Ghostriders’ 2015 Renaissance Rides – Complete Chronicle

Days 1 & 2  – In Which we Learn it’s a Long Way from There to Here

No matter which way you rotate the maps, there is no getting over the fact that Melbourne is a long way from just about everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than when you have to travel to Europe. It seems an eternity ago that I awoke to my bedside alarm at 5 am on Tuesday morning. Since we needed to be at check in by 11 am, I decided to play it safe by leaving at 9 am and thus allow for any unforeseen circumstances.

As soon as we turned on to the Monash Freeway I could see that the decision to leave early was a prudent one. The traffic on the freeway was almost at a standstill and, at that rate, I would not have reached the airport by Christmas, let alone it time for my flight. We turned off at the earliest opportunity and took the Princes Highway instead. Although we arrived in time, it was a slightly stressful start to my marathon in transit.

The flight from Melbourne to Hong Kong takes around 9 and a half hours. While this might not seem like much to those on Brownwynesque budgets up in Business Class, for those of us sandwiched in the back of the plane it can seem like an eternity. My cramped situation was not helped when the tiny Asian woman in the seat in front of me immediately reclined it back as far as it could go – even though it was the still the middle of the day. For some strange reason it seems that the smallest people are the worst offenders in the battle of the reclining seat backs.

With her seat squashed firmly against my knee caps and my fertile imagination conjuring up fearful thoughts of impending DVTs in my immobile lower limbs, I entered into a battle of psychological warfare and made sure that the rear of her seat got a big nudge every time I had to change my position (about every 20 seconds). I think she must have got the message because, after about 30 minutes, she reluctantly raised it back up again.

The plane was obviously working on its own peculiar time zone and served “lunch” at about 4 pm in the afternoon and then “refreshments” just before landing. The plane disgorged its load of sardines into the massive labyrinth that is Hong Kong International Airport and I then proceeded to watch the clock advance for the next three hours. Just to liven up the boredom, Cathay Pacific decided to shift the departure gate for the next leg from one side of the airport to the other. I arrived just in time to be told that the flight would be delayed an hour or so. More clock watching.

Perhaps the time spent waiting at the airport would have gone much faster if it had not been for the flashily dressed matron next to me. She insisted on carrying on an animated conversation with herself – in Italian. Every few moments she would burst out with some rambling utterances. I was not sure of what was the correct etiquette in such circumstances. Should I join in with my own monologues or is it best to just pretend that it was not happening ? I opted for the second option and hoped that she would not end up next to me on the plane.

After finally getting admitted to the plane and squeezing myself into the matchbox that had been allocated to me, I just wanted to get the second leg of the trip underway. I knew that this leg was going to be close to 13 hours and I was already feeling as stale as a month old sausage roll. The mind games must have been too much for one passenger as the captain announced apologetically over the PA that one person was not feeling well and would not be proceeding with the flight. I could have responded by saying that I suspect that over 300 people were also not feeling well but were too tightly squashed in to ever contemplate leaving. That also meant that the departing passenger’s luggage would have to be removed from the cargo hold. Of course they would have to find it first. Another hour delay!

By the time  the plane finally lifted off I was regretting not having some sort of magic pills that would simply put me in a coma for the next 13 hours. Fortunately the sand man did pay me a short visit and I was able to grab a couple of hour’s of broken sleep along the way, while the screen in front of me tormented me by reminding me just how painfully slowly the little icon of the plane was making its way over Iraq and  Syria and just about every other current world trouble spot. I suppose I should have been grateful that the pilot did not make a detour over North Korea, just to fill out the list.

Finally the plane touched down at Rome Airport under a beautiful cloudless sky. After what seemed like a decade spent in transit, somehow I felt much better. My drooping eyelids burst the velcro that had been holding them shut and I actually started to feel excited about the adventure that would soon be unfolding. My luggage did not go astray (in fact it never has) and the sign of a man waiting with a sheet of paper with my name on it indicated that the shuttle I had ordered on the Internet had not done a runner with my money.

I suspect that these long transits may be a bit like childbirth – its horrible while you are going through them, but the horror is quickly forgotten once the good bit starts. Over the next few hours the rest of our participants will be gathering in Rome and the adventure that started almost two years ago will finally get underway.

Day 3 In Which I Roam Around Rome

“What a difference a day makes” or so says the old saying. I would like to modify this a little to make it apply to muddle headed, jet lagged travelers by saying “what a difference a few hours sleep make”. By last evening I was feeling that I had been run over by a succession of buses but, after a (mostly restful) few hours of slumber I am feeling quite human again. The horrors of the two days of transit are already fading into the dark recesses of my memory.  I have even had a chance to catch up on some laundry.

I have now had a chance to make contact with all the other members of our 2015 Italy ride and determine that they have all arrived safely. Since they had been arriving over the preceding couple of days, it was a relief to know that at least we had all successfully reached the start of our new adventure.

It is already looking the weather in Rome will be a little like groundhog day – the same over and over again. I still have not seen a cloud since we landed yesterday morning and the midday temperature is always close to 35C. And this is at the tail end of summer !  I cannot imagine why so many people would choose to travel in Europe in the middle of summer and battle, not just with the heat, but with the worst of the tourist throngs. Late August through to early October is a much wiser choice.

I have always been a little different to the “standard tourist” and do not have a lot of interest in what the guide book says I should see in a particular city. I cannot help but be amused by those that flock from hot spot to hot spot, trying to tick off all the boxes in their allocated few hours. Even worse are those poor throngs of tired looking people following some tour guide with a yellow umbrella or some other colourful object held high in the air. It always reminds me of some sort of penguin parade and it is certainly not the way that I like to explore a city.

I am however intrigued by history and every time I come to Europe it is reminder of just how thin our history in Australia really is. It is barely 10 generations since white settlement began in Australia. There have been six generations since my own forefathers arrived in Australia in 1852. I used to think that was a long time ago, however when you walk around Rome you are surrounded by the efforts of the past two millennia and a history that goes back over 100 generations. When I stand at look at 2000 year old ruins and see the thousands of clay bricks that were used in the construction, my mind tried to imagine that each one of those bricks was made by some worker’s hands.Every single ancient brick could tell its own story.

The other thing I always do in an unfamiliar city is simply wander the streets and observe the people going about their everyday lives. For me it is the people that define a city and I try to quietly observe and see what life in that location is all about. Are the people happy, busy and animated or are they sad, tired and dejected ? I try to absorb as much as possible of the essence of the place. I don’t particularly care where  I walk, but I do always make sure that I know the way back to my hotel when I am done exploring. Some of the most rewarding and interesting experiences that I have had in my travels have happened when I least expected it. It is this serendipity of travel that I really adore.

Today I headed off after breakfast and found my way first to the huge Main Central Rail Station. This is only a short distance from our hotel which will make it simple when we need to catch the train to Venice in a couple of day’s time. From there I just let my feet take me wherever they wanted and found myself zigzagging back and forth until I was back at the Roman Forum again.

By mid morning the heat was starting to become oppressive and I found a quiet shady alley that ran around the back of the Forum and ended up at a small church. By this time the crowds were far behind me and I had the area to myself. I entered the church and found I was the only one there. It was a truly peaceful place to just sit and meditate in silence and comparative coolness.

Every major European city has its clusters of spruikers and touts and Rome is certainly no different in that regard. Clustered around the major tourist hotspots these guys feed on tourists like flies on roadkill. In most places they are loaded with cheap souvenirs, but it appears that a technological shift has taken place since my last trip. This year virtually every spruiker is loaded with armfuls of extendable “selfie sticks”.  It is no longer sufficient just to travel to fascinating places, but you now have to do it with your smart phone suspended at the end of a long pole in front of your face so that you can tag every site with your own smiling face in front of it. Judging by the huge number of selfie stick sellers I encountered during the day, the market must be booming. Perhaps Italy is hoping for a selfie stick led recovery in their economy.

After about 30 minutes I decided it was time to leave. Back outside the sun was now burning fiercely and the number of highly overtanned females wandering around in skimpy clothing suggested that the skin cancer message had not made much impact here.  By this time my sore feet told me that I had already covered quite a number of kilometres and it was time to make my way back to the hotel.

After a few wrong turns and even more right ones I was relieved to finally walk into my hotel foyer and retreat to the sanctuary of my room for a late afternoon siesta. Well you know what they say – “when in Rome do as the Romans do”.

Day 4 In Which we Head Underground

The long, hot Roman summer continues on without variation. Each day since we have arrived has been a carbon copy of the previous one, that is 35C, hot and sunny. Although I had very few set plans for my time here, there was one place that I did want to visit and that was the Roman Catacombes. Since John and Gonny were also keen to see them we decided to make an early start to beat the worst of the heat and the crowds.

There are actually several catacombs scattered around Rome but, after a little research, we came to the conclusion that the one most worth visiting would be the Catacombe de San Callisto. These famous catacombs occupy a sprawling site on the Appian Way just outside the towering city walls. Although only a small proportion of the 21 km of underground tunnels is open to the public, those that you can access do serve to give an indication of just how much effort must have gone into their construction.

We arrived at the entrance right on opening time and were very happy to see that we were the only English speaking visitors there at that time. That meant that we had the services of our very own guide, a quietly spoken Christian Pakistani student with the unlikely name of “Eric” who was in the middle of his Theology studies. Eric led us down a long flight of stairs into the wonderfully cool underground labyrinth that constitute the catacombs. He explained that over 500,000 bodies had originally been buried here, however their remains have now been relocated away from the view of the masses of tourists. Contrary to popular belief he also told us that the catacombs were not commonly used as permanent residences for the Christians, but were mainly for burials and for church services.

Eric proved to be a very capable guide but he did have the slightly unnerving habit of replying “please do not ask me that now” every time we wanted to ask a question. He told us that, if we were patient, that all our questions would be answered in due time. Since there was only the three of us, we felt like he might have varied his rules just a little.

After 45 minutes underground it was time to re emerge into the sunlight and heat. We eventually found the bus stop to catch the bus back to the city. The bus system appears to work very well, although the underground Metro system is rather tired and dirty looking by comparison.

The other place that I wanted to visit was the Pantheon. This is surely one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings, having been completed by Hadrian around 120 AD and has been in continuous service ever since. It was originally built as a temple but since the 7th century it has been used as a church dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs.

The most incredible feature of the Pantheon is the huge concrete dome overhead. This is apparently the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world and it is astounding to think that it has survived for almost 2000 years. Standing in the centre of the Pantheon I could not help but wonder how many of our modern constructions will still be standing in 2000 years. I suspect that most will have disappeared without a trace within a few hundred years at most. At yet this building was built without the aid of modern mathematics, computers or machines.

At the centre of the dome is a large circular opening which lets in the light (and the rain). Since the building is aligned North-South, the sunlight enters the opening and casts a beam onto the northern side of the interior wall. At solar noon this shaft of light strikes the wall directly opposite the main altar. Apparently the Pantheon provided an inspiration for the design of the huge dome in St Peter’s basilica.

After spending quite some time sitting inside the Pantheon and gazing up at the walls that have stood for so many years I finally decided that it was time to head back to my hotel for a short siesta. A short distance from the Pantheon I encountered a street seller selling small dancing Mickey and Minnie Mouse toys. Forgetting my common sense, and thinking only of how much fun they would be for my grandchildren, I handed over 5 Euros and was handed two small packets in return. The seller gave me a lovely wave and smile as I left. What a nice fellow, I thought.

About an hour later I finally stumbled back into my hotel room, switched on the air conditioner and decided to try out the dancing toys. They sat flat on the desk. Nothing, nada. Somewhere in the back of my mind a couple of lights switched on and I decided to do a quick search of the net to see how these toys actually worked. The unfortunate truth is that they actually don’t work at all.  Apparently it is a common scam that has been going on in Rome for years. The sellers apparently have a thin micro thread attached between a loudspeaker and a nearby object and they carefully attach each toy to that thread. Of course when you get home they do absolutely nothing !!!

Although I could have felt angry for being duped of 5 euro, I could not help but smile at my own stupidity. Obviously my travel smarts are not as well developed as they could be and I will put it down as a lesson learnt. At least it was harmless enough scam and it only cost me the price of a cup of coffee. It will also give me a story to share with others. Such is the nature of travel.

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Day 5 – In Which the Ghostriders Turn into Ghostrollers

I must admit that from the first time I saw a video of a Segway I have been intrigued by the technology. There is something about seeing someone cruising along on what looks like an early model push mower that seems to defy the basic laws of physics. And yet it is brilliant use of physics that makes the segway such an amazing machine. A couple of weeks ago I was searching on the Internet for ideas of how to spend our free time in Rome and came across a company that was offering a three and a half hour Segway tour for around $90 AUD. To me this seemed like a pretty good deal as other operators charge similar amounts for about an hour. In fact I would have happily paid that amount just for the experience of riding the machine, the tour would be an added bonus.

When I mentioned the option to the rest of our team, five others also decided to follow me into the unknown, None of them had ever ridden a Segway before and I thought it best not to tell  them that Jimi Heselden actually died of injuries sustained when he accidentally rode his Segway over a cliff. That would be tragic enough, but it takes on extra meaning when you point out that Mr Heselden was actually the owner of the company that manufactures Segways !

The company providing the tour was not too far from the Colosseum and we decided to take the Metro from Termini to the Colosseum. Although the Metro works extremely work and gives unlimited travel for 100 minutes for only 1.5 Euro, it was disappointing to see the graffiti covered carriages. Both the insides and outsides of every carriage were completely plastered with graffiti. This served to remind us that actually our trains in Melbourne are clean by comparison.

When we made it to the Segway office, Lionel discovered that he had accidentally booked his tour with another company and no amount of discussion would allow the two companies to transfer his booking. Thus our group was down to 4 Ghostrollers plus an English couple who were across in Italy for a couple of days. The Segways were lined up and we were then informed just how easy it is to crash on these contraptions. That was not a great way to instill confidence in an already apprehensive team.

The first 30 minutes were spent on a training session and, after a few initial abrupt stops and starts, I started to get the hang of the thing. When none of us managed to fall off we followed our guide out into the hustle and bustle of Rome.  Much of the roads we were riding on were constructed of uneven cobblestones but the Segway handled the surface quite well.

After we had climbed up and over the first of Rome’s seven hills, I no longer felt anxious and really started to feel exhilerated. We started to dodge and weave and test out our new prowess, ,but an ominous noise behind me indicated that someone had come to grief. I looked back and saw Mary lying on the footpath while her Segway took off without her. I could not help but feel a sinking feeling in my stomach, however Mary immediately got back to her feet and assured us that she was fine. In fact that was the only incident we had all day.

The next stop was the huge Circus Maximus, site of the famous chariot races of Ben Hur, and the ideal location to really let the Segways stretch their wheels. We thundered down the main straight but I soon discovered that the harder I pushed forward the more the control handle pushed back into my stomach. At the end of the main straight our guide explained that was because the machine has an automatic speed limiter. He asked whether we would like the speed limiter disabled ? Stupid Question !!! Does a duck like to swim ? A few minutes later all our limiters were disabled and we were charging up and down the arena like crazed hoons. What an absolute blast.

The next three hours were spent riding from place to place all over Rome. It was a fantastic way to explore the city without walking behind some flag toting guide. I could really become addicted to this contraption but I had to admit that, by 1 pm the hot sun was taking its toll and I was glad to step down and look for a shady place to sit down.

Unfortunately the place we chose to sit down turned out to be a restaurant owned by Rome’s surliest restaurateur. It was the classic case of service WITHOUT a smile and was a huge contrast to the friendly service we had enjoyed everywhere else in the city. I had ordered pasta and when it was served I made the mistake of asking for some Parmesan cheese. You might have thought I had asked to marry his daughter – he was so disgusted. There was no way he was going to bring any cheese so I just had to give up. The pizza that had been ordered by Gonny and Mary seemed to have left the kitchen minus the topping, and the rest of the dinner would have scored about 2 out of 100 on any dining scale.

I then asked for the bill. This led to another unfortunate confrontation when he refused to give it to me. I was only allowed to see the total, apparently the bill was his property and he did not have to give it to us. Any chance he had of getting a tip immediately went out the window and down the Appian Way. Since his total was 37Euro we gave him 40 Euro and asked for our change. When he reluctantly returned with our 3 Euro we told him to give it to the wandering piano accordion player who had been playing nearby. There’s one restaurant I will never go back to again.

By mid afternoon I was back at my hotel and glad to escape the burning heat outside. This was our final full day in Rome and tomorrow morning we will be catching the train to Venice which will be starting place for our cycling adventure. I think we are all hoping that it will be a few degrees cooler there.

Day 6 – In which we Head to Venice and Claude Confronts a Bag Snatcher

After 4 wonderful days in Rome it was time to progress to the next leg of our journey and take the train to Venice which will become the starting point for our Italian Ride.We formed a peloton of rolling luggage pullers and made our way to the main Termini Railway Station to meet the high speed train to Venice. Once again the day turned out to be carbon copy of the previous 4 days – hot, sunny and humid.

Although the train was very comfortable there was almost no space to store luggage and therefore our bags had to be squashed right at the entrance to our carriage while we made our way to our allocated seats. At least the four hour journey gave us plenty of time to chat and relax along the way. Like many European trains, this one flew along at up to 250 kph and tilted considerably when it was rounding a bend. Why are we apparently unable to build trains of this standard in Australia?

By now you might expect that all the members of our team would have got to know each other’s names, however Mary seemed to have great difficulty remembering what Lionel’s name was. She called him a variety of names – but never the right one. The rest of us decided to add to her confusion by inventing a never ending sequence of alternate names for him (Claude, Owen, Virgil, Bruce, Brutus, the list was endless).

When we stopped at a station somewhere in the middle of Italy, Claude (or Bentley, Rufus, Alexander ??) jumped to his feet and said that he thought he should keep an eye on our luggage. A few seconds later we heard him remonstrating with a girl who was apparently intent on getting off the train with his suitcase. He must have won the argument because the girl got off the train empty handed. It was just as well his instincts had been alert or else he would have arrived in Venice minus all his belongings.

At around 2.30 pm we finally arrived at Santa Luzia station on Venice Island. We joined the queue for tickets to the water bus and were just about to get on the waiting ferry when Septimus (Oscar, Trevor, Erwin ???) pointed out that there was a 2 cm x 2 cm sign advising that the tickets needed to be validated before boarding. Judging by the number of people we soon  observed being fined 67.5 Euro for not having a validated ticket, this is a very lucrative money earner for the local authorities. It would have proven to be a very expensive short voyage.

About an hour later we were safely arrived at our small hotel and ready to do some exploration of the surrounds. Mary wasted no time with preliminaries and immediately proceeded to forget the way back to her hotel. Fortunately she was eventually found and escorted back to her enclosure. The next couple of days should be most interesting.

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 Day 7 – In Which we Meet Maria and Mary Experiences a Miracle

For the three days we are in Venice our home will be the Santa Margherita Guesthouse in the Dorsoduro District of the city. This is a small but immaculately clean guesthouse not far from the Camp Santa Margherita, a large open plaza filled with small eateries and wine bars. Over the few days preceding our arrival in Venice I had received several emails from a mysterious “Maria”. These contained instructions for how to find and gain access to the guesthouse. This place is strictly a “self serve” accommodation with no reception. That arrangement works very well as the place is very well set up and contains everything we need for a short stay.

Our first full day in Venice began with the first overcast sky I had seen since arriving in Italy 5 days ago. This meant that conditions were a little cooler than the scorching days we had been experiencing. I set out into the maze of small lanes, canals and blind alleys that constitute this famous and ancient city. Glancing at the map of the city reminded me of one of those huge puzzles that I loved to do as a kid. You know the type where you have to draw a line to help the mouse find the huge piece of cheese. Rather than try to follow each road on the map, I decided just to head off and follow the general flow of foot traffic. At least you don’t have to worry about being hit by a car, since there aren’t any. Venice is purely a pedestrian city. The only way to shift goods and people is via the numerous linking canals.

In the early morning there was a cloudy mist laying low over the city which gave the place a rather otherworldy feel. Numerous artists were positioned on the dozens of small bridges, each trying to capture the quaint buildings on their small canvases. It is obviously a place where artists of all levels of skill come to try out their techniques.

After about 30 minutes of wandering I found myself in the large Plaza outside the Basilica de San Marco. Obviously the huge cruise liners had already disgorged their thousands of passengers  who were now shuffling their way in swarms behind their allocated tour guide. Again you have spectacle of dozens of these guides, each with their own flag or number on a stick followed by their shuffling herd of camera toting customers. The queue outside the Basilica stretched for as far as I could see and served to quickly convince me that I really did not need to see inside another famous church. I was however amused at the large sign at the entrance which warned against wearing inappropriate clothing, taking videos and NO SELFIES !  When I saw that sign I suddenly felt a new respect for this place. Maybe other places should declare themselves to be selfie free zones,

By mid morning the cloud cover was starting to break up and the hot sun was making its presence felt on the back of my neck. I decided that it was time to start making my way back to the sanctuary of the Santa Margherita. Some types of technology are fantastic and, although I am not a fan of the addiction to smartphones, I do appreciate the usefulness of a GPS (especially for someone as directionally challenged as myself). Switching on the GPS it told me that I was about 2 km from home and indicated which direction for me to take. All I had to do was occasionally recheck to make sure that I was going in the generally correct direction.

When I arrived at the Guesthouse I was met by a tall young blonde Italian girl who introduced herself as the mysterious Maria that I had been emailing with. We spent a very pleasant 30 minutes or so talking about travel and our previous cycling adventures. Maria told me that she would love to join us but that “her husband was far too lazy” to ride a bike. I told her that she could become our first Italian Ghostrider and showed her the website.

Maria then turned the topic to that of Mary. She asked how old I thought that Mary might be. Now that’s a dangerous question to ask any man, but apparently Mary had filled in her application form stating that her birthdate was in 2015. Now while I did not know exactly how old Mary really was, I could be pretty sure that she was older than 8 months. Maria said she had been a bit doubtful that such a young girl would be travelling the world, but I was able to say that Mary occasionally suffered from lapses of concentration. That was the reason we heard her banging on the outside door this morning when she could not remember the entry code.

I then introduced Maria to Lance (Oscar, Wallace, Henry, Benedict ?). Rather than great Maria with a beaming smile, Trevor started a rambling diatrobe about how uncomfortable his bed was. I really felt sorry for our newest Ghostrider recruit who tried to apologise to him and explain that she could not make a new bed in the little time available.

When I later went out for another walk I was a little surprised that the chaotic laneways actually made a little more sense than they had just 24 hours earlier. And, by the way, Maria explained that she still sometimes gets lost in Venice and she had lived here for 30 years !

 

Day 8 – In Which Serendipity Pays me a Visit

My short time in Venice has certainly taught me one thing – I am eternally grateful that we did not book our accommodation anywhere near the famous San Marco area of town. After another evening meal at our new favourite restaurant last night I again wandered out into the byways and alleyways this morning, to improve my knowledge of this fascinating place.

As I crisscrossed back and forth I found myself pulled by the increasing throng of pedestrians heading towards the San Marco Basicila. I felt a little like I was a wandering asteroid being sucked into a gravitational vortex of a huge black hole of tourists. Although it was tempting to be just swept along by the crowds, when my way took me past a large open space with a couple of large trees near the centre, I escaped the vortex and made my way to an inviting seat under the larger tree.

As I have said may times before, I am not like the typical tourist who clutches their map and guidebook and rushes from highlight to highlight. For me, the main attraction of travel has always been to watch and meet local people. Over the years I have had some amazing encounters that I recall and treasure dearly. This morning provided another of those “chance” encounters.

I had not been siting long when a tall middle aged gentleman with a shock of white hair asked if he could rest alongside me. “Sure” I replied. We sat together in silence for a few minutes before I decided to open a conversation with him. What followed was a 45 minute discussion with one of the most interesting characters I have met in a very long while. At first it was hard to pick his accent, but he revealed that he had been born in Germany but had spent the past 45 years living in America. He had progressed in his education to become a university professor and then left for a series of appointments in research organisations. His work was in the field of molecular biology and he was happy to talk with me on many of the things his research had been involved with. Like me, he had no time for the crowded throngs of tourists with their selfie sticks. Apparently he was in the middle of an extended solo trip around Europe. He had purchased a small car for his travels and planned to sell it when his trip cam to an end. He explained that, even if he could not sell it, it was still cheaper than hiring a car for that period of time.

Of course the conversation also turned to what we were doing in Italy and I was able to tell him about the Ghostriders. He seemed very disappointed that he did not have a similar group that he could travel with as he loved cycling and agreed that it would be a perfect way to explore the world. On several occasions we said goodbye and then got involved with another topic of conversation. I genuinely felt sorry that I could not invite him to join our adventure. He was travelling alone and intimated that he would have loved the companionship of good friends to travel with. Eventually we parted with a warm handshake and with mutual wishes of a safe and enjoyable trip. Whatever else I did today, I already felt that my day was complete.

For the next couple of hours I allowed myself to be sucked back into the vortex of pedestrians, past the selfie sellers and tacky trinket shops and into the centre of the maelstrom. The queues were just as long as yesterday, the sun was just as hot and my personal space had disappeared. After taking a few more pictures I retreated back to the much quieter region of the Dorsoduro. Since this is too far for the throngs from the tourist boats and buses to reach in their 2 hour visits, it is very much quieter than the Eastern end of the island. After sundown the alleys are deserted and silent. With the full moon above it makes for a memorable late night walk.

This was our last full day in Venice. Tomorrow we travel back to Mestre to collect our bikes and get underway on our ride to Florence. I think we are all very hopeful that the weather might finally break and give us some relief from the 30 plus temperatures.

LATE NEWS FLASH
I was amazed when one of our riders returned from their day’s adventures, proudly holding a brand new selfie stick. In some respects it was the very last person I would have expected to succumb to unrelenting selfie stick sales pressure, but believe it or not, it’s true. I will reveal their identity in the next update.

Day 9 – In Which Our Wheels Start Turning

After our brief stays in Rome and Venice, the time has finally come for us to do what we came to do. After all we ARE a cycling group so it’s only fair that we do get on our bikes at some stage in our trip. Although we had been hoping for cooler conditions in which to start pedaling, the long spell of hot, humid and still weather continues unabated. The earliest forecast for some relief is for the day after tomorrow.

We were all keen to actually get on the bikes but we were not looking forward to the navigational and other challenges that we knew we would face on our first day. First we had to start early, checkout of the Santa Margherita Guest House, catch a Vaporetto (Water bus) to the bus depot and then catch another bus from Venice to Mestre and finally find our way to the hotel where we were to collect our bikes.

The first couple of stages went smoothly, perhaps too smoothly because we soon became a little smug and thought that we would be arriving far too early. You know what they say about pride going before a fall ? It would have been much easier if all the bus stops weren’t apparently given the same name. When we saw the name of the stop that we were looking for we jumped to our feet, but obviously not fast enough, because the doors shut and the bus moved away from the stop. We resigned ourselves to getting off at the next stop and then catching another bus back again. When the next stop came we all charged at the door and cascaded out into the bus stop. We looked about at the drab industrial surroundings and tried to work out exactly where the hell we were. After group head scratching and consultation of maps, GPSs and adverts in the bus shelter, we finally realised that we had got out of the bud too early! We had no alternative other than wait for the next bus, reload all our luggage and finally get to the stop we were looking for.

We then had about a kilometre of suitcase pulling before we got to the hotel (with about 15 mins to spare). It was not an auspicious start to our navigational prowess. The sight of a van unloading a row of bikes indicated that we were at the correct spot and a eager young man answering to the very unItalian name of Josef introduced himself as our bike supplier and luggage man.

After a short briefing we went outside to try out our bikes and get them ready for the ride. By around 11.30 am we were ready for the obligatory group photo before heading off into the traffic. This was the section we were not looking forward to as we first had to navigate back through Mestre and then over the long causeway back onto Venice Island. The traffic was busy, fast and very close and the island seemed to take a long time to get any closer.

Today’s ride was going to involve no less than 3 extended ferry crossings and Josef had supplied us with the necessary tickets. Since we had already witnessed the dire consequences of not validating the ticket before boarding, we all took extreme care to make sure this was done before getting on the first huge ferry. After parking the bikes we caught a lift up to the on board cafetaria. I felt in my pocket for the ticket to make sure it was ready for the ticket inspector. I felt in the other pocket. I looked in my pannier, I looked in my bag. No ticket !

I thought that maybe I had left it in the front pannier on the bike and rushed down the lift and back to the bike – no ticket. Although I was trying not to panic, the thought of a 300 Euro fine and the loss of my passport and birthright was enough to start alarm bells ringing. I went back up the lift again and, when I walked back into the cafetaria, I noticed the missing ticket lying on the floor. Apparently it must have fallen out of my pocket when I pulled out my wallet. As it turned out, we never saw a ticket inspector on any of the three ferries, so I could have just forgotten about it.

When the ferry arrived at Lido it was after 1 pm and some of us were ready for a break and something to eat. We found a likely looking collection of restaurants so I proceeded to lock my bike to Lionel’s using the combination lock provided by Josef. He had told us that all the combinations were the same however when the time came to separate the bikes, the combination did not work. For a while it looked like we might be spending the rest of the day trying out the hundreds of combinations, however a call to Josef revealed the truth. Not all the combinations were the same after all. Apparently the black locks had a different combination. Armed with that information the conjoint bikes were separated and we continued on our way.

The rest of the day was spent riding along quiet waterfront backroads. In many places the waterfront was lined with dozens of fishing boats. Without a breath of wind to stir the water, it was about as peaceful a scene as you could imagine. Although the total distance travelled on this first day was quite modest, the late start, the ferry crossings and the difficult navigation meant that we did not arrive at our hotel in Chioggia until nearly 5 pm. Fortunately our luggage was there waiting for us. Day 1 of the ride successfully completed.

Day 10  In Which we stay in the Best Hotel in Chioggia – and I am Attacked by Ticks

When this trip was being put together I had no idea of which hotels to select in the various towns along the way. I had never traveled in this part of the world and decided to just go along with the recommendations that UTRACKS had put together for us. It was therefore something of a surprise when we arrived at the beautiful seaside town of Chioggia and found ourselves in what was unquestionably the finest hotel in the town.

Situated right on the waterfront the Grande Hotel Italia certainly lived up to the first part of its name. With its marble floors and impressive staircase, we felt like we must have accidentally got someone else’s booking by mistake. The rooms were equally as impressive, featuring huge beds and every modern convenience. I guess this was a bit like how Bronwyn Bishop must do all her travels, but for me it was a real novelty.

In the evening we had dinner in a nearby restaurant in a quiet side alley, off the main street. Chioggia is basically one large main street leading directly alongside the canal and ending at the water’s edge. Since our hotel was right at the end of the canal, it would have been impossible for even the most directionally challenged walker to get lost. As I walked back in the warm evening I noticed that the flags near the waterside were slightly fluttering – the first small signs of wind that we had seen since arriving in Italy over a week ago. Perhaps it was the first indication that the weather pattern might be about to break.

The next morning we celebrated breakfast (“ate” would simply just not be sufficient to describe the act of breakfasting in the most wonderful breakfast room you could imagine) overlooking the marina and the water beyond. There was a huge array of food to choose   from and it would have been tempting to just sit and eat and enjoy the fabulous view. They even served cappucino coffee if you asked one of the attentive waitresses for it. However we had a ride to do and had to keep an eye on the time.

It turned out that we had arrived in Chioggia on market day. When I went out on my early morning walk I was astounded at the army of stall holders that managed to transform the main street within the matter of 15 minutes. The setup was achieved with military precision with each stall holder knowing exactly where their allocated territory was. The stalls themselves carried an impressive array of goods, everything from the cheap Chinese clothing copies and $2 screwdrivers to shoes, kitchenware, food, handicrafts, leathergoods  and even bicycle parts.

The start of our ride actually took us up the main street, which meant that we had to walk the gauntlet of thousands of bargain hunting shoppers. It took us about 30 minutes to walk the avenue of stalls before we could actually mount our bikes. Somewhere along the way, I found myself the proud owner of a new leather wallet. It reminded me of the chaos at the start of every “Around the Bay in a Day” mass bike ride.  Eventually we broke free of the masses and found ourselves on a quiet rural road running alongside a canal. This was the type of riding we had come so far to experience and it was a glorious feeling to just turn the pedals over and see the kilometres pass by.

It was about this time that a couple of small irritations arose to detract slightly from the perfect nature of the morning. The first was a meteorological matter. The wind that had begun the previous evening was now a steady, but gentle breeze. Unfortunately it blew directly into our faces most of the day. Headwinds are an inescapable part of cycling, but the second annoyance was something else entirely different.

Before coming to Europe we had been warned to keep an eye out for ticks, as they can cause all manner of illnesses. I had not ridden far before I became aware of a tick at very close quarters. Actually it was NOT the small parasitic insect, it was a persistent tick, tick, tick from the bottom bracket region of my bike. Every time I turned the pedals over, there it was – TICK, TICK, TICK. I tried kicking the pedals TICK, TICK, TICK. I tried changing gears TICK, TICK TICK. I even tried standing up on the pedals TICK, TICK, TICK, bloody TICK. it was obvious that it was going to follow me for the entire ride.

When confronted with an annoying repetitious noise like that, there are only two alternatives. The first option is to let it drive you insane. The second option is to find a tune that has the same rhythm and then just hum along with it. I adopted the second approach. And thus occupied, I hummed my way through the day’s ride.

The end of the day’s ride was in a lovely small town called Adria and it was a lovely surprise to find the hotel’s staff waiting to welcome us with a delightful jug of iced orange juice with ginger. We sat in the shady gardens, drinking juice and listening to the operatic singing wafting through the trees. Although I told the group that the music was part of the welcome that I had organised, in truth it was because we are located right next door to the Conservatory of Music and it was the students practising their talents in the late afternoon. The soprano worked her way up and down the scales while the pianist battled with some complex symphony. I wondered what the poor triangle player would add to the occasion. Did they also have to practise for hundreds of hours having to perfect the ever elusive perfect “ding” ?

A young female student came out the front door with an enormous double bass dragging behind her. I bet she wished she had chosen the piccolo instead.

It was a magical end to a great day.

PS The hotel is also VERY impressive. It looks like we must have selected the deluxe accommodation option.

FOOT NOTE:
As a footnote I would also like to take a little time to introduce the members of our 2015 Italy Ride. Although I have already mentioned a number of them in passing, it is probably a good time to introduce them all and provide you a brief background on each one.

John Rundell – has completed a number of previous overseas adventures including the 2011 Danube Ride, The 2011 Elbe Ride, the 2013 Thailand Ride as well as our 2014 rides in Finland, Sweden and the UK. When he is not enjoying himself on the bike he spends most of his time counting his vast collection of classic cars.  If our team were the cast of Gilligan’s Island, John would be the perfect candidate to play Thurston Howell. John will also be leading Group 2 of our 2015 France ride.

Gonny Rundell – is also a very experienced rider, having participated in the same rides as John, as well as our unforgettable 2013 Bhutan Ride. For the past couple of years Gonny has suffered with a serious back problem and, late last year underwent a spinal fusion. This has proven very successful, although she has not been able to ride seriously for a long time. This trip represents her return to extended cycling.

Lionel Rex – Lionel is also a very capable and experienced rider who took part in our 2011 Danube and Elbe rides. In keeping with his regal surname, Lionel has extremely high expectations for hotel rooms and probably would not even find Buckingham Palace up to his standard. Lionel loves long, early morning walks where he can take pictures of himself with his newly acquired selfie stick. Lionel also likes navigating and his map skills have already proven useful.

We also have two members of our team who have never completed any previous overseas rides.

Mary Jonas – is a capable rider but not so capable navigator. She is inclined to get a little lost at times and to forget her room number when staying in a hotel. In the evenings, Mary always looks like a distinguished lady of the calibre of Helen Mirren. I have also found her very interesting to chat with.

Irena Blonder – when Irena first expressed an interest in this trip, she went on to explain that she does have a particular distinction in that she is rather short of stature. Personally I would not say that she was extraordinarily short, however if she was any smaller, her legs would not reach the ground. When trying to locate a suitably sized bike for her, UTRACKS explored numerous options (including fitting pedals to a roller skate) but fortunately they finally located a bike of the right size. Although Irena sometimes looks like she is wrestling an elephant more than riding a bike, I have been very impressed with her riding ability. On a couple of occasions during today’s ride, she actually bolted away into the distance, leaving the rest of us languishing in her wake. I have been especially pleased to see how much Irena has obviously been enjoying the ride so far. A couple of days ago I actually asked her if she has always been short, and she explained that she used to be very tall, but has been progressively shrinking.

Dennis Dawson – the only normal member of the group.

Day 11 – In Which we Pedal the Po (and my ticks go away)

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday my ride was plagued by a repetitious ticking noise from the bottom bracket of my bike. Although I tried my best to pretend it was not a big deal – in fact it was a niggling irritation. A bike is the most efficient form of transportation ever invented, but when it makes untoward noises, it can also be a source of mental torture.

When we met Josef yesterday afternoon I mentioned my problem and this morning he arrived at our hotel with a replacement bike. A short test ride showed that this one was smooth and virtually silent (just the way that a bike should be).

Our night had been spent at the impressive Hotel Stella d’Italia in Adria. This was not only an imposing and stately looking hotel, but it was in a street of stately homes suggesting that this was where the old money was in this town. It was slightly macabre that a couple of these huge homes looked like they had not been lived in for years (checkout the photos below).

The hotel was a genuine 4 star hotel but it did have a few shortcomings. The lock on my door fell off when I was closing the door for the last time, the water in my bathroom basin would not empty and the air conditioning gave about as much air flow as a flatulent sparrow. The breakfast was also very disappointing compared to the sumptuous offering from the Grande Italia in Chioggia.

The biggest challenge we faced today was to find the correct route out of Adria. Somehow when we asked for directions, instead of a simple instruction we had a 15 minute lecture from a helpful local. We battled our way up and down busy streets, over bridges, round roundabouts and still got lost. It was only when we consulted the GPS we realised that we were on the wrong road entirely. Fortunately after a few adjustments to the route we resumed the correct path and escaped the traffic.

Although we were hoping for a cooler day, today turned into another mirror image of all the previous days. We are rapidly growing an impressive array of red noses and pink legs as we ride under the strong Tuscan sun. Within a few kilometres we joined an amazing bike path along the wide Po river. The surface was as smooth as a baby’s bottom and made for wonderful cycling. The path was elevated as it followed the levee bank for many kilometres, giving us a panoramic view of the river and the (mostly) run down farm houses along the way. Without the ticks that had followed my bike the previous day, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the sensation of rolling along in silence.

We stopped for lunch at a seaside resort town of Lido di Volano. Italians obviously love to bake themselves black in the sunshine and many showed the distinctive signs of premature ageing caused by their lack of sun smarts. Apparently the slip slap slap message was not popular in this part of the world.

After lunch we had another 27 or so km to ride and we were feeling the combined effects of the heat, the head wind and the fact that this was our longest day in the saddle so far. We had a couple of roadside drinks breaks before finally reaching the quaint town of Commachio. With its narrow central canal and a couple of gondolas, it was a bit like a vastly more modest version of Venice.

Our dinner was taken right outside the hotel so we only had a few metres to return to our rooms.

 Day 12 – In Which we Suffer Our First Casualty (and an old adversary returns)

One thing that soon becomes apparent on this type of ride is that it can be difficult to front up day after day for another long stretch in the saddle. I have found on all the previous such rides that, while the fitness of the group increases rapidly, it is also likely that some will develop miscellaneous aches and pains. Soon after we completed the long day into Camacchio, Irena explained that she was not feeling very well and would need the following day off  the bike. Fortunately it was possible to arrange transport for both Irena and her bike so this did not constitute a huge problem. We are all hopeful that she will be able to resume her ride after a day to rest and recuperate. This also meant that our peloton would be reduced to only 5 riders for the longest day of the trip which would take us from Comacchio to the famous city of Ravenna. Along the way we would be riding through a wide variety of surroundings, from isolated wilderness areas to crowded beachside tourist meccas.It would also introduce our first off road sections.

The early part of the ride followed the lagoon for many kilometres. This consisted of wide open spaces with absolutely no shade. Although we had been hoping for a considerably cooler day, the long awaited cool change seems to be perpetually delayed. Although there were some early wispy clouds, these soon burned off and most of the day was again ridden in full sunshine. Looking around at the stark and desolate surrounds and the ruins of old buildings, it certainly did not look like most people would imagine Italy to be. To me it seemed more like some place in Eastern Europe, such as Romania or Bulgaria.

It was while we were riding on one particularly long flat section that Lionel (Alwyn, Mervin, Angus, Oscar ?) and I were riding side by side when we realised that we had not heard any chatter from the following riders for some time. We stopped to look around and found there was no sign of them. We pulled over and waited for 10 minutes and, when they still did not appear, we tried to call them on the phone. This was the first time we had no service so we had no alternative other to ride back to see what had happened to them. It turned out that Mary had suffered a puncture, no doubt due to the extended section of off road riding we had just completed. Fortunately John had repaired the puncture by the time we arrived, so our timing was absolutely perfect.

In the meantime I had problems of my own. A couple of days earlier I had suffered an irritating case of ticking coming from my bike. Every rotation of the pedals resulted in a loud click noise. Fortunately Josef had arranged for a replacement bike and, for the next 24 hours, I was able to ride in silence. Unfortunately misfortune chose to pay me a return visit by gifting me with another clicking noise to replace the one that had been taken from me. For the rest of the day my riding was once again accompanied by the bottom bracket counterpoint. I had no choice other than to just accept it. In life there will always be some things you can change and others that you have to learn to accept. Rather than let it ruin my ride, I chose to regard it as something humerous instead. My faithful tick will now presumably travel with me all the way to Florence.

After riding about 47 km we arrived at the seaside resort of Casalborsetti and settled into a wonderful restaurant situated right on the beach. After a couple of cappucinos (only 1.4 Euros each) and a lunch stop we were on our way again.  In the next section we left the road and followed a forest path for several kilometres. It was a relief to be out of the sun and to enjoy the relative coolness of the forest.

We then caught a ferry across to Marina di Ravenna which soon answered the question as to where all the people had been. Here was a place similar to Torquay or Lorne, with dozens of fancy restaurants, resorts and expensive cars everywhere. Obviously a lot of Italians are still enjoying their vacations on the beach.

Finally our path turned inland and for the final 12 km we followed a wonderful bike path, all the way to the centre of Ravenna. This large city has a rich past, having served as the capital of the western Roman Empire and much later as the home to the famous Lord Byron. In fact our hotel is called the Hotel Centrale Byron, presumably because it is situated right in the very centre of the city. We certainly do not have to walk far to explore the place.

After dark I left the hotel to wander around the Centrale. It was a warm Saturday evening in Ravenna and the streets and outdoor restaurants were bursting with happy people. A jazz trio was playing in the nearby Piazza and a crowd had gathered to listen. It would have been even better if they could have played well. Since I was feeling hungry after the long day I decided to try out an exotic local delicacy. It was absolutely delicious and I enjoyed every mouthful. Apparently it was called a “Doner Kebab” and it cost me 5 Euros.

Day 13 – In Which Lazarus Makes a Comeback

Again it is amazing what a difference 24 hours (and a hack saw) makes. By day 11 Irena had started to struggle with the long days in the saddle, riding a bike that was a little too big for her. We had already lowered the seat to the lowest position that was possible with that seat post, but she still had to stretch from side to side to turn the pedals. We decided to take matters into our own hands and go looking for an hack saw to cut off  a few centimetres. Not off Irena, but off her seat post.

This modification seemed to make all the difference. After 24 hours off the bike and the lower seat she was ready for action once more and our peloton was restored to its full size again.

Since this was a very quiet Sunday morning, we were able to ride out of Ravenna on deserted roads. The weather was also a few degrees cooler which gave a most welcome relief from the sustained heat of the last week. As we left the town we could not help but notice the contrast with the regions we had cycled through over the past couple of days. Gone were the wide open spaces and deserted houses. We were now in a much more developed region and the farms were generally much better maintained.

It was interesting to see the huge size of some of these farmhouses, although many only seemed to have a few habitable rooms with the rest left to go to ruin. It was common to see sections of roof that had just collapsed into the inside of the house. Apparently the area must have been significantly more prosperous than it is now. When looking for the suitable word to describe these houses, the one that came to mind was “distressed”.Obviously anyone feeling the need to take on a project could certainly buy a suitable place here.

At the 40 km mark we stopped for lunch at Faenza. This is a sprawling town with a large cobblestoned central piazza. There were only a few people out and about and we settled in a suitable eatery in the shade while we enjoyed a cup or two of cheap coffee and a sandwich.

After lunch the road began to climb steadily and, for the first time, we started to encounter groups of serious cyclists. Some were riding singly and others were in groups of up to 8 riders. As we passed we gave them a wave and an “Aussie Aussie Aussie”. Obviously these cyclists are attracted to this region to strengthen their legs on the hills.

After a final steep descent and corresponding climb we arrived at the delightful small town of Brisighella. The town is surrounded by mountains and we could see several imposing castles perched on the clifftops. The road into town is bordered by beautiful towering trees which gave the place a very welcoming feel. We were also interested to see the numerous signs warning of ice on the roads. Obviously this place must get cold in the winter months.

Our home for the evening is the La Meridiana Hotel, a large but thankfully not too distressed building on the outskirts of town. It was also the first rooms we had that did not have either air conditioning or TVs. However the water was hot and the cool mountain air blowing in my open window gave the best night’s sleep I have had so far.

Tomorrow we complete our Italy ride by riding into the famous city of Florence (Firenze).

Day 14 – In Which we Roar Into Florence

It is always amazing how much a group improves after riding for several hours every day. Even the saddles that might have been unfamiliar on the first couple of days, don’t seem so bad any more. When this ride was starting there were a couple of riders who had never before tackled this type of adventure and it is not surprising that they had some initial anxiety about how they would cope. For Gonny, this was the first time she had done any serious riding since her spinal surgery and no one would blame her for feeling a little nervous about how well it would stand up under pressure.

Now that five days of extended riding have been completed all riders are performing well, even in the sometimes unpleasantly hot conditions. Last night was spent in the beautiful country town of Brisighella. It was a treat to savour the cool mountain air blowing in our open bedroom windows. It was also a treat to be able to catch up on the backlog of washing and drying.

This morning we had to get up early to make sure we were able to catch the train from the Brisighella Station. The train was due to depart at 8.30 am and, if we missed that on, the next one would not come for another 4 hours. Although the ride from the hotel to the station was quite short, it did involve a quite steep climb. It was a good way to prepare the legs for the extended brutal climbs that were to come later that day.

Fortunately our team is well prepared and all were ready to leave even earlier than I had instructed. We made it to the station with plenty of time to spare and were soon seated in a very comfortable carriage speeding our way through the mountains. This was the most spectacular and beautiful countryside we had seen thus far and the train passed through numerous tunnels along the way.

About an hour later we were deposited at our appointed starting point for the final day’s ride to Florence. It was still relatively early but the coolness of the early morning was wearing off and the blazing sun was again making its presence felt. By this time we were so sure of our navigation skills that we hardly had to refer to the instructions. About 4 km of uphill riding later we realised that we had completely missed the turnoff and had to backtrack almost back to the start. Take Two.

We eventually found the right road and were soon into a routine of steady pedaling up the rolling inclines. The notes warned of a brutal section of 14% gradient and I can’t say that I was relishing the thought. No matter which way you say it, 14% is STEEP, really steep. Especially for those of us who are not friends of gravity, like me. On the other hand I was feeling quite well and some part of me was actually looking forward to the challenge. After all, if the entire ride was too easy, people would think they had been robbed.

When I turned a bend and saw the road rising vertically straight into the stratosphere, I knew that we had reached the steep  bit. I clicked down a few gears and attacked it with gusto. The front of the bike lifted and the speed dropped, but it was still climbing. So far so good I thought. At least I had survived the first 10 metres. The next 10 metres were a little tougher. The speed dropped a little more, my heart rate rose a lot more. Lungs started heaving. How do those Tour de France riders do this ? Probably has something to do with the fact that they only weigh about 50 kg.

I started to tack back and forth across the road in a attempt to cleverly reduce the gradient. Two can play at this game I thought. That clever tactic bought me about another 7 metres of progress. Time to dig deep. Click down to the lowest gear. Bugger, I was already in it. No more gears left. Not much more strength left. The only thing I had left was the pride in wearing the coveted yellow jersey. I tried to imagine those scenes as the Tour heroes approach the summit of the Alpe d”Huez with hundreds of adoring fans running along cheering encouragement. I could almost hear their shouts, but I think it was the blood vessels in my ears about to burst.

Come on Dennis, you can do this !  Unfortunately I discovered that I couldn’t. I had made it about 400 metres up the climb, but had to come to the decision that it was better to get off than to risk having a simultaneous heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolism and heebie jeebies. When it was all said and done I was able to rationalise my decision with the knowledge that it was clearly faster to walk than ride. I took a few deep breaths, grabbed the handlebars in one hand and the seat in the other and starting pushing. A hundred metres or so in front of me I noticed that Lionel (Irving, Walter, Claude ?) had also dismounted. I suspect that we were all going through our private purgatories.

Although it was tough, a little while later we had all made it to the top and were already making light of the challenge. The next few kilometres climbed further, but at a much more realistic gradient. We were even relieved to find a convenient coffee stop a couple of km before the top of the final climb. In some strange way I suspect that we were a little sad that the challenge was about to finish.

After a coffee and an icecream we had little difficulty reaching the final summit. All we had was about 15 km of mostly downhill to take us home to our final destination of Florence. This was a time to enjoy ourselves. Sweeping around the bends on a beautiful smooth surface, Cycling heaven. Soon we got our first views of the famous city and the even more famous “Duomo”. Each bend took us closer until we entered the outskirts of the city and into the final maelstrom of traffic.

About 20 minutes later we had finally reached the Hotel Grifone which marked the end of the ride. We locked the bikes for the final time, hugged and congratulated each other. Our first Italy ride had ended without a single accident. We had all got to know each other better and had accumulated a new storehouse of memories to recount in the years ahead. In a few days 5 of us will be regrouping in France to begin our 2015 France rides.

After dropping the bikes, I transferred to the Hotel Bigallo, which will be my home for the next 3 nights. I knew that it was close to the famous Duomo, but I did not appreciate just how close it was. The hotel is literally only a few metres from the towering church. I also discovered that it was the first hotel that I have had in Italy that charged for its Internet. In spite of the 10 Euro charge I never could get the Internet to work there. I think there is definite irony in that.

 

Day 15 – In Which I observe a Fierce Battle

Two millennia ago the Roman Army was conquering Europe. The highly disciplined troops proudly marched into battle with their overlapping shields in one hand and their long spears held high in the other. Each group prominently displayed the colours of the century they belonged to and dutifully obeying the commands of their centurion.

In modern times a far more fierce battle is waged in dozens of European cities every single day. While the ancient Roman armies are now long gone, today we have the legions of pole carrying tour guides, each representing another competing tour company. Following behind each leader is their troupe of highly obedient (and often exhausted) modern tourists. Each follower has their ipad and guide book clutched in one hand and, in the other, they proudly hold their smartphones high in the air on the end of a selfie stick. It is easy to tell which regiment to which each traveler belongs because they are all saddled with a massive name tag garlanded around their neck. Presumably this also aids in identification if any of the confused and exhausted tourists are lost in the battle and fail to return before nightfall and their bus departure.

As each guide leads their followers into the conflict zone, the obedient troops all nod their heads in agreement with each new (but often doubtful) fact they are told, and all smile in unison at each carefully rehearsed joke.

The tactics of this new type of warfare are indeed complex. Each guide has their own theory as to the  very best time to attack a tourist hot spot. Some choose the early morning and others prefer the late afternoon when the weaker armies have already retreated in exhaustion.

In ancient times the conquering heroes returned from battle loaded with the spoils of war – gold, silver and precious gems. While these rare spoils still exist for the very elite tourists, most must content themselves with a shopping bag full of cheap, Chinese made, T shirts, tacky plates and plastic souvenirs. Of course there is always the chance that they might return with the most highly sought after trophy of all – the perfect selfie, standing right in front of some famous work of art.

While the ancient Romans took centuries to conquer Europe, the modern day traveler has no such luxury. At most they only have around 2 hours to capture each city before nightly retreating to the sanctuary of their tourist buses. They need to catch a few hours sleep because tomorrow they will repeat the same campaign all over again in another city, maybe hundreds of kilometres away. After all they have around 2 weeks to conquer the whole continent before they must return home and make plans for their next conquest.

I spent most of today in the region of the famous DUOMO in the centre of Florence. I did revert to the role of the classic tourist just long enough to climb to the top of both the Dome and the nearby campanile. Battling my way up the narrow spiral staircases and trying to avoid being skewered on the end of someone’s selfie stick , I could not help but think that I can’t wait to get away from the jostling crowds and escape to the quiet backroads of France.

I must also admit that I could not help myself being a little mischievous. After seeing the throng of huffing and puffing unfit travelers struggling to the top of the staircase, I took up a position near the top of the stairs and announced with the most authoritative voice I could muster “Nothing to see here, people, please turn back”. I think the devil made me do it.

I have one more day in Florence before flying to Paris to meet the rest of our France Team. Bring it on.

Day 16 – In Which Florence is Rocked by a Giant Segway Smashup

During my short time in Florence I have learnt one thing. It really would be a nice city if it were not for the relentless crush of tourists (see my previous post). During daylight hours it is difficult to go anywhere interesting without being surrounded by selfie stick waving tourists, shouting guides and eager touts. The best time to explore the place is after nightfall when the masses have left and some semblance of sanity returns to the streets.

Last night I set off at around 9.30 pm and had a delightful walk in the warm summer air. Although there were still quite a few people wandering about, most of them were locals who have presumably learned that this is the best way to cope during the height of the tourist season. In the larger Piazzas there were still a few African trinket sellers who were occupying themselves by launching small luminous whirlyjigs high into the air. With so many in the air at the same time, they looked a bit like multi coloured fire flies.

I have calculated that, over the next 7 weeks, I will be staying in something like 35 different hotels. With so much packing and unpacking it is very hard not to lose an item or two along the way. So far on this trip I had prided myself on being very diligent and thoroughly checking the room every morning before leaving. This morning I realised that I had blotted my copybook but leaving my GPS adapter mounted on the handlebars of the bike when I returned it a couple of days ago. Although this was not a tragedy, it was a bit of a nuisance as I was planning to use the GPS for the entire France ride.

I decided to ring Eurobike to see if the bikes had been collected from the hotel yet. As it turned out they would be there for another day. The only problem was that the hotel where the bikes were returned was quite a distance from the place where we are now staying. In fact the taxi fare was well over 20 Euro one way (around $35 AUD). The thought of spending around $70 to retrieve a $16 mounting bracket seemed a little ridiculous. In any case there was nothing I could do about it until the afternoon. This morning I already had made other plans.

Following the great fun we had on Segways in Rome, John, Gonny and I had decided to book another Segway experience in Florence. We turned up at the Segway office and found that we would be joined by two others. Paul and Karen were a friendly couple from New Orleans, however they were not experienced Segway riders like us. We nodded sagely and offered them lots of useful advice, like “try not to fall off or you will hurt yourself”.

Our guide for the morning was a diminutive Italian girl called Mia. She started by giving Paul and Karen an initial training session. Karen immediately got the hang of the thing and was soon happily cruising up and down the alley, spinning in circles and executing other complex maneuvers. Paul was also very keen. He climbed on board, violently shook the control stick back and forth, immediately sending his Segway out of control and crashing into a row of parked bikes. The Segway went one way, Paul went the other and Mia looked on in horror. I was also very upset that I had not had the episode recorded on my GoPro camera.

Paul climbed back to his feet, apparently shaken but not shattered. He assured Mia that his cuts and bruises would soon heal and that the rips in his clothes were not anything to be concerned about. He climbed back on his recalcitrant Segway and our little peloton rolled out into the chaos of tourists. Once again we observed that walkers seem to get into some sort of trance when they walk and that no amount of bell ringing, shouts or abuse will make them move out of the way. On numerous occasions I nearly skittled whole families of blind and deaf wanderers. I took my example from the local bicycle riders who simply charge right through the crowds at maximum speed and don’t seem to have any concern for anyone who might get in their way.

Just as we thought we were over the worst we came to a traffic light. We all pulled up to a stop. It was just at that moment that the ground parted and a huge automatic bollard sprang forth from the bowels of the earth. This would not normally have been much of a problem had it not chosen to emerge from its subterranean resting place right when Karen’s Segway was parked on top of it. Karen was caught unawares by this unfortunate turn of events and she was thrown violently to the side, narrowly avoiding being pinned underneath her machine. She had actually surpassed the severity of her partner’s previous accident and poor Mia again apologised for the booby trap that she had not warned us about. The Segway had of course kept going on its own agenda but it was eventually rounded up a short distance away. Karen rubbed her new assortment of soft tissue injuries and was relieved that no major bones were broken. These Segways are more exciting than most people realise.

Fortunately we suffered no further incidents and 3 hours later the machines were safely parked outside the office where we had collected them. In spite of their injuries, Paul and Karen said they had actually had a lot of fun. And so had we.

After a short rest back at my hotel I then set off on foot back to the Grifone Hotel and my lost GPS bracket. After all, it was only 4 km away and there was a principle at stake. About 45 minutes later I found the hotel, retrieved the bracket and started the long walk back. By the time I eventually made it back to my hotel I was a little hot and bothered, but at least my inventory was, once again, complete.

Tomorrow morning we catch the plane to Paris to meet the rest of our France riders. And that will be another story.

 

Day 17 – In Which Paris is Invaded by Ghostly Zombies

They say that all good things eventually must come to an end and, after over two weeks in Italy, it was time to say goodbye to Florence and make our way to France to begin the second stage of our 2015 adventure. Our small Italian peloton was about to be fragmented. For Irena her riding was now over as she was heading off to spend some time in Portugal. Lionel was heading off to Burgundy for some days before meeting us again in Orleans. Mary would be staying in Florence for one additional day before flying to Paris.That left John, Gonny and myself to catch a noon flight to Paris.

We booked a taxi for the short ride to Florence International Airport. The driver seemed competent (by Italian standards) yet had no regard for staying in the same lane when driving on any road. I was sitting in the front seat and had to bite my tongue and clench my fists every time he veered without warning from one side of the road to the other. Even more surprising was the fact that not once did any of the cars behind toot their horns in complaint at his wayward tactics.

Fortunately we arrived safely at the small, but very busy, Florence Airport and were soon checked in for our flight. We squeezed into the crowded departure lounge and waited for our Air France flight to board. I was very relieved when I found my allocated seat on the plane and discovered that the next two seats were empty. In fact about half the plane was empty. Hooray I thought. My exhilaration was premature however, as another couple of busloads of passengers jostled up the steps and occupied every seat. Even though it was a squashed and somewhat uncomfortable flight, at least it was only for about 90 minutes. European travelers really are spoilt when it comes to jetsetting from one country to another.

We were soon disembarking at Charles de Gaulle airport and fortunately my luggage also caught the same flight as me. There were quite a few of our France team that were due to meet us at the aiport. These included Keith and Marg who were also coming from Italy and also David, Carol, Eugenie, Sally, Liz, Sharlie, Mary and Maggie who had all made the long journey from Melbourne.

We knew that those who had made the long flight from Australia would not make a pleasant sight when they staggered into the arrivals area. I patiently waited for about 2 hours until the first passengers started stumbling out the exit doors. With their dark sunken eyes, pallid colour and unshaven faces and filthy clothes, they really did look quite frightening. The men were even worse. It really did look like a scene from one of those Zombie Apocalypse movies.

When all were present and accounted for I directed them to the waiting 22 seater bus that I had booked to take us to our respective hotels. For several of those on board it was their first visit to Paris and I could not wait to see their excitement. Unfortunately their obvious excitement was somewhat tempered by the fact that they were in a semi coma following their long journeys.

All the hotels are close together in the northern region of Paris known as Opera – Saint Georges. This gives us easy access to Montmartre and is only a short Metro trip from the centre of the city. After a meal at a local restaurant we all retreated to the sanctuary of our hotels and the happy prospect of a long night’s sleep.

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Day 18 – In Which I Conduct a Group Stagger Around Paris

Last time the Ghostriders conducted a ride in France, I offered to take a group of them on an extended walking tour of the city, just to help them get their bearings and appreciate some of the magic of this amazing place. When I offered to do the same thing this time, I had 12 people who turned up at the appointed meeting place.

Although this was always to be a walking tour, several of the participants presented with various ailments right at the start. In fact, even before we started, John pulled out because he apparently has a bone in his foot and his wife Gonny pulled out because her knees are “wonky”. At the start of the walk Carol informed me that her feet were already sore after the 100 metre walk from the hotel and Sharlie informed me that she would not be able to walk on any uphills or downhills (and apparently was not much good on the flats either). I often compare the Ghostriders to the famous Dad’s Army, but this is getting ridiculous. I began to think I should have booked a set of wheelchairs for the group.

In spite of my misgivings, we set off at a brisk pace of about 1 km per 24 hours and slowly made our way towards Pigalle. After we had crawled about 200 metres, I turned around and could not fathom how some were already 300 metres behind me. They must have been walking in the wrong direction. After much hand waving and shouting we were regrouped and staggered on about 100 metres or so. “My feet are aching” said Carol, “My knees are feeling a little queer too” added Sharlie. “Is it time for coffee yet ?” Maggie contributed. This was going to be a long, long day.

After much encouragement, cajoling, threatening and after numerous “rest breaks” we finally made it up the hill to Sacre Coeur Cathedral, one of my favourite spots in all of Paris. Carol and Sharlie caught the funicular railway to the summit, while the rest ran the gamut of the African hustlers who always crowd the steps. “It must be time for coffee now” suggested Maggie. It was.

We crowded into a delightful little flower covered coffee shop near the Place du Tertre and settled down to a heavy session of coffee drinking and people watching. When we counted the heads we discovered that we were one head less than a dozen. Sharlie had gone missing. She turned up after a few minutes and explained that she had been shopping for some cat pictures, as if that explained it all.

As we started to head back to Pigalle to catch the train, Maggie found a lovely little Montmartre back street and said that we should go that way. It was delightful, but it meant that we were going in the wrong direction, necessitating a long walk back up the hill and past the cathedral again. More complaining from Carol and Sharlie. A few others joined the chorus as well with a steady counterpoint of “I am getting tired”, “Is it much further ?”, ” I saw a man with a baguette” and other nonsense. Maggie asked if it was too soon for another coffee.

I finally herded the remaining 10 people onto the Metro (Keith and Marg had already lost patience and bolted). Carol’s feet were still hurting, although Sharlie had apparently found her second wind and had come good again.

When we got off the train at Concorde there was the usual exclamations of wows as people stood on one of the most famous boulevards in the world. The women all headed straight to the nearest toilet. The clock kept ticking.

We wandered down through the Tuileries Gardens towards the Louvre and I was amazed that the usual Gypsy pickpockets were nowhere to be seen. Maybe the police have finally succeeded in moving them away once for all. It was then along the right bank of the Seine and through the famous Ile de La Cite and the equally famous Ile St Louis. It was then time for a baguette and an ice cream. Carol had already caught a taxi back to the hotel. And dammit, even my feet were getting tired. It was getting close to 3 pm so I decided to cancel the remaining 10 km of the walk and announce that it was time to head back to the hotels.

What followed was another lesson on survival in the underground maze that is the Paris Metro, but all made it safely home. Maggie and I bought some food from a mini mart and had our own picnic in the hotel courtyard. It really had been a fun day and, in spite of the teasing I give them all, I really do love travelling with these wonderful folk.

Day 19 – In Which we Visit Oscar Wilde, Marcel Marceau and a VERY BAD MAN

Up until today we had not seen a drop of rain since we left Melbourne almost three weeks ago. In Italy the weather was hot and sunny virtually every day and we joked that we would love to see a few clouds and a little rain, even if just to settle the dust and lower the humidity. Our first two days in Paris have also been hot and sunny, however today the weather pendulum has finally swung to the other extreme and it has been drizzling or raining for most of the day. Like a spring garden, the city has bloomed with the opening of a million umbrellas. The Parisians are used to coping in the wet and never seem to be too bothered by something as trivial as a torrential downpour.

This of course leads to another question – why do so few countries think to erect verandas over the fronts of their shops ? Certainly in Paris they are non existent. It really is essential to carry your own veranda in the form of an umbrella. Thankfully there was a $2 shop around the corner from our hotel and I am now the proud owner of a new 9 Euro folding black umbrella.

When looking for something to do this morning we considered a few options before deciding to head to Paris’ largest cemetery – the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. This is a huge (110 acres) plot on a rise in the 20th Arrondissement.  The oldest graves date back to 1804. If you want to see what happened to all those who died before that time you will need to venture far underground to the sprawling catacombs that hold the bones of literally millions of ex Parisians.

David, Carol, Maggie and I caught the crowded Metro to the closest station (Phillipe Auguste) and wandered in through the large front entrance to the cemetery. It was soon apparent that many of the residents here must have belonged to the privileged classes, judging by the numbers of huge mausoleums that crowded every available space. We slowly made our way between these structures until we came to perhaps the most prominent mausoleum of all, situated right at the highest point. I pulled open the rusty gate and made my way to peer into the cavernous interior when I was interrupted by a voice from behind. At first I thought it might have been a guard abusing me for desecrating the building, but when I turned around I saw a rather scruffy looking character with shoulder length scraggly hair and the very minimum quota of teeth. In very poor English he told us that the resident was a past President of France and a “real bastard, a megalomaniac”. Apparently a nasty piece of work indeed, according to this expert at least.

Carrying his tattered folder of newspaper cuttings our new acquaintance explained that he had been a guide at the cemetery for the past 28 years. Apparently, because we did not tell him to go away, this meant that we had now entered into a binding contract for his professional services. David and I looked at each other and held tightly to our wallets, fearing that we had been ambushed.

In spite of our misgivings, the guy certainly knew his stuff. Over the next hour or more he walked us up and down, back and forth and revealed a whole insight into history that we would never have discovered. He explained that the famous residents were guaranteed a permanent tenure, but for the others they would be dug up in 100 years and anything still remaining would be “barbecued” and their plot used for a new resident.

Among the famous graves he took us to were the final resting place of Marcel Marceau (died 2007), Ferdinand de Lesseps (Suez Canal builder) and Oscar Wilde. Another interesting grave was to commemorate the young journalist who was shot by Napoleon Bonaparte and whose grave is used as a pilgrim site for those wishing to fall pregnant. It was also easy to recognise the graves of prominent freemasons as they had HUGE pyramids built over them. One such freemason grave also had a vast underground chamber which acted as a great echo chamber when we yelled into it. I was also somewhat surprised to find the grave of James Morrison, adorned with dozens of gifts and mementos. It reminded me of the famous Evita Mausoleum in the Ricoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

We were also shown the final resting place of Fred Chopin, or at least part of him. Apparently his heart was removed and buried in his homeland Poland. The government of Poland still pays for the upkeep of his grave and for fresh flowers to be placed there every week. In fact it really did turn out to be a very informative experience, but we were now getting exhausted and could not figure out how to terminate his services. Every time we told him we had to go, he would reply with “one more thing, must see”. I was beginning to worry that we could end up spending the next 28 years of our own lives here, if we did not force the issue.

After another half dozen or so of “one more things”, we were back near the entrance. Now we had the difficult part. We knew we would have to pay him something, but how much ? From the look of his lack of dental work it looked like he was doing it tough, but for all we knew he might have a Porsche parked out the back.

Dave and I fumbled around in our pockets and produced about 25 Euro. Considering we had never asked him for the Grand Tour,we thought that was a reasonable donation. It obviously wasn’t. Our Worzel Gummidge lookalike took one look at our donation, rolled his eyes and let out a disgusted grunt. Our hands went back into our wallets looking for a few more notes. I suspected that the next payment on his Porsche was due.

We finally handed over 40 Euro and he seemed happy enough. He should be, it was not bad money for 90 minutes work. On the other hand, it was another example of just what makes Paris so unique. He certainly put on a real show for us, his knowledge was unquestioned and it really had been fun. We went away thinking that it was worth it for the experience and it will certainly be an experience we will never forget. Another example of where the very best travel experiences are always unplanned.

This evening quite a few of our team have decided to go to a concert at St Chapelle. That leaves me sitting alone in the hotel room, taking an opportunity to catch up on a few chores. Our plan for tomorrow is to go to the famous Palace of Versailles, but that may depend on what the weather is doing. At least I now have a good umbrella.

Day 20 – In Which Dave Gets Propositioned, I get Bisected (and everyone else gets injured)

This was always going to be a long day. Due to the vagaries of hotel bookings, it was not possible for Maggie and me to get 5 consecutive nights at the Trois Poussins Hotel. This meant that the final two nights of our stay would have to be at a nearby hotel with the unlikely name The Monterosa. For me, that name conjured up images of rugged cowboys running a huge cattle station, whereas in fact The Monterosa turned out to be just another typical 3 star hotel in this area.

We packed our bags early in the morning and set out on a short walk to see where our new hotel was located. As it turned out, we were not the only ones out on an early morning walk. On our way back to our morning meeting point I noticed Sue Rainsford wandering blindly in the opposite direction. She seemed pleased and surprised to see us. “I am lost already” she explained. “Then just follow us” I replied. Sue had arrived in Paris just the previous evening and was obviously still having a little trouble navigating the maze of streets near Saint Georges. Sue’s arrival brought our total strength to 19 participants. The final two would be arriving the following day and the rest would be meeting us in Orleans.

Although we had originally been intending to visit the Palace of Versailles, the dark gloomy skies and drizzling rain soon convinced us that an indoor activity would be more appropriate. About a dozen or so left, following Keith and Marg on their way to Versailles. I had given very clear directions so I knew that they could not possibly get lost. In fact they did.

Maggie and I joined David and Carol on a visit to the famous Musee D’Orsay. This amazing building was erected as a railway station for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. By 1939 it was deemed to be no longer suitable as a station and had a variety of other uses before it was scheduled for demolition in 1970. Fortunately it was saved from this dreadful fate, and it now houses the largest collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist Paintings in the world. Many consider this museum to be the finest museum in Paris and it certainly should be included in any visit to this city.

When we arrived at the entrance, the main queues had not yet developed and we only had a short wait before we were able to enter. The cashier courteously explained that my Victorian Seniors’ Card would not get me a discount, but I figured it was worth a try. Although the art is certainly impressive, and the total value must be in the billions of Euros, for me the real work of art is the building itself. For anyone who has seen the movie “HUGO”, about the boy who lived inside the clocks in a huge railway station, you could swear that this is where it was filmed. Dominating high above the main auditorium are two huge clocks. You can stand inside the clock face and look out over the whole of Paris. In the distance you can clearly see Sacre Coeur Cathedral perched high on the Butte Montmartre. It would have been easy to stand here for a long time and just gaze out over this incredible city.

Although the notorious selfie sticks are banned inside the museum, this does not deter the intrepid horde of selfie addicts who carefully plan their visit so that they can be photographed in front of virtually every piece of art in the place. It made me tired (and also a little bilious) just watching the effort and planning this entailed. On the other hand it was easy to see that real art lovers left their cameras at home and just used their eyes instead. Some would stand for extended periods in front of just one painting or statue, carefully examining every detail and trying to get inside the mind of the artist.

By midday Maggie was begging for a coffee and a sit down (in that order). We left the museum and noted that the queues had now grown to biblical proportions, stretching halfway to the Eiffel Tower. Another reminder to always arrive early. We looked for a suitable cafe for a coffee and some lunch and found a large likely looking place nearby. We settled down and soon found that the waiter seemed especially attentive to Dave. After a while I was half expecting him to bring Dave chocolates and flowers.

This reached an even higher level of infatuation when the waiter arrived with our meals. He explained that he would “serve ze ladies first”, first Carol, then Maggie and then his favourite Davide. Apparently I rated as the only man at the table. By this time David was blushing redder than a bride on her wedding night and he seemed anxious to make a getaway.  We managed to pay the bill and escape, just as the waiter was off to get a piece of paper to record Dave’s phone number.  It had been a close call, even though David had repeatedly tried to explain that he was already married.

In every group there are some feats of endurance that are worthy of special mention and this group contains such a couple. Ever since they had arrived in Paris, Keith and Marg had engaged in a frenetic round of continuous tour hopping. Obviously every minute of every day had been planned months ahead in an attempt to get their names in the Guinness Book of Records for the most Paris tours in any 4 day period. Their stamina is obviously legendary. I knew that such a grueling pace would kill most people our age. It was even more amazing that each successive tour was ever further away from Paris. They had already done every possible tour, hop on hop off bus, cabaret show, etc in the city itself and then started venturing to more distant locations such as Giverny and Mont St Michel. Apparently they are now seeing if they can fit in a tour of Melbourne’s MCG on Tuesday.

The rest of the team have much more limited stamina and are rapidly reaching the end of their endurance. I did suggest that there was one activity that rewarded the participant with a unique view of this city and somehow managed to convince about a dozen takers that it would be a good idea to take a night cruise along the Seine. I instructed that we should meet near the base of the Eiffel Tower around 7.30 pm.

Maggie and I arrived early and took a long slow walk along the river from the Musee D’Orsay towards the Eiffel Tower. As I crossed the road I was nearly skittled by a driver roaring up the road in a brand new red Ferrari sports car. I could not be certain, but I think the offending driver was the same scruffy guy that had taken us on our cemetery tour a couple of days earlier.  C’est la vie , I guess.

Near the base of the tower we met up with Eugenie, Sally and Liz. Maggie was starting to rebel at this point and gave me an ultimatum. “I am not walking any further until you bring me coffee and dinner”. She pouted her bottom lip and went and sat on a bench seat under a big tree. I have learnt that, when she is such a mood, I have no alternative other than simply obey.

I walked around looking for something that might appeal to her appetite. I was soon mesmerised by a crepe maker and found myself ordering two crepes, stuffed with strawberries, bananas, chocolate and cream. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I didn’t even faint when the operator asked for 27 Euros. When he handed across the steaming hot bundles I had to admit that they did look good. The trouble was that I had two cups of coffee and two crepes and I was exactly two arms short of the optimum quota.

Clutching the scolding crepes and balancing coffees, I staggered back through the crowds and tried to find where I had left Maggie. Along the way I started to wonder why people were looking at me and smiling. I guess they all wished they had bought a crepe as well, I thought. After a couple more minutes, my hands were burning and I tried to get a better grip on my goodies. It was only when I looked down that I could see why I was single handedly sending the multitudes into paroxysms of mirth. The bottoms of both crepes had burst, sending cascades of brown molten Nutella all down the front of my shirt and trousers. I was literally covered in the stuff right down to my shoes. Now I knew what the village idiot must feel like. I was NOT happy.

Eventually I found Maggie relaxing under her tree and I thrust the now collapsed and saggy crepe into her hand. “You had BETTER enjoy this”, I yelled. She took a few bites and allowed the rest of the delicious contents to slip through her fingers and splatter to the ground in an unsightly pile of pink and yellow. At least the birds would get a feast.

In the meantime I was engaged in a futile attempt to remove even a little of the cream and Nutella from my clothes. I really hoped that night would come early to hide my shame. It didn’t, in fact I think there was an unexpected hour of daylight that day for some obscure astronomical reason.

Later in the afternoon we were met by a large group of Ghostriders and we set sail on our Seine River Cruise. Although I had already done this cruise several times before, I always find it a beautiful way to experience the famous City of Light. All of Paris’ most beautiful buildings are illuminated and the whole place looks like a scene from a fairy tale. On the top deck of the boat it was getting pretty cold and even the heat from the red hot Nutella was no longer sufficient to keep my legs warm.

After the cruise Sally was the only one with a map and she took over leadership of the group to get us home to our hotels. I should have already known that women have no concept of what maps are, and I suspect she was holding it upside down as she led us like the famous Pied Piper in the opposite direction to what common sense was pointing.

After 30 minutes of blind wandering we found a Metro Station and began an eventful journey back to Montmartre. “Hurry Up” I called to the stragglers when I saw a train waiting at the platform. I jumped on board and tried to hold the door open. In the process I made an important discovery about Metro trains – you cannot hold the doors open. They simply snap shut like a metal press, no matter what is in the way. I was fortunate not to lose the major part of my right arm, but somehow managed to fall into the carriage just in time to watch the rest of the group still standing on the platform.

Fortunately Metro trains runs every few minutes and we were eventually all reunited. Maggie and I staggered into our room around 10.30 pm and made the decision that the following day would be a quiet day.

I hope that our team have enjoyed their short stay in Paris and just maybe they might have fallen a little in love with the magic that permeates every street. Paris is so much more than museums and monuments, it is the infectious joie de vivre that Parisians incorporate into every aspect of their lives that makes me want to return over and over again. This was typified by the elderly trumpet player that we saw wandering the streets yesterday. He was not asking for money, he just wanted to play his trumpet and greet people that passed by him in the street, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

UPDATE ON THE INJURY LIST 
John Rundell – evacuated to London for rest and recuperation leave – indefinite
Maggie Dawson – Hand improving, but hip now hopeless (also a bit irritable) – 2 days
Sharlie Cousland – Restricted to bed due to possible recurring bout of tiredness – 4 hours
Dave Yates – Bad back and severe embarrassment – 2 weeks
Myself – mental stress – indefinite
Gonny Rundell – Wonky knees – indefinite
Carol Yates – Dodgy Feet – 2 weeks
Mary Jonas – Lost in action – indefinite
All the other women – suffering from obvious bladder failure and acute incontinence – indefinite

Day 21 – In Which we HobNob with the Rich and Famous

Every major city has its iconic luxury hotels and, in Paris, there is no hotel with a longer or more distinguished reputation than the impressive Le Meurice. Situated on the posh Rue de Rivoli, and facing into the beautiful Tuileries Gardens, Le Meurice has been a preferred hotel for the rich and famous for over 180 years. If you want to  spot some well known celebrities, just take up a position over the road and wait. Most likely it won’t take long till some actor, banker or world leader comes out the front door.

Although I considered selecting this hotel for our stay in Paris, I thought the 4300 Euro a night ( around $7000 AUD) charge might be a tad high. For that you get a standard room, but of course you have to pay extra for breakfast (around $100 a head per day), internet access, sheets and fresh towels. You also need to have your pockets stuffed with 50 Euro notes for the obligatory tips for everyone on the staff who even says “Bonjour” to you.

Next door to Le Meurice is the almost equally iconic Angelina’s tea rooms.  This place looks like something out of the Palace of Versailles with its ornate painted ceilings, chandeliers and expensive furniture. Of course, if you want a tea or coffee there, you can’t just walk in the door. Unless you are a class A celebrity there is always a long waiting list and a queue that means you must wait in line for hours, just to get a seat.

Fortunately for the Ghostriders, that was not a problem. Apparently the proprietor had been eagerly following our adventures each day on the blog and, when we arrived at the front door, we were directed around the long queue and up to the exclusive upstairs section. The distinguished butler escorted us to their finest table and indicated that we should be seated. When we saw the prices on the menu, I could see why it was so important to be seated first. I was grateful that I was not wearing my Nutella stained shirt and pants from the previous day, as that probably would not have gone down very well.

This whole episode had been Ross and Fran’s idea. Apparently they like to always visit this place, whenever they are in town. It was their influence with their favourite waiter that had got us the extra special service we received. There were eight of us sitting at the table, all looking a lot like the proverbial fish out of water. Most of my table etiquette had been learned at the local Macdonalds in Pakenham, so I was a little unsure how to act in such surroundings. Somehow the best we could manage was to regularly break into loud and hysterical fits of laughing every few minutes. I suspect that this is not the sort of place you are meant to laugh in, so it was little wonder that the waiter disappeared for a long time before reluctantly returning to take our orders.

Looking at the price of a cup of hot chocolate, I was tempted to order a single glass for Maggie and me to share. I looked in my wallet and stared at the quickly diminishing euro notes. On the other hand I did not want to look like a cheapskate, so decided that we could cut back on dinner. “Garcon”, I called, “bring me a cup of your finest hot chocolate, and also a glass of tap water for my wife”. I looked at the pictures of the desert selections and decided to order a chocolate delicacy that looked a lot like Donald Trump’s toupe. That should just about do it.

When the coffees and deserts arrived, I have to admit they were rather special, although I did somehow manage to spill my chocolate within the first few seconds. Fortunately it missed my trousers this time and just splashed all over the table cloth instead. More laughter. While I was drinking the chocolate and eating the hairpiece, Eugenie noticed that something was happening outside in the street.

Soon we were all on our feet looking out the windows at the huge line of shiny black cars that were blocking the entire Rue de Rivoli. There were also at least 10 motorcycles with especially dressed police riders on each. Obviously someone important was about to come out of the hotel next door. I wondered if Bronwyn Bishop may have been in town. We all scrambled to muster enough euros to cover most of the exorbitant bill and then walked out the front door. I was trying to hide the brand new chocolate dribble on the front of my shirt as we walked past the same queue that was still patiently waiting for their seats. I felt like advising them to join the Ghostriders, but wanted to see what was happening next door.

We apparently exited at just the right moment. A group of Africans all came out, all dressed in impressive caftans that would have even made Kamahl envious. While the footmen, doormen and security guards all competed to be the most subservient, the apparently powerful group of leaders quickly got into their vehicles and sped away. The impressive motorcade disappeared into the streets of Paris. Soon there was a massive explosion of horn tooting as the motorists that had been blocked for so long finally vented their pent up spleen.

Later in the day I searched the Internet to try to find out which country the leader had been from, but discovered that, while he was important enough to warrant a stay at Le Meurice and his own motorcade, his visit was  not significant enough to register on Google. I suspected that, since he was from Africa, he would probably been thrown out of power by the time he returned to his own country anyway. Just as well that they always have their secret Swiss bank accounts to fall back on in such hard times.

Maggie and I spent the rest of the afternoon rearranging our sock collections and catching up on our laundry. It was a wonderful time of togetherness for us. On my way back to the hotel that night I was very careful not to stand on the dog turd that had been in the middle of the footpath for the past two days. I think I succeeded.

We later learnt that Eugenie spent the afternoon at the local beauty parlor. Apparently she had been walking past when she saw an elegant looking French hairdresser making eyes at her from the inside. Her heart went a pit a pat and she found her feet taking her straight inside. Phillipe explained to her about the day’s special – “une haircut for ze price of two”. She could not let a bargain like that slip through her fingers, so spent the next hour feeling Phillipe’s fingers in her hair and his hot Gallic breath on the back of her neck. She came out with her hair looking like Madame Pompadour and her face the colour of beetroot. It had been worth the 200 Euros.

Tomorrow morning all those in Group One will be leaving Paris for Orleans and the start of our real adventure. We can’t wait to get riding again.

Day 22 In Which it’s Au Revoir a Paris and we Face Our First Serious Challenge

After 5 magnificent days in the City of Light it was time to get our ride underway. After all, that’s the main reason we came to this wonderful country. In order to get to Orleans, which was the place the ride is to begin, we first had to survive a trip through the Paris Metro and then a “Grande Ligne” train ride to Orleans.

We made a quite a sight, all lined up like a travelling caravan of elderly luggage draggers. Although the trains were very quiet at 10.30 am in the morning, it seems that the Metro designers had done all in their power to include as many flights of stairs as possible.  We had no alternative other than to drag our bulging bags up and down, until we were all red and puffing. I remembered that when we were in Helsinki, one of the luggage cases suffered a catastrophic castor failure on the walk to the train station. I was hoping that a similar breakdown would not occur this time.

Fortunately we all made it safely to the large Gare d’Austerlitz station without mishap and settled in for a lengthy wait till our train was due for departure. The women spent most of this time looking for toilets and drinking coffee (probably in the other order). The men spent most of the time looking for the women.

Every time I ride on a train in Europe I am reminded just how primitive our train system is by comparison. The ride to Orleans was even more comfortable because it looked almost like we were the only passengers on the train. Even in second class, the seats were generous and very comfortable. The smooth and silent passage of the train (over 140 kph according to my GPS) soon sent me into a sleepy stupor and I cannot remember much of the trip itself.

By early afternoon we had arrived at Orleans and unloaded our pile of bags from the train, ready to walk the 1.5 km to our hotel. Maggie and Carol (and most of the other women) decided to walk 1.5 km in the opposite direction looking for the closest toilet. The men waited, and waited……and waited.

Eventually the ladies returned with smiles on their faces and someone reminded them that there was a toilet on the train. In fact they could have just made a walk of about 5 m to the end of their train carriage.

The walk to the hotel took about 30 minutes, giving some of the ladies a good chance to lament that their bags were a little heavy. The men were again called upon to assist in carrying some of the excess luggage. I thought I read somewhere about equality of the sexes, but apparently it does not apply when navigating, repairing punctures or moving luggage.

The Escale Oceania is a very comfortable hotel, situated right on the banks of the Loire River. After the diminutive hotel rooms of Paris, it is always something of a relief to enjoy the extra space in the rural hotels.

In the late afternoon we received the bikes that were to be our transport for ride to Le Croisic. They were typical European touring bikes – upright stance, heavy and comfortable (just like me). After we all did a few laps around the car park, most agreed that they were quite easy to ride. Each bike was equipped with two large rear panniers, a toolkit, pump, lock, spare tube and a kitchen sink. I also was elected to carry the additional large and heavy floor pump. We were also issued with a huge wad of notes, maps, directions and brochures. I gave these a cursory glance and announced that we were set to go. By now we were getting hungry and were ready for dinner.

Our allocated restaurant for the first night was the Au Bon Marche, a mere 2 hour walk from the hotel. That would have been pleasant if it had not been raining, however we were all in good spirits and eagerly looking forward to actually getting started on the ride the next morning. Lionel Rex and John Hill had also arrived in Orleans a day early and had decided to join us for dinner, even though the rest of their group would not be arriving until the following day.

We eventually found the restaurant and proceeded to tramp muddy footprints across the pristine floor as the Maitre d directed us to their finest table. I looked down at the brilliant white starched table cloth and thought that it was an accident looking for a place to happen. A short time later, it did.

We were each handed a menu about as large as the playing area of the MCG, entirely printed in French. We struggled with the huge sheets and we struggled with the unfamiliar words. “What’s a canard ?”, “What is a millefeuille when it’s home ?”, “Are these snails ?” Lots of giggling from everyone.

“Don’t order anything that says tartare”, advised Ross, who had learnt from a most unpleasant experience on our Scandinavian ride.

After about 30 minutes of collective confusion we all managed to select something at random from each of the three sections and then waited expectantly for the surprises to come. I can’t remember exactly what I ate, but I do recall that it was delicious and it was extremely filling. And that was only the entree. We still had another two courses to go. This was our first serious challenge. Belts and girdles were loosened as we battled valiantly to empty our plates. Some rose wonderfully to the challenge while others were unable to make much impression on the piles of food in front of them.

My contribution to the evening was to somehow manage to spread some of the contents of my plate immediately on to the, previously white, table cloth. I tried to cover up my sins with a carefully placed napkin, but I suspect that the waiter noted what I had done and marked me down as the group’s imbecile. 

It took us until well after 10 pm to get anywhere near finishing the meal and no one wanted to be the last out of the place and be left with the drinks bill. Previous experience has showed me that people have notoriously bad memories when it comes to remembering what they drank and even worse arithmetical skills when it comes to adding up their contributions.

Somehow we managed to leave Lionel and John as the last two in the restaurant and I suspect that they were washing and drying dishes until the wee small hours of the morning. The rest of us had a long and wet walk back to the hotel, hoping that the weather would improve before the following morning. Of course it didn’t.

Day 23 – In Which Things Start Dreadfully and then go rapidly Downhill

Since this is the day that we start our ride, it also officially marks the date that our participants split into two groups. Since I will be riding with Group 1 (the better group) I thought it might be worth taking a little time to list each of the riders in this group.

David and Carol Yates – both have been riding with the Ghostriders for some time. David is heavily tattooed but has explained that, since he had them done when he was only 8 years old, he should not be judged by them. Apparently he once belonged to a very bad crowd when he was in grade 2. This will be their first overseas ride with the Ghostriders.

Pauline Lister – Pauline lives in Cooma where the sun hardly ever shines. She has taken part in numerous previous trips including the 2011 Danube Ride, the 2012 Turkey adventure and the 2014 Finland and Sweden rides. On a personal note, Pauline also shares 2 grandchildren with Maggie and me,

Priscilla Lister – Priscilla is Pauline’s daughter in law. This is her first overseas ride with us, however she comes from a serious cycling family. She started off a little quiet but can now laugh as loud as the rest of the women.

Ross and Fran Luke – both have been riding with the Ghostriders for some time. Ross took part in our 2014 Finland and Sweden rides, although this will be Fran’s first overseas ride.

Liz Kwok – the only person who can eat a Nutella crepe without getting any of the contents down the front of their clothes, Liz is a very competent rider who has already taken part in our 2014 New Zealand ride.

Mary Kinch – a very experienced Physiotherapist and therefore a handy person to have as part of our team. This will be her first overseas ride with the Ghostriders.

Sue Rainsford – since Sue is a doctor she is also a very valuable team member. Unfortunately, since her specialty is palliative care, we hope her services will not be required. Sue has already participated in a number of previous rides, including the 2011 Danube ride and the 2014 Finland and Sweden rides.

Eugenie Teychenne – Eugenie has been a personal friend of ours since she was our son’s first violin teacher about 25 years ago. She took up cycling especially for this trip as she has always wanted to visit France.

Sally Aridi – a close friend of Eugenie’s and the youngest rider in this group. Not yet old enough to suffer miscellaneous aches and pains like the rest of us.

Dennis and Maggie Dawson – since Maggie has been studying French for many years, she is the closest thing we have to a French speaker in the group. This is her first overseas ride with the Ghostriders. She also occupies the very important position of the real power behind the throne.

The first day of our ride would take us from Orleans to Beaugency. Since it was only a short ride of around 30 km it should have been a gentle prologue to the rest of the ride. As it turned out, fate had a completely different script prepared for us……

Perhaps we should have seen that things were not going to all go smoothly when the first disaster occurred before we had even retrieved our bikes from the storage shed. At breakfast time I heard a shout and looked up to see Fran covered in raw egg, dripping profusely from her fingers and elbows. Apparently she had mistaken the bowl of fresh eggs for hard boiled ones and had energetically proceeded to shatter it in her own face. She had obviously not seen the egg boiler situated prominently on the breakfast bar.

Of course we had all wished for a lovely warm sunny day to start the ride. We might as well as wished for a premature visit from Santa, the Easter Bunny and Elvis Presley. When we looked out the window we were “greeted” by leaden skies and steady rain. It had that particular sort of character that looked like it might set in for the next fortnight. On with the rain jackets.

Out we tramped into the rear courtyard to collect our bikes. Unfortunately the key did not fit the lock. Another ten minutes standing in the rain trying to get the door unlocked. Half of the riders discovered that their cheap “rain jackets” were already leaking profusely and we had not even started riding.

We tramped across the road to join the bike path. It was time for the obligatory happy group photo. Thirteen sodden cyclists lined up their bikes and pretended to smile. Unfortunately there was water on the lens and the picture did not work. We thought that things could only get better from that point on. We were wrong.

The early route was easy to follow, even in the torrential rain. We rolled along, splashing water and mud into the faces of those alongside and behind us. “This should stop soon”, I announced. In fact, it didn’t. It got heavier. Maggie started asking for a coffee stop, even though we had only been riding for 10 minutes. I couldn’t see where we were going since my glasses were covered in water and I think that the water had also affected my eyes as well. My expensive rain jacket had also given up the ghost in the onslaught and was now also letting in copious amounts of water.

“At least it’s not cold”, I encouraged the team. That worked for a short time, until the temperature started to plummet as well. Just when we thought things could not get any worse, they did. Sue suffered the first puncture of the day.

I must admit that I had been a little worried that Sue had had trouble keeping up with the glacial speed of the peloton. She is normally a strong rider and this seemed out of character. She had also been complaining that her “wheels were not round”, but I had put that down to hyperthermia. It turned out that there really was something VERY wrong with her bike.

Dave had been riding as the tail gunner and gave me a call on the CB radio that Sue had a puncture. Unfortunately his frozen fingers also managed to activate the emergency assist beacon, resulting in an ear splitting siren and sending out a distress call to all those within radio range. A few minutes later we noticed a local police car stopping beside the track to investigate. We tried to pretend we knew nothing about it. We had more pressing problems than to initiate a conflict with the local Gendarmes.

While the rest of the group rode ahead Dave and I started to dismantle Sue’s bike. It was only when we removed the tyre that we discovered that the previous user of the bike had obviously made some unusual modifications. Stuffed inside the tyre was an oversized tube that had been doubled over in an attempt to get it to fit inside the tyre. I had never seen anything like it. It was no wonder she thought that she was riding on square wheels.

For the next 20 minutes we wrestled with the repair before finally giving thanks for the huge floor pump that I had strapped to the back of my bike. At least it made it easy to pump up the tyre. We were finally on our way again, soaked to the skin and Dave and I had grease all over our hands as well. It was the proverbial “icing on the bad cake”.

“I think the sky is clearing”, I suggested. But what would I know, I couldn’t see anything by that stage. We finally caught up with the rest of the riders at the beautiful little hamlet of Meung sur Loire and immediately looked for a coffee shop. We found a likely place, but the proprietor took one look at us and told us not to sit at his lovely clean tables. I don’t blame him one bit.

He did agree to sell us coffees, provided we stood near the bar. At that point Pauline came in the door with even more bad news. For those that thought the day could not get any worse, they were really underestimating things. The worst was yet to come.

“Somebody’s bike is making a funny noise”, she said. That was a new one on me. I had never heard of a bike farting before but I guess there is a first time for everything. I followed her outside and, when I heard the noise, I immediately knew that there was nothing remotely funny about it. It was the sound of air rapidly escaping from Maggie’s  inner tube. “Sacre Bleu, this is getting ridiculous”. We only had one puncture in the entire 2013 France ride and we had now had 2 in the space of the first 20 km of this ride.

I called for Ross to put down his coffee and lend some assistance. I went and bought a cake at the nearby Patisserie and stood and watched while Ross went to work. I know I should have felt guilty, but I can honestly say – I didn’t. After all, it was a lovely cake and someone had to eat it. My actions were also vindicated when I was able to prevent a little old French lady from leaving her purse behind in the shop after buying her morning baguette. That indicated that I really was meant to be there at that time.

Another 30 minutes went past while Ross and David tried to untangle themselves from the greasy chain while they figured out how to remount the rear wheel. Eventually we were ready to leave. The rain even stopped for about 30 seconds. Things were definitely on the improve.

For at least a kilometre we were in high spirits, riding through the deep mud puddles that the rain had created on the trail. The women started looking for another toilet stop. Maggie started slowing down again. “I think my back wheel is acting funny”, she explained. I glanced down and saw immediately that she had been riding along on the rim. The tyre was as flat as the lamingtons she had tried to cook soon after our marriage. This was getting ridiculous.

A small group pulled to a stop while the others pedaled on into the gloom. Within a few minutes I had succeeded in recovering my hands with grease and mud and, once again, set about removing the tyre. Ross then spent the next 10 minutes searching for anything caught in the tyre that might have caused both punctures. We looked and looked but could not find anything.

While all this was happening I spied a strange change in the storm clouds overhead. It looked like some sort of apocalyptic event was rapidly approaching. I mentioned this to Ross and he looked in the opposite direction and said “our weather comes from that direction”. He was wrong. Very wrong. The violent squall swept across the paddocks, the wind blew all our bikes away and we huddled to save ourselves from the hailstones. Fran managed to crawl underneath a pile of bikes, in fear of her life. I must admit it really was rather frightening. The teeming rain increased to an absolute deluge. Any part of our bodies that was not soaked through certainly was now. I was tempted to crawl into the nearby Loire in order to stay dryer. David showed that, somewhere in his ancestry, he was related to a chameleon. His whole body quickly changed to a dark blue colour and he started shaking violently. For a while it looked like we would all make the front pages of the Australian papers in the worst possible way.

Fortunately the squall only lasted for a few minutes, but unfortunately it was followed by a rapid drop in temperature. By now we were all freezing, wet through and filthy. It could not possibly get any worse. But it did.

We somehow managed to ride the remaining few kilometres to the beautiful medieval town of Beaugency and entered our hotel, dropping water and shaking like maracas. “But your rooms zey will not be redee for another 2 hours”, the manager apologised. “And your bags have not arrived yet”, he added for good measure. We huddled together in a rictus of shared misery. This was going to be a long and very cold afternoon.

A little while later there was the first ray of sunshine in a very bleak series of events. The manager had a change of heart and announced that we could have our rooms after all, not that we could do much without any dry clothes to change into. Everybody adopted their own survival tactics. Apparently Dave spent the next hour under the shower, Sally and Eugenie jumped into a hot bath together, other just climbed straight into bed (pity about the white sheets), Maggie and I huddled around the heater and the heated towel rack. That towel rack was put to continuous use over the next few hours as we dried all our clothes, shoes, underwear, etc.

Our luggage did safely arrive a couple of hours later and somehow everything all worked out OK in the end. In a strange way, it can be these types of really tough days which people look back on with affection in the years ahead. One thing is certain, we all fell in love with this beautiful town and its profusion of brightly coloured flowers. Our stay was too short to really do it justice, but we will all have very fond memories of our brief time here.

In the evening the Hotel (Ecu de Bretagne) gave us the best meal we have had so far on this trip. We all agreed that it had been a day that we will never forget. At least we know that the weather could not possibly get any worse. If we could survive that, we can survive anything.

Day 24 – In Which we All feast on Delicious Radioactive Walnuts

It’s always amazing what a difference a few hours can make. After an outstanding meal at the Ecu de Bretagne Hotel, a good night’s sleep and dry clothes on our backs, we were all feeling refreshed and (almost) ready for anything. We  spent a few minutes exploring some more of the delightful little village of Beaugency before finding the trail and heading off for our next destination at the town with the completely unpronounceable name of Blois. 

Although the skies looked threatening, we were able to stay dry as we pedaled along a lovely succession of tiny lanes and bike paths. We regularly came back to the mighty Loire River which was the theme of our ride. After the mud and puddles of the previous day, it was relief to find that the vast majority of the paths were sealed and smooth.

At the head of our peloton was David Yates who had kindly volunteered to be our navigator for the day. Since our ride was a “self guided” trip we had to rely on our own map reading skills if we were to correctly find our way from place to place. Although I have always been a great believer of equality of the sexes, I sometimes wonder why all the ladies seem to take a step backwards whenever I ask for a volunteer map reader for the day.

We had not ridden too far before the unmistakable silhouette of a large power plant began to take shape on the horizon. As we got closer we could see that it was obviously an early generation nuclear power plant, probably built about the same time as Chernobyl. Huge clouds of steam (and possibly a toxic cocktail of other pollutants) billowed high into the sky from its huge towers.

As we reached the point in the path directly opposite the huge smoking reactors we found a local Frenchman happily picking walnuts from a large overhanging tree. We stopped to see what he was doing. Unfortunately we only have about 3 words of French in our collective vocabulary and our new French friend spoke no English at all. On the other hand I discovered that both he and I spoke fluent Gibberish and so we were able to communicate together perfectly well.

He explained that he had worked in the nuclear plant opposite for most of his working life and went on to say that it was perfectly safe. I looked down in the water and watched the three eyed fish swimming around happily and had to agree that it did seem pretty safe. Our friend put down his basket and pulled out some of his finest walnuts for us to sample. It turned out that most of them were rotten and completely inedible, but their luminous glow does make them quite useful as night lights. We waved Au Revoir, and our friend went back to collecting more rotten nuts while we rode away. Those sort of encounters are what travel is all about.

Our morning tea stop was at the tiny little village of Muides Sur Loire. We went looking for a place to buy some morning tea and, once again, discovered that the French have no concept of combining coffee and cakes at the same outlet. Although the typical little shop could sell you a cup of cafe au lait , they all looked amazed if you asked them for anything to eat with it. In other towns the few shops that sold cakes NEVER sold coffee. Someone could make a fortune by opening up a chain of shops selling coffee and cake to the cyclists who ride this famous route.

Our major stop for the day was at the mighty Chambord Chateau. This huge palace was built for the famous Francois Ist and it would have been quite an impressive castle if the designers had quit while they were ahead and not been tempted to add dozens of hideous towers and turrets all over the roof. They looked like some sort of malignant skin tags that had grown uncontrolled on the top of the building. When I saw this building for the first time a couple of years ago, I remember thinking that it looked like the work of a manic designer. On this second visit my opinion had not changed.

While we were sitting outside the Chateau having lunch and trying to count the turrets, I could not help but wonder how Group 2 was faring. They were following in our tyre marks one day behind, so every experience we had, they would have a similar experience on the following day. In particular, I was worried about one member of that group who had demonstrated that they had apparently not read any of my very  important pre trip emails. When I was explaining to my own group members the importance of reading all email instructions carefully, one of our ladies replied that “she usually didn’t read the backs of emails”, as if that explained everything. I am still trying to figure that one out.

After our visit to Chambord, David resumed his position at the head of the peloton and led us out of the gardens and right back along the path we had ridden in on. Numerous mutinous shouts came from those behind “We came in this way”, “I want to go the other way”, I am not going anywhere”, “I want another coffee” and so on. David tried hard to look confident and explained that the instructions said we had to come back this way. Ross went red in the face and cast doubts on David’s intellect and birth status. I, on the other hand, remained loyal and assured David I would follow him all the way back to Beaugency if that’s what he wanted.

By the time we had passed the garden full of gnomes for the 4th time, we were getting a little frustrated. “David is a hopeless navigator”, someone shouted. “A drover’s dog could do a better job”, another added. “They could be right” I quietly advised him. He finally relented and we all turned around for about the fifth time and eventually discovered the little green marker that indicated we were back on track. It probably only wasted about an hour or so, so it wasn’t a complete disaster. Later David remarked that it was all done on purpose to ensure that he will never have to do that job again. Perhaps that was also Tony Abbott’s excuse as well.

Once we were back on track the rest of the ride went without a hitch. The trails were well marked and made for fantastic cycling. The final section took us along the banks of the river and into the large city of Blois (best pronounced by saying “B” and then putting one finger to the back of your throat. Of course by this time we had ridden well over 50 km and and 10 of our 13 riders (all the women)were complaining loudly that they wanted a rest.

We finally crossed the huge old bridge across the river and discovered that our hotel was at the top of the highest point in the town. More complaining. At 6 pm we were standing in the reception waiting to be checked in. It had been a long day, but at least the weather had been much kinder to us.

At this point I would like to add a little bit of historical background to a strange phenomenon that has plagued all of our previous 30 or so overseas rides. The little known Himalayan Barking Spider is a small creature with a very loud and unpleasant mating call. It was first noted one evening after a particularly large meal of beans, onions and lentils. When everyone had retreated to their bedrooms, the still night air was rent with regular loud spider barks. Some insisted that they must be under the beds, but we could never find them. I have often known them to hide under the toilet seat, but again they resist all efforts of detection.

Since that earliest manifestation, these barking spiders have plagued every subsequent trip, sometimes reaching epidemic proportions. I have been tempted to contact someone like Richard Attenborough to shed some light on the matter. In the meantime it is just something we have learned to live with. Suffice to say that this trip has demonstrated that the notorious barking spider has infested France as well as all the other countries we have visited.

Day 25 – In Which a Bloody Coup Takes Places (and the entire Austrian Cycling Team Throws in the Towel)

The most surprising event of the day occurred even before we left Blois. Staying at the same hotel as us was a group of 12 Austrian cyclists who were supposed to be doing the same ride as us. We were rather nonplussed to find them all climbing into a large tourist bus outside the hotel. To our horror/dismay/shock we learnt that, after a single day of riding, they had all decided to abandon the remainder of their ride, return their bikes and do the rest of the trip sleeping on a big bus. I had always thought that the Austrians were meant to be a hardy lot, but compared to us they were obviously a bunch of cream puffs. As we prepared our bikes for departure we could not help but giggle at how silly it would be to finish the ride after just one setback.

Following the unpleasant peletonic rebellion of the previous day, David was happy to throw the mantle of chief navigator to Ross. After all, Ross had been the chief assassin at the infamous Chambord Rebellion, and it was only fair that he should be rewarded for his efforts by being anointed leader for the next day’s ride. At the evening meal I quoted from the Ghostrider bylaws, which clearly state that any appointed leader must be obeyed completely, even when you know that they are making no sense whatsoever. In any group of rapidly ageing riders it is inevitable that everyone will have the occasional lapse of concentration, so we have to learn not to be too judgmental.

Ross proudly took up his position as the new leader of the pack, confidently looked at the map, scratched what’s left of his hair, looked around for guidance and, when he saw the little green arrow, announced “I say we go that way”. David mumbled something under his breath about a drover’s dog, then took up a station at the opposite end of the peloton.

It was a good feeling to be riding under a blue sky for once and I was hoping that maybe we might be able to finally get a fine ride all the way to Amboise. Ross set off at a snail’s pace of about 10 kph along a lovely flat and smooth bike path. Well he thought it was a bike path until he nearly got skittled by the unexpected emergence of a small car. The trouble with these narrow country roads is that they all look like bike paths, but you do need to keep an eye out for vehicles.

After wobbling along at this glacial pace for about 15 minutes we stopped to look around and noticed that 4 of the women were nowhere in sight. We waited and waited…and waited. It seemed that they were already tired and had decided to walk their bikes along the flat, instead of riding. This had the makings of another mutiny. Maggie had appointed herself spokesperson for the malcontents and announced that they wanted to form their own peloton. That way they could stop, shop, drink coffee and take pictures any time they wanted. We agreed that would be OK but thought it best that David go along with them in case they needed any assistance. The group thus split into front and rear groups.

The first opportunity for morning tea was at the little hamlet of Cande Sur Beuvren. Once again the little shop promised little and delivered even less. We did manage to negotiate several coffees and hot chocolates and I was elated when I discovered that they had some (probably medieval) Mars Bars under the counter. We sat down to enjoy our drinks and coffee until the second group arrived.

After morning tea we rode on for another relatively short distance until we reached the tourist hot spot of Chateau Chaumont Sur Loire. For the first time in days we were confronted with a selection of eateries from which to select our lunch. I quickly found a Boulangerie and bought a large meringue (cost 1 Euro) then proceeded down the street to where I purchased a delicious Doner Kebab and chips. I sat on a step and dined like the King of France. This really was quality food of the highest order.

One by one the rest saw what delight I was taking in my lunch and a succession tramped across the road to get the same fare. We had a delightful roadside picnic near the entrance to the large Chateau. It was at that point that a now familiar change took place in the weather. The sky darkened and the first few drops of rain fell – right into my precious kebab. I bundled it up and huddled under an awning, trying hard not to drop chips and kebab ingredients down the front of my jersey. I almost succeeded.

After rapidly finishing the lunch we decided it was time to move. The weather was definitely deteriorating. The first few kilometres were flat and made for very enjoyable riding. When we saw an inviting poster for icecreams, we all agreed that sounded like a good idea. It was at that time that the conditions really cracked up. The rain set in with a vengeance, the temperature dropped and the head wind increased in strength. We all added rain jackets and rigged for wet weather riding.

Up to that point there was one little detail that I had been withholding from the rest of the riders. The final section to Amboise happens to contain the worst hills of the entire ride. It was this section on our last ride in 2013 which nearly killed some of our team. At least back in 2013 it was dry, this time we would have the added misery of pouring rain.

All too soon we were confronting the first of several climbs. Gears clicked down. The puffing got louder. Faces got redder. Riders started dismounting. In situations like this each rider has to adopt their own strategy. Some start hard and then burn out part of the way up. Others like to go slow and steady to conserve their energy to the top. There is no “best way” to suit everyone.

The succession of climbs and the bad weather did make the final hour difficult and we were all very relieved when we began the final descent into Amboise. Our accommodation for the next two nights will be the magnificent Le Clos d’Amboise,  a restored 17th century mansion near the heart of the city. This was our little extravagance for the ride as we thought that it might be nice to feel a little special for a couple of nights. With its ornate antique furniture and its manicured gardens, it was an interesting insight into a long lost way of life. Maggie and I have an attic room with a lovely view of the gardens. Ross and Fran have the presidential suite of rooms, complete with multiple bathrooms and butler. I believe David and Carol have been given some space in the coal cellar, but it’s too dark for me to go down there to check it out.

As it turned out, the second group of riders arrived at Amboise only about 15 minutes behind the first group. It really does not make a huge difference what speed you ride at. I guess this further emphasizes the point that each rider needs to find their own rhythm and pace. For those in Group 1, our speed for the next 24 hours will be stationary as it’s our first rest day.

 Day 26 – In Which we Pay Homage to the Ultimate Renaissance Man

When we rolled into Amboise yesterday afternoon we were all wet and tired and some were even a little cranky. I think we were all eager to just find our lovely rooms, have a hot shower and get changed into dry clothes. As I staggered from the bike shed carrying armfuls of gear (panniers, GPS, GoPro camera, CB radios, phone, wallet, etc) and feeling like a walking Christmas tree,  I gave Maggie one small request. “Could you be responsible for the key for the bike lock ?”, I politely asked. In hindsight I should have recognised that glazed look in her eyes and looked after it myself.

Later in the evening I asked where she had put the key. The conversation went something like this .

“Where did you put the key ?”
“What key?”
“The key to the bike lock”
“Did I have it ?”
“Yes I gave it to you”
“Are you sure ?”
“YES”
“I can’t remember anything”
“Well where might you have put it ?”
“Put what ?”

We started searching the panniers, we started searching all our pockets, we searched the cupboards, I even looked inside the electric jug (she is getting forgetful after all). No key.

The only slight silver lining in a very cloudy situation was that the bike lock had not actually been locked, so at least we could ride without having to find a bolt cutter. I just wondered how much the bike owner would charge me for a replacement lock.

The following morning (which was meant to be our free day in Amboise) was also spent looking for that blasted key. It was only much later in the day that she thought to check out the bike shed and found it right on the ground where she had been standing when I gave it to her. Apparently she had dropped the keys within milliseconds of me giving them to her. Since I hate losing things, I was pleased that they were found but for some reason I did feel like screaming.

After the four wasted hours looking for the keys, we walked to the famous Clos Luce, the final residence of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1516 Leonardo had impressed Francis I of France by making a mechanical walking lion that could walk forward and then open its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies. Leonardo was soon invited by the King Francois to live in a special house in Amboise under his royal patronage. He was provided an annual pension and was thus able to live the final three years of his life with some degree of comfort and dignity.

Although the Clos Luce is certainly an impressive home, it is not on the ridiculous scale of most of the other chateaus in this region. To me it seems a fitting home for probably the finest mind the world has ever produced. Whenever I think about the prolific output from Leonardo, I wonder what it was that ignited such a brilliant spark. The world had gone through the so called Dark Ages where very little progress had been made for over 1000 years and suddenly it seemed as if the lights of Europe were turned back again. In a relatively short space of time Leonardo and a host of other scholars and artists changed the world profoundly. Leonardo was particularly exceptional as he was a recognized genius in so many different fields – painting,  sculpture, anatomy, engineering, town planning, music, philosophy, science and numerous others. I wonder what it would have been like to spend some time with such a great man.

Unfortunately Leonardo’s time in Amboise was only a short three years, and by age 67 his brilliant life was over. It is hard to imagine another life that has changed history in such a profound way as he did. In one of his writings on philosophy he wrote “Evil is a terrible foe, but how much worse it would be to have it as your friend”.

RIP Leonardo da Vinci – 1452 to 1519, the supreme Renaissance Man.

Soon after we returned from exploring the Clos Luce, the first riders of Group 2 began to arrive at our hotel. They had certainly been blessed with better weather than we had experienced and we enjoyed a lovely relaxing time sitting in the glorious later afternoon sunshine.

In the evening both groups combined to share a very impressive meal at the Lion d’Or Restaurant in the centre of Amboise. The combined volume of noise from the 25 members of the groups would have put a jumbo jet to shame. After dinner it was a delightful walk back to our hotel on a warm late summer’s evening with  a brilliant crescent moon shining from a clear sky over the ancient church. It is experiences like this that make this sort of travel so enjoyable.

According to St Augustine the world is a book and those who never travel only read the same page. How true he was.

Day 27 – In Which I Apparently Become Invisible (and we arrive in time for the Tours Mardi Gras)

After our free day in Amboise it was good to be back on the bikes and resuming our journey to the Atlantic once again. Even more important was the fact that the weather had finally turned in our favour. We woke to a beautiful clear sky and dared to hope that we might be able to complete the day’s ride without getting drenched.

Finally we might have a chance to emerge from our rain jackets and ride with our yellow Ghostriders jerseys proudly displayed for all the locals to see. We had seen the members of Group 2 arrive at Amboise in their matching tops and I had to admit that they did really look impressive. We might even be able to achieve some semblance of pelotonic precision and really impress all the onlookers with our professionalism.

Unfortunately I discovered at breakfast time that half of the women had been seduced by the local bike shop into buying green jerseys. Could you imagine if half the members of our Olympic team decided that they did not like the green and gold of Australia and decided to adopt the New Zealand colours instead ? Or what if the soldiers in our army went out and bought a different uniform because they thought it looked better on them ? Answer – CHAOS.

At least I was still wearing the traditional yellow jersey, even if it was a little stained by an unfortunate Nutella incident from a few days ago and also had a few samples of various morning teas scattered in various places. I knew it was going to be a comparitively easy day and I was looking forward to a relaxing day of cycling under a sunny sky. Priscilla had offered to act as guide for the day and expertly led us out of the hotel and straight into a dead end street. We all U turned and retraced our paths.  Take Two. This time we managed to find the Loire River and started to ride along the bike path towards Tours. For about a 100 metres. Then chaos reigned once again.

We rode straight into the middle of a huge Sunday market. For the women it was like releasing a box full of moths right in front of a very bright light. They all shot off in different directions, looking for a bargain. The peloton was quickly reduced to 3 riders, all of them men. We stood with our bikes by the trail and waited. And waited, and waited. I took a few deep breaths and tried to remember something I read once about temper control.

Over the course of the next 20 minutes some riders emerged and joined those who were waiting, but there was no sign of the rest. Since they were not wearing the correct jerseys, we could not even identify where our riders were in the crowd. I was reminded of the old story about the Irishman who went into the department store looking for a pair of camouflage pants, but couldn’t find any. (Think about it).

We had no alternative other than to split the peloton and ride on in little fragments and tatters. Fortunately the path was clearly signposted and (almost) impossible to miss. The surface was smooth and the scenery beautiful. With the stillness of the early morning it really did make for some amazing cycling.

Our designated morning tea stop was at the small hamlet of Montlouis Sur Loire, about 20 km along from Amboise. When we rolled into the town I was delighted to spot a likely looking Boulangerie (cake shop) and pulled over to have a look inside. Indeed it did contain an enticing collection of tempting treats, just the sort of thing to increase the tension in my already bulging jersey zipper. I went inside and pulled out my wallet ready to make a purchase. Since I was the only one there I did not think it would take long to get served.

Just as I was about to order a lovely meringue, my mobile phone rang and I retreated to the shop entrance to take the call. I was trying to be polite and did not want to use the phone inside the shop. While I was on the phone, another customer entered, ordered a baguette and was served immediately. I returned and stood behind the man while his baguette was wrapped. At that moment another 4 locals all entered the shop behind me. They obviously knew the girl behind the counter and immediately started up a friendly conversation. I guess that would have been OK if she still had served me next, but she then proceeded to take each of their orders while I was left standing there just holding my wallet.

After a few minutes of chatter and laughs (probably at my stained appearance) I still had not been served and a couple of others entered the shop as well. I was beginning to feel that I would be left waiting until all the village had been served first. Was it because I was a foreigner or was it because of the Nutella stains on my jersey ? I really don’t know why I wasn’t served.  I just put the wallet back in my pocket, turned around and left the shop empty handed.

Later on I thought about what had happened and wondered if it was just a different culture. Although we might think it was normal to serve people in the order in which they arrived, perhaps in that village it was the custom to serve friends first and then strangers. Maybe the others would have been offended if they weren’t served first. I did walk up the street and bought a cup of coffee and drank it without a cake. Maybe I didn’t need the cake after all.

It was only a short distance from the morning tea stop to our finishing spot at Tours so we arrived there at around 12.30 pm, just in time to get caught up in a huge crowd. I knew that we were famous but I did not expect this sort of welcome. I started to wave to those cheering but discovered that they actually weren’t cheering us after all. Apparently we had arrived in the middle of a huge marathon race. Hundreds of fun runners of all shapes and sizes jostled for position on the bike path while we did our best not to hit too many of them. When we finally turned off the bike path we found ourselves surrounded by a vast crowd of boy and girl scouts, along with elaborately dressed priests. It appears we had arrived right in the middle of some sort of carnival Sunday.

By a combination of cycling skill and sheer good luck we managed not to seriously injure too many joggers, scouts, priests or pedestrians and arrived at the front of our hotel. The girl at reception gave slightly confusing instructions because her understanding of the terms “left” and “right” were opposite to those commonly accepted. We parked our bikes and were told that rooms would not be ready for another 2 hours. Plenty of time to go and get some lunch.

The centre of Tours contains a beautiful railway station surrounded by numerous eateries. We checked out a few potential lunch spots before settling for a familiar old faithful – Macdonalds. At least the hamburgers were OK and the coffee was relatively cheap. We sat in the sun eating our lunches and wondering what was the significance of of the large rhinoceros statue nearby.

Dinner that night was at the Brasserie de l’Univers. I could not figure out the name but the location was superb. My choice of main course was “Pepper Pig” and I was glad that my grandchildren were not there to make me feel guilty. I tried hard to keep most of the dinner away from the table cloth and almost succeeded.

Later in the evening I realised that I could not remember what I had done with the walkie talkie radios after arriving at the hotel. Maggie and I spent an anxious hour looking for them in our luggage before I learned that I had given them to Ross to look after.

Day 28 In Which we are Surrounded by Gypsies

It was a wonderful feeling to be able to ride out of our hotel under a cloudless blue sky. Considering the dramatic change that had taken place in the local weather, it made me think that we should have started the ride three days later than we did.

Tours has some glorious wide streets lined with huge trees and we followed one these beautiful streets past the Hotel de Ville as we made our way our of town. We learnt that the population of Tours is around 160,000 and it was obvious that there has been a lot of work put into developing local infrastructure. The trams and buses were the fanciest I have ever seen, although we never had a chance to actually try them out.

After about 20 minutes we broke free of the city and then followed the Le Cher river for quite some distance. This river runs parallel to the Loire for quite some distance before finally joining it at Cinq Miles la Pine. The riding was again absolutely delightful and somehow we managed to mostly stay in some semblance of cohesion as we rode along.

A few kilometres from Tours we noticed that the trail was almost blocked by a number of caravans and motor homes that had been parked tightly on both sides. At first I wondered what was going on, until I quickly realised that we had ridden straight into a cluster of gypsy caravans. As soon as we neared we were approached by one of the young gypsy boys who started following and shouting something at us. We quickly rode through the caravans, making sure to hold tight to our belongings and were all able to safely resume our journey.

At Savonnieres we stopped alongside the river for a lengthy rest in the warm sunshine. Since this small town was also home to a well stocked patisserie, we were also able to enjoy a cake while we rested. Once again we were witness to the fact that sometimes you can buy cakes and sometimes you can buy coffee but NEVER can you buy coffee and cake at the same time.

A short distance further on is the famous Chateau at Villandry. At the start of the ride I had made the decision that I was not going to try and visit every chateau, or even every second or third one for that matter. For me, the ride was never about the chateaux or huge churches, it was about becoming a part of French life. Neither Maggie or I have even taken a single organised tour since we arrived in France almost two weeks ago. On the other hand I did say that we would probably visit one or two castles and that would be enough for us. The rest we would be happy to just see from afar.

The Chateau at Villandry is famous for its incredible ornate gardens and it was that reason alone that persuaded us to part with 10 Euros each to visit the building and grounds. I learned that this castle was built by the Finance Minister of King Francoise 1st. When you see the size and opulence of the place, it would appear that Finance Ministers must have been very well rewarded for their services (or maybe they just made sure that a lot of the state finances went in their direction).

I must admit that I was a little underwhelmed at the inside of the castle, but the gardens were something else entirely. Whenever I have tried to set up even a small vegetable plot, the only things that flourished were the weeds. Yet here were acres of hedges, flowers, vines, trees and assorted vegetables where not even a blade of grass was out of place. When I looked down into the large moat I was met with return stares from dozens of huge carp. They crowded to the surface with their mouths open and I imagined them to be pleading with me to save them from being eaten. I could not resist sampling a couple of grapes from the overhead vines and then spitting the pips surreptitiously into the garden bed.

After 75 minutes of wandering the chateau and its gardens (and ignoring the pleading of the fish), it was time to move on. We discovered that there were two alternative routes from Villandry to Azay le Rideau and spent some time trying to decide which alternative to choose. After a period of collective confusion I made the decision to follow the river a little further. This meant that we able to stay on the top of the high levee bank and enjoy some great cycling before turning away from the river a few km further downstream.

Whichever way we went we knew that there would have to be a hill to be crossed before reaching Azay le Rideau. And there was. It was interesting to note that, even though we have been riding for only a few days, it is already obvious that the strength of our riders has improved in that time. Although the climb was extended, the gradient was not too extreme, and I think that many of the team actually enjoyed the challenge of being able to pedal to the summit.

After reaching the summit we had a great downhill the rest of the way to town. A short time later we were checking to the lovely Hotel de Biencourt. This hotel was located in what used to be separate boys and girls school buildings. The proprietor welcomed us warmly and insisted on carrying our bags to the rooms.

The town itself is a real gem, with narrow cobblestoned streets and dozens of medieval buildings. We were also delighted to discover a shop that supplied the first milk shakes we had seen in a long while. After a walk around the town I returned to our room to shower and change for dinner.

One thing we have noticed on this trip is that hotel showers come in an almost infinite variety of configurations and no two are exactly alike. I stood naked outside the spacious shower  recess and looked at the complex array of controls, buttons and pipes. It looked like the control centre of Dr Who’s time machine. I decided to do what any enterprising man would do and simply turned the first control my hand touched. I was immediately met by a horizontal jet of scalding hot water that sprayed out of the shower recess and across the bathroom. When I rapidly tried to turn it off I must have turned it the wrong direction as the jet turned into a torrent. In something of a panic I yelled out in pain and started rotating every pipe and tap I could find. In a few minutes I finally had the situation under control, although by that time, the place looked like Albert Park Lake.  I blamed the unfortunate incident on a combination of lack of instructions, poor eyesight and senility. When I finally worked out how the system worked I stayed under the deluge for a very long time.

Our dinner for the evening was at the, apparently Michelin rated, Cote Cour Restaurant, which was just a short walk from our hotel. It did not take long for us to discover just why the place was so highly rated – the food was SUPERB. The only small problem was that the waiter kicked my chair leg every time he walked past my chair. The first couple of times he apologised, but after the count went past ten kicks, it did not seem to matter any more. I suspected that he must have had a huge bruise on his foot by that time, and I wondered if I should start apologising to him. Since my chair was already pressed hard up to the table, there was nothing more that I could do to get it out of his way.

In spite of this small irritation I have to admit that it was one of the best meals I have had in a long, long time and I am sure that it will remain a highlight of this trip. As we walked the silent streets back to our hotel we met a local women who was walking her two small dogs and her cat on their evening walk. France is somehow just like that and it seemed the most normal thing in the world. Overhead the waxing moon cast a pale glow over the ancient rooftops. It had been another magical experience that we will never forget.

Day 29 – In Which I Awake with a Mouth Full of Razor Blades (but twice escape a bullet)

Yesterday I could tell that things were not all as they should be. Each time I tried to swallow it felt like there was piece of sandpaper lodged somewhere near my tonsils. A trip to the local Pharmacy in Azay le Rideau provided me with a box of probably what was something like the French version of Strepsils. The only thing on the box that I could read was the brand name Drill. It sounded more like a cure for a cavity than for a sore throat, but I tried sucking on a couple of them before I went to bed and hoped that they might kill whatever foul colony of microbes was apparently thriving in my throat’s hinterland.

In the morning the throat was even worse, but it was now accompanied by a thumping headache to keep the microbes company. It was going to be a difficult day. Oh well, on every trip everyone usually has a day or two when all they feel like is heading back to the familiar sanctuary of their own bed and bathroom. That can be a little difficult when your luggage is on a fixed itinerary and will soon be speeding off to the next major town down the river.

I staggered into the nearby breakfast room and forced myself to eat a baguette. Even when I felt sick I had to admit that it was really good. And I mean really, really good. Why can’t we make bread like that in Australia ? No wonder that 80 million French people line up twice a day at their closest Boulanger for their daily bread. I would too if the bread in Woolworths tasted like that.

The hotel in Azay le Rideau really has been a gem and the proprietor has gone out of his way to do everything possible to make our stay memorable. In return for this hospitality, Fran and Ross also went well out of their way to ensure that the proprietor will also remember our stay – for all the wrong reasons. While mixing up her morning concoction of bright orange Barocca and red ink, she sent the entire glassful right across the brilliant white sheets and expensive mattress. While Nutella stains are not exactly pleasant, at least they can be partially removed in time. The stains all over Ross and Fran’s bed looked like it had been the scene of some recent carnage and would no doubt necessitate the purchase of new linen and mattress. Just as well the floor was timber or else the carpet would have had to be ripped up as well. I felt sorry for causing the flood in my bathroom the previous afternoon and hoped that the water damage to the downstairs ceiling would not be too expensive to repair.

As we waved goodbye to our host I am sure that he was mumbling something more than just “Au Revoir”, but I could have been mistaken. His eyes were bloodshot and his hair looked like he had received an electric shock. I worried that all the devices I had plugged into the power point in our room might have caused some kind of major damage to the hotel’s wiring. Maggie did say that she could smell burning, but I was too concerned with my sore throat to care.

As we rode out of the town leaving the proprietor to negotiate with his bank manager for an increase in his overdraft, my concern was for more immediate matters. The weather forecast had not been very promising. We were due for more heavy rain at times so our schedule would have to be adjusted carefully. Our first stop was at the nearby Musee de Maurice duFresne.

Monsieur Defresne was an amazing collector of just about anything and everything who had amassed a huge personal stockpile of engines, cars, planes, toys, weapons, farm equipment, projectors, bicycles, in fact just about everything. Although the place does not look too impressive from the street, inside it contains a labyrinth of huge buildings that store what must be one of the best collections to be seen anywhere in the world.

Since we managed to arrive just as the first downpours were threatening, it was an amazing stroke of planning and timing. We negotiated with the cashier for the traditional Ghostriders discount and, even more surprisingly, managed to get the price reduced from 10 Euro to 7 Euro each. This was an absolute bargain and would have been worth it, just to escape the rain.

With the torrential rain falling on the roof we spent the next hour wandering the corridors, spellbound at the unexpected items that had been gathered together. He had even managed to find and restore a huge guillotine, complete with sharp blade and basket. By the time we had our morning tea, the rain had stopped and we were able to continue our ride along the river. If I had more compassion I would have felt sorry for Group 2 who had presumably been wet through in the deluge. Since they had escaped our disastrous first day when we nearly got wiped out on the ride from Orleans to Beaugency, it was only fair that they catch up on the misery scale.

A few kilometres further on we came across one of the most unusual sites in the whole of France. It was a shop that sold baguettes, cakes and coffee. It was an even more exciting discovery than finding Lassiter’s Lost Gold Mine. We all simultaneously did our best to confuse the poor owner by providing contradictory orders in a mixture of English, French, Gibberish and hand waving. She disappeared into the back room and reappeared some time later with an armful of fresh baguette sandwiches. I sat down to try to improve my health and morale by tucking in to a huge cake with the intriguing name Le Religiouex. I thought that maybe it was meant to be a replica of Notre Dame Cathedral made entirely with custard and sugar. It certainly took some serious eating and even more concentration not to spill most of the sloppy interior down the front of my jersey.

While this was going on, about half of the group indicated that they were in a hurry and could not wait for me to disgrace myself any further. They grabbed their baguettes and cycled out of sight. The remainder looked at the sky and used common sense to make the decision that it would be prudent to wait a little longer for the next downpour to pass over. Sure enough, about 3 minutes later the skies opened with another huge downpour of rain. By this time I had worked my way through the bell tower of Notre Dame and was making steady progress on the chapel itself. Only a small amount of the contents had managed to escape and jump onto my fingers.

About 30 minutes later the rain stopped and we resumed our ride, refreshed and DRY. We felt completely vindicated with our decision and only a little sad for those who had got drenched.

About ten kilometres further on we reached the turn off to the famous “Sleeping Beauty Castle” at Usse. Since I had already visited this place on our previous ride, I knew that the correct approach was from the second turnoff. That way you follow the main axis of the castle all the way to the front wall. It gives fabulous opportunities for photo shots along the way. When we caught up with the first group we not only found them looking a little waterlogged, but also learned that they had taken the wrong turn as well.

After a brief rest we resumed the ride to Chinon. For most of the way it closely follows the river bank along an elevated levee wall. The cycling was smooth and easy and the sun even broke through on a few occasions to brighten the ride. Unfortunately I was still battling the headache I had woken with and was feeling rather second rate. I battled on for a few more kilometres before announcing that I would like to head straight to the hotel as quickly as possible. For some reason the rest of our little group seemed pleased to see the last of me, so I increased the pace and set my sights on Chinon.

The poor weather of the morning had completely cleared by that stage and I was able to make good time on the lovely undulating path. Around 3 pm I pulled up outside our hotel and waited for the others to arrive. The rest of my group arrived about 30 minutes later, the other group got lost looking for a vineyard and also had two punctures and did not arrive till quite a bit later.

When we checked into our hotel Maggie and I were excited to see that we had finally secured one of the better rooms in the place. With its large bedroom, dining table and chairs we had plenty of space in which to spread out all our dirty clothes. The bathroom was also full of all the latest modern cons and some interesting automatic functions. There was no light switch in the bathroom as the lights come on automatically whenever you entered the room. Another automatic feature which was not quite so easy to get used to was the automatic door opener which opened the bathroom door whenever I sat on the toilet.

After arriving I went straight to bed and fell into a deep sleep, not waking till it was time for dinner. It was then that I learned that a couple of our group had already made their way to the restaurant next door and had secured our table. When I joined them I had a strange feeling that all was not well. I checked the name of our allocated restaurant and found that it was completely different to the name outside the place we were in. Quelle Embarrissmente !

We all climbed to our feet and made our way out the door. This time we made our way to the correct establishment. Eugenie told us that she was glad we were going to move because the first place “only had rubbish on their menu”. Fortunately the correct restaurant had other choices beside rubbish on their menu, and we all had another lovely meal together. It had been a long and trying day and I was hoping that tomorrow would be far less eventful.

Day 30 – In Which Carol gets caught in the Closet (and we lunch with the Troglodytes)

Since we were to be only riding around 45 km of mostly flat paths near the river, we knew that today’s ride was going to be quite enjoyable. We just didn’t realise at the start just how much fun it would turn out to be. The fact that we were able to ride out of Chinon under a lovely clear blue sky certainly did wonders for our early morale. For obvious reasons, even the toughest riding always seems easier when the sun is shining.

When we rode into the small hamlet of Savigny, it did not take me long to find a lovely Patisserie, well stacked with a fine assortment of sugar laden cakes. I instructed the peloton to stop as “it could be some time before we found another suitable cake stop”. A few minutes later we left the shop laden with lovely white bags packed with all sorts of tooth rotting goodies. We had learned all along the ride that it was virtually impossible to find a shop that sold coffee and cake and a quick scout around the town suggested that this place was to be no exception.

I went back into the Patisserie and asked the lady in my best French whether there was a coffee shop in the town. She looked at me a little strange and assured me “oui, oui”. I thought that maybe she thought I was asking for the closest toilet, but smiled and walked outside her door. We looked for the elusive coffee shop again without success, before going back in the shop and asking the same question all over again. The lady rolled her eyes, before indicating that the coffee shop was actually right next door. No wonder we couldn’t find it. It was hiding in plain sight.

I went to the door of the coffee shop and knocked. No answer. I tried turning the handle. It opened. I walked inside. “Bonjour” I called in fluent French. No answer. “BONJOUR”. Still no answer. Eventually the owner emerged from a rear room and looked like she might have either been in the toilet or fast asleep, or both. I asked for coffee and she flashed a big smile and beckoned for us all to come inside. Even better was the fact that she did not object when we asked if we could eat our cakes inside. This was a real bonus.

The women also quickly discovered that there was even a toilet situated at the end of a short corridor. Carol apparently had the greatest need, and rushed to make use of it. The rest of us sat and drank our coffees and munched on great globs of rich cream. About ten minutes later someone noticed a faint tapping noise coming out the back somewhere. We ignored it, but it would not go away. “Probably just something blowing in the wind”, I surmised. Ten minutes later Carol still had not returned, and the knocking increased in intensity. Perhaps the two items were related ? It turned out that Carol had somehow locked herself in the toilet and was starting to panic that she could not get out. I assured her that we would have realised her absence when we gathered for our evening meal.

The rest of the ladies were a little nervous about the inescapable toilet after that, especially as we had noticed numerous life sized effigies along the roadside just outside the village. Maybe they were a little more sinister than just dummies ? Would that have been Carol’s fate if we had not rescued her ? I guess we will never know. After doing a final head count to ensure that no one was still in the toilet we resumed our ride.

A short distance further on we reached the larger town of Candes St Martin, home to a huge ancient church. This was probably one of the oldest we had seen so far and, judging by the large cracks opening up on some of the walls, perhaps it will not survive to see another 700 years after all. While some stayed to mind the bikes, the rest took a short but steep walk up to The Panorama. This was a sensational vantage point which gave a glorious view out over the surrounding countryside and right across to the impressive nuclear power station which was belching a mammoth amount of steam into the otherwise blue sky. I am not so sure that I would like to live with that sight every day.

At this point we had two choices as to which route to take. One path led to the nearby Abbey of Fontevraud, while the other continued along the river. Since I had already seen enough Abbeys and Abbots to last me for quite some time I decided to follow the river. Some of the others will still working on their Abbey Quotas and grabbed their bikes, cameras and selfie sticks and headed for Fontevraud.

We had not ridden far before I remembered why I wanted to come this way. This area is famous for its huge underground caves and dwellings. Many of these huge underground caves are used for wine storage, but the most interesting of all were actually used as underground homes. The bike path actually passes through a series of these medieval tunnels, and all agreed that it was one of the most amazing things we had seen in our ride so far. Certainly far more interesting than another Abbey.

We even managed to find an underground restaurant/winery and settled down for a delicious and somewhat leisurely lunch before resuming the ride.

All though our ride so far we had been in the Eastern hemisphere, but each turn of the pedals took us further west towards the Atlantic. I had been monitoring our progress on my GPS and knew that we would soon be approaching the prime meridian of longitude. This is the meridian that passes through Greenwich and marks the dividing line between east and west. I walked the final few metres and marked the exact location with a prominent pink chalk line across the road. We then proceeded to conduct our own traditional ceremony. Since we didn’t quite know what to do, we though that maybe a bit of Moorish Dancing might be fitting (since we were due south of London).

At that moment a rather pompous looking Frenchman drove out of his drive, looked at what we had drawn on his road and did not look pleased (even when I waved and tried to look intelligent). I suspect he came back as soon as we had gone and washed it all away.

The rest of the ride into Saumur went without a hitch. The consensus of opinion was that it had been one of the most enjoyable days of the entire trip so far.

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Day 31 – In Which One of our Riders Barks at a Helpful Frenchwoman – and DISASTER STRIKES

In every extended ride there is the longest day. That is the day that all the riders look forward to with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Once that day’s ride is completed, they know that the rest of the ride will be easier in comparison. For the Loire River Ride the longest day’s ride is the section from Saumur to Angers. Although the distance is only around 62 km, it does contain a wide variety of riding experiences and finishes with a demanding entry into Angers (a city of over 400,000 population with a lot of very busy roads).

At least I knew that the weather forecast from the preceding couple of days was quite good. That meant that we would not be contending with rain as well as long hours in the saddle. It was a pity that the local weather bureau did not inform the actual clouds themselves about what sort of weather they were meant to provide for us. When we wheeled our bikes out of the storage shed we were greeted with drizzle and the promise of much more to come. Not exactly a perfect start.

I skilfully led the peloton out of the city and straight into the middle of army maneuvers. Numerous groups of waterlogged soldiers were jogging in various directions staring at maps. Presumably they were trying to read the directions to the nearest Patisserie. Some of them looked keen but I had to admit that the majority looked like they would rather be somewhere else. I thought I would assist by yelling out an encouraging “Allez, Allez”, but I suspect that it was about as welcome as a stale baguette at Christmas. We dodged around the soldiers and kept on riding.

The early rain slowly dried to a stop and a few breaks in the clouds became visible. Spirits immediately lifted. They lifted even more when we rolled into the small town of Gennes and found a likely looking place for morning tea. To our unmitigated joy, the place not only sold pretty good coffee, but it also had a good supply of chocolates and lollies as well. This really was a lovely surprise and we set about stuffing our panniers with copious quantities of sugar laden treats for the remainder of the ride.

It was now time to cross the Loire River back onto the north bank. This involves traversing a long and busy bridge at Les Rosiers Sur Loire.  As we walked our bikes across the bridge we could see how much the river had grown since the early days of our ride. Walking across such a long bridge built up quite a hunger and we immediately set about looking for a place to buy lunch before the shops all closed for the compulsory daily siesta. It was a relief that we managed to find one of the most awarded Boulangeries in the region and were able to order our baguette sandwiches just before the shop closed at 1 pm sharp.

We then all happily sat on the church steps munching our sandwiches and eating cake. Obviously Malcolm Fraser was completely wrong when he said that “life was not meant to be easy”. At that moment we all thought it was pretty darn perfect. After finishing our lunches the women demanded the 14th toilet stop of the day so we went riding around the town looking for the familiar toilette sign.

After a vigorous search they did locate a single toilet a little further down the road and then all proceeded to line up to utilise its facilities. The men waited while the ladies created history by setting a new Guiness Record for the longest toilet stop ever (by a considerable margin). I watched the sun sink lower in the sky while we waited and waited for the queue to slowly progress, until finally the last bladder was emptied (mine) and it was time to leave.

As we rode back past the church a local French lady caught our attention. She was trying to ask us (or tell us) something. Unfortunately she couldn’t speak a word of English and we had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Finally Pauline deciphered the word “lost” and guessed that she must have lost something. Carol immediately took a huge leap of deduction and for some completely unknown reason assumed that the lady must have lost her dog. “Woof woof”, Carol barked at the lady, while pretending to be a large dog. You could imagine the lady’s surprise and confusion at this turn of events.  What she had been trying to tell us was that someone had left their purse on the church steps and they wanted to know if it belonged to one of us. Of course it was one of ours, in fact Carol has made an art form of leaving valuables everywhere she goes. When she was reunited with her purse she hugged and kissed the finder (well he was quite a good looking fellow after all) and resumed the ride. It really was a stroke of good fortune that we had not just ridden straight off and left the purse behind.

Mid way through the afternoon we also faced another serious challenge. We had to cross a sizable river without using a bridge. The only way across was a small ferry which had to be dragged across by pulling on a chain. Because of its small size, only about 4 or 5 could travel across at a time. The challenge was not so much as in pulling the little boat across, but in trying not to wet yourself laughing in the process. After an hysterical 15 minutes or so, all our team members were gathered on the opposite bank, ready to resume the ride.

The final 30 km of the ride took us right away from the towns and through a variety of quiet rural areas and some new housing estates. It was only when we reached the outskirts of Angers that we rode straight into the peak hour traffic of a very large and busy city. This is a rather stressful time, but somehow we avoided being run down by trucks and buses and made it safely to our hotel. Since the longest day was now behind and, since the next day would be our second rest day, we were all looking forward to a shower and a rest.

A single phone call can change the complexion of a day instantly, and this is exactly what happened when the phone in our room rang just before we were due to meet for dinner. When Maggie answered it, it did not take long for me to detect that it was bad news. Very bad news. Carol had slipped under the shower and had fallen heavily on her right ankle. We are fortunate to have a doctor in our team and Sue had already had an initial examination and felt that it was broken. An ambulance was called and the news quickly spread around our shocked riders. This really was a disaster. Carol had worked so hard both before and during the ride and we were all so proud that she had made it through every challenge. She always wore a huge smile and was very highly regarded by all of us. We all wanted so much for every rider to be able to roll across the final finishing line together in a few day’s time. Although we hoped that the ankle was just sprained, I think we all feared the worst.

The ambulance soon arrived with a couple of energetic young paramedics. They even managed to get Carol to break into another of her huge smiles when they loaded her into the back on the ambulance and sped off down the street with lights and sirens sounding. Although it was not the way the script was meant to go, I had to admit that it was a dramatic moment and one that we will be able to laugh about in the years to come. Later that evening we received the confirmation that the ankle was indeed broken and that she would require surgery to pin the bones. Her ride had ended prematurely and we all deeply shared David and Carol’s shock and disappointment.

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Day 32 – In Which I get Angry in Angers

On our first night in Angers we were kept awake for quite some time by multiple groups of locals enthusiastically practising for that little known new Olympic event – loud talking, shouting and singing in the streets in the middle of the night. If that event does actually make it into the next Olympics, then the residents of Angers will be the white hot favourites for the gold medal.

Somehow we managed to finally get to sleep in spite of the commotion outside and we even had a little sleep in until 7 am. Our main task for the morning was to catch up on what was happening with Carol, as well as try an make some inroads into the enormous pile of dirty clothes that threatened to take over our luggage. After breakfast Maggie and I joined Sally and Eugenie in search of the Holy Grail – a Laundromat. Sally studied the map and said that there was one about 5 minutes walk from the hotel. I staggered along behind, dragging a huge Santa sack of dirty laundry.

I suppose the walk would have taken 5 minutes if we had been in a motor car, and also if all the women did not stop at every shop window to look at what was inside. About 30 minutes later we were in the Laundromat looking for vacant machines and trying to decipher the French instructions. We crammed our loads into two machines and hoped that the motors would not blow under the strain. A pocketful of Euros disappeared into the controller and the women all went shopping, leaving me with the exciting job of watching the smalls go round.

I carefully calculated the duration of the wash and went to look for a nearby coffee shop. After ordering a nice coffee I sat in the sun to watch the people and enjoy my coffee. My plan half worked. Somehow, after one lovely mouthful of coffee, I accidentally knocked the tray and sent the rest of the coffee pouring all over the table and onto the footpath. I tried to look nonchalant and pretend that it was OK. It wasn’t. At least I could enjoy some of my pastime of people watching.

We had already deduced that there were some very interesting people in Angers. In the middle of the main plaza we watched a very well dressed man wearing a set of headphones. He was dancing his way around the square, oblivious to all those around him. Even more surprising was the fact that no one else seemed to notice. That is one thing we have seen time and time again in France – people embrace individuality.

My watch finally told me that it was time to remove our loads from the washing machines and put them in the dryers. When I  arrived there was no sign of the women, although they did arrive about 15 minutes later. The loads were dragged to the dryers, more coins were dropped into the abyss and the women disappeared again. I sat and waited while the world went round and round.

Every washing machine was in use at this time and there was a young girl waiting for a vacant machine. A load of washing belonging to an eccentric middle aged Frenchman (is there any other kind) with dyed hair finished the end of its cycle. The man then proceeded to take each piece of washing (sock, handkie, underwear, etc) carefully from the machine, shake it vigorously and fold it precisely. It was obviously a process he had done many times before. Gradually the machine was emptied, but it took a good 15 minutes. The young girl just sat and waited patiently. If the scenerio had been happening in Australia, I reckoned that the guy would have found himself covered in his washing.

When he finally removed the last article, he then proceeded to feel around the inside of the tub, carefully probing each dimple of the agitator for some elusive lost item. I thought he was about to climb inside the drum, but finally he seemed satisfied that his job was done, picked up his load and walked out. The girl took over the machine and started her load.

After what seemed like a geological time span, my load finally finished in the dryer. There was still no sign of the women. I tried ringing Maggie. No Answer. I tried ringing Eugenie. No answer. I wasn’t sure what to do. I eventually removed all of our washing and tried to stuff it into the Santa sack, but had no idea of what to do with Sally and Eugenie’s huge pile which was now just sitting in the dryer. Too bad about those waiting to use it. I tried several times more to contact them on the phones. No answer. I waited for about another 25 minutes before finally spitting the proverbial dummy and heading back to the hotel.

About an hour later I got a call from Maggie, saying that they “had lost track of the time” and were wondering where I was. I explained that I “had grown old waiting and was now spending my twilight years in a French Nursing Home”. It was a shame that my “rest day” in Angers had mostly been spent in the Laundromat.

In the late afternoon Maggie and I walked to the hospital where Carol was waiting for her operation. The place was huge with a capital H. With its myriad of outbuildings we would never have found our way without being told to head for the huge dome in the centre. While some buildings were obviously new, others looked like they belonged to a bygone era of dinosaurs. I half expected to see Florence Nightingale emerge from one of the dark corridors, carrying her famous lamp.

We finally located David and Carol and were able to spend some time with them. Carol appeared to be in good spirits, although they were obviously both very shattered at not being able to complete the ride. The doctors had said that they may be able to operate later that afternoon. We made the long walk back to the hotel and prepared for dinner. In the meantime the riders from Group 2 had arrived in Angers and would also be sharing the meal with us.

Our designated dinner location was at the nearby Brasserie du Theatre, an impressive three story restaurant right in the middle of the main plaza. A waiter met us at the door and disappeared up the staircase. We followed him up the stairs to the top but there was no sign of him. Perhaps he was a street magician as it certainly was a good disappearing act. We looked around but he had gone without trace. This was probably a good indication of what was to come later.

We finally located him on the second floor and our large group was directed to sit at three tables in the corner of the room. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, another waiter appeared and took some drink orders. It seemed like Eugenie must have upset him for some reason because he ignored her order and then ignored her again when she repeated it some minutes later. You know what they say about a woman scorned…..

The waiter then sat nearby and busied himself scribbling something on a piece of paper. I think he was making up the menu, because the place apparently did not have any printed ones. He then proceeded to come to each table, mumble a few words of French and expect us to make our decisions. There were no explanations and certainly NO courtesy either. Several of our table were a little upset and asked if he could make up salads instead of whatever options he had mumbled into Ross’s left ear. When the meals were finally delivered, those that had ordered salads were given a small saucer with two tiny lettuce leaves on each one. I had to agree it was a rubbish meal by anyone’s standards. This was even more disappointing considering that there were three places that had been prepaid for people that would not be eating. Following this additional insult Sally and Eugenie stood to their feet and headed to the nearby Macdonalds for a real meal deal. Compared to the other restaurants we had visited over the past 12 days, this place really was a disgrace. When we added up the drinks bill we certainly made sure that there was no tip included. If I had my way I would have deducted quite a few Euro from the total to compensate for the way we had been treated there.

Back at the hotel we met David who informed us that Carol had been operated on earlier in the night and that she would probably be released in two day’s time. Our time in Angers had been rather mixed. Soon after we went to bed the local Olympic Shouting Team resumed their raucous street shouting routines. They continued for most of the night. I will be glad to ride to our next stop at Montjean.

Day 33 – In Which Sally Takes the Lead into Montjean

After the very stressful ride we had into Angers in the Friday afternoon peak hour traffic we were all a little apprehensive about running the gauntlet again on the way out of town. We needn’t have. As we rolled away from our hotel at 9 am on a quiet Sunday morning, the streets were still almost deserted. Obviously those who had once again spent the night in the streets training their vocal chords for the shouting championships had finally retired to bed.

Just as important was the fact that the day had dawned bright and clear and the advance weather forecasts promised no more rain for the remainder of our ride. It was finally appearing that things were falling into place. We managed to quickly leave the confines of Angers and resume our journey along the bike path. There were quite a few out jogging, walking their dogs or just enjoying the sunshine. Since we only had a relatively modest distance to cover, we did not need to rush and decided to take the ride slow and easy.

The European Autumn has now officially started and this often provides delightful periods of sunny and mild days and cool nights. This is often perfect for cycling. We even saw the first signs of the the changing colours of the leaves on the trees. In a few short weeks the whole appearance of these regions will change again as Autumn rapidly moves forward into winter.

After we had ridden about 10 km we noticed a large number of spectators gathering along the sides of the bike path. I knew that some locals were aware of our epic ride, but I had not expected this sort of reception. I looked down at the faded stains on the front of my jersey and wished that I had worn my best one for the day. Proudly taking the lead for once, I tried to maintain some semblance of pelotonic discipline as we approached the waiting throng. To my surprise and dismay, they weren’t actually there to meet us after all. We had ridden into some sort of huge kayaking event and there were hundreds of rowers and spectators, long lines of motor homes, countless support and transport vehicles, not to mention several hundred pet dogs as well. It became something of a challenge to wind our way through the throng without becoming another item on the local nightly news.

We finally emerged from the chaos and resumed our riding along the bike path. Since we had traveled for over an hour without a single coffee or toilet stop, our situation was becoming somewhat desperate. Fortunately we had not ridden much further when we found a lovely little open space, right on the river bank. It even had several likely looking eateries on both sides. The prospect of getting a coffee and cake looked promising, but once again we had to be satisfied with the proverbial “glass half full”. Although we were able to get quite reasonable coffee, the girl looked at me as though I had bitten her when I asked if they sold cakes as well.

While we were stopped we studied the flood levels for the major floods over the past century. It was quite staggering to see just how high the river does rise on regular occasions. I think the worst was in 1910, when I suspect that manufacture of arks must have been a popular pastime. In the Autumn of 2015 the Loire is peaceful and there is little prospect that we will be flooded out.

A little further on we reached the large bridge at Chalonnes Sur Loire. Although our route dictated that we stay on the right bank, as soon as we saw the array of eateries on the left bank, we agreed that it would be worth crossing the big bridge in order to get something for lunch. Since the Loire is now a wide river and the bridges are rather infrequent, any bridge crossing is usually associated with a busy road and lots of cars and trucks.

Although the first place we stopped at had not tables available, we soon found a full scale market in operation and also a fine Patisserie and Boulangerie. We were not going to starve after all. Since we only had about 10 km left to ride, we all decided that it would be a good place to sit in the sun and have a lazy lunch stop.

When we finally staggered to our feet, somehow something really strange happened within the peloton. Over the course of the previous 10 or so days, there had been a pattern established with some riders always heading to the front and others very happy to ride at the rear. I know that in a classroom, it is always those students who sit at the back of the class that are the ones that the teacher needs to watch the closest. Exactly the same principle applies to those riders who always go to the back. They are usually there to tell jokes, fool around, stop to take silly pictures and regularly go into fits of giggling. The ones at the front are those who study the maps, do their homework, diligently identify hazards and set a brisk pace for the ride.

You can imagine how surprised I was to find that, on the final 10 km leg into Montjean, the peloton had inverted itself. The naughty riders were at the front, with Sally actually leading the way. I must admit I had not seen that one coming and I nearly rode off the track and into one of the roadside stinging nettle patches, such was my amazement.The only other time Sally had taken over the group was way back in Paris when she led us on an errant goose chase all over Paris looking for a Metro Station.

This time Sally managed to find a couple of the direction indicators and we almost followed the correct route all the way to the lovely riverside town of Montjean. This is a quiet and quaint town that reminded me immediately of the town where Doc Martin terrorises all his patients. The architecture is distinctly maritime and there is an increasing number of fishing boats and other vessels visible in the river.

We had a superb evening meal, probably one of the best so far and the brilliant full moon shining on the river outside was a fitting final touch to a wonderful day.

 

Day 34 – In Which Ron Gets a Bellyful

The road away from the hotel was smooth, flat and almost deserted. On our right hand side  was the mighty Loire River.  With another clear sky overhead and no rain predicted for the next few days, it should have been a perfect ride. It wasn’t. A bicycle is meant to be quiet. Mine wasn’t. For the past few days a small click had been growing somewhere in my bike’s nether regions. By the start of today’s ride the click had developed in both volume and regularity so that it now accompanied every damn turn of my cranks. Click….Tick….Click.

A similar irritating and entirely unwelcome noise had become my companion for most of the Italy ride, and I had loved the sensation of riding in quietness for the first few days of this ride. My nemesis had now caught up with me and looked like it was going to be with me all the way to Le Croisic. I tried tightening the pedals. If anything it seemed to make the clicks louder. I tried kicking the bottom bracket. It didn’t get rid of the click, but it did make me feel a bit better. Short of chucking the bike in the Loire, there was not much more I could do. Perhaps I was being taught a valuable lesson in patience and long suffering. If so, I was obviously a poor student, as all it succeeded in doing was make me cranky.

Apart from my own on board symphony of sound, the rest of the ride went exceptionally well. Everyone was in high spirits and we were making excellent progress. If anything, our progress was actually too excellent. If we kept this up we would be at our destination at Champtoceaux far too early.  We had plenty of time to fill and needed something to do with it. I came up with an idea.

The first likely looking opportunity for a coffee stop was at Saint Florent le Vieil. I decided to turn from the bike path and explore the town. My first effort led the peloton up a hill and straight into a dead end (en impasse). I tried to look like I had planned it and instructed the group to turn around. We then proceeded up another hill and discovered the town centre, complete with large coffee shop and, not one, but two Patisseries/Boulangeries. This was just what I had been hoping for, and revealed my plan for the day.

“Let’s buy lunch and then make a picnic by the river”, I suggested. Ever since this ride had begun we had learned to make sure we “bought enough food for Ron”. Whenever we had the chance to buy lollies or baguettes, we had to make sure that there was also plenty for Ron as well as ourselves. And who was this mysterious Ron ? Of course it was the legendary “Later Ron”. 

Although the first patisserie was a complete disappointment as they didn’t sell sandwiches and their cakes looked second rate (some even went so far as to classify it as a rubbish cake shop), the second one turned out to be a veritable El Dorado. It had enough tooth rotting cakes to satisfy even the hungriest pelotons and the cooler was piled with freshly made baguettes with a delicious range of fillings. We really had struck it lucky this time. Some time later we all staggered from the shop with large bags filled with more than enough for us AND a whole army of Rons. There was no chance that Ron would be hungry today.

Since it was still too early for lunch we walked to the nearby coffee shop, ordered our coffees and then sat in the warm sunshine chatting and drinking coffee. This cycle touring can be highly demanding at time, but today was NOT one of those times. It was just plain good fun.

We managed to lose half the peloton on the way out of town, but that was not a serious matter as we did find them again later. Our next task was to find a place to enjoy our picnic by the river. When a suitable place was suggested a few kilometres later, there was no argument. Everyone was hungry and this was deemed a great time to share our lunches with Ron.

Another extended time was spent sitting in the sunshine, watching the river, wondering if the swans would swim our way and munching on our baguettes. It will remain a treasured memory of this trip, but when someone threw a banana peel into the undergrowth, I warned that could be dangerous as someone could slip over on it.

Reluctantly we remounted our bikes and rode for a few minutes before the women starting asking for another toilet stop. We managed to find a lovely opportunity (the location, not the toilet) by a series of green lagoons. The ladies lined up, the men waited. And waited.

The remainder of the afternoon’s ride was warm and easy and put everyone in a lovely mellow mood. When we were about 4 km from the hotel at Champtoceaux I stopped for the final rest break of the day. At the time some may have wondered why we stopped so close to the hotel, but the reason was answered when they turned the corner and saw the road reaching up to the skies. The hotel was situated on the top of a hill. Gears clicked down, heads dropped and the climbing started. If this hill had been encountered two weeks ago, it would probably have caused a riot. Now that all the riders are stronger, it was fascinating to see that most actually enjoyed the challenge. Even with the heavy bikes and loaded panniers, it was a strange sort of fun. The views from the summit certainly made all the effort worthwhile. The so called “Promenade of Champalud” rewarded us with the finest views of the entire ride. Standing at the lookout we could see up and down a huge section of the Loire Valley.

After dinner we all climbed back to the lookout. The experts had predicted the best full moon of the year – the so called “Blood Moon” and we wanted to experience it from the best spot possible. As we stood and gazed at the twinkling lights of the scattered villages and the enormous full moon overhead, I am sure that we were all satiated. And I am sure that Ron slept especially well that night.

 

Day 35 – In Which Two Lost Sheep are Found and Returned to the Fold

With only two more day’s of cycling left to be completed before we reach our destination at Le Croisic, it is normal for riders to feel mixed emotions. On the one hand it is a great personal achievement for all the participants and there is a natural desire to reach the finishing line, but on the other hand it is usually tinged with the sadness that our long awaited adventure will soon be over. After one final free day at Le Croisic our riders will each scatter all over Europe to continue their own individual journeys.

The hotel in Champtoceaux was very popular with all modern facilities and a breathtaking view. It was a pity about the unreliable Internet connection here. When I last stayed at the same hotel two years ago they had the same problem and I was disappointed that they had not taken any steps to improve it. It was a strange sight to see a group of our riders huddled with their tablets and notebooks in the downstairs lounge at 7 am in the morning, trying to get a reliable Internet connection before breakfast.

Like the meal of the previous evening, the breakfast was also of a high standard, especially the wonderful baguettes from the nearby Boulangerie. I am sure that we are all going to miss that crunchy bread when we go home to Australia.

The sky was again clear as we began our ride, although there was an early morning chill in the air. We did not ride back down the big hill we had climbed up to get into town but followed a series of quiet roads in the opposite direction. A final quick descent brought us back to our familiar river bank. Just as welcome as the downhill was the steady tail wind that was pushing our backs for most of the day. It was such a contrast to those early freezing wet days we had suffered at the start of our ride when we left Orleans. That suffering now seems like a dim distant memory as conditions have certainly swung in our favour. It now looks certain that we will have bright sunny weather all the way to the end. Absolutely perfect for riding.

Once again we stocked up with supplies for a riverside picnic and rolled along happily with our baguettes and cakes safely in our panniers. There was no chance that Ron would be going hungry this afternoon.

Since the day’s ride was quite short, we knew that we would be arriving in Nantes relatively early in the day. Soon after 12 noon we started to see the first signs of high rise buildings on the outskirts of this large city. With almost 1 million people living in Nantes and its suburbs, it is the 6th largest city in France. After our somewhat stressful entry into Angers we were a little apprehensive at the prospect of riding into such a large city in the middle of a weekday.

We managed to find a likely looking spot for our picnic lunch and entertained a couple of local residents with our antics by the side of the bike path. After a lengthy break it was back on the bikes and into the big city. To our relief it was actually quite civilised and we managed to find our hotel safely and easily. The Best Western Graslin Hotel is situated in a beautiful part of town and it has a distinctly Art Deco character. Apart from the unfortunate noxious sewer smell permeating the main city plaza, we were all quite impressed with the city itself.

While we were returning to our hotel after having an initial look around the town, we were thrilled to see two familiar faces making their way up the hill to the Hotel entrance. It was David and Carol, our two lost sheep. Carol had only recently been discharged from hospital following her operation and David had apparently been trying to entertain her by driving her around Nantes in ever diminishing circles for the past hour and a half. He had also adjusted her new walking frame by setting each leg to a slightly different length, ensuring that it was virtually impossible for her to stand upright. Judging by the way it wobbled like a $2 rickshaw, it looked like David had also forgotten to tighten any of the screws that held the contraption together. No wonder she looked like she was ready to beat him around the head with what was left of it.

We grabbed David’s suitcases and pointed up the hill to the hotel door. It was only about 100 metres away and  I calculated that it would take Carol no more than about 45 minutes to make her way there.  In the meantime David looked like he had been dragged backwards through a meat grinder. I had to admit that the normally unflappable guy was showing distinctive signs of fraying around the edges.

We were glad that the friendly concierge from the hotel also came out to help by barracking for Carol to shuffle faster, before finally lifting her off both feet to get her through the doorway. I think that, if I had been in the same position, some of the nearby people would have been severely injured by this time. Once again she impressed us all by retaining her sense of humour in spite of what was a very difficult situation. Carol and David really have captured all our hearts over the past few weeks and we were all devastated when Carol’s accident took place. It was wonderful to see them again but we can appreciate what a challenge the next few days will be for them.

Day 36 In Which we Dine at La Cigalle and Ron’s Baguette nearly Kills Me

I have eaten at some interesting places in my life but the restaurant we dined at in Nantes surely was right up there. It was only a very short walk (or roll as in Carol’s case) from our hotel to the nearby La Cigalle Restaurant. Apparently this is a very famous place, and the line up of uniformed staff at the front entrance certainly made for an impressive welcome. I am not so sure that we were correctly dressed for the occasion. After so long on the bikes, the selection of available, even reasonably, clean clothes was rather limited.

We followed Carol in her wheelchair up the street like some procession of acolytes following the Delai Lama to his royal inauguration. The Maitre ‘d looked us up and down and I suspect that we all fell well short of his high standards, but he did do his best to open the door to allow Carol to enter without crushing her foot more than seven or eight times, then ushered us through the elaborate interior to our allocated table. The interior of this restaurant really is something else,  looking a bit like a combination of something from the Arabian Nights and Donald Trump’s toilet. All the available walls are covered with an incredible assortment of coloured tiles and murals. I am sure that the pictures I tried to take will never really capture the spirit of this place.

We then spent the next two hours eating and laughing until the staff were very happy to see the last of us. With only two days of riding to go till our adventure is completed, I think we all had a mixture of emotions. Although a ride of this type is not on the same scale as swimming the English Channel, it still constitutes a significant challenge for most people. The physical demands are only one part of the equation. There are also the added pressures of living out of a suitcase day after day, adapting to other people’s personalities and dealing with food that might not always be to your particular taste. It is normal for the demands to start to take their toll towards the end of a ride, and for riders to look forward to climbing off the bike for the last time. On the other hand, when you have looked forward to something for such a long time, you don’t want the magic to ever end.

The next day we began our final day of riding along the Loire to the wide river estuary at St Brevin. The following  day of riding would then take us away from the river and up north to the lovely coastal town of Le Croisic. Since the wild weather we experienced in the first couple of days out of Orleans, we were all relieved that the true autumn sunshine had returned and we had enjoyed a succession of lovely sunny days. As cyclists we were also extremely happy that our early run of punctures had stopped and that we were being gently pushed along by a wonderful tail wind. In fact the conditions for riding were ideal. Perhaps too ideal.

For the past couple of days we had been buying our lunches and then taking them to a convenient picnic stop by the river. It became part of our routine to visit the Boulangerie and buy a baguette and a cake for Ron (later Ron). When we found a likely looking pile of prepared baguettes I bought one for me and one for Maggie. We joked that they were “both for Ron”. As it turned out I wish that Ron had been there to eat the one I bought for him.

As we sat and ate our picnic lunch I thought that the egg, mayonnaise and chicken tasted a bit strong, but what would I know ?  I was hungry and there was no sign of Ron anyway. I not only ate his baguette, I ate his cream filled eclair as well. We did not have too far left to ride and, since the conditions were so lovely, I quickly forgot about the lunch. I wish lunch had forgotten about me.

We reached St Brevin and posed by the side of the huge estuary and looked at the massive bridge across the river to St Nazair, relieved that we would not have to ride our bikes over that monster. It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment that we had followed this river for so many hundreds of kilometres and had seen it change so much along the way. For the past three weeks we had been witnesses to so many fascinating aspects of French life and culture. On a ride like this you not only learn a lot about the country you are riding through, but you also learn so much more about yourself. You learn that it really is possible to achieve some amazing things if you just put your mind to it.

Within a few minutes of arriving at the hotel in St Brevin, I also learned quite a bit about myself that I wish had remained unknown. After collecting our key I went to the room,  looked at Maggie and said “I don’t feel well”. About 20 seconds later I repeated it with renewed emphasis “I really don’t feel well”, making a beeline for the toilet. The rest of that afternoon and evening was a bit of a blur. I didn’t get to see much of the town as it is quite difficult to see much when your head is deep inside the toilet bowl. Whatever I had bought for Ron, it certainly kicked like a mule.

The last time I had experienced food poisoning was on a trip to Kathmandu in 1999 and I remembered it as one of the worst experiences of my life. This was certainly not on the same scale, but it was enough to ensure that, while the rest were enjoying what was apparently one of the best meals of the whole trip, I was restricted to making short, but frequent trips back and forth between my bed and the toilet. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my stomach and could not help but curse Ron for not eating his own foul toxic baguette.

It turned into a long and mostly sleepless night and I knew that the final day of riding was going to be a real challenge.

 

Day 37 In Which Nous Sommes Ici a Le Croisic

The final leg of our France ride was not meant to be the most difficult. No more than the last 100 metres of the climb to the summit of Everest or the final few strokes in the English Channel swim. After all, we only had about 50 km left to ride, there were no major climbs left and the weather was as close to perfect as we were ever likely to get.

The problem was that my body was not perfect. I had spent a restless and mostly sleepless night with a tangle of delirious thoughts racing through my head. That toxic baguette from the previous day had left my stomach empty and my energy levels at around zero. My big problem is that I had never failed to finish any of the previous 30 or so overseas rides we had conducted in the past 10 years and I really didn’t want to blot my copy book at this late stage.

When the alarm went off at 6 am, the only thing I wanted to do was hide from the world and wish the whole thing was over already. Somehow I crawled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom, tripping over my suitcase in the process. The day was off to a great start. Maggie looked at me and asked “Are you sure you really want to ride ?”  Of course the answer to that one should have been blatantly obvious – of course I didn’t. On the other hand I knew that there would be a peloton of yellow jersey wearing riders who would need someone to lead them the final few kilometres to Le Croisic.

I tried to face breakfast, but a few mouthfuls of orange juice and a little tub of apple puree were the only things I could trust my stomach to hold. I then bundled the panniers for the final time and tried to fill myself with some plain old bloody minded stubbornness.

Our final day began with a short bus ride over the huge estuary bridge to nearby St Nazair.  This bridge would make the Westgate Bridge look like a little tacker by comparison and the combination of a very narrow bike lane, high winds, vertigo and speeding trucks would not make it either a safe or pleasant proposition.

On the other side of the bridge we were reunited with our bikes for the last time. The final 50 km would take us north, away from the Loire and to the delightful coastal town of Le Croisic. Since we would no longer be riding the Loire a Velo bike path, the navigation also promised to be a bit more challenging.

The first few kilometres out of town seemed to meander back and forth, without making any real progress. It did not take long to realise that I had virtually no strength left at all and even the small climbs were seeming like mountains to me. I was however aware of one change that had taken place in the following peloton. For most of the trip the group had sorted itself out into the “serious riders” and the “naughty girls”. While the former always liked to ride at the front and set a brisk pace, the latter group loved to fool around at the back making numerous unnecessary toilet stops, taking pictures of just about anything, and riding as slowly as possible without actually stopping.

The naughty girls group consisted mainly of Eugenie, Sally, Carol and Maggie. When Carol had her unfortunate accident in the shower at Angers, the naughty girls were depleted to only three members, but I did notice a change in their riding behaviour from that point on. Rather than always laughing at the back, on quite a few occasions they actually burst through to the front and even looked like real riders. On this final day of riding I was surprised and pleased that the errant backmarkers were now occupying the front of the peloton. All of these women had all taken up cycling only relatively recently and it was an amazing achievement to not only complete the ride, but to get stronger as the ride went on.

After about 25 km we reached the small town of Andre des Eaux. This was our final chance to buy supplies for a picnic lunch a little later on. I still could not face eating anything (especially a baguette), but I did enjoy resting in the warm autumn sunshine. About another 10 km further on we rode into the amazing medieval walled city at Guerande. I remember being astounded when I saw this place for the first time and I knew that the group would enjoy some time to explore the place before the final section to Le Croisic.

While the others went into the medieval city I lay on the grass and used my helmet as a very uncomfortable pillow. At this stage I knew that the only section left to ride was the flat section through the salt pans. Nothing would stop us now that our final target was almost in sight.

An hour later we remounted the bikes. The afternoon sun was warm on our faces and the friendly tail wind returned to give us a welcome assist. A couple of minutes later I discovered that the battery in my GoPro camera that I had carried around my neck for the entire ride had gone flat. It reflected the state of my own energy reserves.

In less than an hour we were gathered on the waterfront of the Atlantic Ocean, looking out at the vast expanse of water. With the lovely white holiday cottages and the sounds of seagulls filling the air, I am sure it will be a moment that none of the group will ever forget. It was a time for well earned hugs, kisses and congratulations to all. What an amazing time we had shared together.

When we arrived at our hotel we found that we were not the first ones there. David and Carol had arrived earlier in the day and were there to provide a huge welcome for us. We were all so glad that they were able to complete the trip that they had set out to do. Maybe it had to be finished in a hire car, but at least they would be able to share the excitement with us. Compared to the challenge that they had both faced with Carol’s broken leg, riding a few extra days on a bike seemed a distant second.

That evening we gathered for our celebration dinner at Restaurant de L’Ocean , a prestigious seafood restaurant situated right on the beachfront. With its panoramic windows providing a breathtaking view of the ocean, it would have been hard to imagine a more fitting end to an incredible trip. Unfortunately sometimes things don’t always turn out exactly as planned.

As we sat down at the starched white table cloth and the impressive array of crockery and cutlery I was very conscious of my distinct lack of breeding. For someone who was brought up with  just a knife, fork and spoon, I still cannot really feel at home in this sort of establishment.

The meal began and I was a little surprised when we were given no choice whatsoever. It would be a pity if you did not like seafood as the only choice available was to either eat it or go hungry. We were even more surprised when we were never offered a drinks list, but one of the young waitresses just worked her way around filling every glass. I could have tried to tell her that most of the riders in Group don’t drink, but I didn’t think that the message would have got through. Apart from the wine, none of us were given anything other than tap water to drink. A rather strange way for such a fancy restaurant to operate.

I did manage to eat quite a lot of my dinner but by around 9 pm I was feeling sick and exhausted and excused myself and went back to the hotel, leaving Ross and David to sort out the final arrangements. It was only when the group returned to the hotel that I heard the rest of the story. Apparently when the group rose to leave, they were presented with a drinks bill with a wine cost of over 40 Euros per bottle (around $70AUD). Considering we had never asked for the wine and were given no choice as to any other option, David and Ross refused to pay this charge. I think if I had have been there I would not have been able to maintain the same degree of self control that they apparently exercised. By this time the young waitress really had a bad attitude and even refused to accept the meal payment voucher because it had a tiny piece missing from one corner. It was a shame that such a lovely day had been tarnished by such petty and unprofessional behaviour.

Since we were all booked in to return to the same restaurant the next evening, in the morning I returned to the restaurant to discuss the matter with the staff. It seemed that everyone had experienced a wonderful change of heart and that it would be “no problem” to provide us with just about anything we wanted. I just hoped that my appetite might have returned enough for me to do it justice.

Day 38 In Which the Riders of Group Two Finally Cross the Finish Line

Le Croisic is a beautiful little fishing town on the Atlantic coast in Brittany. In the peak tourist season this place is packed with holidaymakers and would not be the ideal spot for a quiet retreat. However, once the summer ends the majority of houses are locked and shuttered for the winter and I could not think of a more perfect place to spend a peaceful time after the demands of a long distance bicycle ride.

On the south side of the peninsula there are a succession of rocky beaches with unbroken views out over the Atlantic Ocean. The fishing port is a short walk away on the north side and here you can find a large assortment of waterfront eateries to satisfy your hunger. The tidal variations here are enormous and, when the tide retreats, all the fishing boats are left high and dry in the mud.

Although we still had access to our bikes for the final day in Le Croisic, due to the fact that I was still recovering from the food poisoning and feeling a little weak, we were quite happy to just spend the time having a quiet walk around the deserted streets. The mid autumn weather is cool in the early morning but wonderfully mild once the sun is high in the sky. It was a perfect end to another memorable cycling adventure.

Those early days in Paris now seemed a long time ago, I sat and looked out over the ocean and thought back over the past few weeks and the countless highlights we had all shared together. I thought of our group walk around Sacre Coeur Cathedral, coffee time at the Place du Tertre, the concert at La Chapelle, the night cruise down the Seine, standing on the river bank in Orleans, the terrible storm on our first day’s ride to Beaugency, the manic Chateau of Chambord, the ornate gardens at Villandry, the incredible dinner at Azay le Rideau, riding those magnificent cycle paths along the river, eating crunchy baguettes, dinner at La Cigalle, the walled city at Guerande and so many more memories that have now become a part of our lives. For me the most important thing about any such trip is not stopping to capture as many selfies as possible in front of as many tourist hot spots as you can find in the guide book. It is about the privilege of being able to be a part of another culture for a period of time. We had a unique opportunity to see a wide cross section of the real France, to see what France is like below the surface. Sometimes this is magical, at other times it can be frustrating and downright bewildering, but that is what travel should be about. Those who never leave the main A roads never see anything other than the famous sights and they really do miss out on so much. As the French would say “Quelle Domage!”.

We returned to our hotel just in time to hear the excited shouts and sounds of the riders of Group 2 completing their ride. The official record keepers could record that they had finished their ride almost 24 hours behind those in Group 1. With all the “chickens” now safely home in the coup I could really relax, knowing that all the complex arrangements had gone according to plan. It is not easy to get 25 people from around Australia to ride bikes across a foreign country without something going astray, and yet all the logistics had gone right according to the script. The only dark side was Carol’s accident in the shower, but now that they were back with us, it was beginning to seem like not such a big deal after all. It even scored her a flight upgrade on the flight home, showing that there is a silver lining to every cloud.

In the evening both groups returned to the Restaurant de L’Ocean for our combined dinner. After the unpleasant events of the previous night I was rather apprehensive. I shouldn’t have been. The staff were delightful, the food beautiful, we were given choices with food and drinks, the views were breathtaking and it was a perfect ending to an epic trip. It was also Maggie’s Birthday so they provided a lovely cake for her to celebrate while the rest of us sang quite a few choruses of “Happy Birthday to You”. France is like that.

The word adventure has been hugely devalued in recent time. I hear people talking about having an “adventure” by the pool at Port Douglas, or  an “adventure” on a luxury cruise. Adventure ? Adventure ? By its very definition an adventure must involve a challenge. It has to be something that takes you away from the comfort zone and forces you to confront the unfamiliar, the tough, the challenging and then still prevail. There is no doubt that most people find these long distance cycling trips demanding and challenging. It is hard to get up each day, pack your bags and get back on the bike for another 4 or more hours riding.There are also the other challenges of coping with unfamiliar foods, not speaking the language, living from a suitcase, living in close proximity to other people, variable weather, laundry, etc, etc.  They are not meant to be easy, but there are always huge rewards for facing a personal challenge and prevailing. It is hard to explain that incredible feeling of “it was tough but I did it” that everyone feels at the end. It is even harder to explain that, whenever I ask people which days they remember most, it is always the tough days that people look back on with affection in the years ahead.

We had all spent the past few weeks riding together, laughing together, eating together, chatting together and sometimes crying together. I am sure we have all grown personally as a result and the friendships we have made will be cherished in the years ahead.

Tomorrow Maggie and I leave to begin our own extended journey around France, but the next few weeks will be spent in a hire car and not on a bike. Next year the Ghostriders will be back in Europe again for our biggest ever ride. Although all spaces are currently filled, I am still taking expressions of interest in case any extra places become available.

Au Revoir and thanks for being a part of our ride…..

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Days 39 -45 In Which we Travel Back in Time to 1222

Although the Ghostriders’ European rides have now been completed, I have had requests to provide an update on what we have been up to since we left Le Croisic. I thought you might like a quick recap of the past week or so.

Since Carol’s unfortunate accident in Angers, David has taken on a couple of new roles. As well as becoming Carol’s unwilling permanent carer, he was also quickly appointed as the official taxi driver for our group. Since we all had heavy suitcases and since the Le Croisic Railway Station was about a km from our hotel and also since David was the only one with a lovely big rental car, his services were rapidly booked for  series of transfers from the hotel to the station. In fact, on the morning of October 2nd, he spent his whole time driving back and forth. Maggie and I booked his 10 am departure slot and we soon had all our bags jammed into the boot of his car.

It really was hard to say goodbye to the group for the final time. Over the past three weeks we had become very close and had all shared a series of wonderful times together. I have to admit that I had a big lump in my throat when I gave Dave a hug at the station and thanked him for all that he had done.

A few minutes later we were on our train bound for Nantes. There we had a brief wait before catching our second train to La Rochelle. This is a medium sized town on the Atlantic Coast. As soon as we got off the train we could sense that things in La Rochelle were not as prosperous as they had been in the northern cities. The numerous holes in the footpath took a heavy toll on our luggage castors as we made our way to our hotel and we had to be careful not to get snagged in the blackberries that were happily thriving alongside all the pathways.

The Kyriad Hotel was large and modern – and we hated it. It had no character and reminded me of a huge concrete jail. As we found our way to our allocated cubicle, I felt like a battery hen looking for its cage. We already missed our riding companions and could help but feel lonely in this place.

La Rochelle has a long history and is famous for its three huge waterfront towers. These have served a variety of functions over the years. One of them was used for a considerable time as a prison and apparently housed a number of infamous pirates in bygone times. I would have liked to have seen inside, however I arrived at midday siesta time and would have had to wait another two hours for the front door to open again. I did not want to see inside that much, and contented myself with a look at the outside only.

My walk also found me looking at the huge Hotel de Ville (town hall). Apparently this particular Hotel de Ville was the oldest in France, at least it was until it burnt down during restoration works two years ago. I suspect that some careless tradesman probably flicked his cigarette into the tinder dry roof beams and the rest is history. Among the priceless artifacts that were quickly converted to ashes was the wooden sabre of Charles IV. Of course there is a silver lining in most clouds, and now there is a much bigger project underway to recover and rebuild the structure in something resembling its former glory. I hope it’s now a non smoking work site.

In the evening Maggie and I walked back to the historic old port for dinner by the water. The mid autumn weather was delightfully mild as we walked back to our hotel and locked ourselves back inside our cubicle for the night.

After a couple of nights in La Rochelle, our next stop was the large city of Toulouse. This is actually the 4th largest city in France and we had spent a single night there on a previous trip in 2013. At that time we were sorry that we did not have more time and promised ourselves another visit. This time we stayed in the Ibis Toulouse Centre Hotel (and hated it). Like the Kyriad in La Rochelle, it had clean rooms and working lifts, but the designers had completely forgotten to add any soul. I could not help but think how sad it would have been to have spent the entire trip staying in places like that, but that is exactly how many people travel.

After two nights in Toulouse we were rested enough to face our next challenge – picking up the rental car. Driving in a large foreign city is always stressful, especially when you are driving on the wrong side of the road and don’t understand many of the road signs. We arrived at the Europcar office and handed over our booking form. They asked me for my driving license and passport and were happy with those. Before leaving Australia I had also wasted about $40 buying an “International Driving Permit” from the RACV. I had made the same mistake in the past and decided that it was just a waste of money, but somewhere we had been warned that the regulations had recently changed and that we would now need the permit. We needn’t have worried. The lady at the counter had never seen the International Permit and was certainly not in the slightest bit interested in it. She was much more interested in my credit card and made sure that she warned me that they would make a huge deduction straight away (presumably to save time when I returned the car in Dijon). The last time I hired a car from Europcar they apparently thought I had also given them carte blanche to make ongoing deductions from my card, even long after the car was returned. It was only when I was going through my statements that I discovered these extra deductions and was able to have them all reversed. I sincerely hope the same does not happen this time.

We were handed the keys to our allocated car and given instructions on where to collect it. I asked what type of car it was and was told that it was a Nissan Juke. I had never heard of such a car but decided to nod sagely as if I was a motoring expert. Maggie and I caught the lift to the rooftop car park, and we would have got there sooner if our places in the lift had not been taken by a young couple of American backpackers who apparently had never been taught about correct etiquette that those who were at the lift first should be allowed to get in first. When we got to the roof and found our car we were less than impressed as it had a couple less doors than what we had ordered and paid for.

Full of righteous indignation we went back down the lift and up to the counter. “We booked a 5 door car, and have only been given a two door”.
The lady stared back at me.
“Are you sure ?” she asked.
“Of course I know how to count, and it’s only got two”

I could see a smirk spreading across her face as she shared an obvious joke (in rapid French) with her workmates. She then suggested we should go and have another look. We did and discovered that the back two doors are actually cleverly disguised as body panels. Now nobody ever told us that ! We felt like two stupid foreigners as we packed our bags into the boot and I built up the courage to drive out into the peak hour Toulouse traffic.

The first challenge was to successfully navigate the corkscrew exit ramp. It had obviously been designed for drivers of tiny cars and our bright yellow (and quite large) Nissan Juke seemed in danger of getting jammed tightly between the two walls. Somehow I narrowly avoided rearranging the panels and we safely emerged into the traffic and managed to get out of town without accident or road rage.

Soon we were driving through the magical rolling hills of the Midi Pyrenees. With the myriad autumn colours spreading through the trees and a clear blue sky overhead, it really was as pretty a scene as you could find anywhere. Our destination for the first day was the hilltop medieval town of Cordes Sur Ciel. I had discovered this place on the Internet and it looked like the sort of town that would provide a memorable stay.

The town was established way back in 1222 and it is still incredibly well preserved. Our hotel was situated right at the top of the hill, in the middle of the oldest part of the town. In order to get there we had to navigate a series of tiny cobblestoned alleyways. More white knuckle driving, especially when I had to squeeze past another car that had been illegally parked right in the middle of the road. There was no way to turn back so Maggie had to climb out and guide me inch by inch between the parked car and a solid bluestone wall.

In spite of the trauma in getting here, when we reached our room, we quickly realised that it really was worth the effort. The views from the window were amazing – probably the most incredible view I have ever had from any hotel anywhere. The medieval city was quiet and peaceful with not a single selfie stick carrying tourist in sight. We spent the next three days exploring this incredible place. It is hard to imagine that this town was already 500 years old at the time of the French Revolution. It is even much older than the Inca city of Macchu Picchu. There is magic around every corner and down every narrow staircase and alleyway. The weather also played its part by giving us a succession of absolutely perfect warm and still days.

I am sure the pictures will never do the place justice, but they might at least give you an idea of what this place is like.

 

Days 46 to 49 In Which I have to Have my Fingernails Surgically Removed from the Steering Wheel

Our time in Cordes Sur Ciel had been one of the most amazing experiences we have ever shared together. We were expecting something a little different, but we had no idea of just how different this place really is. The four days we spent wandering the narrow streets, gazing at the view, exploring the nearby villages and soaking up the history of this town will never be forgotten. Unfortunately time marches on and the morning arrived for us to pack our bags and bid farewell. Of course that meant once more driving up the tiny cobblestoned alleyway to the front of our hotel. The day that we arrived in this town was the same day that we picked up our rental car and I could still vividly remember the sheer terror that I felt trying to navigate the unfamiliar streets in a totally unfamiliar car.

Now that we had become more familiar with the streets, it did not seem quite as daunting. I safely made it to the front door, collected our bags and said “Au Revoir” to the staff. We bounced and rocked our way back down the hill, ready for the next stage of our trip. Since Maggie had requested that we stay away from the major arterial roads this time, I asked Tom (aka “TOM TOM”) to give us a route that would avoid all the toll roads. We set off.

We had not gone very far before we realised that avoiding the toll roads might have seemed like a romantic notion, but we were then placed with the challenge of driving along diminutive back roads that were barely wider than our car. I guess that is the problem when you take a track that has only been used for walkers for thousands of years and try to convert it to a road. Our progress was painfully slow as we crept around a series of tortuous hillside tracks and squeeezed our way between barns and houses. At that rate we would not have arrived at Avignon till about mid December.

By the same token I did have to admit that the Provence countryside was beautiful. With the rolling hills and the brilliant autumn colours that were now blanketing the countryside, it was not hard to see why many foreigners are seduced by this place and end up living here. We had already met a few Australians who had made the decision to start a new life in France and their obvious enthusiasm was quite contagious.

After three hours of twisting and turning, Tom kept revising our expected arrival time in Avignon and it became evident that we would have to modify our original plan and head to the closest toll road. France has a growing network of these super highways and they do constitute a quick and efficient way to get from major centre to major centre. The only problem is that they tend to be rather boring and you do need a pocketful of coins to keep feeding the regular pay stations along the way. The nominal speed limit is 130 kph, although many drivers seem happy to drive considerably faster than that.

Soon we were flying along the relevant tollway and the kilometres finally started to tick by. I did discover that the Nissan Juke we were driving was a bit of a gutless wonder and had to be prodded and coaxed to get anywhere near the 130 kph limit. Downhills were OK, but on any sort of a climb the speed quickly dropped away.

After about 7 hours of driving my eyelids were getting heavy as we finally arrived at the famous city of Avignon. This place was actually the seat of the Catholic Popes for a period of the 14th century. The centre of the old part of town is surrounded by a huge fortified wall and the city was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Since we had only booked one night here we would not have much time to explore, especially as it was after dark when we finally reached the B & B we had booked. The owner said it “was easy” to get back into town and gave some handwaving directions as to where to park the car. We didn’t understand a word of it, but nodded and replied that it sounded like a good idea.

It took some degree of white knuckle maneuvering to reverse the car out of their driveway without bashing into the owner’s cars or the wall of their house. I think I almost succeeded. We had not driven the car after dark and I could not figure out if the headlights were on or off. Certainly most of the streetlights in Avignon were definitely off, making it virtually impossible to see where we were supposed to be going. I pressed my nose on the windscreen while Maggie tried to calm me down and forestall my impending nervous breakdown. It was a Saturday night and we soon found ourselves in a tight jam of cars going somewhere. Where ? We didn’t know. We couldn’t get out of the jam anyway. We followed them to wherever they were taking us.

After a series of more twists and turns we entered a huge tunnel into the Palais des Popes. Since we had read about that, it seemed a good idea. Then up another tight corkscrew ramp. (Damn those tight corkscrews made only for tiny cars and insane drivers). Finally we found a parking spot and, after about 10 minutes of juggling, managed to park the car more or less correctly. I prized my fingernails out of the steering wheel. took a deep breath and announced “Well that was interesting”.

Taking a good look around so that we would have a fair chance of finding the car again, we went in search of dinner. The centre of Avignon was buzzing and we found a likely looking Pizza Restaurant and enjoyed a passable French Italian Pizza together. Judging by the number of paparazzi photographers gathered outside the Opera House, I guess that someone famous must have been inside. I suppose I could have told them that I was part of the famous Ghostriders Cycling Group, but at that time I just wanted to get back to our bed and get some sleep.

The following morning we bade farewell to the house owner and squeezed the car back out of her driveway. Sweaty palms right from the start. Considering the challenging nature of driving in France I was just glad that we did not have to teach our teenage kids how to drive in this place. I don’t think that either us or the kids would have survived the strain.

Our first stop was at the unusual hilltop town of Roussillon.   Unlike the myriad of medieval villages scattered all over France, this town stands out because it looks more Mexican or Spanish than French. All the buildings are rendered with a pink coloured ochre that is apparently obtained nearby. We had a delightful hour or so there before the busloads of tourists started arriving. Before we left I was able to observe the antics of the most self absorbed selfie taker I have ever seen. Armed with her large iPHONE and huge selfie stick she worked her way from building to building, carefully posing and photographing herself in front of every one of them. She would take a few steps, throw her head back, smile at the selfie stick and “click”, another one captured. All the time she never took her eyes from the screen ! I knew that it was time for us to leave.

We then had a sizable drive to Cassis on the Mediterranean coast. This is a beautiful town that we had stayed in back in 2013 and we were keen to see it again. The remaining drive was mostly on toll ways and should have been easy. It wasn’t. Each time you pass onto a tollway you must collect a ticket from the machine. When you leave the tollway you insert the ticket and it calculates the amount you have to pay. Since I was busy driving, each time I collected a toll ticket, I passed it straight to Maggie for safekeeping.

This system worked well until we stopped at a roadside rest station. When we got back into the car I asked Maggie if she had the ticket ready. She couldn’t find it. We searched our pockets, we searched the back seat of the car, we searched the glovebox. Just when we were about to give up, Maggie shouts “I see it”. It had fallen down between the seats. We then spent the next 10 minutes trying to reach it, before finally succeeding.

“That was a relief”, I said. “Without the ticket we would have had to pay a special penalty”. We drove to the final turnoff to Cassis and pulled in at the final pay station, retrieved ticket in hand. Just when Maggie was about to pass it to me she had an horrific realisation. “That isn’t the toll ticket, it is the parking ticket from Avignon”, she says.

At that stage I am stuck in the line of cars at the boom gate. OK, what do we do now ? I push the red emergency button. A French voice says something that I do not understand. “Do you speak English ?”, I ask. There is a long pause before the reply “Non”. I try to explain in my best Gibberish “Ticket lost”. I could have added that it was all due to my incompetent partner, but my three words of French would have made this difficult.

I think the operator must have taken pity on the elderly couple from Australia as we were only charged EUR1.4 and we were on our way again. The final few kilometres into Cassis involved some more white knuckle driving down a succession of narrow, hilly, one way streets but somehow we arrived at the correct accommodation. I let out a sigh of relief, turned off the ignition and was ready for a cup of coffee and a rest.

One of the things that Cassis is famous for is the huge sheer cliffs that drop over 400 vertical metres into the Mediterranean. The books say that these are the highest cliffs on the whole Mediterranean and they are certainly impressive. Looking at the cliffs from our window I made the mistake of asking the owner if there was any way to get to the top. He explained that there is a little road that winds its way to the very cliff face. It is called the “Route des Cretes” and it is one of the most spectacular clifftop drives anywhere in the world. Little wonder that access to this road is severely restricted.

Since we had nothing particular planned for the following day I suggested to Maggie that we could try driving the road in question. To my surprise she did not immediately veto the idea. I almost wished she had. We climbed into the car and battled our way out of town and up a tiny street with a gradient over 20%. The Nissan puffed and struggled its way up the hill. I struggled to keep my heart rate under 160. “This is not so bad”, I lied to Maggie. She wasn’t talking to me anymore.

Soon we were winding back and forth along the twisting road. Precipitous drops switched from my side of the car to Maggie’s side. And not an inch of ARMCO in sight. My speed dropped back to about 20 kph. I told Maggie that I was driving slowly for her, but in truth I was terrified. And then the rain started. I tried to turn on the windscreen wipers. Oops, that’s the indicators. I could not see where we were going, not sure if that was a good thing or bad. I have been on some hairy roads in my time. Certainly some of the roads in Nepal, Bhutan and Peru were probably more exposed, but I wasn’t driving then. I could just sit and put my life in someone else’s hands. For some reason it seemed worse when I was in charge of the vehicle.

We managed to stop at a couple of very high vantage points, but the torrential rain unfortunately meant that we could not see a thing. The road continues for about 14 km to the nearby town of La Ciotat. Although we were relieved to finally descend into the town, the torrential rain had sent rivers of water flowing down the steep streets and I was reluctant to stop in case we got swept away. Just a week earlier 20 people had been drowned in Cannes following a huge deluge of rain and I did not want to appear in the next day’s news.

We kept driving and returned to Cassis (this time along the Toll Road). We had another unfortunate incident at the toll station that I would rather not mention at this stage and we greatly relieved to arrive back at our room in one piece. It had been another “interesting” experience.

Days 50 to 53 In Which we Switch from Sea to Snow

Our four nights in Cassis passed by all too quickly. Although we lost the bright sunshine after the first couple of days, the temperature was still mild enough for swimmers to bathe in the blue Mediterranean waters. One of the natural features that this region is most well known for is the succession of Calanques along the coastline. These are a bit like a French version of a fjord, with sheltered inlets surrounded by towering rocky cliffs. Many of these calanques have been utilised to make safe, sheltered marinas for pleasure craft.

Maggie and I thought it would be a good idea to walk from our accommodation in the centre of town to the Calanques. We should have remembered that nothing can be achieved in Cassis without walking up and down an endless succession of steep hills. After staggering up the first few climbs we were already hot and tired – and we hadn’t even left the town. I reminded Maggie that we could have driven to the parking section and just walked to the Calanques themselves, but she had thought it would be good for us to walk the entire way. It was a dumb idea.

After walking around the first calanque and taking a few pictures we deduced that, if you have seen one calanque, you have probably seen them all. It seemed like a fine idea to head back to the town, unfortunately somewhere on the way back we took a wrong turn and ended up executing a complete (and completely unnecessary) loop around the town. I was reminded of the Grand Old Duke of York as we noticed the same houses pass on by the second time around. Finally we found our way back to familiar territory and sat down at the water’s edge to watch the boats gently rocking back and forth in their moorings.

The following morning it was time to pack our car and find our way out of Cassis. When we visited this town for the first time in 2013, we never thought it would be possible for us to return, however two years later we had been able to enjoy it all over again. As we drove out along the nearby tollway we both knew that, this time, it would be most unlikely for us to be able to return for a third visit.

The weather had undergone a distinct change and the clear sunny skies had been replaced with low dark clouds and very limited visibility. We settled down for another long and fast drive on a succession of tollways. Although the payment systems on these roads is always a little hit and miss, we had learnt that it is safest to always carry a huge stockpile of coins. Although they are supposed to accept credit cards, for some obscure reason, the machines often reject the cards you insert. When you have a line of impatient waiting cars behind you, it is NOT the best time to try to work out what is going on.

As we left the Mediterranean coast and headed north toward the Alps, the temperature steadily dropped. I reminded Maggie that I had advised her to bring some cold weather clothes on this trip. Although she had ridiculed me about this virtually every day up to now, I knew that sooner or later they would prove welcome.

The first section of the drive took us back over the same section of road we had driven a few days earlier, but fortunately this time we were able to skirt by Avignon and continue on the tollway. Our destination for the day was the famous small town of Pont En Royans. The main feature of this town is that it is perched precariously on sheer cliffsides above the Bourne and Vernaison Rivers. The so called suspended buildings really are quite mesmerising, although I couldn’t help but feel a little vertigo as I stood precariously close to the raging waters in the river. The water was so clear that the bottom was clearly visible. Certainly anyone who had the misfortune to slip into the water would have little chance at survival.

Since we were still dressed for the much warmer climes of Cassis, it didn’t take long for us to feel frozen. As we walked along the narrow walking track along the river we came across a very welcoming sight. It was the local library and one step inside its warm interior convinced us that this would be a lovely way to spend the next 30 minutes or so. We both picked a book and sat down to read. For me this meant utilising my rusty high school language skills, and mostly looking at the pictures. It was a thoroughly relaxing and very enjoyable way to pass the afternoon.

A short time later we were at our accommodation at the Mas Du Servant B & B. The room was lovely, the surroundings were as peaceful and quiet as you could find anywhere and the proprietors were fantastic hosts. The only problem was that they did not speak a single word of English between them. The entire conversation had to be conducted in French. Somehow we did manage to communicate, and I was even able to show them our web site and tell them about our recent bike ride to Le Croisic. In the morning we were fed a lovely breakfast and we each bade a fond Au Revoir to our hosts.

The next day was to be the longest driving distance of our entire trip and a large section of the drive would take us through Switzerland. Along the way we would also pass through a succession of long and impressive tunnels cut through the towering mountains. The names of the places certainly were familiar, and I am sure that the views would have been amazing – if we could have seen anything. Unfortunately the visibility was still almost non existent as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. It felt like we were standing in the middle of the smoking room at Singapore Airport.

We stopped for lunch at the beautiful town of Annecy, famous for its canals running through the centre of town. It certainly was a photographer’s dream and the lovely Plat du Jour (Plate of the day) that we enjoyed in one of the small cafes was delicious. The only somewhat sour note to this place was a miserable looking homeless woman who was busy eating scraps from the cast off piles of rubbish. I could not but help but wonder at what sequence of events could bring anyone to such a dreadful state.

In the final hour or so of the long drive we climbed relentlessly higher and higher into the mountains. I stopped to check my GPS at it told me that our elevation was already well over 1000 metres. The temperature gauge on the dashboard was also flashing a warning that we were in danger of ice on the roads. I suppose we did not need any reminder that it was really cold, the steady fall of snow drifting down from above was enough to remind us that Cassis was now just a distant memory.

We briefly stopped at a market to buy some food for the night and, when we got back to the car, we both had a layer of snowflakes on our shoulders. Across the road some council workers were already erecting the Christmas decorations in the main street. Christmas decorations ?  Where had summer and autumn gone ? A lot can certainly change in a couple of days.

Befitting the alpine nature of the area, our accommodation was in a lovely mountain chalet, complete with roaring log fire and natural pine walls and ceilings. Judging by the numbers of doonas and blankets they had loaded onto the bed, they must have been expecting another ice age. There was no way that I could ever had slept under all that weight and immediately throw the vast majority onto the floor, and then opened the large window. Living in the Dandenong Ranges for the past 30 years had obviously prepared us for all conditions.

The next morning we began by following the beautiful La Doubs River for around 30 km. This river skirts along the border between France and Switzerland and we were so glad that we had listened to our host’s advice to take this route. Although it was not our original plan, it rewarded us with some of the prettiest scenery we had seen so far. Although the weather was still overcast, at least the rain had stopped and we even had a few patches of blue sky overhead.

The colours of the autumn trees now ranged from yellow all the way through to dark red. We had seen a progression in these shades in the past couple of weeks and we also noticed that many of the trees were now well along in the process of shedding their leaves for the coming winter.

The road steadily dropped altitude, at times quite quickly. I could not help but think how hard it would be to ride a bike up these roads. The drop in altitude also raised the outside temperature to a relative balmy 5C !

We have now entered the Alsace Region of Eastern France. This region has been hotly contested for centuries and has, at various times, been part of France and Germany. The names on the towns all bear clear evidence of the divided character of this region. The capital of this region is the nearby town of Strasbourg. It is this town that has been a favourite subject for trivia quizzes for many years. When asked the question “In which country is Strasbourg, it is not surprising that most would answer (incorrectly) that it is in Germany. The correct answer is France.

Our home for the next three nights is another B & B in Colmar. When we pulled into the final  street Maggie saw an obscure sign and insisted that it was the place we were booked into. We spent some time trying to break into the place, before I noticed that the house number was NOT the same as the place we were looking for. In fact the correct place was several hundred metres further along the road.

We are now looking forward to spending a couple of quieter days enjoying the local region.

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Days 54 to 57 In Which It’s Beginning to Look a Bit like Christmas

In putting together our itinerary for this trip Colmar was always going to be a bit of an unknown quantity. Neither of us had been to this part of France before and so our knowledge was entirely gained from Dr Google and Prof Wikipedia. We had heard that the region of Alsace was unlike any other region of France because of its unique Germanic character. Over the centuries it had alternated ownership between France and Germany so many times that maybe it was unsure as to which country it really belonged.

On our first full day in this area we drove to the centre of Colmar and spent a couple of hours wandering the old city. The buildings were certainly completely unlike any we had seen anywhere else in France. Rather than the stone buildings that are so common everywhere else in this country, here we found a kaleidoscopic assortment of topsy turvy structures, all huddled closely together at odd angles. It seems that it is a requirement that each building must be painted a different colour of the rainbow. The overall effect is to make a magical wonderland of narrow streets and fairytale houses.

Just about every building is adorned with brilliant floral displays hanging from every window and a strange assortment of odds and sods on every available space. Obviously storks are considered to bring good luck and so many of the homes have model storks on chimney pots, doorways, fences, etc. Many homeowners actually build nests on their homes, hoping for a real stork to make its home there.

We also noticed that the council had been at work putting up Christmas lights above the main streets in the centre of the old town. Many of the businesses had already decorated their windows with Christmas wreaths and other Christmas trappings. With the temperatures plummeting around to around 4C it really felt that Christmas was rapidly approaching. We were both glad that we had brought our thermal underwear with us from Australia, although I was not so glad that my winter beanie had not survived the packing cull and had been left behind in Melbourne.

During the day I received an email update from Dave and Carol Yates. It made for such entertaining reading that I decided to include it in this account.

“Hi Dennis

I have just finished reading your latest blog in which you describe some of the hair raising driving experiences you have had since collecting you hire car. I completely understand and can relate to your angst as I have been reduced to a quivering ball of jelly on quite a few occassions driving in both France and the UK. Like you we have had this romantic notion that driving on the back roads we allow us to see more of the real France and England. Unfortunately some of these secondary roads quite quickly detiorate in to little more than goat tracks with barely enough room to negotiate your car through without the shear terror of another vehicle approachng from the opposite direction. In the UK we have hired a Ford Mondeo station wagon which is black with dark tinted windows.When driving it I feel that I should be wearing dark glasses, a black hat and suit and have a revolver in my shoulder holster. I have always thought of a Mondeo as being at best a medium size car however when driving over here it seems absolutely enormous! If anything driving around Cornwall is even more terrifying than in France. Many of the roads here must be centuries old as they have worn down to at least a metre below the surrounding land. In addition tbey are exremely narrow,wind around n a ridiculous fashion and have two metre hedgerows growing so close to you that you feel like you are driving in a green tunnel from which heavily laden farmers tractors suddenly appeararound very tight bends. Anyway I have learnt two important lessons about driving in Europe which I feel I should pass on to you before you make the same mistakes as I have. They are:

NEVER GIVE A FRENCHMAN THE FINGER
After we left Le Croisic we had quite a long drive to Normanby to visit our friends. We chose to drive on the aforesaid minor roads which made it much longer and nerve wracking. Towards tbe end of the drive I became trapped behind a very large French tractor hauling a large trailer loaded with hay. The road was very narrow and winding and I was stuck behind him for a considerable time during which a queue of cars collected behind me. Eventually an opportunity to pass came along and I dropped the car in to second gear pulled out and planted my foot expe ting to quickly sail pass him. Well the accelaration I anticipated did not occur and I had apparantly selected fourth or even sixth and tbe car took off like a very tired snail who hadtaken to many valium pills. This aggravated the driver behind me who had also pulled out to pass and he started tooting his horn aggresively.Well I was feeling tiredand emotional and also trying to find tbe correct gear so I reacted instinctively and gave him the finger.It seems tbat he took offense at this and pulled alongside me and made a very angry face at me and was mouthing what Iam sure were very rude French words. This is where common sense should have caused me to wave apologetically and hopefully that would have settled him down. Well I didn,t did I i nstead I gave him the finger again which was not a smart thing todo. He pulled infront of me and slammed on his brakes coming to a rapid halt amost causing me to rear end him. He then jumped from his car and came towards me and tbis was when I realised how foolish I had been.He was probably about25 to 30 built like a weightlifter with full sleeve tattoos on both arms a black t shirt and an angry look on his face. Seeing my life race before my eyes I did what any sensible person would do in similar circumstances and threw the car in to reverse and tried to retreat. Imagine my chagrin when after travelling no more than a metre I realised that a car had pulled up behind me and I had nearly reversed into him. As it happend tbe upset Frenchman changed his mind and after much finger pointing and again saying very rude things in French got back in to his car and much to my relief drove off.

DONT ALWAYS TRUST YOUR GPS
I have generally found the lady in my GPS to be very reliable and in fact I have become quite fond of her however on one occassion she let me down badly. I set the GPS to take us to St Ives in Cornwall which she duly did. Unfortunately we ended up on a very narrow one way road on the foreshore of the oldest part of the town. That in itself was ok however when directing us out she tooks us up a very very narrow road, or at least at that time I tbought it was a road. After about 200 metre we came to a corner that was impossible to get around without scraping the side out of the car.While I was contemplating how to get out of tnis dilemma several aggreived poms advised me that tnis was not a road and was infact a footpath and that even if I did get around tbe corner it was a dead end. There was nothing to do other than to reverse back down the footpath with what seemed like no more than a few millimetres to spare on each side. We retracted tbe mirrors and with Carol letting me know how close we were on her side we slowly, very slowly inched backwards. To add to my humiliation an art shop owner whose window I had come close to breaking as I tried to negotiate that corner startrd to photograph or video my slow retreate. Probably to show to his friends to remind them how stupid tourists can be.

So I hope you can learn from my experiences and not make tbe same mistakes.

Regards
David”

It certainly sounded like they had been having a wonderful time and were enjoying their car driving experiences as much as Carol had enjoyed the hotel shower in Angers. Maggie and I spent some time chuckling at their adventures before looking for a place for dinner. Just outside of Colmar there are a couple of smaller medieval towns – Eguisheim and Riquewihr. We had read about a little restaurant in Eguisheim and thought that it sounded like a good option for dinner. We programmed the address into the GPS and headed off into the dark.

If driving in France is a challenge in broad daylight, it is an even greater challenge on a dark night, especially when your headlights don’t seem to penetrate the inky darkness at all. Maybe it was because I still did not know how to turn them on properly, but all I knew was that I could barley make out the road ahead. We crawled along at about 30 kph, glad that there were no other cars on the road at this time. Apparently all the locals know that only mad dogs and Englishmen drive at night.

Somehow the GPS managed to get us to the village without a major accident and we parked the car anywhere that looked suitable and staggered out. My palms were sweaty and my heart was thumping. I didn’t feel hungry, but we had come this far and it would seem stupid not to find the place we had driven all this way for.

We had not walked for long before my mouth gaped open in wonder. In the dim lights from the windows this place really did look like a magical world. I had to admit that we had never seen anything like it and it even made the streets of old Colmar look plain by comparison. We did eventually find the restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful meal there with the locals. In this region many of the locals speak a special dialect called Alsation. It is related to German but is actually quite distinct. Sitting in this tiny restaurant gave us a chance to hear it spoken. We were the only English speakers in the place and we got the impression that very few visitors would come here after dark. It was a lovely night that we will never forget.

Finding where we had left the car presented some challenges but we did eventually find it in the dark and I was so grateful for the GPS to help me get back to our B & B for the night.

The following day was a Sunday and, since we had enjoyed the dinner in Eguisheim the previous night, we thought it would be good to drive back and see it during the daytime. In the bright light of day it still looked wonderful, but perhaps not quite as magical as it had in the darkness. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned and the houses are built so that each floor is cantilevered out above the floor below. It would not have seemed entirely out of place if Bilbo Baggins came out of one of the front doors, it was just that sort of place.

Like Eguisheim, Riquewihr is also a tiny medieval village on the outskirts of Colmar. In many respects it is like Eguisheim, however it has been much more commercialized. Although it was undeniably beautiful, it did start to feel a little like Disneyland, especially when the buses started to disgorge large throngs of tourists into the narrow streets.

There was one shop that really did impress us both as it contained the largest collection of quality Christmas decorations and novelties that we had ever seen. A narrow walking path led us through a myriad of levels, surrounded on all sides by enough tinsel and toys to keep any child mesmorised for a month. It was obvious that Christmas really is big here. A pity that we could not take any photographs.

Although we were glad we had visited this area, it really was not the France we had come to know and love. In fact we were not really sure what it was. There was no doubt that it was impressive, but somehow it did not seem real. After a couple of hours we were ready to escape the throngs and seek some peace and quiet again.

After three nights in Colmar it was time for us to resume our travels. The next few days were to start our journey back towards Paris and that meant that our trip was starting to move towards its final stages. Our plan was to first drive from Colmar to Besancon, a distance of around 250 km or so. We wanted to avoid all the toll roads and seek out only the quiet rural roads instead. Although this would take us a lot longer, we both felt that we wanted to return to the tranquility of the rural farmlands again.

After the past week of overcast and rainy conditions, it was great to see the return of the sunshine again. After leaving Colmar we soon found ourselves in beautiful rolling green hills that reminded me of Southern Gippsland. The autumn trees were all now well into the advanced stages of preparing for the winter and we often found ourselves driving through flurries of russet coloured leaves that had fallen to the road in front of us. We could see that winter would quickly follow in this region of the country.

As we drove further east we also noticed the return of the lovely old stone buildings that are so typical all over the country. Gone were the brightly coloured and rendered buildings we had seen in Alsace.

Our destination for the day was the mid sized city of Besancon. We did not know anything about this city other than that its location would make it a convenient place for an overnight stay. As we drove into the town we were surprised to find a thoroughly modern city with a fantastic infrastructure. The roads were new, the traffic flowed easily, the buildings were clean and modern and we even discovered a great tramway system that had only been built in the past twelve months. The old city has a long history and was even mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar. One of its more recent residents was the writer Victor Hugo who was born here in 1802. Besancon was long a centre of the watch making industry, but its recent prosperity is due to a growing micro technology industry. It also houses a huge university and I was surprised to read that almost 20% of the current population are university students. In the short period of time we were here it certainly impressed us a city that was well managed and was rapidly forging a confident future for itself. We didn’t even see any graffiti anywhere !

In the afternoon we caught the tram to the city centre and sat on the banks of the lovely River Doub in the late afternoon sunshine eating a delicious kebab dinner.

The hotel we had booked for the night was the brand new Zenitude Aparthotel complex. It was an impressive brand new building situated high on a hill near the medical school of the university. It was unfortunate that the first room they allocated us had such a dreadful smell inside that we had to go back to the reception to ask for another one. The second room was immaculately clean and came without the stink, but it did come with another unwelcome feature. Whenever we entered the bathroom we were met by a strange musical sound. At first I thought it was music coming from somewhere, but we came to the conclusion that it must have been some paranormal manifestation taking place in the water pipes. It really was a little unnerving and we were glad we were not staying there for a more than a single night.

The next morning we only had a relatively short drive to Dijon. The sun stayed out all day and made our final day of driving a real treat. The Bourgogne Region truly is a lovely part of France and it would have been easy to settle into one of the many villages we drove through along the way. Tomorrow morning we return our rental car and we will be reverting to travel by train and foot for the remainder of our trip. Although the Nissan Juke really was lacking in power, it had proven to be reliable and surprisingly economical (around 7.7 litres/100 km). After driving it all over France, all that remained was the simple task of getting it the final kilometre to the Europcar Rental Office. Nothing could go wrong with that simple task – or could it ?

Day 58 In Which Everything Becomes Unravelled

When you have 25 people travelling across the globe to complete a complex trip such as our rides across Italy and France, there are hundreds of details which have to be planned flawlessly in order for the whole trip to succeed. Although I had put in countless hours of preparation in covering all the preliminary arrangements, in the back of my mind there is always a fear that something might go wrong. Perhaps there could be a mix up with the hotels, maybe planes and trains could be delayed, maybe there will be a nationwide strike and so on.

Now after two months, and with the end almost in sight, I could almost relax. Up will now everything had gone exactly according to the script. Well almost everything. There were the two women who somehow managed to independently break their legs during the trip, but that had nothing to do with my planning. After all there was no way I could be responsible for Carol falling over in the shower or Fran tumbling down the staircase. As far as I was concerned, I felt that not only had the group arrangements all worked perfectly, but our own personal arrangements had also gone smoothly as well. Maggie and I could take pride in the fact that we had not even left anything behind in any of the 30 hotels we had stayed in over the past two months.

They say that pride always goes before a fall, and maybe I should not have ignored the nagging feeling that, at some stage during the trip, there would be something that would inevitably go awry. Today was that day.

After a good first night’s sleep at the Adagio Access Apartments in Dijon, we woke up and spent the first hour catching up on our backlog of laundry. The hotel had its own laundromat – how easy was that ? While the washing machine was battling away on our dirty clothes, we sat down to lovely crunchy baguettes for breakfast. Our main task for the morning was to return our hire car to the nearby Europcar rental office. I had already checked on Google Maps and it promised me that the trip would only take about 12 minutes. After all the thousands of kilometres we had traveled all over France, it was a mere bagatelle. We even programmed the address into our trusty Tom Tom GPS, just to make sure.

After a final check of the car, we drove out of the hotel car park and straight into a narrow one way street. But why was a car coming the other way straight towards me ? I reversed back and pulled aside to let the elderly driver squeeze past (he looked almost as mystified as me). We resumed our progress and executed another couple of turns. So far so good.

“I think you are in the bus lane”, Maggie advised.

“That’s a funny place to put a bus lane”, I replied. At the same time it probably explained why I had received some strange looks from other drivers. Not a big problem I decided, as I calmly veered across to the correct lane. Only about 500 metres to go. Why was my heart thumping so much ?

The last time we hired a car in France we drove it for weeks without incident, and then came close to driving it into a concrete wall in the rental car parking lot when we were returning it. On that occasion I managed to avoid catastrophe (and great embarrassment) by about 3 cm. It did succeed in reminding me that the show is never truly over till the proverbial “fat lady” has finished her solo. With only a few hundred metres to go, I was sure that I could hear the fat lady already warming up her vocal chords.

It was at that point that things took an unexpected turn for the worse. The wonderful TOM TOM that had guided us all over the entire country decided that the satellites were no longer there. The screen proclaimed “NO SIGNAL”. We were on our own with no idea which turn to make. In the area near the central Dijon Train Station there are numerous one way streets and it is essential that you approach in the correct sequence. I did the only thing I could think to do and that was continue straight ahead. Within seconds we were almost T-boned by two fast cars coming up from my left. The drivers were more forgiving than I would have been under the circumstances as neither of them got out of their vehicles to attack with a tyre lever. I tried to do my best impersonation of a foreign elderly dimwit and they seemed to take pity on me. It had been a close call and my sweaty palms made it hard to grip the wheel.

Somehow I managed to fluke a space that could have been a parking space, but probably wasn’t. I tried turning on my pocket GPS. It couldn’t find the signal either. This was ridiculous. Had some sort of global cataclysm shut down the whole system? I crept forward again, hoping that the signal would resume before I had a nervous breakdown. Fortunately it did. After a couple more turns we were at the right car depot and managed to squeeze the car (almost) into the one remaining car spot. At that point I didn’t care anymore. It was not my problem. We had returned their blessed car in one piece and I was ready to hand over the keys. The remainder of our trip will be conducted either by train or on foot. The car had been great but we were both quite relieved to hand it back.

We slowly made our way to the city centre and did some research about possible bike rides in this region. A couple of hours later we returned to our hotel room. It was then that we discovered the second major catastrophe of the day. Over the past couple of weeks we had accumulated a stash of food and nibbles. This included chocolates, biscuits, a jar of jam, fruit, muesli bars, a packet of tea bags and a few other odds and sods. This bag had circumnavigated the entire country with us and served as a backup source of nourishment if we could not find any shops handy. The bag of goodies had been left in our room on the bench in the small kitchenette. To our horror the precious bag was no longer there. We searched and we searched but all our goodies were gone. It might have only amounted to several Euros worth of mostly junk food, but we could not help but feel violated. How could the cleaner possibly have mistaken such a collection of wonderful items for junk ?  I almost felt like reporting it to the local Gendarmes, but thought better of it. I also thought that it would probably not be worth lodging a claim with my travel insurer for a couple of packets of lost biscuits. By the same token I could not help but wonder what else could possibly go wrong.

In spite of our huge loss, we decided to explore the city anyway. On our previous trip here we had discovered that Dijon has a great way of taking visitors on a walk of the major places of interest in the city. The so called “Chouette Walk”  is made up of hundreds of brass owl plaques on the footpath. These take the visitor to 22 major sites around the centre of Dijon. It is a fantastic way for families to have fun and discover the sights at the same time.

Since the start of our adventure, Maggie had brought along with her a small extra friend that she had christened Pierre. Pierre was a tiny little Lego man with a striped blue and white shirt. He had been photographed in dozens of fascinating locations all around France. The images had been sent back to our grandchildren so that they could see what a great adventure little Pierre was having. Now that Pierre had traveled so far with us, we both regarded him as a very important part of the trip.

Maggie decided that little Pierre should be photographed in front of all 22 of the tourist locations. Each location is marked with a large brass plate and so we began putting him down on the plate on the ground, and taking his picture. It was only when we got to number 6 that a terrible thing happened. Maggie cried out in despair that she had left him on the road at the previous location. We both immediately felt sick. It was only a small Lego man, but it really would have been a disaster for him to get lost at this late stage.

We both started running back through the city crowds, hoping that no one would have noticed the little lost man on the ground. It was only about 500 metres, but it seemed like an eternity before we got close to the plate in question. I don’t know (and I didn’t care) what the locals would have thought about a red faced elderly couple charging through their peak hour crowds.  In spite of hundreds of people walking back and forth (and not to mention the numbers of family groups doing the same walk), by some miracle little Pierre was still lying exactly where we had left him. He looked like a frightened little lost soul, all alone in such a big foreign city. By that time Maggie was in tears at the thought that he would be lost. We both never let him out of our sights for the rest of the day.

In spite of the mishaps (and near mishaps) that had occurred, it did not alter our opinion of this city. We still think Dijon is a lovely place. We love the mixture of old and new, the fact that it is not over crowded, the lovely gardens and the feeling that it is little like a miniature version of Paris. If anyone is looking for a place to spend some time in France then the Borgogne Region and Dijon in particular should be carefully considered.

Day 59 In Which we Meet Tiny Ronald the Wrongfoot

When I was preparing for our 2015 European Renaissance rides I did some research into the history of Italy and France. One of the most influential characters in the French Monarchy of the Middle Ages was King Francoise I. During our trip we came across his extensive legacy right throughout the Loire Valley. I also learned that King Francoise was well known for the extreme size of one of his body parts, so much so in fact that one his alternative names was “Francoise the Grand Nez”. I thought it was a little unfortunate that someone should be remembered throughout history because of his huge honker, but that was the way it went in those early days. I guess it was regarded as being a little inadequate to just give a simple name such as Louis,  Georges, Pierre or Gabriel. In order to make sure who you were referring to, it was also required to add an extra descriptive to the name.

I could imagine the roll call in a medieval school classroom might have sounded something like this  – “Henry the Horrible, Freddy the Fat, Sally the Silly, Gary the Grumpy, Harry the Hairy, Philip the Flatulent” and so on. I wondered what my name might have been if I had been born about 600 years ago – maybe Dennis the Dimwit ?

Today we decided to visit the Musee de Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) in the centre of Dijon. This museum is actually one of the oldest in France and has an interesting and varied collection of antiquities from Ancient Egypt through to the 19th century. Since we had a free day and since it was wet and rainy outside, we considered that it might be an interesting way to spend a couple of hours.

We grabbed our umbrellas and walked the now familiar short distance to the old town. It was easy enough to find the building, but much more challenging to find the entrance. We wandered around and around the exterior before eventually discovering the unmarked door which accessed the inside of the building. We were also surprised to find that the entrance was Gratuit (free). The lady at the door handed us a plastic bag to hold our dripping umbrellas and we started exploring the fascinating rooms inside the museum.

It did not take us long to meet several other past members of the French royal family – Phillipe the Bold, John the Fearless (not to be confused with John the Scaredy Cat) and also Phillipe the Good. I didn’t know much about what they did to receive these accolades, but their death memorials were certainly impressive.

In the adjoining room we discovered a row of suits of armor. While most were approximately the same size, the one on the end was severely vertically challenged. Although it was an impressive collection of armor, the tiny size gave evidence to the fact that the owner must have only been about 150 cm tall. I wondered what his name might have been – perhaps Michael the Midget ?

As we looked more closely at the metal suits, Maggie made a startling discovery. “Look at his feet”, she said. I did. “They are back to front”, she added. I looked more closely and had to agree with her. It certainly looked as if the left and right feet had been mounted on the wrong legs. Surely the curators could not have made such a terrible mistake, and why had no one else ever noticed such a basic error ????  It was then that the real truth dawned on me. Obviously the owner was not only extremely short, but he also had the rare handicap of having his feet on the wrong legs. I could only assume that this was the famous “Ronald the Wrong Foot”. Well that WAS interesting.

Just before we left the suits of armor, I had another thought. Considering the unfortunate sequence of events which had resulted in both Carol and Fran breaking their legs during the trip, perhaps they should both consider getting fitted for full body armor before setting on our 2016 European rides. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

As we proceeded to the higher floors of the building we came across a series of huge carved 3D dioramas of assorted religious themes. Since these must each have taken thousands of hours of painstaking effort to produce, they could only have been gifts for the royalty. Since the descriptions were all in French, I had to make up my own explanations for what they were used for.  I guess in the days before TV, such dioramas provided an entertaining evening diversion for the members of the royal household. On a dull, dark winter’s night in the King’s palace the conversation could have gone something like this….

“What are we going to do tonight Papa ?”, the little princes asked the king.
“I think we should have a look at the new diorama”, the king replied.
“But we saw that diorama last week, don’t you have a new one for us to look at ?”
“But the royal artisans took 17 years to make the last one”, the king added. “And it does show at least 30 different gory ways to die”.
“But dioramas are so boring, I wish one of your subjects would invent social media”.

Life really was tough in those days. Maggie also commented that all the dioramas, paintings and sculptures depicted people who were either being massacred, or who looked as if they were about to be massacred. Didn’t anyone actually smile in the Middle Ages ?

When we exited the museum we noticed that they were setting up some sort of outdoor musical event in the open space. Unfortunately due to the cold and wet conditions, the performance was put on for the benefit of about 7 rather wet looking onlookers. I hate to think how much it must have cost to set up all the sound equipment.

Since we felt that we had eaten in far too many restaurants, that evening we bought food from the nearest supermarket and had our own little party in our apartment. We both enjoyed it immensely. Tomorrow we catch the fast train to Paris and begin the next chapter of our odyssey.

Day 60 In Which the Evil Paris Metro Eats my Luggage

After three nights in Dijon in beautiful Burgundy, it was time for us to make the next transition back to Paris. Now that we had handed back our rental car, all our future travel had to be conducted either on foot or public transport. Before leaving Australia we had already purchased two tickets from Dijon to Paris on the French TGV train system. At this point I should point out that there are several train systems in France, all run by different companies with different ticketing and staff. The TGV is supposed to be the most sophisticated with the fastest trains (TGV – “Train Grand Vitesse”).

In previous trips we had traveled on TGV trains and I had photos of my GPS showing speeds over 300 kph. Even at these extreme speeds, inside the carriages the ride is smooth and quiet. The trip to Paris was just over 300 km and scheduled to take around 90 minutes. We bundled up our luggage in our Dijon apartment and prepared for the trip. Maggie obviously thought my case had some surplus space inside and packed it with gifts for the grandkids and about 5 kg of magazines that she decided would make good reading back home in Australia.

By the time I strapped on my backpack and started dragging the case, I figured that I had about 35 kg of luggage to navigate safely to our apartment in Paris. At the same time Maggie appeared to have conveniently lightened her load and kept wondering why I was struggling to keep up with her.

We walked the first few hundred metres to the tram stop. We had researched the tram system the previous day so I knew how much the tickets would cost and carefully sorted out the correct change in advance. While I looked after the mountain of luggage, I sent Maggie across to the ticket machine to buy our tickets. She came back with only one ticket and a story that “the price had gone up to 1.60 Euros”. Now I know that prices can increase due to inflation, but that did seem a bit steep. I gave her a handful of extra coins and send her back to buy my ticket. This time she came back and announced that the price was “only 1.50 Euros”. I have no idea what she had been doing on the ticket machine, but it seems like she had managed to select the poker machine mode whereby it generates a random price for each ticket. At least we had two tickets, even though I felt like we had been fleeced.

When the next tram came along we piled our luggage on board and narrowly avoided injuring any of the other passengers in the process. The tram took us straight to the DijonVille Train Station where we were to catch our train. The first ominous signs that the trip was not going to go smoothly was the sign that announced that our train “was delayed”. We sat and waited. And waited.

When the train finally appeared the platform was jammed with other paasengers, mostly also with huge amounts of luggage. We found our carriage and pulled our luggage on board, only to find that every possible storage space for luggage was already crammed to overflowing. I dragged my confounded case from one end of the carriage to the other (damn those heavy magazines) without success. People were starting to look at us with smirks on their faces. I partially got even by making sure I bumped into their shoulders each time I passed by.

Eventually we came to the unhappy conclusion that there was NOWHERE for our luggage. We would have to just cram it into our seat and squash in next to it. So that’s what we did. Maggie got in first and I heaved the case in next. By the time it was my turn, there was only room for my left buttock on the seat. Maggie started to complain that the wheels were cutting off her circulation. I replied that my problem was much worse. I was sitting half in the aisle, looking like the world’s biggest imbecile. At least it provided free entertainment for the rest of the carriage.

“Don’t worry, it’s only 90 minutes”, I told her. It wasn’t. The so called TGV train struggled to muster anything above 100 kph. No wonder it had been delayed. At one point it stopped completely without a station anywhere in sight. Maggie’s right leg went to sleep, but she didn’t. I felt like murdering someone, but I couldn’t. We had no alternative other than to just sit there as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Of course, at that stage, we had no idea that our day was going to get worse. Much worse.

The train had originally been due at Gare de Lyon in Paris at around 1.30 pm. It eventually arrived at around 2.30 pm. It was only in the final 30 minutes of the trip that the driver finally managed to find the throttle and get it flying along at 305 kph. By then it was already too late. Maggie was worried that she was going to lose her leg and join Carol and Fran in the sad French leg injury tally.

It did finally pull into the station. We stumbled out onto the platform and into the biggest jam of people I had ever seen on a railway station. We could hardly move. We both just wanted somewhere to sit comfortably, but Maggie had an even more pressing need. She needed a toilet and fast. I sat with the pile of luggage while she set off in search of that elusive Holy Grail – a clean toilet. About 30 minutes later she returned.

We then went in search of the right Metro line to take us close to our apartment. We found it without too much trouble, but what was trouble was the multitude of flights of stairs that we had to ascend and descend in order to get to the right platform. I pity any disabled person who has to survive this system.

At least we were relieved to find that the Metro was not too crowded and we were soon headed in the right direction. “Not long to go now”, I tried to calm Maggie’s anxiety. She looked up at the list of stations on the carriage wall.

“Which station do we get off at ?”, she asked.

“The Louvre”, I replied.

“But that sign says it’s closed”. I looked up and saw that she was right. Apparently there was work being done and it was “ferme”, for the next few weeks. Well that’s how our day had been going. And it was still going to get worse.

We had no alternative other than to go to the next station and walk back. That was not such a big problem, except that we could not find the “Sortie” (exit) anywhere. We walked back and forth until we eventually located the exit doors. I had been through these types of doors many times and knew that it was possible to wheel my bag through, however for some reason, this time my brain was not working properly. We saw a special line that had a luggage symbol so I thought maybe I should put the bag through there. I lined up the bag and then walked through the neighbouring exit. The problem was the luggage door did not open. I was on one side and Maggie was still on the other with both bags and a very worried look on her face. Well what do we do now ? I wondered.

“Pass your bag over the top”, I called to her. She did that and that was one problem partially solved.

“OK, now come through with my bag”. She started through, only to find that the barrier snapped back like a giant alligator, securely grabbing my bag in their huge jaws. I tried to force them open without success. I tried to just pull my bag through. At least that achieved something – I almost managed to rip the entire top of the bag from one end to the other. Not exactly what I had planned.

At that moment a helpful French lady noticed our predicament and used her ticket to reopen the doors for us. I retrieved the ruins of my case and the two of us stood seething at the damage. What an absolutely stupid system, I thought. Just like the French to design a gate that would be capable of cutting a small child (or slow senior) completely in two.

I would liked to have punched someone right on the nose at that point, but there would have been no point. We should have known that is what France is like. It can be frustrating, it can be irritating, but it is never boring.

I managed to roll the remains of my bag to the apartment we had booked on the Internet. It was situated on the left bank of the Seine, not far from the Musee D’Orsay and the location and the description, looked too good to miss.  We were met at the door by a young spiff and his “cousin”. Young Guillaume certainly spoke good English but he was just too much of a smart Alec for our liking. He insisted on making every question we asked into some sort of joke and really managed to really get under our skin. I suspect he would have been happy to sell us the Eiffel Tower if we had shown any interest.

The apartment itself was not exactly as it appeared in the advertisement. It was a collection of rooms and corridors with ceilings low enough to crack the head of the shortest midget. At least it had a bed and a toilet and we had to agree that the location was perfect. It is probably typical of what to expect in Paris when you are traveling on a budget. There was no doubt it did have character and we would probably look back on this day in the years ahead and laugh about it.

That evening we went out and brought some supplies and some beautiful fresh baguettes and had a feast in our room. It was fun. Already the hassles of the previous few hours started to fade and we looked forward to what we would do it in the next four days in this amazing city.

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Day 61-62 In Which the Sun Returns (and the cars all leave)

Although I really do love Paris, I have to agree that you often have to take your life into your hands to cross the road. It is true that there are hundreds of zebra crossings on the roads, however I think these literally are for zebras and not pedestrians. Very few motorists seem to take any notice whatsoever of someone walking across these crossings. Then again French motorists don’t seem to take much notice of anything at all when it comes to regulations. They are quite happy to park anywhere at all that they can nudge their cars into, even if it is in the middle of an intersection. They will drive the wrong way up a one way road, or even drive up the footpath if they can find a way to jump the kerb. Yesterday I saw three drivers in a row, all happily sending SMS messages while they were driving in peak hour traffic.

Pedestrians are also equally oblivious to most road rules. We have seen numerous Parisians simply step out into the traffic without even taking a cursory glance to check if any cars were coming. The weird thing is that somehow it seems to work. We have seen no examples of road rage and drivers generally seem quite philosophical when other road users do quite stupid things. I was certainly glad of this nonchalance when I was driving (probably quite incompetently) on their roads.

The apparent chaos of cars, motor bikes, bicycles and pedestrians can make it rather stressful when you are making your way from one part of Paris to another. Even in the narrowest streets you never feel free from the danger that you could get skittled at any moment by a speeding driver flying right through the crowd of pedestrians. You could therefore imagine our joy and relief to leave our apartment and find that the roads were clear of all cars. This was not just because it was Sunday morning, but because the police had blocked off huge areas of the city to everything apart from pedestrians and bicycles.

It was sheer bliss to be able to walk down the boulevards, surrounded by dozens of happy Parisian families all out enjoying the late autumn sunshine. There were also cyclists of all sorts – from the lycra clad racers right down to the casual weekend wobblers, all of them enjoying the car free streets. On the narrow streets of the Ile de La Cite and the Ile St Louis it was the same scene, without a car in sight. I could not help but think how glorious it would be if Melbourne could adopt a similar practice each Sunday.

Maggie and I happily wandered the car free streets in amazement. After the spell of wintry weather we had been through, it was also a lovely feeling to have warm sunshine on our faces again. After lunch in a lovely small cafe on the Ile St Louis we walked to the Promenade Plante. This was originally an elevated train line but it has now been converted to a beautiful tree lined walking and bicycle path. It was a strange feeling to be walking through the autumn trees with the city streets far below us.

After wandering for some time we were both feeling tired and in need of coffee. We found a convenient Starbucks Store and ordered two coffees. The young assistant asked Maggie for her name and wrote something on the side of her cup. It was only later that we noticed that he had written “NAGGIER” in bold letters on her cup. Obviously he had mistaken her name for her nature. 

By mi afternoon we had walked so far that our legs were threatening to cease to function. We decided to catch the Metro instead, not realising that virtually every other person in Paris much have decided to catch the same train. I now know what a sardine in a tin feels like, but we did manage to safely escape with our wallets and phones intact. The final part of the sunny afternoon was spent sitting in the Tuileries Gardens watching the crowds go by. Even at this late stage of the season we were surprised at the huge crowd of tourists all making their way to the Louvre Musee (and yes, heaps of them were wielding the ridiculous selfie sticks that I have come to detest so much). It was even more ridiculous to see the upper desk of the Hop On Hop Off bus crammed with tourists with their selfie sticks pointing to the skies like a host of TV antennas,

It had been a wonderful day but we were glad when we got back to our apartment, even with if its low ceilings make me feel like Bilbo Baggins.

Day 63 In Which we Soak up the Sunshine

After three days of living in the Middle Earth of our Paris Apartment, my head is showing distinct signs of abuse. The five foot ceilings may have been designed for hobbits, but they are not suitable for someone of more normal height. Although I have been trying my best to walk around like the proverbial Hunchback of Notre Dame, it only takes a momentary lack of attention to collect another huge welt on the top of my cranium. I have been tempted to wear my bike helmet indoors but I can’t be bothered trying to retrieve it from the lower recesses of my luggage.

In spite of the fact that I was looking like a car accident victim, Maggie and I were buoyed by the prospect of a late return to summer conditions in Paris. With blue skies and a predicted top temperature of 20C, we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to revisit two of our favourite places in this city.

Our first stop was the Butte (hill) Montmartre and the beautiful Sacre Coeur Cathedral. The cathedral is situated at the top of the rise and provides glorious views down over the surrounding chaos of narrow streets and chimney pots. This spot has been special to me since my first visit to Paris. Although it can be crowded with tourists and preyed upon by scammers, pickpockets and touts, it really has something of a sacred atmosphere. On every subsequent visit to Paris I have always made time to visit this spot, soak up the wonderful atmosphere and indulge in my favourite pastime of people watching. I have never been disappointed.

Although it is now very late in the season, the main front road up to the steps was jammed solid with tourists from a multitude of origins. Several groups of eastern European con men and women were busy running the three cup scam and sucking in a never ending succession of gullible visitors into parting with handfuls of Euros. Their system has been unchanged for years and yet it obviously still brings in lucrative returns.

We walked through the suckers as they lost handfuls of money and continued up the hill to the base of the Cathedral steps. This has been the place where groups of black African thugs pressure tourists with their “friendship bracelet” scams. This is really just extortion and it especially upsets me when they work their threats on young kids and fearful young women. This morning I was pleased to see two heavily armed local police stationed at the base of the steps and their presence had obviously scared away the string scammers. We both hoped that this would be a permanent police placement to help curb this dark side of Paris.

We continued to the top of the stairs to made our way to our favourite little coffee shop in the Place Du Tertre. This is a lovely little sanctuary with a secret veranda covered in flowering creepers and inhabited by dozens of cheeky little sparrows. It always provides a lovely spot to enjoy a coffee and cake and observe the crowds from a safe distance.

After a lovely 30 minutes spent at the coffee shop we made our way back down the cathedral steps and discovered that the police had gone and the black African thugs had quickly returned. I felt like screaming out a warning to those who were falling into their clutches, but it would have been a bit like trying to warn a fly not to fly into a spider’s web. It looks like this practice is destined to be an ongoing problem for the foreseeable future.

We then made our way back across Paris to the left bank of the Seine and to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens. With the brilliant warm sunshine and the spectacular autumn colours it was the perfect place to spend a couple of hours. Thousands of Parisians were already here, resting, walking, reading, drawing and enjoying the sun. Maggie and I found a place in the sun, positioned a couple of chairs and made ourselves comfortable. It didn’t take me long to fall deeply asleep while Maggie worked away with her sketchpad.

The Luxembourg Gardens are surely one of the real treasures of Paris, but their location makes them rather inaccessible for the majority of bus tourists. It is a lovely feeling being in place where nearly all the other people are locals.

On the way back to our “Hobbit House” we stopped at the Marks and Spencer Store to buy some familiar foodstuffs for a feast. Our supplies were complete when we purchased our evening baguette from a wonderful Boulangerie. We really are going to miss that bread when we get back to Australia in a week’s time.

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Day 64 In Which we Enjoy our Final Baguettes

In some respects it does not seem so long ago that I waited in Charles de Gaulle Airport for the other members of our 2015 France ride to arrive. I remember sitting in the arrival lounge anxiously looking out for each familiar face and then ticking each name off my list. I also remember the relief i felt when the final participant safely arrived and we were able to make our way to the waiting shuttle bus. At that time everyone was eagerly looking forward to the adventure that we had spent so long planning.

Now, seven weeks later, our adventure is drawing to a close. Most of our original participants are now back in Australia and, within a few days, Maggie and I will also be starting the long journey back home. Since that first meeting at the airport,  we have shared countless amazing experiences as we cycled, walked, trained and drove thousands of kilometres around this wonderful country. France is not a country that you can understand in one or two days and certainly those who only see it from the seat of a bus on a whirlwind European tour, will never appreciate just what makes it tick.

It is true that the French can be bewildering in some aspects of their behaviour, it is true that many of the city footpaths are stained with urine (from dogs and men), it is true that they have a rather cavalier attitude to rules and regulations, but is equally undeniably true that they really do embrace life. I know of no other place where eccentricity is so accepted and embraced. They love their food with a passion. Their families are usually very close and the children’s manners in public are almost always impeccable. Every back street and building echoes with the voices of history dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. They love their culture and are inordinately proud of it. Their bread is better by far than anything we could ever buy in Australia. It’s little wonder that every French person is willing to line up for it twice a day at their favourite Boulangerie, I would too if it was available in Melbourne. We will really miss that superb bread.

Today was our final full day in Paris and we were thrilled that the weather reverted right back to the very best of autumn weather. With a clear sea blue sky and a temperature in the low 20s, it was absolutely perfect for us to spend the day indulging in that favourite French activity – walking around Paris.

We began by following the Seine past the Musee D’Orsay and on to the magnificent lawns of Les Invalides. Considering the growing number of cuts and abrasions that were now adorning my head (thanks to the 5 foot ceilngs in our Middle Earth Apartment), any place called Les Invalides was probably an appropriate place for my recuperation. This is a vast complex of beautiful buildings that was originally set up as a hospital for wounded soldiers, but now houses a variety of military museums, military retirement homes and the huge memorial to hold Napoleon’s tomb. One of the aspects of Paris that I adore is the way that huge open spaces have been incorporated into a grid of huge intersecting boulevards and low rise buildings. The vast majority of Parisians live in apartment buildings and they utilise these open spaces for a wide variety of activities and sports.

Our walk continued to the mansion and gardens of Rodin. This magnificent building was originally a convent but became a hotel called the Hotel Biron. Rodin and other artists used it as an artists’ headquarters in the early 20th century. Late in his life, Rodin agreed to bequeath all his works to the French nation in return for his being permitted to live in the hotel for the remainder of his life. So that is what happened. The beautiful walled gardens now provide a wonderful quiet sanctuary from the noise and crowds just outside.

As we walked back to our apartment we passed by several street vendors selling roasted chestnuts. Combined with the carpet of autumn leaves on every street and pavement, it really helped to capture the real nature of autumn in Paris.

After sundown we returned to the streets to wander with the crowds as the lights on the buildings gradually replaced the fading twilight. The air was still and warm and thousands of others were out enjoying the unseasonably warm conditions. It was a magical way to end our 7 glorious weeks in France. Tomorrow we will be catching the high speed Thalys Train to Amsterdam to begin the final stage of our odyssey.

Day 65 In Which we say Au Revoir to the City of Light and Hello to the City of Bikes

It’s now been almost 10 weeks since I left Australia, and Maggie and I are nearing the final stages of our 2015 European Adventure. It is common at this stage of any trip to have a variety of emotions flowing through your system. On one hand you start to really crave the security and familiarity of your own bed and bathroom, and to see your family again. On the other is the inevitable feeling of regret that accompanies the approaching termination of something that you have been working on for the past two years. We will both be filled with such a huge collection of wonderful memories that I am sure that it will take quite some time for us to settle back down to our “everyday lives” again.

On our final morning in Paris we woke early (in fact neither of us slept much at all). I had to admit that, although we will be sad to leave Paris, we will not be sorry to see the last of our Middle Earth hobbit hole of an apartment. It certainly was in a brilliant location, within a couple of minutes walk from the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay. It was in a Left Bank precinct that is filled with art galleries and hugely expensive antique furniture shops. The front entrance looked inviting enough but it was once you walked past the first couple of doors that the real character of the place became apparent.

Over the previous four days we had learnt that there was one section of the corridor where you had to stop breathing if you wanted to avoid filling your nostrils with a strong smell of wet wood and decay. Then you had to negotiate the narrow wobbly staircase to get to the front door. Then insert the key, turn it around half a dozen times and hope that the door unlocks. Welcome to Hobbit Heaven.

Well the first room wasn’t so bad. It was of a reasonable size by Paris standards and it didn’t look really awful. Well actually it didn’t look like much at all because almost all of the lights did not work. We managed to get by with the flickering output from a single bulb of about 40 W. The bed was clean (or we think it was, since it was hard to see it properly). The only trouble was that it was made up of two beds that were pushed together. This meant that we kept rolling to the centre and falling into the yawning abyss. The doona was so hot that, if you slept under it, you soon felt like you were in the middle of a Bangkok summer heat wave. On the other hand, if you threw it off, you soon froze. The only option was to to keep alternating between on and off.

From the bedroom a narrow hall led to the “kitchen and bathroom”. Here the ceiling height dropped to about knee level, forcing us to double over if we wished to navigate it safely without risking concussion and serious bleeding. In these two tiny spaces the lights were also almost all inoperative, adding to the Middle Earth feeling. The bathroom was so small that you had to step out into the hall to turn around and face the other way. The shower was hot but the shower door was about 10 cm too narrow, meaning that every time you had a shower you created a tsunami that flooded out the door and into the kitchen. It probably also dripped through the floor into the art gallery below us. Yes it was an interesting place. We laughed about it a lot and, over the years I have certainly stayed in worse places. It just was not exactly what we had been expecting. Sometimes life is like that.

We quickly got dressed and then wandered out on our final Parisian Promenade. It had been raining most of the night and the streets now glistened like shiny mirrors in the early morning light. They say that Paris always looks best in the rain, and I can understand why. There were a few early morning joggers and cyclists out on the roads, but it was still too early for any traffic on the river. We wandered around and looked down the Seine to the profile of Notre Dame in the distance. Looking the other way we could just make out the top of the Eiffel Tower. At our feet the rain had temporarily obliterated the urine stains on the footpath. in fact the place looked really beautiful. It is always hard to leave this place we had both fallen in love with.

We returned to the apartment, made a strange breakfast out of a mixture of left over oddments and then packed (crammed) our bags the second last time. Soon we were struggling down the creaking staircase and closing the door for the final time. We only had a short walk to the St Germaine Des Pres Metro station where we were going to catch a train to the Gare de Nord. The last time we had taken our luggage on the Metro we had experienced a major malfunction when the auto closing doors ate my luggage. Fortunately this time we escaped unscathed and, two hours later, we were sitting in a first class carriage on the high speed Thalys train to Amsterdam. When I made the booking there was not a huge difference between the ticket prices and we thought it might be nice for once to actually feel a little spoilt. After our experience in Middle Earth, we were glad of this decision.

The GPS told me that we were silently flying along at over 300 kph as the countryside flew past outside the window. Why can’t we build trains like this in Australia ? It really was a comfortable ride and we even got some food and coffee during the ride. After stops at Brussels, Antwerp and Rotterdam, by 4.00 we had reached our final destination of Amsterdam. Neither of us had been here before, and we were keen to see why people talk about this city so fondly.

The first impression we had when we left the Central Station was bikes, bikes, bike and bikes. Bicycles are everywhere. Everywhere you look there is a continuous stream of pedaling travelers, seemingly flying along at breakneck speed. Whenever you try to cross a road there are cyclists coming at you from every direction. To add to the danger there are a few vehicles as well, but many of these are silent electric vehicles, so you cannot hear them coming for you. It really was a strange experience at first and I wondered if this is a glimpse into what all cities will be like in the not too distant future.

Our hotel is a delightful family owned hotel right on the canals and our room looks directly out onto two intersecting canals. It was also clean, we could see around inside, the bathroom was immaculate and the Internet worked brilliantly. It was a fantastic final destination for us. The next bed we sleep in will be in our own home in Pakenham.

Day 66 In Which we Run the Gauntlet in a Two Wheeled Maelstrom

It would be impossible to describe Amsterdam without mentioning the bicycles. Hundreds of thousands of them crowd every road, alleyway and footpath. When they are not being ridden they are chained up to every possible secure anchor point.

It is a startling sight and quite intimidating for the visitor to be thrust into this unfamiliar environment. I read yesterday that there are actually many more bicycles in Amsterdam than there are people. I wondered at first how could this be possible ? Do some of the bikes ride themselves ? Of course there are several reasons for this.

Firstly I suspect that many residents have multiple bikes and keep them chained up at several convenient locations around the city. That way a bike is always close by when they need one.

Secondly it is worth noting the type of bikes that are used here. They are certainly NOT the carbon fibre racers that we see on Beach Rd in Melbourne. Almost all of the bikes here are heavy, steel framed, single speed city bikes, often covered with a liberal layer of rust from being kept outdoors in all types of weather. They usually also have partially flat tyres, a heavy cargo rack for carrying groceries or children (or just about anything else), front and rear mudguards, assorted rattles and squeaks and a massive chain for locking the bike. Actually it is illegal to park an unchained bike in the city.

Judging by the decrepit nature of many of the bikes, I suspect that many are chained up somewhere and then simply forgotten. In this ocean of bikes who would ever have any idea of which ones are ridden regularly and which ones are just castaways?

The riders themselves always wear their everyday clothes. We have not seen a single “lycra wearer” anywhere. They never wear helmets, gloves or high visibility clothes. In fact at night it is apparently compulsory for everyone to dress completely in black, presumably to complement their lack of lights.

Another, apparently compulsory, accessory for every rider is a large smartphone. This should be held in front of your face with both hands (leaving the handlebars free) so that you can update your Facebook status and send a few tweets while you are riding at top speed through a pedestrian walkway.

This love affair with the bicycle has gone back for many decades. Apparently over the years many leaders have proclaimed that the “end of the bicycle” was near, but every one failed. The bikes triumphed and now reign supreme throughout the city. They are here to stay.

The bikes are such an integral part of life in Amsterdam that the law states that, in any altercation between a bike and a motor vehicle, the car driver is always at fault ! This has resulted in a situation where the drivers drive in abject fear of the cyclists while the cyclists ride with a casual indifference, knowing that they are the protected species here. While motorists must obey the normal road rules, the cyclists are free to do basically anything they want – ride the wrong way up one way streets, ride on footpaths, through red lights, fly through intersections without slowing down, etc. In our first hour in this place we had numerous near death experiences where we came perilously close to being skittled by a flying cyclist. It is sort of like being caught in a silent tsunami of potential crazed kamikaze killers, all coming at you from every direction. To the outsider it really does seem like a kind of bike madness.

With all this bike mania, does that mean that Amsterdam is free from problems ? Certainly not. The locals agree that the bikes have gotten a little out of hand, the bike parking is a real problem with thousands of chained bikes clustered alongside every beautiful canal like blowflies around a honeypot. On the other hand the people certainly seem happy and healthy. The regular exercise must be doing them good. It was also very evident that the incidence of smoking in the city was much less than we had seen everywhere in France. Perhaps cycling is a good deterrent to clagging up your lungs with a toxic tar and nicotine cocktail.

Another thing I noticed in this city was the high number of tall men and women. And I am talking really tall men and women. I have never seen so many tall people in the streets, so much so that I began to feel a bit like a midget. Perhaps it was due to the time that we had recently spent in our Parisian Hobbit Hole, that we both now felt like two Lilliputians surrounded by a nation of Gullivers. Maybe the constant cycling and breathing fresh air, instead of tobacco smoke, makes the Dutch kids grow taller than the rest of the European kids.

It is also worth noting that, unlike in France, here almost everyone speaks perfect English. In fact many of the younger ones have obviously spoken so much English that they don’t even have a discernible accent. When you turn on the TV around half of the channels are in English. They don’t use the dreadful dubbed voiceovers that are used on every French movie and TV show. This must give the youth a huge advantage when it comes to communication, international travel and seeking job opportunities, when compared to the French.

Another obvious difference between Amsterdam and Paris is the absence of urine stains and dog poo on the footpaths. In fact the footpaths looked pristine compared with the veritable minefields of Paris. We were glad that we were able to walk without having to jump and dodge over foul booby traps every couple of metres.

I had considered going to visit the Anne Frank Museum, which is only 10 minutes walk from our hotel, however when I found that the queue stretched right around the block I quickly lost interest. I was certainly not going to waste half of my day lined up with hundreds of camera toting tourists, just to have a look inside. I was also disappointed to see that the entire site had been developed into a full tourist mecca, complete with huge kiosk. There are many other things to see in this city without first having to wait hours for the privilege. We set off to wander the city and see what unexpected discoveries we might make. We even bumped into Johnny Depp (but that’s another story).

Finally I would like to make a comment on the style of houses you find here in Amsterdam. All of the numerous canals are closely lined on both sides by a continuous collection of multi storied buildings. Almost all of these are constructed of brick and vary from 4 to 7 stories tall. Because of the unstable foundations, it is also common to see many of them titling at quite alarming angles as they gradually subside into the wet mud. Inside the buildings you find narrow staircases that rise at a vertiginous angle. Each time we climb to our hotel room it is almost like walking up a ladder. I have become paranoid about one (or both) of us taking a tumble and joining the growing list of Ghostriders with broken legs.

Because it would be physically impossible to get any item of furniture up such a staircase, every building is equipped with a protruding girder and hook at the highest point. This enables the owners to lift any large items with a block and tackle and then maneuver them inside through an upper story window. I have included some images of buildings with these anchor points.

After a full day of walking, the sun sank below the horizon and we gazed at the dozens of bright jet trails that crisscrossed the dusk skies. This is a phenomenon we do not see in Australia and it never ceases to fascinate me when I am in Europe.

A little later again we watched the almost full moon rise above the roofs of the houses on the opposite side of the canal. The last time we had seen the full moon was near the end of our France ride at Le Croisic. This was another reminder that our trip was inevitably drawing to a close.

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Day 67 In Which we Escape with our Lives (but our nerves are shot)

Anyone planning to walk around Amsterdam would be well advised to first practise a few exclamations. Goodness knows that, in the course of any 30 minute walk, you will be likely to use almost all of them. I have listed some of the most common ones below:

Look Out on your right
Look Out on your left
Look Out, they’re coming at us from both sides
That swine almost skittled me
That swine skittled me
Where did he (she) come from ?
I didn’t see that one at all
I’m going to die
This is absurd
They’re everywhere, I can’t take it anymore
They just ran over my foot
He only missed me by a millimetre
He must have been riding at 40 kph
He was an old guy and he was still a maniac
What the ?
My nerves are shot
Now can we get back to our hotel ?

Since this was to be our last full day in Amsterdam we wanted to spend the time doing something away from the masses. For that reason we headed away from the centre of the city to a large public park called the Vondelpark. This is a sprawling 45 hectare parkland situated about 2 km from our hotel. It sounded like a good place to escape the bicycle menace for a couple of hours.

The weather had also excelled itself by providing yet another beautiful clear and mild day. We had expected that, at this late stage of the season, it would have been rather bitter. Although the thick carpet of fallen leaves spoke of the nearness of winter, the warm sunshine almost made it feel like springtime.

On the way to the park we had several more near death experiences and also witnessed a crash between two cyclists at an intersection. Both seemed adamant that they had right of way (whatever that means here) and spent some time exchanging heated words after they had dragged themselves and their bikes back up off the bitumen. They were both able to continue on their ways, but the outcome could easily have been worse. It was just as well that neither of them hit their unprotected heads on the road. I suspect that these sort of collisions must be a common occurrence in such a hectic cycling scene.

The park itself was delightful with lots of open spaces, lakes and huge trees. We found a quiet coffee shop and sat down to enjoy a cup of coffee and some good Dutch apple cake. After the park we headed back towards the centre of the city for the final time. We had heard that the Rijksmuseum was a pretty special place to visit, so we thought we might be prepared to give it a go. As we approached the museum the huge crowds of noisy tourists, shouting tour guides and proliferation of selfie sticks was enough to make us have second thoughts. I don’t care how good the museum might be, but we were just not prepared to endure the crowds. I longed for the quiet back roads that we loved so much on our France ride. I guess I am just not a city person. That probably explains why I only go to central Melbourne about 2 or 3 times a year, and as soon as I am there, I can’t wait to escape back to my own personal sanctuary again.

We turned our backs on the Museum and also on the nearby Van Gogh Museum as well. I wondered if there was somewhere nearby where it wouldn’t be so crowded. As it turned out there was, and what’s more, it was FREE. We found ourselves in the impressive headquarters of Coster Diamonds and spent the next hour fascinated by the work of the diamond cutters and jewelry makers. I had heard that Amsterdam is renowned for the skill of the diamond cutters and now we could see why. I wondered how you ever acquired this sort of skill, after all you could not entrust a million dollar diamond to a first year apprentice.

The workers were handling diamonds so small we could barely see them and it was mesmerising to see how a complex diamond earring slowly took shape before our eyes. Each small movement could potentially destroy a valuable gem. I wondered what they told their wives when they came home after a bad day. “Today I shattered a $10,000,000 diamond, the company wants to take it out of my wages”. It would also have been so easy for a tiny diamond to fall onto the floor and bounce into some unseen hiding hole.

Connected to the cutting rooms were a series of showrooms where the rich and famous could indulge themselves on priceless diamonds, unbelievably expensive watches and other equally pointless rubbish. It was interesting, but we left shaking our heads and wondering what was the real point behind all the show and pretense.

We both felt like something easy for lunch and ended up at the KFC store in the Centrum. It was the first KFC we had seen since leaving Melbourne and I had to admit that it did taste finger licking good. A final long and meandering walk back to our hotel completed our final day.

As we walked we again dodged bikes and marveled at some of the crooked buildings we were passing along the way. In some case the entire building had slumped forward towards the canal, and in other cases the two sides of the building had moved in opposite directions. The result was an amazing collection of higgledy piggledy buildings unlike any I had seen anywhere else in the world. I am not sure what it would have been like to live in some of these crooked homes and I am sure that they would have been condemned in Melbourne. In Amsterdam they are apparently embraced as part of their history.

Tonight we pack our bags for the last time as we prepare for that long, long journey back home.

The next time you hear from us we will be back in Melbourne.

Day 68 In Which we Start the Long Journey Home

In a couple of hours we begin the long journey back to Melbourne. We sat at the breakfast table and gazed out at the quiet Saturday morning streets of Amsterdam and thought back over the past 10 incredible weeks. In the clear early morning skies the jets were already painting their glistening vapour trails like some sort of giant naughts and crosses game on a blue blackboard. Soon our plane will be painting its own trail eastwards from Amsterdam to Hong Kong.

This is the part that no Aussie traveler looks forward to. There is no escaping the fact that Melbourne really is a long way from just about everywhere and this is reemphasized every time I make a trip to Europe. It’s not easy being cramped up in a flying sardine can for around 24 hours, hoping that the person in front will have enough compassion NOT to recline their seat as soon as they board the plane. It’s not easy trying to grab a couple of hours sleep while worrying if that strange feeling in your right leg is some sort of insidious blood clot forming. It’s not easy trying to swallow a meal of bland airline food, at the same time as trying to make sure that the plastic knife doesn’t fall off your tiny table and bounce under the seat in front. And how do I always seem to manage to take home a sample of every meal on the front of my shirt ?

By the same token, within a couple of days the flights are forgotten, but the memories linger for a lifetime. Whenever we meet with the same familiar faces we shared so many happy times with, the laughs and recollections always flow freely. This has been an exceptional trip in so many respects. Although we did have the slight misfortune of two broken legs occurring, I cannot recall any previous trip where we laughed just so damn much. I am sure that this was due to the fantastic group  of people we were fortunate enough to have shared the experiences with. Although our next European Adventure is almost twelve months away, I am already counting down the days till I again squeeze into another economy class seat to do it all over again.

Thanks to those also who have shared our journey from Australia and other places around the world via this blog. I have appreciated the many emails and other messages that you have sent me. It has been a pleasure to share something of our experiences with you. I just hope that my simple words have conveyed some idea of what we actually did and saw. We look forward to catching up with you in person in the near future.

Days 69 and 70 In Which we Circle the Planet and Reach Home

Although we had arrived in Amsterdam with no clear idea of what to expect, in the space of the past three days we had quickly settled in and we both felt a growing fondness for the place. Unlike huge cities like London or Paris, Amsterdam is small and compact enough to enable visitors to quickly get their bearings and feel at home wandering the network of canals and narrow roads. The biggest challenge we experienced was in coping with the sea of bicycles that continually move about the city like corpuscles in some giant bloodstream.

At first we felt that, whenever we ventured beyond the front door of our hotel, we were being targeted by a thousand crazed riders intent on driving us into the nearest canal. However it is amazing how quickly people can adjust to their surroundings and, after a couple of days of dodging two wheeled suicidal cyclists, we were starting to grow in confidence. We discovered that the best approach is simply to walk straight across the flow of bikes and let the bikes just make their way around you. It is only when you hesitate that you sow uncertainty, and increase the chance of becoming another statistic.

The amazing tilting houses that crowd along every canal are really quite enchanting. Although many looked like they were on the verge of collapse, we never actually saw any fall over while we were there. We were glad that we will be returning to this city in less that 12 months time to begin our 2016 European Odyssey Ride across Europe.

On the morning of our departure we faced the daunting task of cramming our bags for the final time, hoping that the zippers would not give up at the most critical time. We almost succeeded in getting everything into the bags, but unfortunately there were a few items that had to remain behind. I emptied my pockets of loose change and found a handful of copper coins (they still make coins with a value of 1 Euro cent). Since the sum total was less than about 50 Euro cents worth, I left the entire pile on the desk as a gift to the housekeeper.

The next task was to manhandle our bulging bags back down the almost vertical staircase without either of us getting flattened in the process.  We were very relieved when our bags were safely at the bottom and we were ready to go. I had already ordered a taxi to take us to the airport and was a little surprised when it arrived about 15 minutes early. Since it was still relatively early on a Saturday morning, the streets were quieter than usual and our black BMW taxi was able to make quite good progress. It would have seemed even quicker if the driver did not have the unpleasant habit of sniffing back a nostril full snot every couple of minutes. I felt like offering him my handkerchief, but didn’t.

We arrived at the Schipol Airport about 25 minutes later and collected our bags from the boot of the taxi. I asked the driver how much our fare was  and received the reply “Forty six Euros”. Since we already knew that the maximum fare from Amsterdam to the airport is capped at 35 Euros, I questioned the driver again.

“Surely you mean 35 Euros ?”, I asked

“Oh yes, 35 Euros”, he replied. He appeared a little embarrassed that his attempted scam did not work. I suppose that is why he was driving a fancy BMW and not a Skoda like most of the other taxi drivers in the city. Handing over the 35 Euros (he lost his tip when he tried to cheat us), we made our made to International Departures. We were the first to arrive at the Cathay Pacific desk and were able to check in without any waiting. Maggie had been harbouring the unlikely hope that we might have been offered an upgrade on the flight, however these are about as likely as being invited to have breakfast at Buckingham Castle with the Queen.

There is no escaping the fact that it is a LONG way from Melbourne to Europe and, every time I squeeze myself into another economy seat, I am reminded just how long it really is. At least the passenger in front did not recline their seat so I was able to have the relative luxury of around 10 cm of legroom to cram my legs into. The plane began the first leg of the journey from Amsterdam to Hong Kong while we watched the flight tracker slowly trace our route across the globe. I was interested to see that we first headed north and then started a wide northerly route across the length of Russia, before finally turning south and crossing the length of China. We arrived in Hong Kong about 12 hours later, but it certainly felt like 12 days. My legs were numb (and so was my bum) when I tried to get out of my seat. We now had a three and a half hour transit before the second leg to Melbourne. Since our flight was delayed, it turned into four and a half hours. More of my life that I will never get back.

Finally we squeezed into another couple of diminutive seats and prepared for the next 9 hours by swallowing a couple of aspirin. Some claim that it reduces your chance of DVTs, I was just hoping that it might help me get some sleep. I would rather not talk about what happened during those long hours, but it did involve a couple of forgettable movies, a couple of pretty terrible meals and a few minutes sleep. Finally we touched down at Tullamarine and we were home (well almost).

Since our flight arrived at almost midnight on Sunday evening I had arranged for a shuttle bus to take us back to our home in Pakenham. We quickly cleared immigration, collected our luggage and made our way to the meeting area for the bus. A few minutes later the bus arrived and we joined about 10 others who were also eager to get to their homes. We sat in the bus waiting but the driver explained that he was waiting for the final passenger to get on. And where was this elusive final passenger ? She was sitting in the adjacent bus shelter having a smoke. The entire busload had to wait while she finished her nicotine hit.

When she finally boarded the bus she calmly looked at the waiting passenger and said “Oh, I didn’t know you were waiting”. I bit my tongue while Maggie elbowed me in the side to keep me quiet. The tardy passenger was a middle aged woman with huge painted fingernails and a ring on every finger. The toxic smell from her recent cigarette followed her into the bus and stuck in my nostrils. I just wanted to get home, but more was yet to come.

Although all the other passengers had paid in advance, the smoking lady apparently had not. The driver asked for her fare. She looked surprised and asked him to drive her to an ATM machine. Not just any ATM, but it “had to be a Westpac”, otherwise she would have had to pay an extra $2. I was impressed at the driver’s patience and surprised that he did not immediately offload her and her luggage back onto the road.

While we commenced our journey to the Eastern suburbs, the new passenger immediately started up a long and loud phone conversation with someone. We heard far more of her life story that any of us wanted to hear. When her phone call finally ended she looked at her phone and asked the driver if he could charge it for her. He would have been quite within his rights to throw it out his window, but he fumbled through his leads and plugged it in for her.

Some time later it was just the smoker, Maggie and me on the bus. As we neared her house the driver spotted a petrol station with an ATM and drove into it. At first she complained that it was not a Westpac, but this time the driver was adamant. She climbed out and walked into the office. When she had not returned some ten minutes later, we were all getting ready to strangle her. We looked out the window and saw that she had been stocking up on her groceries while she was in the shop. This was getting ridiculous.

She finally emerged with a bag of purchases under her arm, paid the driver and explained where her house was. We arrived a few minutes later and discovered that it was a block of units. The driver was about to stop outside in the street, but the smoker instructed “You will need to drive down the drive to my front door”. For some reason he did that and then had to reverse out the entire length of the drive. I was just glad to see her go.

About 30 minutes later Maggie and I were standing outside our own front door. It was about 1.30 am in the morning, the streets were deserted and everything looked quite different to the way it had looked 10 weeks ago when our journey started. We fumbled to put the key into the lock and open the door, almost feeling like we were entering someone else’s house. It was only when our bags were safely inside and the door was shut behind that we looked around and realised, yes we were home. After something like 35 different hotels in 35 cities we would soon be back in our own bed – and that is always something very special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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