Venice, Sep '12

It's kind of a 'must see' city in Italy so off we went for a quick couple of days in Venice. This involved lots and lots of walking around, and personally, being rather amazed at how the place survives as it does.

It's a crazy, crazy place, that feels almost unreal at times, or like a theme park. Until you realise that this place is real and it's what a lot of places are actually themed on! I think the feeling comes from narrow streets that might as easily be corridors in a mall. Combined with shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. at every turn - well, around the 'main' sights at least. Just like the planners in any modern development, every last inch of space is at a premium and appears to have been utilised.

There's not much more to say that the pictures don't convey. Enjoy!

As a side issue I should add that there seem to be a lot more people milling around than when I was last here (also in the off season in 1997) - tourism must certainly be on the rise!

Italian Mountains & Lakes, Sep '12

Working our way South through The Alps we eventually arrived in Italy. Coming from Switzerland via the Umbrail pass - goodbye Switzerland - sob!

This would be the last 'warm' mountains stop for this trip (hopefully we'll be back for some skiing) and started in Bormio, on one side of the famed Stelvio Pass - I think everyone should be able to guess why we're here!

In addition to a couple of visits to the Stelvio (in the car and on the bike) it was very nice to visit other areas in the mountains and explore on foot as the temperature dropped - what with it being easier to wear many layers while hiking than while pounding the pedals.

Last hurrah on the bike done (did I mention the Stelvio enough?) and first snow of the season touched, back to some warmth by the Italian lakes: Como & Garda and somewhere in between for a chance to spectate at the final cycling classic of the season (see Il Lombardia 2012).

Stunning scenary in this area of course and very, very enjoyable. Things were beginning to get a little chilly by the time came to move on, but all in all, September does seem an excellent time to be here.

Lavin, Sep '12

Another few days in Switzerland, and what a great spot Lavin turned out to be. Chosen at random on the route through the mountains, for no other reason that it was around half way to the next stop in Italy, this really was a find.

The valley here is beautiful and some nice passes to cycle up one day, and forested areas to walk in the next.

Then, as seems to be the case for our time in Switzerland, it was all over far too quickly and time to move on. Sigh...

Liechtenstein, Sep '12

Well - it's a different country so get's a separate page, but this was just a very, very brief look around the capital (Vaduz) out of curiosity more than anything else.

We were passing by and due to not being listed on the international vehicle insurance decided to park just over the border and stroll across into Vaduz. Hardly a chore in the sunshine that we found perpetually shines on Liechtenstein wink

The place is claimed to have the highest GDP per capita in the world (when adjusted by purchasing power parity) and lowest unemployment rate in the world aside from Monaco. All this should add up to a very nice, clean interesting place to visit. However, it struck me more like how walking into the home of a very rich, but very distant relative or friend would be: everything was spotless, but, like the games room, office, home cinema, wine cellar, etc. at the home you've visited would be, most of Vaduz seemed to be locked up and not for public eyes. This seemed a shame, because I'm sure there are some gems here to see if only one knew where to look.

Oh well - at least they had left some more durable objets d'art in what appeared to be the main street for us commoners to be... erm... slightly confused by wink

Eurobike 2012

Most wouldn't believe this was a coincidence, but a week before we moved on to Lake Constance I discovered that the EUROBIKE show was to be hosted in Friedrichshafen, which happened to be just a few kilometres down the road from accommodation that was booked up long ago.

Well - I think we all know how much I like bikes so what was to be done? An early morning depart from the previous week's accommodation in the Black Forest and leisurely drive saw us pulling into a very busy 'overflow' type car park mid-morning. All very efficient, as is the German style of course, saw a quick shuttle to the show and we were in.

We spent about six hours here wondering around, with a short lunch break - amusing in itself as we shared a table with a very nice local couple who when finished were instantly replaced with a couple of local lads looking for MTB gear. Then we left and they got someone new to talk to. It was like a revolving interview table - very social.

It has to be said that six hours is either no-where near enough time or way too much, depending on who you ask. Clearly I think the former but Pratiwi, after being very patient all day will probably say otherwise wink

Either way - it had to be done. Not sure I would plan a special trip for this, but being in the neighbourhood made that decision easy.

Black Forest & Lake Constance, Aug/Sep '12

Back in Germany for a couple of weeks. Where to go? Where to go?

Well, actually, the Black Forest was a request from Pratiwi. Hmmmmm... suspicious of the cake they make there being an influencing factor wink But to be fair, the whole countryside, rolling hills and stuff also proved a treat. Lake Constance was my idea, chosen completely at random - you can't go far wrong with a lake though.

Very nice all round, but getting a bit chilly at altitude (the Black Forest even has some ski lifts!).

The keen observer might also notice a guest appearance for a couple of days here. Thanks for coming! smile

Switzerland, Aug '12

Switzerland: I'd been here before (many years ago) and Pratiwi had seen the pictures. Perhaps this was the most eagerly anticipated leg of the summer? It didn't disappoint either: Switzerland is just stunningly beautiful in the countryside and very clean and efficient in the cities. What's not to love?

We briefly caught up with old friends in Zurich before heading for the hills. Verbier & Interlaken to be precise.

The only downside to this country is the cost of living. Wow! This is why we brought the tent! After sharing a pretty cramped, but as it turned out enjoyable random time in Verbier there was an amazing five days of camping in Interlaken. Would you believe that we have stayed at hotels (really comfortable ones too) in France that are cheaper than the cost of camping here?!

This being the mountains there were also some very stormy nights, but better rain when you are sleeping, eh?

Stunning views both when cycling and hiking. Couldn't have asked for more from this all to brief stay.

Germany & Austria, Jul/Aug '12

Hmmmmm... how does one get from Holland to Austria in ten days or so? This was close to the schedule on what was a completely unplanned part of our European jaunt.

To be honest, I don't like not having plans so it was a little 'stressful' (if being on holiday can be such) having to make an impromptu plan to get across Germany for a rendezvous in Hallstatt - a destination that was on our 'must see' list all the way.

How much easier things are with holiday planning in the modern day though. A few quick searches and it was settled - we would just take a drive South along the 'Romantic Road' which would conveniently end in the Bavarian Alps from where Austria could be entered.

This turned out to be a wonderful plan and many great sights were seen and experienced along the way.

Moving on, a few more random locations in the mountains proved even better! We absolutely love the mountains, but Pratiwi loved the rolling hills around Reit im Winkl even more (great for more gentle riding). The no-nonsense German cuisine was also very welcome. Although I'm sure the French and Italian wouldn't call it that, we found the food on this leg tasty, simple and filling - what more does one really need?

Belgium, Holland, Jul '12

Sadly this part of our jaunt through Europe was poorly planned so only had a couple of days to have a very quick look at Belgium and Holland.

I have to say, had forgotten how pleasant it was here. Although also rather cold (well - compared to the Southern climbs we've become used to) and all too flat.

Next time will have to stay longer, but for now...

Tour de France 2012 - Stage 20

We weren't really planning on seeing the finale of this year's race in Paris, but...

Circumstances conspired to place us in Paris this weekend so it really would have been very silly to miss the finish. However, I had heard lots of bad stories about the crowds and was a bit apprehensive. To be honest you have to expect this and things weren't really that bad.

What I will say though, is because of the number of people who obviously flock to the circuit around the Champs-Elysees and Jardin des Tuileries the police have to be very strict. This, combined with some poor barrier placement, makes it harder to see and feel close to the race as we had at all the other stages.

Just one example of this: the road between Jardin des Tuileries and the Seine is between three and five lanes wide along it's length. Every stage elsewhere, even sprint finishes, manage just fine with two lanes. This means that the organisers really could have taken at least one lane of the road for the crowd. They didn't do this though, which left barriers placed along a line of trees meaning it was next to impossible to look down the road and see the race coming (all one could see was the trees). Doh!

That said, this day wasn't about getting close to the action or taking any technically perfect pictures (not that I've managed that so far am sure!)... it was just about being in the crowd and soaking up the atmosphere. This, I think, we managed just fine smile

Tour de France 2012 - Stage 19

This was the final time trial from Bonneval to Chartres.

Having had a brilliant time at the first time trial we decided to swing by the course of the final day of GC competition for another look. This course was flat as a pancake so there really wasn't much choice on position. That said, picked somewhere close to a junction with a major road (for access) where I thought there might be at least a couple of corners to provide a bit of variety.

This could have been a good move as was amazed at how easy this was to access - drove to within 100m of the course without seeing any kind of congestion. Once parked up we walked with picnic gear to a field on the side of the road and setup 'camp' for the afternoon. In another feat of amazement it was within minutes of sitting down here that riders started to come by and we managed to see every single one of them. Has to be said - the timing though was very much due to luck rather than judgement having seen contradicting reports on when riders would be on course (third party information turned out to be correct, rather than that dished out by the official TdF website!).

With such a long time on course was great as was able to mess about and experiment somewhat with taking pictures, only reverting to 'tried and tested' shots for those guys I really didn't want to miss. Think quite a few of these worked out pretty well - got to be happy with that. No barriers on course was very handy and spent a lot of time walking up and down to different nearby vantage points or sitting on the kerb as carbon discs wooshed by incredibly closely.

After Wiggo came by in yellow it was also a breeze to leave and head off to our destination for the night (meeting friends in Paris). Traffic was a tiny bit slow on this end of the day, but nothing compared to the slow haul into the French Capital!

Tour de France 2012 - Stage 12

This was pretty much the only 'normal' stage we visited, from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay Davézieux.

Having been on the mountain top finish the day before we decided not to worry about getting to one of the two early climbs on this stage (would have meant another crazy early start I just wasn't up for) and instead pick a random place on the flatter route beyond these, close to that we would be driving anyway. It just so happened that the feed zone was a match with such a random place so positioned ourselves a little bit after hoping to grab some discarded team memorabilia.

Or that was the plan... wink

As it happened where we parked was in the feed zone but the only inkling of that was when team cars started to pull into gaps between spectators and hang musettes from their vehicles in preparation for something or other. By the time we actually figured this out for sure it was too late to move on. To be honest, I blame the crazy (but friendly) Aussies I chatted to on the climb the day before - we saw them parked up (one cannot miss this camper!) and figured they must be old hands at this and be in the right place... doh! wink

Never mind though - it was pretty interesting to witness the feeding as it were and we managed to collect just one bidon (along with the usual caravan cast offs - mainly St Michel madeleines - yum!) while having a rustle through a musette a fellow fan had grabbed.

Tour de France 2012 - Stage 11

From Albertville to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, this was a rare treat this year - a mountain top finish!

We had snapped up some tickets to the VIP area in La Toussuire which came along with a car pass, meaning we could drive up to the finish... and inevitably sit in hours of traffic coming back down again - but that is a price I knew we would always have to pay.

As a bonus we got to drop round to the Départ on the way and was interesting to see how much action was taking place despite it being many hours until the stage would get underway.

Moving on to the drive up to La Toussuire. This was a great experience in itself. Many fans had already lined the route and many cyclists were slogging uphill (invariably with a baguette sticking out of some pocket or bag) to find their place to cheer on the stars. It was a really great, festival like atmosphere going on and driving up through this (stopping for a chat with a couple of groups of Aussies and Brits) was almost as memorable as what was to come.

At the finish, after a short stroll around we found the allocated area and joined in the wait. Very pleasant and seems GreenEdge had been busy making sure as many Aussies infiltrated this area as possible wink Good on you guys! grin

I think it took us around three hours to roll (yes - engine off pretty much all the way) back down but so what? All part of seeing such an event live.

Tour de France 2012 - Stage 9

This was the individual time trial from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon, and what a big day out it was for us!

Everyone had said that the climb would be the place to see riders at their best, and having done a recon the day before was inclined to agree. That said, this is a time trial and riders would be zipping over the course all day so figured there was a chance to see a bit of everything. The night before I prepared a list of GC riders, calculated their start times and made a plan which worked out pretty well.

It was a very early start to the day from our hotel 30 minutes drive or so from the Départ, but this was rewarded with an easy park around 8am only a few minutes walk from all the action - something that came in handy when we returned to the car to move on another position on course.

We were also very fortunate to score some tickets to a VIP area on the final corner (actually part of why we needed to be here early - to collect these) so that would be our last stop of the day, after the start and that hill.

It has to be said, whilst it was great to see the start and then the finale of main GC riders coming in from a VIP area (think air-con and complimentary drinks and ice creams on a hot day) at the finish, the highlight had to be sitting on the major climb on this course.

To be honest I was absolutely amazed that after spending a good deal of the time watching riders start that we were able to drive to basically the centre of Quingey and once again park just a few minutes walk from where we wanted to be - the 14% section of that climb. Here we sat on the verge of the road - for over an hour - while every two minutes or so another competitor surged, or sometimes grimaced, or in the case of Henderson, grinned their way up the road. To be so close (literally 1m or so away) to such stars travelling at (for them) such relatively slow speed was fantastic. The noise of carbon disc wheels whooshing by again and again a real enduring memory.

France, Jul '12

After four months of relative stability came our chance to be more normal tourists. If the locations visited here seem a little random that's because we managed to visit several stages of the Tour de France during this time... although each stage has it's own page (Stage 9, Stage 11, Stage 12, Stage 19 and Stage 20) due to the number of pictures there.

So, here's that stuff between tour stages and then some time spent in France after the finale in Paris.

The general route was... pre-tour: La Coquille (Dordogne), Murol (Puy-de-Dôme - where the cycling is very nice, definitely worth a look if you're passing by), Bourbon-Lancy (Saône-et-Loire). We visited Dole (Jura) & Aigueblanche (Savoie) to check out the first time trial stage and some mountains. Then veering away from the tour and on to Montmelard (Saône-et-Loire), Contres(Loir-et-Cher) before meeting back up again in Paris for the final stage.

It's nice to say that in pretty much every area we visit there was always something interesting to see and plenty of walking or cycling to be had... although in the Loire valley I really didn't enjoy the flat roads even though it's all good training.

After Paris it was back to Orleans then over to Brittany, on both occasions to catch up with family or friends then an overnight stay in Arras (Pas-de-Calais) before we say, "Au revoir France!" (after five months here) and head on North to Belgium.

Orincles (French Pyrenees), May/June '12

This is the last 'living in France' part of our trip and brings us to the stunning Pyrenees region. Such a change from the previous two locations with lush greenery everywhere - forests and fields alike. No sign of Mediterranean style vines or olives in the fields and no wild scrub. It's rich pasture and other green crops mingled between forest on the rolling hills.

This entry is labelled with 'Orincles' not because we were in that village, but as it is the closest place on the map to the accommodation - the wonderful Pyrenees Pursuits. Although this is only in the foothills the riding can be brutal (15% plus climbs just down the road) but of course that's why we (sorry, I) - am here wink

It is a little telling that this was the first time in the trip I felt the need to drive somewhere to start off a ride - the geography of the steep valleys and mountains just does not lend itself to being able to head off in any direction and form many different loops. Don't get me wrong - there's plenty of varied riding on the doorstep, but if you are limited with time on the bike then driving to the famous climbs was the way to go. Yes... the climbs... wasn't that worried about these after Ventoux but one still has to take care - coming into summer it was very nice to get a little warmth but that heat was vicious on a couple of days. Add to that the effort to string a few cat ones or a couple of HC climbs together and it can get a bit tough. Pretty pleased with how this all went though, and here's what I managed (in no particular order)...

Col d'Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin, La Hourquette d'Ancizan, Col d'Azet, Col de Peyresourde, Col de Spandelles, Col du Soulor, Luz Ardiden, Hautacam & Col du Tramassel. Phew! smile

In between all this we managed a few more standard tourist activities and also some amazing walking which was also highly recommended.

Really, really beautiful place and quite sad to be moving on. We must return!

Giro d'Italia 2012

The beauty of Europe... a side trip over the border into Italy to catch a couple of stages of the Giro d'Italia. The plan was to be on the home straight into Cervere for the sprint that was sure to end stage 13 then visit the depart of stage 14 in Cherasco. Bonus features that came by chance were the amazing views en route in the Ubaye valley and the dinner we had in Borolo which was just down the road from the stages planned.

For what it's worth, the drive, around 630km round trip, can be compared to popping down to Canberra from Sydney's North Shore. Well - minus the mountain range on the way. Yes, Europe is small... or is it Australia that is big? wink

Amazingly things went pretty smoothly, plus a few bits of very good luck thrown in made the trip.

Mind you, it didn't look that things would be so easy when we came across the first road block about 20km from Cervere. Not a good sign! But, a few tricky turns here and there and some messing with the sat. nav. found us parking up maybe 500m from the finishing straight with plenty of time to spare. This is all after an 8am departure from Faucon in France of course.

After walking around a bit we took up a spot for this stage on the barriers around 150m from the finish line, with a good view of the big screen. Interestingly that screen was needed to watch to run in to the straight, and as once the riders blasted by (just an amazing blur!) it was very hard to see what was going on down the road!

We were very lucky the next morning for the start in Cherasco, finding a parking spot literally meters from the road block into the town centre. A couple of hours before depart we were expecting to find the road closed long before this point and have to park up at the bottom of the steep hill into town (it's a medieval place with cramped streets built top of said hill) and walk up. Incredibly though this didn't happen and the luck with parking very close came about.

Took in a few sights and such of the build up before grabbing a spot in the on and off sunshine in the 'tunnel' riders have to navigate to sign on. Barely a metre wide on a cobbled street with cheering fans either side this must feel like a mission in itself for some, especially those still sleepy or feeling the pain of the race so far.

Great stuff though - again able to get so close to stars like Cavendish that one could pat the world champ on the back in all the madness!

Faucon (Provence), Apr/May '12

Part two of our South of France trip saw us arriving in an unseasonably cold Provence and looking out of the gite window at rolling fields of vines on to the looming mass of Mont Ventoux.

Another wonderful home from home with a little log burning stove for heating which got a good workout for a couple of weeks until the sun decided to shine. Not that the weather would stop the riding, maybe just delay the inevitable assault on Ventoux - the headline of this stay of course.

Aside from the cycling, which is truly amazing in this part of the world (many cols and valleys to explore aside from the main event of Ventoux) we really enjoyed a lot more relaxation and the chance to discover numerous gems here in Provence.

The astute viewer will notice that Pratiwi & I were joined by her sister for a short part of the time here which made the stay even more enjoyable.

Paris-Nice 2012

Being in France, less than two hours drive from a couple of stages of the Paris-Nice 'race to the sun', and being keen cycling fans what is one to do?

We drove to Mende one afternoon to catch the end of the stage into that town, then the following morning headed over to Suze-la-Rousse for the start the following day.

Sadly our plans to catch the finish on that first day were scuttled by a closed road but we still managed to catch an all-to-brief sight of riders at the final sprint point 3km from the finish before running into the cafe right next door to see the action unfold up the final climb.

Catching the start of the following stage was, I think, much more interesting and impressive. As well as being able to get up close and personal with the teams and equipment bonus points were awarded for an encounter or two with some of our favorite riders. We then got to watch the neutralised peloton leave behind the race referee. A great day - the start of a stage race is highly recommended from this experience!

Anduze, Mar/Apr '12

The first real part of our trip to discover the South of France, Chez Wills in Anduze became our home for 6 weeks.

Firstly, what a beautiful little gite this is - everything one could need. A nice walking route and so many amazing cycle friendly roads at the doorstep.

We mostly spent this time relaxing and enjoying the sun when it shone by eating outside and enjoying the wonderful views from the patio. Not only of the surrounding hills, but also the garden meticulously maintained by our host with a varied selection of lawns, orchard, flowering plants and trees.

It has to be said that March and April can still be a chilly time in this area though, but the temperature never stopped us from cycling or doing other things when we liked.

The gite was so nice thought, those 'other things' (cycling aside) didn't happen that often. However, the highlight of any trip to this region must be a hike around Gorge de la Jonte (Corniches du Causse Méjean I believe the route is called) - absolutely stunning. A trip to pretty little town of Nîmes is also highly recommended.

I'm sure our host wouldn't mind it being mentioned, that we also had an insight into how various practicalities work here in France, after all - that was part of the idea of the trip. Let's just say we now have a first hand experience of the interesting ways utilities are provided here! wink