Reeling in a Big One in Southwest Portugal

“Now is no time to think about what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man of the Sea

With our year on the road quickly coming to an end (they do go quickly), we set off to the southern coast of Portugal for more sun and some cycling along the Rota Vicentina – the fisherman’s trail.

img_5420

The trail follows the coastline through the Alentejo and Algarve regions of Soutwest Portugal. We didn’t cycle it the complete route (hiking is the best way to cover it all) but road some very scenic pieces while  adding some mountain biking in the interior and some road cycling through the cork forests to complete a solid week of cycling in the region.

img_5335img_5352img_5361img_5362img_5336img_5353img_5355

The scenery is incredible and parts of the trail are quite wild and remote.

img_5374img_5429img_5431img_5442img_5489img_5605img_5613img_5368img_5338

We started in the sleepy town of Grandola and ended in the surf town of Sagres stopping in Porto Covo, Vila Nova de Milfontes, Odeceixe, Arrifana, and Pedralva. Grandola was a mostly forgettable town, but we did have a surreal experience there. The town is small with 15K people but hardly tiny.  When we arrived on a hot Sunday afternoon, there was absolutely no one around. Parks were empty. Streets were empty. The roads had no cars. It felt liked we stepped into a ghost town.

img_5311img_5319img_5323img_5325img_5331

But as the night cooled, people started to emerge. Most of the other towns we visited were much more vibrant as they were a bit closer to the coast and still drawing many visitors.

img_5376img_5401img_5463img_5470img_5476img_5602

And the beaches that are scattered all over the coast near towns and in remote and seemingly unreachable locations were “filled” with surfers and sun-worshipers.

img_5454img_5455img_5458img_5482img_5493img_5510img_5545img_5609

But the true gem of this journey was the endless coastline with its craggy rocks, stork nests, beach flowers,and sea vistas. The coastline is  wild, gorgeous and mostly undeveloped…and a sight to see.

img_5409img_5436img_5445img_5446img_5496img_5503img_5527img_5587img_5618img_5622img_5558

Sagres was a great place to finish up.  It is one of the larger surf towns on the coast and has a number of beaches and surf breaks within walking distance from the center.  There is a castle and ruins and the Cape St. Vincent, only 4km or so out of town, which is the Western most part of continental Europe. There are plenty of restaurants and watering holes and a strange outdoor laundromat that is a great place to meet backpackers and surfers hanging out drinking beer and waiting for their dry cycle to complete.

img_3904

The scenery on the southern coast of Portugal was really amazing.  The cycling was a good means to get the views and experience the untamed lands, but if you are after a pure cycle vacation, there may be better spots in Portugal, the North on the Camino route as an example or east of the coast. On this trip, we ran into a lot of dogs – especially on the off-road routes. Most of them were farm dogs defending their turf.  Some were security dogs protecting particularly remote homes.  Most were chained but enough were not that we were a bit on edge from the many encounters each day.  Often there were options to do a bit of riding on the road but because of the lack of options in the areas, cyclists need to share the road with transport trucks.  If you do cycle here, make sure to carry extra water during the hotter months and a bit of extra food because it can get so remote that you can find yourself hours from any option for food or water.

But if you are a surfer or beach goer, rent an RV and head for the coast.  There are so many spots to pull over and spend the night, take a swim, throw out a line, and chill.  It was a great spot for us to spend the last two weeks of this year’s adventure!

 

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.

IMG_3895

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.

IMG_3865

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.

IMG_3358

IMG_3364IMG_3753IMG_3943IMG_3944IMG_3953

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.

IMG_3820IMG_3831IMG_3841IMG_3848IMG_3881IMG_3895IMG_3933

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.

IMG_3877IMG_3777IMG_3824IMG_3839IMG_3846IMG_3873IMG_3875

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

IMG_3757IMG_3760IMG_3763IMG_3766IMG_3808IMG_3811IMG_3896IMG_3911IMG_3930

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.

IMG_3893IMG_3782IMG_3806IMG_3849IMG_3883IMG_3888IMG_3893IMG_3917

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.

IMG_3850IMG_3852IMG_3863

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!

 

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.

Slaying-the-Badger_web_1
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.

IMG_2737

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.

IMG_2655IMG_2601IMG_2598IMG_2589IMG_3389IMG_3370IMG_2552

IMG_3117

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.

IMG_2480IMG_2481IMG_2492IMG_3248IMG_3282IMG_3285

IMG_3132

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.

IMG_2534IMG_2535IMG_2575IMG_3005IMG_3033IMG_3223IMG_3317

IMG_3318
If you are not going to use them, we’ll take them!

IMG_3447IMG_3475IMG_3221

 

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.

 

IMG_3053IMG_2579IMG_3067IMG_2586

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.

IMG_2538IMG_3271IMG_2539IMG_3272IMG_3274IMG_2746IMG_2749IMG_2541

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.

 

IMG_2546IMG_2570IMG_2867IMG_2781IMG_2832IMG_2856

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.

IMG_2462IMG_2531IMG_2475IMG_2477IMG_2466

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.

IMG_2693IMG_2716IMG_3127IMG_2700IMG_3243IMG_3246

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).

IMG_3291IMG_3292IMG_3110IMG_3076IMG_3095IMG_3101IMG_3104

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.

IMG_2593IMG_2609IMG_2618IMG_2619IMG_2631IMG_2649IMG_3030IMG_3167IMG_3204IMG_3334IMG_3352

IMG_3353
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.

IMG_2585IMG_2587IMG_2588IMG_2600IMG_2603IMG_2608IMG_2635

IMG_2619
So much potential

IMG_2618

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.

IMG_3104IMG_3101IMG_3095IMG_3076

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.

IMG_2686IMG_2692IMG_2735

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.

IMG_3311IMG_3312

IMG_3144
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.

IMG_3442IMG_3445IMG_3455

IMG_3477
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.

IMG_2400IMG_2383IMG_2423IMG_2384

 

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.

 

IMG_2386IMG_2406IMG_2407IMG_2396IMG_2397

IMG_2401
Joan of Arc doing her thing
IMG_2389
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.

IMG_2411IMG_2413IMG_2415IMG_2427

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)

IMG_2431IMG_2432IMG_2435IMG_2438

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).

IMG_2442IMG_2445IMG_2448IMG_2449

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!

IMG_2425

Jardins Spectaculaires de la Loire

From Tours, our cycling took us to Azay-le-Rideau, yet another charming French village, with a stop to check out the Villandry Chateau Jardins.

Starting in such a large city as Tours, we were both surprised how quickly we escaped the city and got into the countryside and its small villages – it could not have taken more than 15 minutes on our cycles (Side note:  France has done a great job with zoning.  Villages have maintained their charming character, and you do not typically see any commercialization seeping in.  Outside of the villages, there may be a zone commerciale or industrielle but again not in the village itself.)

Tours is clearly a bike friendly city with bike lanes and bike paths throughout and around the city.  (Loire Valley, in general, is so bike friendly with a plethora of bike paths and lanes and relatively flat that it is a great place for a family to cycle.)

IMG_2356IMG_2279IMG_2337

The weather improved quite a bit since our first couple days. The sun was out, and it was a perfect 75 degrees. There were some rolling hills, but for the most part, the riding was flat, and the tarmac was in perfect condition.  It was the kind of conditions that just put a smile on your face and made you feel like a kid again. We were cycling 3-5 hours per day usually with a couple hours of breaks and touring around.  And today, we took a break today to check out the Villandry Chateau and its gardens. We were starting to fill up our chateau quota for the month, but the gardens here were strongly recommended so we took a small detour to check them out and we were not disappointed.

The chateau was first constructed during Medieval times, and then updated during the 18th century by some well off folks who no doubt enjoyed years of good living and debauchery there.

IMG_2295IMG_2309IMG_2293IMG_2301

The gardens are enormous with mazes, water elements, sculptures, organic and vegetable plantings and multi-tiers.

IMG_2296IMG_2304

IMG_2289IMG_2292IMG_2305IMG_2307IMG_2310IMG_2316IMG_2324IMG_2330IMG_2331IMG_2332

Back on the road, it was more kilometers winding around farmlands and small villages. Passing through Crissay, we noticed a very unique take on street art. Crissay is one of many villages with the French designation of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This designation is given to exceptional villages with interesting heritage and is one of the means that France protects its historical villages.

IMG_2351IMG_2370IMG_2373

And a few klicks from our destination, we made a small stop in Sache, the home of the famous French writer, Honore de Balzac.  We have not read any of his books yet (La Comédie Humaine is his magnum opus), but he is said to have had a big influence on Dickens and Kerouac so we stopped by the Musee  Balzacc (which was closed, of course, because it was a Tuesday).

IMG_2341

In Azay-le-Rideau, we stayed at the charming Le Grand Monarque which has a great, centrally-located spot in the town.  We typically do not eat at the hotels where we stay, but we did during our stay in Azay-le- Rideau, and the dinner was excellent (which is often the case at small hotels in France).

It was another great day and ride in the Loire. From here, we were off to Chinon and further west along the Loire Valley.

Cycling Vouvray Country

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.”- Louis Pasteur

After a few days in the village of Amboise, we headed to the larger city of Tours. Our route took us through the village of Vouvray and its  surrounding winelands.  Our cycling paths continued to be well marked and include plenty of car-free bike paths.

IMG_2230IMG_2231IMG_2234IMG_2252

The Loire is a fantastic place to bike. There are a lot of bike campers and families abound given the relatively flat surroundings but the hardcore roadies are also out on the occasion 18% grade!

IMG_2439

Inevitably, the routes pass through all sorts of villages where there is always a boulangier and boucher (although most are closed from 1230-300 so picnic lunches require some planning).

IMG_2221IMG_2243IMG_2248IMG_2251IMG_2258

On the way we stopped at Chateau Gaudrelle, one of the many wineries in the area. Producing about 100K bottles of wine, it is considered a medium-sized winery (and only has 6 full-time employees).  The Appellation d’Origine (AOC) for this area is dedicated almost exclusively to growing the Chenin Blanc grape.

 

IMG_2239

Engaged in a fascinating discussion with a very passionate wine maker, we ended up staying all afternoon at this one winery. We tasted 10-15 different wines all made from only the two grapes of the region served with some wonderful rillette and fabulous goat cheese.  It was amazing to taste the differences created by different soil types (clay and limestone) and by micro-climates influenced by sea or mountain winds. We also got a chance to tour their caves and observe their ancient manual machines for aging sparkling wines (actually used to ‘riddle‘ the wine to settle the yeast lees). Not as well known as Champagne and harder to get in the States, sparkling Vouvray wine is quite popular in the Loire region, and many argue offers better value than Champagne and better quality to Cava and Proseco  – although most making those arguments are not Spanish or Italian. We recommend tasting all four and making your own decision!

After three hours of wine tasting, we were ready for our cycle into Tours, one of the larger cities in the Loire with a vibrant mix of old and new.

IMG_2264IMG_2260IMG_2261IMG_2262IMG_2271IMG_2273

We enjoyed our overnight in Tours but are looking forward to getting back out into the country and the small villages later in the week.

The Lure of the Loire

“…I think a great deal of happiness is given to men who are born where good wines are grown” -Da Vinci (while living in the Loire Valley).

After just about a month in Croatia (3 weeks of cycling and a week of kayaking), we moved on to France to spend some time with good wines (and great cheese and bread) as well as to cycle a bit. We started a 5-day, self-guided trip through different villages with a goal to ensure we are in cycling shape for the Tour de France (or at least got a little fitter – The Loire is not very hilly).

IMG_2130IMG_3036

We had a short and direct flight from Split, Croatia to Paris where we hopped on a train to Amboise in the Loire Valley. The Split airport was the worst one that we have encountered in our roughly 9 months of travel. It is overwhelmed by travelers and flights and offers little (very little) infrastructure. Huge lines, not enough seats, one option for eating (I think, in the business, they call it a “CF”). They also have an interesting model there where airlines do not manage the check-in or baggage.  Given the popularity of Croatia, hopefully expansion plans are in the works for the Split airport.

Due to time schedules and the significantly decreased number of trains from Paris to Amboise on Saturdays, we originally booked a car and were prepared for a 3 hour drive but our flight was delayed and by the time we arrived, it made much more sense to hop on a few trains to get there. Despite 4 transfers and a couple metro stops, it was not a bad trip. The European train system is impressive and is a great way to travel.

IMG_2455

The train station was an easy 1 km to the town center and our hotel, Le Pavillon de Lys.  It was about 8pm by the time we arrived but it felt like mid-day. The sun was out. Balloons were being launched. It was a perfect 75 degrees. The town is a fantastic spot for a base to explore the Loire  Valley.  It sits along the river in the shadows of its castle, Chateau d’Amboise, the grand 15th-century residence of King Charles VIII.

IMG_2125

IMG_2138IMG_2223IMG_2226IMG_2221

Cycling in the Loire is great with plenty of trails and marked routes throughout the valley.  Our plan was to spend a week cycling through smaller towns and villages and get our legs in shape from some bigger rides in the coming weeks. After a couple cloudy days, the weather improved quite a bit and we had sun and beautiful temperatures. The weather combined with the well marked routes attracted quite a few cyclists to the areas.  Tourists, bicycle campers, roadies and commuters crowed the bike lanes.

IMG_2145IMG_2199

Our first ride took us the to the Chateau de Chenonceau, which is quite a well known chateau dating back to the 11th century. Its unique design spans a river and has a fascinating history.  During WWI, it was used as a hospital ward and during WWII, it was a a means of escaping from the German occupied zone  on one side of the River Cher to the “free” zone on the opposite bank.  The grounds and gardens were as stunning as the castle itself.  (Susan found a great read, The Nightingale, set during WWII and inthe Loire Valley with heroic women as the lead characters.  More on this book in another post).

IMG_2150

IMG_2156IMG_2162IMG_2179IMG_2180IMG_2183IMG_2192IMG_2194IMG_2197

Back in Amboise, we had an opportunity to visit a unique winery, Les Caves Duhard, which does not grow grapes or even buy them.  They buy juice and blend. And their marketing angle, in the massively competitive market that is The Loire, is aging wine.  The AOC’s are quite restrictive in the region and almost all the wine is made with either the white Chenin Blanc or red Cabernet Franc grapes.

IMG_2219

Their facilities are housed in a limestone cave – caves that are quite common throughout the Valley.  Originally used to mine limestone for the chateaus, castle and home building, most of the larger caves are now used for storing wine or growing mushrooms.  The temperature and humidity offer the perfect conditions for both. As a result, they have wine dating back to just after the war and lots of wine available from the sixties onward. Interestingly, most of the wine is white.  Given the proper conditions and good grapes, white wines can hang around for decades.

 

IMG_2218IMG_2211IMG_2215IMG_2209IMG_2217

 

Amboise, situated on the Loire River, is a classic French village with a stunning chateau  and charming French architecture.  Given the proximity to wineries, bike routes and other chateaus in the region (especially Chateau Chenonceau), it was a great way to kick off our tour of the Loire Valley.

On this trip, we used yet another good biking company, Discover France.  We had used Discover France in the past but some time has past since we last used this company.  The value they add is not only transporting your luggage from hotel to hotel (and handling all the logistics) but also they organized some great wine tastings for us like the one at Les Caves Duhard which we might have missed given the plethora of wineries in the valley.

Back on the Bikes: Venice, Italy to Porec, Croatia

We are back on the bikes this week. We have not put in any serious miles since our ride in Southern India back in February so we are excited to be back at it and especially in Europe – our favorite place to cycle in the world.  Europe has a fabulous network of bike paths, and European drivers embrace the term “sharing the road”.  There is such a biking culture here both in terms of recreation and daily transport. In virtually every European village and city, you will find bike paths as well as young, middle-aged and older folks alike cycling to work, riding from the supermercati with groceries and flowers in bike baskets or heading out an evening cycle with the family. On weekends and holidays, you do not have to go very far before encountering a local pelaton making laps out on a country road.

IMG_0634

IMG_0734

 

IMG_0638.JPG

Our summer in Europe kicks off with a six day cycle from Venice, Italy through Slovenia to the coastal town of Porec, Croatia.  Cycling mileage from Venice to Porec is only about 290 miles.  It was a relatively modest distance but some of the route was dirt, and we were on heavy hybrid bikes which elongated the time to cover the 70-85+kms each day. Our self-guided cycling trip was booked with a new cycling company we found, Rad & Reisen, and our experience with them was excellent.  There were a few key things that differentiate this biking company from other biking companies we have used which include but are not limited to REI, Backroads, Randonee:

  1. Rad & Reisen uses a local logistics company, FunActive, that places stickers along the route. Some days, we did not need our turn by turn directions because of the sticker placement which was really nice.
  2. Although the trip was self-guided, there were six others (a couple from Germany, another German with a Swiss, and two others from France) that started at the same time with us and stayed at most of the same hotels.  It is nice to meet new folks that share a common interest and catch up before and after the rides.
  3. One of our fellow bikers broke the brake on the bike.  While the other biking companies we have used have a contact number for situations like this, Rad & Reisen has a hard wired, local network for not just a person to assist but experienced bike shops.  Within thirty minutes, a person from a local shop was at the site and fixed the brake.

There were so many things to love about this biking trip.  Three out of the six days we cycled were mostly on flat surfaces until reaching Trieste, Italy (a great town) and then each day thereafter the amount of hills increased.  Only 3% of the biking was on busy roads and this was mainly when we entered larger towns.   27% of the biking was on cycle paths and 70% on very small country roads giving the feel that 97% was on a cycle path.  It is pure bliss cycling along gorgeous country roads with no traffic, stunning scenery and fabulous weather.

IMG_0568.JPG

IMG_0565

 

IMG_0580.JPG

Stage 1 included biking from Venice (mainland) to Jesolo.  We had two options for this stage (and most stages):

  1. Bike the whole way about 75 kilometers
  2. Or, bike and take a ferry to Jesolo

We are in training to attend and bike some of the Tour de France so we opted for biking the whole way.  Once we got out of Venice, we were on some beautiful country roads and cycled through some lovely smaller villages- including Zuccarello, San Liberale, Ca’ Tron, Caposile. Our final destination for the day was the beach town of Jesolo on the Adriatic located in the province of Venice and on the coast the north of Venice.  Jesolo is a beach town with little Venetian architecture but a beautiful beach.  For us, it was a little too touristy and a bit kitschy but the sound of the ocean and the view of the beach was lovely.  We had a great hotel, Hotel Bali, right on the beach and centrally located in Jesolo.

IMG_0585.JPG

Stage 2 was more impressive.  It included visits to the stunning villages of Caorle, Portogruaro and Concordia Sagittaria.  The villages have an interesting history and gorgeous architecture.    On Stage 2, we logged about 85 kilometers.

Caorle is another coastal town in the province of Venice situated between two estuaries- Livenza and Lemene rivers.  It was founded in the 1st century BC by the Romans and was one of the strategic cities of the Republic of Venice.

IMG_0596.JPG

IMG_0600.JPG

In Caorle, like other village centers, stands the typical bell town.  This one dates back to 1048.  It is a typical Romanesque style but has a cylindrical structure which is unique.

IMG_0594

From Caorle, we cycled to Concordia Sagittaria, another beautiful little town in the province of Venice that was founded in 42 BC by the Romans.

IMG_0604.JPG

We stayed in this lovely, family-run hotel and restaurant in Concordia Sagittaria, Hotel Iulia.

IMG_0624.JPG

Portogruaro was located roughly 1 mile from Concordia Sagittaria on a bike path beside a river.  Portogruaro was an important river-port for the Republic of Venice and is a beautiful city with Venetian elements.

IMG_0614

IMG_0615

IMG_0619

Our butts were sore at the end of Stages 1 and 2.  We have been hiking not biking.  We are not used to sitting in the saddle for about 6 hours and were both fighting a bit of a head cold that we have had since leaving the tropical Central America for Scotland a week ago. But it felt great to be back on the bike again.

IMG_0601IMG_0617

Stay tuned for Stages 3-6 where we bike to some gorgeous towns of Grado, Italy, Piran Slovenia and then onto Croatia along the stunning Istrian coast.

 

Kicking off our Cycling from Bangalore to Cochin

“Alright, alright, alright.”  Apart from a few days of cycling in late December, we haven’t been on bikes since November so we were both excited to start our two week cycle from Bangalore to Cochin with plenty of stops in National Parks and Reserves on the way.

India Route

We headed out with Emil and Majesh from Xara Active Vacations (Thomas, the owner, was fantastic with pre-trip planning and working with us to customize the trip. If you are considering cycling India or Sri Lanka, be sure to reach out to these guys). They were equipped with Scott hybrid bikes which worked well on both the road and dirt surfaces.  We were both pleasantly surprised at the great conditions of most of the roads we traveled – there was a lot of new tarmac and plenty of room most of the time.  Of course, they were also well traveled by buses, trucks, cars and scooters. But while we found the drivers very aggressive and fast (To get anywhere in India, one needs to be aggressive and driving is taken to a whole new level here.), for the most part, drivers give cyclists plenty of space. There is a lot of honking but once you understand the right-of-way rules and how passing works in the country, you can cycle comfortably within the traffic patterns.  You need to stay focused and be vigilant of the buses that are everywhere and are often traveling the fastest.

The team also had a brand new Toyota Innova which was a great support vehicle and very comfortable for the transfers around the congested areas and through some of the non-cycling tiger reserves. Equipped with a roof rack with four cycles, it was quite the exotic item which continuously turned heads and generated smiles and laughter throughout both the cities and the country regions. (It can also draw attention at police checkpoints where some strategically placed rupees are the best way to get on your way quickly).

IMG_3703.JPG

It just took a few hours to shed the Bangalore traffic and get out in the country side.  The guys were kind enough to make a quick stop to do some custom fitting of Susan’s bike to accommodate her shorter legs.

IMG_3644

IMG_3643IMG_3679IMG_3663

IMG_3662IMG_3689

 

Along the way, we cycled through some silk worm farms and had a chance to stop and check out the production.

IMG_3675IMG_3673IMG_3678IMG_3657

Our initial destination was Mysore and the famous Mysore Palace (second only to the Taj in terms of tourist visits).

IMG_3698IMG_3692IMG_3702

Along the way, we also climbed up to the Chamundi temple where we were fortunate enough to arrive during a festive time with plenty of crowds and festive cows.

IMG_3779IMG_3753IMG_3710IMG_3729IMG_3719IMG_3744

IMG_3742IMG_3740IMG_3745

IMG_3749.JPG

 

We also cycled through our first tiger reserves (Bandipur and Mudumalai Nataional Parks), which we found a little bit unnerving. Although tigers are rarely seen and the elephants usually do not come out until the evenings or early mornings, we ran into a couple wild ones close to a check point .  The same check point where the local police informed us that cycling through the reserve has been recently banned for safety reasons.

IMG_3759IMG_3760IMG_3768IMG_3770

We really enjoyed the first couple of days in the India countryside and all its beauty. Cycling provides such a unique way to see a country.  Next up is a big climb from Masinagudi to Ooty.  While Emil and Majesh informed us of ” the big climb that keeps climbing”, we did not expect the severity of the grade that we would experience for many hairpin turns.  Stay tuned for more details on the climb and beautiful, colorful Ooty!