantastic.  We are just a few yards beyond the finish line.  The Tour will make 10 loops on the Champs Élysées which means we will have 20 opportunities to see the riders whiz by.  Once the helicopter is spotted overhead we know it won’t be long.  We are able to watch the progress on the jumbotron right across from us so we know they are almost here.  Soon the motorcycles fly by and with the crowd screaming at a fever pitch the peleton makes its first pass right in front of us.  Some of the people in the stands have been complaining that they can’t see but there is no sitting down when the riders blast by.  Soon we are down at the barriers, on our feet for the remainder of the stage.  Thank god for the jumbotron.  Try as I might, the riders are so fast (about 40 mph) I can’t make out individuals.  They are one blurry, colorful mass. 

There are certain riders I’m hoping to spot; Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Peter Sagan of course.  Chris Froome is easy to pick out because of the yellow jersey (that’s how they came up with it in the first place, to help spot the race leader in the mass).  Also, Mark Cavendish, the “Manx Missile” who’s hoping to make his 5th sprint win in Paris today.  His main challengers are Sagan, Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel.  Some of them I think I recognize but I really can’t be sure.  It doesn’t matter, it’s just so thrilling to witness this live.   Soon they are down to the final lap and the pace intensifies.  One wrong micro-adjustment at this pace and disaster could strike.  No such drama today though and in the end it is Kittel who wins by half a wheel length.  

I was videoing the finish & just continued to let the camera roll when this happened!!  That is the Tour winner Chris Froome being bombarded by the press just as he rolls across the finish& stops just in front of us!

Jens Voigt, the oldest rider on the Tour at 41, parks it right in front of us for an interview

Alberto Contador( I THINK!!)
This is the first ever night-time finish for the Tour and there has been suspense building about what they will do.  Fireworks maybe?  Actually a lighting designer has put together a magnificent projection on the Arc de Triumphe to go along with the awards ceremony.

Once again we are in a fantastic spot for viewing that as well!  This day has more than lived up to its expectations.  I am so glad we did this!

The podium

All too soon it is time make our way home .  Tomorrow we leave for home and this wonderful adventure comes to a close.  This will surely go down as one of the best vacations of my life!!  Thanks for following along.  Now I just need to scrimp & save until next time!

Last view from our apartment
Au Revoir Paris!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

July 20 - Versailles

When we left Oklahoma City for France 10 days ago we only had two things booked besides our lodging; our seats for the Tour de France tomorrow and a tour of the Versailles palace & grounds with Fat Tire Bike Tours today  Their offices are near the Eiffel Tower so we hop back on the Metro.  By now we are really adept at figuring out the best routes.  Plus we don’t hesitate to use the maps provided at each station to make sure we are (literally) on the right track.

Our tour begins at nine and we are in a group of English speakers so that makes it nice and easy on us.  Pete, our guide, walks 36 of us down to the train station for the brief ride to the town of Versailles.  Once there we make the short walk to pick up our bikes and begin the tour.

Our first stop is to the local market to pick up ingredients for the picnic that we will have later on the grounds.  We have plenty of time to make our way through the four main buildings plus the street venders who have set up shop for the day here.  We grab an assortment of cheeses, meats, olives. and pastries & a fresh baguette before rejoining our group.

One of the selling points of the tour is that we will be able to cover the entire 2000 acres of grounds, something that wouldn’t be possible on foot.  We enter & Pete makes several stops around the massive property to talk about the history of Versailles.  Ernesto & I are asked to stand in for the ill-fated King Louis XIV & Marie Antoinette to illustrate Pete's story.  We see the remains of Marie Antoinette’s peasant village, created for her entertainment, as well as the Grand & Petit Trianon Palaces as we ride leisurely around.

Our picnic is on the banks of the grand canal in the shade of the manicured allee of trees.  Pete is a wonderful guide and makes the history of the French Revolution come alive for us.

What is really exciting for us is that tomorrow the Tour de France begins its final stage here.  We can see the yellow markers indicating the route the riders will take.  And we are riding the same roads!!

Once the guided portion of the tour is finished we drop off our bikes at the office & return on foot to tour the palace and the adjoining formal gardens.  By now we have made friends with Guy & Janet from Austin and we stick with them for the remainder of our time in Versailles.

The palace is super crowded & hot.  I would like to spend more time inside but the crush of humanity is more than I can take.  Still, it is quite grandiose and we would have been remiss to skip it.  The Hall of Mirrors is spectacular.  

For me though the gardens are the big attraction.  Today is Saturday so the fountains are on.  We get outside just as they are shutting down for the day though, bummer!  We walk around looking & trying to tuck into what ever shade we can find as we get to know Guy & Janet a little & make a promise to get together state-side & ride sometime.  Soon the grounds are closing for the day & we head back to the train station for the ride back to Paris.  

We say goodbye to our new friends and head home for the evening.   And see this on the Metro;

 Dinner is just foraging in the fridge tonight as all the activity has really taken a toll, my feet are still killing me & I am wiped out!

Friday, August 2, 2013

July 19 - Quarante-huit!

I am in awe of Parisian women.  How do they do it?  For the last two days I’ve observed chic women moving briskly all over Paris in heels.  I’m not talking about ridiculous, 6” stripper platforms a la the Real Housewives of fill-in-the-blank.  Just sensible 1" - 2” kitten heels.  But they are out day after day pounding the pavement & looking fabulous in the process.  I tried my best.  Yesterday I had on what should have been perfect; a low cushioned wedge.  But after all those hours I feel like the bottoms of my feet have been pounded with baseball bats.  Now I have no choice but to wear my orthopedic Bjorns today, oh the shame...

Now that we have rested and returned to our senses, we realize we ought to be guillotined if we come all this way and skip the Louvre.  We make the smart decision to ONLY go there.  

We’ve always heard you can’t see the entire Louvre in a day, TRUE.  I don’t imagine a week or even a month would be enough to truly process all that this repository for French art & treasure holds.  We are so glad to have purchased the Museum Pass as we are skipping what looks to be an hour long wait in the regular line.

The suggestion is to pick an area or two to focus on.  Today is my 48th birthday so I get to be the decider!  I pick French Sculpture & Napoleon’s Apartments (not THAT Napoleon, but a distant nephew.)

Sculpture is probably my favorite art form and this appears to be the best of the best.  The central galleries flooded with natural light are a perfect space to show it off.  There seems to be hundreds of satellite galleries that just go on & on filled with gorgeous work.

 Then we make our way up the ornate staircase into the apartments, OMG!!  Who lives (lived) like this?  French royalty apparently as the building served as a palace before it became a museum.  This is over-the-top opulence.  I am craning my neck at every turn ogling the mouth-watering moldings and murals in each 20 foot ceiling.  The furnishings, the fabrics, the chandeliers, too gorgeous!!  Each room is more fabulous than the last.

Scattered throughout the museum is an exhibit by Michaelangelo Pistoletto.  Interesting to see this contemprary work juxtaposed with the more classical Louvre collection.

We break for lunch then head into another wing to see the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the most visited museum in the world.  We pass through Roman sculpture, some of which was on view at OKCMOA  Winged Victory is here. Then down a corridor off to the right, there she is - or at least I’m guessing that’s what the mass of flesh has crowded around.  I begin a slow push to insert myself for a few moments in her presence.  I’ve heard for so long the, “she’s smaller than you think” that she’s actually bigger than what I was expecting.  She is behind bullet proof glass after several incidents where she was stolen and vandalized.  I hope the glass has some sort of light filtration too as the flash photography is going off like a strobe light.  I get a few of my own shots before rejoining Ernesto who has opted to observe from a distance. 

By now we have been here 5 hours & while the museum will be open well into the night our brains are saturated & we need a break.  The Tuilleries Gardens are just across the street so we meander over there to cleanse our mental palates. 

We return to the apartment to rest before our scheduled dinner cruise on the Seine.  I am pretty worn out but feel like there is still so much to do & see and I feel a smidge of guilt at wasting any precious time here.  Still my body can only take so much & I’m still on the tail end of this cold.

We head over to embark at 8:00.  We have great seats up front in a window.  Soon our 3 course meal begins and we begin gliding up the river taking in the beautiful sights.  All along the shores Parisians have come out with their picnic dinners to enjoy the evening and sunset.  We cruise up and down and as it gets dark we pass by a small version of the Statue of Liberty, given to Paris by American expatriates living here.  The big highlight of the cruise is a light show at the Eiffel Tower that happens nightly.  It’s spectacular but I can’t help but feel the tower’s elegance has been compromised with these tacky lights.  The salsa music is an odd choice as well.  I guess globalization has made it here as well, sigh.

Soon we are returned to the dock to cap off this special day with one more bit of decadence, a taxi ride to our door!