Let’s Go Everywhere, Man

mmw_letsLet’s Go Everywhere

-Medeski, Martin, and Wood

“When you’re tired of your toys,
And of your games, and of the television,
When you’re done with chores and homework
Then it’s time to make a big decision,
You might need a change of scenery,
It might be time to go
Over mountains, over oceans,
Through dark jungles down below
On an airplane, on a railroad
On a tall ship with the tide
All you need’s a little music.
Howzaboutit, whaddya say you buckle
up and we go for a little ride?
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
We’ll go to
Bombay, Taipei, Mandalay, Bora Bora
Deauville, Louisville, Whoville, Glocca Morra
Havana, Montana, Savannah, Varanasi
Bermuda, Barbuda, Or Yehuda, Tallahassee
Khartoum, Rangoon, Cancun, Saskatoon
Kowloon, Cameroon, Brigadoon, to the moon
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Cairo, Shiloh, Moscow, Chichen Itza
Krakatoa, Shenandoah, Mauna Loa, Tower of Pisa
Hamburg, Frankfurt, Beantown, Montecristo
Cayenne, Salt Lake, Cocoa Beach, San Francisco

Saigon, Amman, Dijon, Yokahama
Tijuana, Grand Bahama, don’t forget to call your mama
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Xi’an, San Juan, Pusan, Sri Lanka
Chambertin, Canton, Avalon, Casablanca
Warsaw, Aqaba, Shangri-La, Transylvania
Nome, Rome, Stockholm, Lyon, Mauretania
Hong Kong, Guangdong, Haiphong, Tonga
Salamanga, Rarotonga, Cucamonga, sing-a-long-a
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.
Xanadu, Kathmandu, Timbuktu, Santiago
Tasmania, Slovenia, Rumania, Pago Pago
Sedona, Pamplona, Daytona, Patagonia
Winona, Bologna, Barcelona, Caledonia
Bangkok, Sliding Rock, Antioch, Tuba City
Sun City, Cloud City, Emerald City, ain’t it pretty
Let’s go everywhere man
Let’s go everywhere, man
There’s lots of fun out there, man
We gotta have our share, man
Get out of your chair, man
Let’s go everywhere.”

One of the World’s Best Hikes?

The  Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) trail circumnavigates Western Europe’s highest mountain, the mighty Mont Blanc, up craggy passes, over pastoral saddles and through surreal valleys of France, Italy and Switzerland.  It offers fantastic hiking that is both scenic and challenging while providing the allure of great vino, a hot meal and a comfortable bed in a charming village at the end of the trail every evening. The route winds through famous mountain villages such as Chamonix and Courmayeur as well as smaller villages that will leave you contemplating dairy farming as a plausible profession.

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There are countless hiking options of varying lengths and difficulty as well as many options to leverage buses and lifts to navigate the hike around the massif.  And both directions of traveling the loop offer their benefits and challenges.  You can plan on about 10 days of actual hiking give or take your speed of walking, and it is worth considering an option that includes 1-3 “rest” days to check out some of the bigger villages and side trails along the way. Some travelers carry their own gear, but there are plenty of guide and transport companies that will transport bags so you only need to hike with a day bag. And with plenty of refuges, some of the best potable water supplies and villages along the way, day packs can be light.  Most stay in hotels, auberges or refuges so carrying a tent or even a sleeping bag is not required. Guided trips are available and may be the way to go for those less experienced with walking and hiking, but we found the navigation and hiking pretty straightforward and enjoyed the flexibility of a self-guided version where we walked at our own pace but met up with a group often on the trail as well as at the end of the day.

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The surreal scenery makes this hike one of the best that we have ever done, but that is not the only reason why this hike is consistently rated one of the best in the world.  Here are some more reasons to love it:

  • Hiking thru three stunning countries with different cultures, food and languages- France, Italy, Switzerland.

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  • Trekking 132 miles on well marked trails with about 32K of vertical (up and down) not only gives one a sense of accomplishment, but burns a lot of calories on the gorgeous trails and allows for guilt-free enjoyment of the wonderful food and wine every night.

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  • Days are filled with surreal natural beauty.

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  • The only sound you are likely to hear are the bucolic chimes of cow bells or the rush of running mountain water.

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  • Gorgeous wildflower strewn fields abound in alpine back country.

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  • No need to worry about grizzly bears. The only wildlife you should see on the trail are more benign- ibex, marmots, hawks

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  • A hot shower and comfortable bed awaits every night in charming hotels and villages.

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  • Eating is taken seriously in Europe.  (France takes two hour lunches and many places are closed from 12-3 pm.)  In the Alps, regardless of where you are whether at the top of a col or in a valley where there appears to be nothing for miles, refuges are plentiful on the TMB offering wonderful food, drinks and shelter.

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  • Plenty of vino, cheese and great food every night.

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Bakery in Les Houches where we picked up sandwiches for our first day on the TMB.
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This spread was in a small refuge quite far from anywhere

There are so many ways to do this hike- on your own, guided or self-guided.  We used Sherpa Expeditions, and they were fantastic.  Sherpa offers a self-guided model that involves transporting your luggage every day but one.  We also started the trek with 8 other people and stayed in the same hotels every night making for a social but flexible trek.  So for those that want to hike at different speeds, this is a great option.  

The TMB is definitely one of the best hikes in the world and one of our best experiences this year between the stunning views, fresh, clean mountain air, fabulous food and wine, charming villages in three of our favorite countries!  We loved it so much we will likely repeat this trek sometime in the future.  Stay tuned for more details on the TMB.

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Viva the Wi-Fi, 11 Months Traveling the Globe without a Phone

“SIM Card? SIM Card? We don’t need no stink’n SIM Card” – Anonymous, 2015

Well, the title is not exactly accurate. We have had a phone but it has been provisioned for Wi-Fi use only – no SIM card, no cell network coverage, no phone bill.  What joy we experienced calling our friends at AT&T  11 months ago and informing them that we would no longer be needing their services. We parked our number with a service that forwards voicemail and text messages for a few bucks (there are many but we have used NumberBarn) and disconnected from any telecom services.

Just as satisfying was the call  with Comcast where we delivered a similar message. We were frankly a bit late in “cutting the cord” and this trip was just the impetus we needed to say “good-bye and good riddance”.

It has now been 11 months that we have been using Wi-Fi as our only means of communicating and connecting to the inter-webs….and it has been great. Around the world, Wi-Fi is pervasive, mostly fast, and free – for the most part. We use it for voice calls, messaging, watching movies, travel planning, web browsing and of course, blogging.  No surprises there – but what surprised us is how good the experiences have been around the world (of course, with a couple exceptions).

It has been fun to use our year of travel to experiment with exclusive Wi-Fi use without any cellular connectivity.  Especially because my career focus prior to this trip involved deep research of Wi-Fi usage around the world and helping both large companies such as AT&T and Vodafone as well as investors on Wall Street understand the growing usage of Wi-Fi networks and its impact on traditional telecom business models.

Without a doubt, we can confidently say that our experience has been fantastic. With very few exceptions, we have been able to do everything we have needed to do using Wi-Fi and compromised little (although, we acknowledge that our travel can change the type of daily connectivity and communication needed). We have used Skype  (still one of the best) as our primary app for voice calls and WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for messaging.

Our minor issues:

  • Contact on the fly.  This is our common use case back home for all the reasons that you can imagine and primarily for connecting with folks on the fly and talking from the car (hands-free, of course). We have not had to deal with this too much while traveling.
    • On a couple group cycle rides, it would have been helpful to connect with folks with a traditional mobile phone but we managed to find free Wi-Fi hotspots that worked out.
    • We rolled the dice a bit with a couple weeks of road-tripping in the middle of nowhere South Africa and some cycling out in French farmlands where we would have needed cellular access in case of any emergencies or break-downs  – but we avoided both.
    • For the most part, we schedule calls when we need or want to chat with folks.
  • Authentication. Many websites and mobile apps and Wi-Fi services like to use text messages as a means to authenticate and validate users. Given the decrease in SMS text messaging and the increase of chat apps such as Whatsapp and WeChat, most of the good services offer an alternative, most commonly e-mail, but there are still a few out there that require a phone with cellular service (that should change quickly). In most cases when we have faced this issue, we have been at an airport or trying to use free municipal services (as example in St. Gervais and Megeve France).
  • On the fly, mobile navigation.  We thought this would be a bigger problem that it really has been.  But it has not been an issue – mostly because Google has improved their mobile apps quite a bit over the last few years and they are really good.  We take snapshots and screen shots of maps and navigation routes; we download and cache maps and use the GPS services of our phone.  This has worked really well. We haven’t spent a lot of times in cars though where sometimes the cellular access can help. We have had built-in nav included in some rental cars in Europe and we did buy a cheap portable nav system in South African road trip (that I tried to pawn at the end but that is a story for another post).
  • On the fly, point of interest location.  Again, we were surprised here. The Trip Advisor app provides a good way to download city guide information so that you can have access to restaurants and other points of interest when you are offline.

The Wi-Fi experience around the world differs, as you can imagine, but here is our experience

  • The Good (Really the Great)
    • Asia is the gold standard for Wi-Fi internet access – at least, in the countries where we visited. On this trip, Asian countries included Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam. Free access is everywhere – airports, hotels, restaurants, bars, train and bus stations as well as on trains and buses, and even at gas or petro stations.  It was free everywhere and bandwidth was plentiful. We never had issues here.
    • South and Central America was also great. Although, not quite as pervasive as Asia, Wi-Fi access was fast and free and always available at hotels and in restaurants. And airports generally have decent free access (with some exceptions such as Cusco, Peru as an example).
    • We also found a handful of locations in South America, such as Lima, where there was free Wi-Fi available in urban neighborhoods.
  • The (not so) Bad
    • Europe was and continues to be good. Access in restaurants and bars is limited but that is not always such a bad thing.  Hotels are mostly free now, where in the past it was often only a Pay-for model.
    • Most airports in Europe offer free services but we have run into many bandwidth issues with the free services in many locations. And there is still a Pay-for premium model (for more bandwidth) that exists. Although, if you need good access, it is usually available.
    • In France, we had some disappointment with limited availability or SMS only authentification at bus stations, some train stations, and in cities but the fact that free Wi-Fi is even available in some of the small villages was a bit of a surprise. Orange seems to be lurking about in many small villages with a 5 euro/hr offer.
  • And the Ugly
    • South Africa, by far, was the worst experience.  There is a Pay-for-MB model that is still very much in place. Many public spots, such as hotels and restaurants,  will give you free access but most will not. Apartments, such as those found on Airbnb, will often charge guests.  This was one of only two spots in the world where we paid for Wi-Fi access  – it was about $5USD per day for unlimited usage – which is a lot more than most of the world and enough to make you change your daily activity (although not too much at the end of the day).
    • Japan was the second spot where we paid for access. We were only at the airport during our initial flight over from the States so not sure that counts:>. But we needed access to tie up some loose ends on our exit and there was no free access available.

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Beautiful Bourgogne, No Beaune(s) about it

Burgundy for kings, champagne for duchesses, claret for gentlemen – French Proverb

Beaune ( pronouced “Bone”) is in the middle of the French Bourgogne wine region well known for its Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Chablis (Chardonnay) wine. The city has a long history of wine making and is surrounded by vineyards, many hundreds of years old. Wineries, large and small, are integrated throughout the new and old parts of the city. It is an oenophile’s paradise for sure.

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We must admit, we are not huge fans of Chardonny and Pinot. It is not that we have a “Beaune of contention” with them or that we need to “Beaune up on them” (I could go on if my editor would let me).  Oregon which is very close to home in Seattle has allowed us to enjoy many of the new world Pinots (which can be pleasantly very earthy). It is just that we prefer bigger reds, clarets, in fact, so perhaps that makes us better suited as a duchess and gentleman.

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We stopped by Beaune and the Bourgogne region for a bit more cycling and a little bit of wine tasting as we made our way to Chamonix to leave our cycling behind and tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc. Beaune is an incredibly beautiful city with a very large old town, a historical hospital and wineries that are older than the U.S.A. There is a ring road that circles old town which decreases car traffic and provides a nice walking and short cycling path.  It is a beautiful city but we recommend avoiding in August because of the hordes of tourists that are here and many of the good restaurants which are closed as the locals get out of Dodge for their own holidays.

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We stayed for about  a week and spent most of our time visiting the surrounding areas via bikes but used Beaune as our base.  Not surprisingly, there are grapes everywhere. You hit vineyards in less than 1 km from the city center and it is amazing how integrated some of the vineyards are to the villages surrounding Beaune.  Grape growing was in full production so you shared the roads and bike trails with plenty of farmers, tractors, and trimming machines.  The vineyards are stunning.

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The cycling routes are well mapped out in the region with plenty of signage and routes. Some direction and route guidance helps to put together a full day ride, but for the most part you can pick a village and distance and then follow the routes.

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The countryside is scenic. There are a few hills and some elevation but for the most part it is undulating.

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The villages are gorgeous and there is one every 5km or so in any direction you choose. There are a number of parks and preserved lands about but for the most part, you cycle through villages and vineyards.

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We enjoyed a lot of the villages, including Pommard, Volnay, Puligny-Montrachet, Savigny-les-Beaune, Nuits Saint-Georges, Villars-Fontaine, Bigney-sur-Ouche, and Vavilly-Mandelot. Meursault was one of our favorites. It is only about 10km from Beaune and has a number of great lunch spots so it is a very good ride for casual cyclists but it is also a good stop on the way back from longer rides.

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We had a blast riding for a few days in Burgundy; a few of our routes offered some 3-4km climbs that offered some challenges.  Wine was very good.  When we compare it to our recent trip to The Loire, I think we would rank the Loire higher for value and cycling. Even though the cycling was a bit flatter in The Loire, there are many more routes and options.  Wine, restaurants, and hotels are more reasonably priced and the villages are just as stunning.  But Burgundy offers more wine, no doubt about that. Wineries and vineyards are older and more renowned.  There is no right answer and you can never go wrong with some pedaling through French vineyards!

 

In the Garden of Beasts

Biking through France has made me hungry for books on WWII, and there arein the garden of beasts plenty of good reads on this topic.  After reading All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale which are both fiction novels, I picked up In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson which is a non-fiction book about the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family’s experience living in Berlin from 1933 (as Hitler is coming into power as Chancellor) to 1937.  Although this is non-fiction, it reads more like a historical fiction novel, and I found it to be a quick read.

The book raises a lot of questions, but a key question raised (and attempted to answer) is why the US government did not speak out and/ or take any action given Hitler’s barbarism.  For example (and only one of so many), in 1934, the Nazi regime unilaterally carried out a series of political executions of Germans who were thought to oppose Hitler (this act was later known as “The Night of Long Knives”).  To Dodd’s credit, he warned President Roosevelt and others of the risk of another world war. Had the US and other countries done something in response to Hitler’s atrocities could WWII have been circumvented?

Well researched and written, this is a fascinating read about Hitler’s accession to power and Dodd’s experience as US Ambassador in Berlin in the years leading up to WWII.  In my opinion, the one downside of the book is that there is too much time spent on Dodd’s daughter’s, Martha, social connections and love life, but regardless, another compelling read.

Another Pearl in the Mediterranean Sea

With approximately 800,000 residents and roughly 8 million visitors per year, Mallorca is a popular tourist destination, especially with Germans and Brits. We flew from Paris to Mallorca, and we thought maybe we had flown to Vegas. The Palma airport is quite large for an island of its size, and a crazy amount of people filled the airport at 10pm.  The town was absolutely jamming. It is August in Europe where popular spots will get quite crowded (it is one of the reasons all the locals leave on their own vacations during this time).

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Mallorca is a lovely island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean with something for everyone with over 2,500 restaurants, 41 marinas, 400 km of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and  lots of cycling. The main city of Palma is a bustling spot with much to see – beautiful buildings, ancient castles and chateaus, churches as well as many parks and ramblas.

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If you go, here are a few of our favorite spots:

  • Mercat d’Olivar– a fabulous market offering a plethora of local specialties-anchovies, fresh produce, olives, lamb, eggs, bread, wine, cheese, sausage, ham- and a few restaurants and tapas bars. Both locals and tourists swarm the stalls all day long but it is worth dealing with the crowds to get some tasty goods.

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  • Banyalbufar– a seaside village in the Sierra de Tramuntana in the north west of the island of Mallorca.
  • Deia– another beautiful seaside village in the Sierra de Tramuntana that for its size has gotten a little over run, not in terms of development.  The village is stunning but the amount of cars that descent on this little village every day in peak season is high for a village its size- so high a make shift stop light had to meter one way traffic thru the village core.

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  • Soller– a village in the northwest of the island which is very popular with day trippers.  There is a train that goes from Palma to Soller dropping a lot of day visitors on this lovely village.  When we return to Palma, we would likely spend some time staying in Soller.  It has some great beaches, great day trips via sea and land, great hikes and good restaurants. We did a really fantastic hike from here (check out the details).

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  • Valldemossa– a hill town villages situation in the Tramuntana range only 17 km from Palma.

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And visiting the stunning Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma( more commonly referred to as La Seu) that dominates Palma’s skyline is a must.

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We really enjoyed our apartment in old town Palma (our first time out of hotel rooms in over 2 months) walking and running along the promenade and heading to the market to prepare some non-restaurant food.  The city has many harbors and beaches all within walking distance of the old town.  You can also rent scooters and cars to check out some of the other beaches around the island.  It is easy driving and getting around.  Nothing is too far- distance from north to south on the island is only 100 km and east to west distance is about 70 km.

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Slaying the Badger

This was a fun read – especially while we were spending a couple weeks following this year’s Tour de France.  With a bit of bus travel and more than a few hours waiting for the peloton during our trip, we knew that we would have some time to dig into a few good books.  Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France fit the bill for me. This was a fantastic read that sucked me in from the first pages (yeck!).  It is a fascinating reporting on the 1986 Tour de France which was the first Tour that featured a team from the States and ended with the first winner from the States, Greg LeMond. It was also the last Tour for Bernard Hinault – a hugely popular French cycling legend who today is still very influential and prominent in French cycling.

The story line revolves around the inter-team fireworks between the two leaders Hinault and LeMond and their agreement that frustrated both but also set the context for one of the most entertaining races in its history. Ultimately,  the outcome solidified Hinault’s French popularity and position as a bit of a folk hero and LeMond as the first winner of the race from the USA and also a pivotal player in increasing salaries and the free market model in professional cycling.

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Really? No helmets in ’86

It’s a story of characters – from the leaders, the managers, the owners and even the Tour’s officials. All involved seem to have been a bit off balanced at best.  It’s a fast, enlightening and fun read. Though, it is very much an “inside baseball” story that may be difficult for a casual fan, if you follow cycling or are intrigued by this race, it is a good one to pick up.

And if you want to know why you shouldn’t have your favorite Mexican food delivered from California to France the night before an important ride, definitely check this one out (or at least review the Amazon Kindle sample which will give you that answer)

Allez, Allez Tour de France

“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most .” Eddie Merckx, famous French professional cyclist.

With plenty of mountain stages, an uphill mountain time trial, terrifying descents, heavy rains, and crushing winds, there were plenty of opportunities for suffering in this year’s Tour de France.  Long on our bucket list, we were both excited to spend two weeks riding and following many stages of the Tour de France.  For those unfamiliar, the Tour de France is a 3 week cycle race that attracts the world’s most elite riders. There are grand tours in other European countries (Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana), but the Tour de France is the oldest (started in 1903) and considered the most prestigious.  There are a few longer stage races that are growing in popularity back in the States (Tour of Utah, Tour of California as examples), but most do not come close in attendance, global awareness, and marketing and sponsorship dollars as the Tour de France.

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The Tour takes over France every July, and you best not be in its way. It is extremely popular among its European fans and is one of the only premier sporting events in the world where fans can show up and watch for free. It is also one of the only professional sporting events where fans can get so close to athletes and teams. Of course, there are many options to spend money to enjoy premier viewing experiences to get even closer – such as riding along with a  team or sponsor cars or watching it from above in an helicopter.

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In both the large cities and small villages that the Tour visits, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of fans come out to watch.  Many drive campers and RVs around following the race for the full three weeks.  At the pivotal and popular stages, usually mountain stages in the Pyrenees or the Alps (such as Mt. Ventoux or Alp D’Huez), it would not be unusual for 100-200K people to congregate on the roadsides to watch the riders. Many mark their territory days or even weeks in advance.

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Fans are varied and diverse.  There are the rowdy beer-drinking youth, families, couples, grandparents with tricked out RVs and tablecloths, jacket and tie folks at the VIP areas in the beginning and end of the races each day, and of course, cycling fanatics with all types of bikes and gear.  And not a small amount of penguin suits and other such outfits.  Then there is the iconic Tour de France devil who is credited with starting the trend of wearing costumes to sporting events.

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If you are not going to use them, we’ll take them!

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Logistics for watching this race are not for the faint of heart.  There are certainly many that jump in their cars, pack their camping gear and go, but having some experience or traveling with those that have some is the way to go.  We found a UK-based company, Sports Tours International, that have been taking folks to the Tour for decades and offered a great mix of viewing options along with daily rides and climbs. We were a group of 30 or so from all over the globe – Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand and even Belize as well as the Cayman Islands.  About half of the group were riding and the other half just watching. The cycling crew were mostly serious folks with couples tricked out in matching team gear and many sporting their new Rapha kit. Our guides were a couple retired firemen from Southern Cal (go figure) and our seasoned bus driver (so key for avoiding the post race traffic) was from Belgium.  We were equipped with a full on motor coach with a trailer for the bikes and a minivan for getting in and around the race circuits. We did not have laundry facilities on our bus like the pro’s but then again, we had built-in coolers stocked full with cold beer.

 

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Generally, there is a lot of waiting while watching the tour.  If you are only at the stage for the day, you need to arrive at least a couple hours early if you want to claim a spot with an interesting vantage point. Climbs are a popular spot to watch as riders will often be slowed down if the grade is steep (although it is amazing how fast these guys climb). So you camp out for a few hours with friends, beers, kindles and all sorts of other means of occupying your time. Excitement builds throughout the day until Tour car traffic increases and the Caravan rolls through. The Caravan is basically a parade of sponsors that zooms thru throwing out free chotskies to the crowds. It is a good way to amp up the crowd before the racers arrive, but the competition for free hats and key chains can get crazy.

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But the real excitement comes when the sound of the TV helicopters overhead along with the chants of “allez, allez” from the crowd down road can be heard. This is when you know the riders will be coming in fast.

 

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Much of the route, including the important climbs, are open to the public up until a few hours before the riders arrive so everyday there are fans out on the routes cycling the course for the day. Riding some of the big climbs a few hours before the Tour when all the fans are out in force, camped out on the road, and well into their beverages was one of our favorite experiences. We were able to ride a number of classic climbs including Mt Ventoux (ouch), Grand Colombier, Col de Joux Plane, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc le Bettex.

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Our ride up Mt Ventoux was quite something.  At the base, it was hot and closing in on 90. at the top, it chilled down to the 40’s.  It was a very windy day with gusts clocked in at over 160 km/hr and very strong sustained winds that were punishing when confronting them head on. Luckliy, there are many switchbacks so we were not always heading into it.  At the top, riders were being blown off bikes – it was crazy.  The next day, the Tour officials canceled the top of Mt Ventoux – the last 6kms because of the winds.

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Mountain stages are great ones to watch because they usually determine the winners, but they also slow the riders down so you can get a chance to see more of them as they roll by you.  On mountain stages (especially towards the end of the week), riders  can be strung out almost an hour( but all need to be within 20% of finisher to stay in the race).

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The riders have gone before you know it, and then you are rushing to get out of the town before the chaotic traffic begins. Small towns can get absolutely crushed.

We were able to see two time trial stages which are quite the experience because there is a lot more going on through out the day.  During time trials, riders navigate the course along competing for the fastest times. They usually start 2-3 minutes after each other so with 200 riders, there is a full day of starts or finishes or riders rolling by you.

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The Tour does not stop for rain.

Also, you can wander around the start village and view riders warming up before their race, talk with team mechanics, and check out the bikes up close.

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So much potential

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One of the time trials that we watched was an uphill mountain stage- a bit unique. We got the benefits of both a mountain stage and a time trial stage and were able to ride part of the climb early in the day so it proved to be a very interesting day.

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Included in our outing with the group were two VIP experiences that allowed us to get a bit closer and view the race in relative comfort.  The first such experience was at the finish line on Stage 15 which was a mountain stage but also included a circular route so the riders came through the finish line twice.  After riding the climb in the morning, we watched the race outside on big screen TV’s until the riders came by where we watched it live.  The “free beer” and finish line setting  had the crowd excited and we met all sorts of characters. Susan ended up hanging out with the mother of the owner of Team Dimension Data (they had a great tour this year).  Team Dimension, based in South Africa, is also a rather unique team in that they are associated with the Qhubeka Foundation.  The Qhubeka Foundation is a South African based non-profit that donates bikes to underprivileged kids who have achieved certain goals.

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Our second VIP experience didn’t go quite so well. It was another spot set up next to the race course where there was fantastic food and drink and big screen TVs for viewing the race before the riders arrived in the area.  This was all great, especially after another big morning of climbing.  But heavy rains began to fall and the area was actually flooded out so they had to close the area and we all joined the racers (they don’t stop the race for rain) out on the road and got a bit wet. But we were able to see the racers charge by and the then we ran to the shelter of a local bar, with a standing-room only crowd, to watch the finish.

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As the band continues to play

Our final day was back in Paris to watch the famous end to the 3 weeks. At about 6pm, the racers arrive and cycle down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe where they make 8 laps along the champs. It is an incredibly popular stage given its Paris setting and the 8 laps. Hundreds of thousands turned out.  Given the horrible events in Nice a week earlier, the military and police presence was both sobering and impressive. And blocks around the race were completely closed, creating quite a surreal feel. At this point in our trip, we had reached our limit with the crowds and the waiting so we strolled around the circuit, watched the women’s race (they are FAST too), and then headed to Paris bistro to watch the final.

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Much Contemplation

It was a great couple weeks of cycling and watching for us. For those interested in the sport, we would highly recommend checking out at least a few stages or days of the tour. You can get a similar experience with less crowds at one of the other European grand tours but the crowds and mayhem are what makes the Tour de France so unique.

Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and photos of cycling the villages of the tour this year.

Leaving the Loire

“The Loire Valley is grossly underestimated. The prices are fair, and the wine is real.” – the straight-talking Gary Vaynerchuk

Our final two days of cycling in the Loire took us to stays in Chinon and Saumur with stops along the way. Both are fantastic, smallish towns centered in the heart of Loire wine country. We had plenty of time for more cycling and more wine tasting.

IMG_2408.JPGAs with all our cycling in Loire, the roads and trails were quite good.

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Chinon is quite a unique region in the Loire because it mostly focused on red wine rather than whites. And the Chinon AOC allows for some blending of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape (up to 10%)  with the Loire mainstay, Cabernet Franc.  We only had one night in Chinon, but wished we had more as the village is lovely.  We stayed in a charming, family-run hotel in the village, Hotel Diderot, which seems to cater to bikers as there were quite a few other bikers staying there as well.  Thanks to Euro2016, we were able to get into a good restaurant in town with out reservations- L’Ardoise (France was playing that night so all the locals were watching not eating).   There were only a few Brits, a couple Aussies and ourselves in the restaurant that night and it unexpectedly became quite a social evening.

 

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Joan of Arc doing her thing
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Shutter stop

After Chinon, we headed to Fontevraud-L’Abbaye, a commune in the Maine-et-Loire department and apparently home to one of the oldest abbeys in Europe. The Fontevraud Abbey was founded in 1101.  The history of Europe can blow you away sometimes if you stop to think about it – especially compared to how short ours is back in The States.

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We made sure to save time to duck into a winery or two to sample the local magic and check out some of the shops and galleries utilizing the ancient caves to sell their wares. The wine at Château de Targé was mostly unremarkable and they were pushing “shipments back to the States” a bit more than we have experienced but their chateau perched up above the river provided a beautiful setting for a break (and a little bit of climbing to get there)

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Our final destination was Samur where we ended cycling and spent a few extra days. Samur is another great Loire city with a beautiful old town, chateau and a fantastic setting along the river. We found a new hotel/ apart-hotel in old town Saumur which worked great for us, Les Londres.  It is centrally located in the old town and offers hotel rooms as well a couple full-service apartments.

Saumur was the site of a WWII battle so it also has some interesting history. The town was jammed with tourists, but we found some quiet spots as well as a few tasty boulangeries.  L’Escargot and Le Pot de Lapin are two great restaurants, but be sure to make reservations (and sit outside or wear mosquito repellent inside at Le Pot de Lapin).  Food was great at Le Pot de Lapin.  We just missed the Tour de France by a few days as they started a stage here this year (but we caught up with the Tour and more on that later).

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Biking in the Loire has been great.  It is a beautiful spot ( with one charming village after another as well as great wine and food) and really designed well for cyclists with all its bike paths and trails. And within an hour’s train ride from Paris, it is super accessible.  I am sure we’ll be back in the future – there are so many wines still to sample out there!

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Majorca Hike: Cala Tuent to Puerto Sóller

“The mountains are calling. I must go” – John Muir

When we planned a couple weeks on an island in the Mediterranean, we were thinking more about the beach and the beautiful, crystal-clear waters. But after a few days in the city and near the sea, the mountains were calling!

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Majorca is an island off the coast of Spain that is a very popular summer spot with European tourists. It is most known for its shopping and nightlife.  However, it also happens to be where the professional cycling team, Team Sky, does some winter training, and so it is also popular with cyclists.  But its mountain range, the Serra de Tramuntana that dramatically cascades down to the sea on the Western part of the island, offers some incredibly scenic walking trails.

 

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After a few days in the capital of Palma with the hordes of tourists, a walk in the mountains with relative solitude was just what we were after.  We chose a route between Cala Tuent and Puerto de Sóller which are both on the northwest coast of Majorca and only about 30 km from Palma. We were day tripping from Palma. So while the 211 bus and the Ferrocarril de Sóller (first train is at 10am) offer good options to get to the Sóller area, we opted to pick up a rental car to give us some flexibility on both ends of the hike. (Travel tip: we reserved a small commercial truck with Enterprise on the Palma port and as expected, they replaced it with a standard car when we picked it up – saving us over 75% the cost of a standard rental.)

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We were aiming for a 10 am sailing on a water taxi with Barcos Zules from Puerto de Sóller to Cala Tuent so that we could walk the 10 miles back on the Balitx path. It was tight but we made the boat by 10 minutes.

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After squeezing out of the harbor, we followed the coast for about 45 minutes, stopping to check out a couple bays and caves along the way.

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We were delivered to the Cala Tuent beach – which is a nice quiet bay at the base of the mountains (if you are looking for something to eat, there is a restaurant about 200 meters up the trail from the South side of the beach).

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For the first couple hours of hiking the path gains a bit of elevation and also meanders along the cliffs, providing fantastic views of the bays below. The views above and below are spectacular.

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A couple hours in, you climb two saddles and then drop into a gorgeous valley filled with  olive trees and goat farms. You lose most of your shade for the remainder of the hike so it can get hot. It was 35C the day we traversed this spot so we were glad we brought 3 liters of water. (Note: water is not easily accessible on the trail so bring plenty before you hop on the boat – 2 liters per person is a good min for a moderately hot day; more for hotter days).

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Olive Trees – hundreds of years old
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After an hour of wandering through the olive trees, you will reach another saddle and the last high point for this direction.  As you start to descend, you will get killer views of Puerto de Sóller.  You will see plenty of signs on the path for trails to the Port or to the town of Sóller – both about 60-90 minutes down the path.

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Puerto de Soller
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While we found the trail well marked for 80% of the way, we lost the signs as we exited onto a road where we should have been only 20-30 minutes from the end. We had a 50/50 choice in direction and chose incorrectly and ended heading down a busy road for a few more kilometers (if you end up there, take a right back towards the north). But we found a restaurant to grab a couple cold beers and called a taxi to get a ride back to the Port.

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Palma is a fun city (stay tuned), but if you find yourself in Majorca, you need to get out and see the mountains – they are incredible!