Sunday, July 29, 2012

Winnebago Nights (Part Deux)

Since Geneva is practically right next door to the east of France and Tuesday was a rest day for the Tour, we decided before we left HK to find a hotel that had space to park our camper van and stay there for a night. We drove for about 2 hours after leaving Besancon, through hills and past many lonely goat herders as if we were cruising down the mountains that so filled the hearts of the Von Trapp family.

After we entered Geneva and failed miserably for what seemed like ages in locating our hotel, we finally found it, tucked away between buildings and down a deadend road. Eager to park our camper van, we realized with slight dread as we stopped in front of it that the Sagitta Hotel had a TINY parking lot, with 2 trees positioned in the worst places possible. As I approached the reception desk, I was met by a young lady who had no idea what her colleague was thinking when she confirmed to me via email that the measurements I sent her of our camper van would be just fine for their parking space. After a bit of brainstorming and extremely skillful camper van maneuvering by Hubby, we miraculously parked it in their tiny lot.

We did a little bit of exploring the next day, a tiny bit of shopping and had lunch at one of the random restaurants that lined the square. Cafe du Center seemed to fit the bill for us that day as it began to rain. Nothing really popped out for me that day so no food porn pictures. Sorry.

After a little bit more of walking around we had to leave to get to Stage 10 of the Tour. The receptionist at the hotel was kind enough to let us park our happy van for the day even after we checked out that morning. It was a really good thing because Hubby and D were planning on driving it to a random outside of town parking lot and take the train back to meet us. Since they didn't have to do that, we walked back to our hotel, thanked the receptionist and back we went into France.

Culoz is located at the foot of the Grand Colombier. This was the first time the Tour was going through it. We arrived in the afternoon and of course the only campsite at the foot of the mountains was fully booked. But since France is such a camper van friendly place, we simply parked in the parking lot outside of the campsite and joined a few others who were already there. We seemed to have arrived just in time because not long after the parking lot was filled with camper vans.

M at the Culoz sign as we entered the town

Although we would not be plugged in that night, it didn't really matter because all that really does is enable us to charge all our gadgets. All the lights and fridge work with the car battery and gas tank. But since we were not at a campsite, we finally initiated our camper van "facilities" that night.

Hubby and D lounging on the grassy area behind our camper van, beers in hand

As the sun slowly set and the magnificence of the Grand Colombier towered behind us, we couldn't help but stand on the lonely patch of grass next to us and stare in awe at the maniacs who have driven god knows how long ago to perch themselves quite literally at the barely there roadsides speckled along the mountain side. Thoughts of mountain goats, guided only by their natural instincts to climb on what happens to be the most precarious mountain ledges simply because the grass looks better there, filled my mind. Only these grass chewing goats were actual people, crazy enough to risk their lives simply because the bikes might go a little bit slower on the way up.

The Grand Colombier in the background. You can see tiny specks on the mountain side which are the camper vans and cars that have already parked there.

That night we made our first none open fire, proper dinner. Boy let me tell ya, even Aldi-bought smoked meats tastes great! With our first dinner created in the van, I started feeling better about the rest of the journey. I love my smoked meats, I love my goats cheeses and I love them tossed together in a sandwich, in a salad, and mixed with all sorts of other good stuff. Life was good.

Our simple dinner with salad and 2 types of sandwiches.

The next morning we packed the boys some sandwiches, walked into town ( a mere 10 minute walk unlike the 1.5 hour marathon at Besancon) with them and wished them luck as they started their hike up the Grand Colombier. M and I walked around town a bit more, checked out the festivities that was well underway and finally found a spot not too far up the ascent and waited for the much talked about sponsor trucks.

The sponsor trucks are a HUGE part of the Tour de France. I personally think if there were no sponsor trucks, there would be significantly less people attending the madness every year. Sponsor trucks, named simply because they sponsor the Tour, come around at least an hour or so before the bikes come. M and I learned quickly that the hostile looks we got from the kids at our first spot had very good reason to be territorial. After we got up and walked a bit further up the road, we realized the kids were hogging the space because that gave them more room to catch the goodies. When the trucks started coming, M and I positioned ourselves across the road from each other, that way we could catch stuff thrown from both sides of the street. After the first few trucks, I also realized you have to work hard, jump like a crazy person and hopefully make eye contact with the thrower to have stuff flung your way. I know its bad, but screw it, it was the Chinese in M and I that brought out just the slightest aggression in us when it comes to getting freebies. M made a little boy cry when she caught a bag that almost missed her and was going toward the kids. I stepped on a rubber bracelet just so that the pesky kid on my side of the road couldn't get it. So I almost stepped on his fingers, but hey, all's fair in freebies and carnage. The man across the street saw what I did and he smiled in approval.

Above are a few pictures of the sponsor trucks. You can see how well they are designed and decked out.
Our first loot of the Tour. Not bad for a first ever attempt!

After all the trucks had passed and everyone had assessed their loot, some people left while others repositioned themselves for the best viewing angle of the bikes. We stayed put and waited. Then we heard it... the helicopters were coming.

You always know the time is near when you hear the helicopters. You have ones that does the overall shots of the course, you have the news stations ones, you have official Tour ones and you have the ones that focus on the crowd favorites. Every time a helicopter came close enough, we were all waving, hoping for a second of fame. Then a few minutes later, they were there! I think they came a bit too quickly because we literally scrambled to get our cameras as they zoomed past. And unlike the time trial, they zoomed past in 2 groups, the breakaway group and the main group. So after hours of waiting, it was over in a few seconds.

Video I took of the main group from where we were standing.

Picture Hubby took on the top of the Grand Colombier.

M and I walked back to our happy van, loot in hand and waited for the boys to return. They came back after an hour or so and filled us in on the mayhem up the mountains. It came and went in a blink of the eye, but as they say, its the journey that makes it worthwhile.

View of Culoz taken from where Hubby and D were.

Next stop, Lyon and my 40th!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Winnebago Nights (Part Un)

No, we did not travel in a Winnebago, Hubby just thought it makes for a great title. We did however travel in a Dethleff camper van which fits 6 people. But since there were only 4 of us, we did not have to convert the dining table into a bed every night.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, we were traveling to France for over 2 weeks to follow the Tour de France. I asked everyone to wish us luck and hoped everything would work out as we hurtled through the French country side in our camper van. We left on July 6 and returned safely on July 24. In my eagerness to simply stay alive, not get lost, arrested or get into an accident, I did not write a daily journal which I should have.

It all started one semi-drunk night early this year when we were in Australia. Hubby came up to me with his best mate D and asked me what I thought of a Winnebago in France and lots of bikes for my 40th. I had no idea what he was talking about and brushed it off as all that beer and wine talking. As the evening progressed and he kept mentioning the Winnebago, I looked up what the heck it is. I finally understood he wanted the 4 of us, Hubby and me, and his best mate D and his partner M pillaging the French country side, hurtling down the road in a Winnebago, chasing after the Tour de France to support Cadel Evans and oh yeah, celebrate my 40th while we're there and throw in our 10th wedding anniversary. It all seemed too far fetched and I KNEW it wouldn't really happen. But I guess I was wrong.

After Hubby sobered up and we came back to HK, he actually booked the camper van, booked our tickets and told me it was happening. To tell you honestly, I was scared. And you know why? Amongst the 4 of us, I'm the only one who doesn't drink. I am also not a confident driver. I KNEW there was a big chance I would have to end up driving a monster of a vehicle. I really was scared.

As the date quickly approached and the in-laws flew in to watch the kids, I started scurrying all around HK, looking for things that I think would help during our trip. I was able to purchase a few Michelin Guide driving maps of France, a phrase book, some odds and ends which the camper van website suggested and the Lonely Planet guide to France. I did as much research as I could on-line and tried to find as many campsites as I could. It was information overload. Good thing Hubby told me to relax and that we can find them as we go along. So with that I gave up the planning, tried to pack as lightly as I could and off we went!

Our first stop was to meet up with D and M at the Frankfurt airport then pick up our camper van. Since all the camper vans were completely booked out all over France, we had to get ours in Germany. After the man gave us a quick introduction to the different parts of the van, how to fill things up and dump things out, he gave us the key, we loaded up our stuff and then I realized the van was a manual drive!!! Look, maybe in an emergency I can drive a stick shift, but I don't think I can drive a camper van. With that I knew my chances of ever driving during the trip was gone. YEY!!!

After a quick and over indulgent stop at the local Aldi (all the expensive meats like parma, cheeses of all types are so cheap there compared to HK!!!), we headed to our first town of Besancon in the Jura Mountains next to the Pyrenees. We were going to watch Stage 9 of the Tour which is a time trial. We discovered it was easy to find campsites through Google maps. All you had to do was type in the word "camping" and the town you want to go and PING! its all listed. We chose Camping de la Plage which was the closest one to Besancon. Lucky for us they had space and so we camped there as our first ever camper van camping night.

Here we are in our first campsite ever, all plugged in, awning out and picnic set ready.

Turns out one of the sponsor trucks for the Radio Shack team was camped right across from us. And following in almost everyone's footsteps at the camp, we also dropped in to ask for free t-shirts! Too bad we had to stop wearing them further into the tour after one of the prominent riders was disqualified for doping.

There was a pizza place right across the street, so we had dinner there that night. The following day was a Sunday, so we walked for over an hour and a half to reach the center of town and checked out the tourist sights. Everything in Europe is closed on Sundays, so sadly I couldn't do any shopping. It was a good thing the 4 of us are the type who would be willing to spend on good food and not so much on tourist attractions, so as gasp worthy as it may sound, we didn't go into any of the museums and did not enter the paid area of the Citadelle. But I have to say, Besancon is a lovely town. It is not mentioned much when you talk about traveling to France, but we feel it should be given a chance when going there. Becanson reminded me a lot of Prague. It is a city surrounded by a river and at the top of the hill sits a castle, watching over its people below. Although it is not as majestic as the one in Prague, it still evokes a touch of romance with its architecture and a bit of mystery with baboons patrolling the empty moat which surrounds it. Sadly most the literature provided are in French. We tried to decipher as much as we could and thought maybe one day we'll come back again and spend those few euros to go on a guided tour.

Here are D and M in front of the Victor Hugo museum. Hugo was the one who wrote Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notra Dame. He was born in Besancon.

View of the town taken from the Citadelle.

The next day was the time trial so we drove a little out of town, researched where the bikes would go past and parked along the road like many others and made our way to the bikes. I got pretty excited since I had no idea what it would be like. As we crossed the bridge, we could see a small crowd and then there they were, one bike rider zooming past beneath us every few minutes. And in its cloud of dust, along came the cheer of the crowds, echoing down the street and disappearing along the bend. In a moment of awe and wonderment, I almost switched into a slow sprint. We positioned ourselves, checked out who were zooming past and was able to make out how many have gone and how many more to go. Turns out we were a bit early. Only about 30 have gone, 168 more to go, waaah! And since Cadel Evans won last year, he would be one of the last ones to start. Since we had quite a few more hours before Evans' turn, M and I decided to walk back into town, mail out our postcard for the kids and hopefully find a little cafe to kill time. We had to go back twice since it also turns out nothing is open between noon to 2pm.

Our first ever glimpse of the Tour, LIVE, as we were walking over the closed off bridge.

One of the many road signs letting the riders know how far they still have to go.

A very Tour spirited family with their own Tour decor in their front yard.

Town of Beure sign. It's town center consisted of one street with a few shops and a post office.

After exploring the ONE street of the town, we finally went back to look for the boys, did a ton of practice shots and waited for Evans to zoom past.

All I can say is that its a good thing he has such a formidable chin! Boy, when they zoom past they really zoom past. With all the gear they have on and being in a crouching position on the bike, you can hardly tell who is whom. The only way to be sure is after they have gone past already by looking at the number on their back or their name on the car following behind them.

I have no idea who this was. He was one of the MANY practice shot samples I took in preparation for Evans.

My pathetic attempt at capturing Evans after hours of waiting and TONS of practice shots. At least I got his chin and D cheering in the background.

Here is the video we took of Evans. Every rider has an entourage of cops on motorcycles in front of them and their team cars behind them. All the fan favorites have helicopters following above as you can hear from the video.

After the initial adrenalin rush and awe of Le Tour, I was happy to finally stretch the legs and get back into our happy van.

Next stop, Geneva and Stage 10.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Two Birthdays and A Big Trip

Poseidon turned 2 today! We had a simple celebration at home and Nachos and I made him a simple, miniature train cake. Thank goodness for cake molds!

And for dinner, Nachos wanted to make a salad for her dad. She drew out the ingredients and the recipe. We went to the supermarket this morning and bought all the missing items. She instructed me on what to chop up, put everything in the bowl herself and served it. Now if only she would eat a salad herself!

This month is also my birthday month! As it will be my big 4-0, I will do my best to make this a birthday MONTH instead of just celebrating my birthday on the 12th.

Hubby has started the ball rolling and will be taking me to France for 16 days. We will meet up with his best mate and wife and have also reserved an RV which we will pick up at Frankfurt. The Tour de France is also going on now and Hubby is super excited to watch Cadel Evans in action. I'm just glad we have persuaded him NOT to wear a mankini to cheer Evans on while we are there.

It will be our first time driving around in a camper van in France, so I'm a bit nervous about the trip. I will definitely be taking tons of pictures. Wish us luck!