Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

The long and winding road

On our way home Today!





A few more wrap up posts to follow.







Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Final Days

The LTDF came to an end July 27th in Brehement, France, a small town along the Loire. It was clear during the event that front-runner, Rhys Lloyd was a shoe-in for first place but in a surprise move, cruiser Tom Lloyd poured on the steam and with a Herculean push in the final leg between Chinon and Brehement pulled into and held on to the lead position. In a quote that speaks for us all, Tom says, “I just wanted to get off the damn bike”.

Should we plan another cycling event in the future, and may I say at this point the mere thought of a bicycle seat brings shooting pains to my buttocks, but should there come a time when I once again contemplate such a trip, I would advise shorter distances and a shorter overall trip. One week for the undisciplined is plenty. I’d even suggest a day off in between cycling. For example, two days on, one day off. Also, 30 km is pleasant, 40 km is exercise, and anything more is masochistic.

After our two hour bike ride in the morning, it took the rest of the day to reach Paris. We shuttled by van to the train station in the next town where we waited an hour for the train. We then transferred to another train, another one hour layover and arrived in Paris around 5:30pm. From the train station, we caught the Metro and then walked the last few blocks to our hostel. By the time we had checked in to our room it was 7pm. Isn’t it amazing how long travel takes without a car?

We slept in a closet with two bunk beds. It was so small we couldn’t open the door with all four of us standing in the room. It took reshuffling to let someone in or out. I have to say that Paris is not a city for the poor. If you have lots of money to spend, come to Paris. You’ll have a wonderful time in a very romantic city. If you are on a budget, you will see the squalid underside and eat mediocre food, heavy on the fries. We loved the tourist Paris but everything else is a smelly dump. I wouldn’t want to live there.

The next day we caught the Eurostar through the chunnel to London. Our experience in London has been completely different from Paris. Here is another big city but you can still have a great time on a budget. We stayed in a youth hostel the first night and a travel lodge the next night and both were comfortable, if small. The neighbourhoods were clean and pleasant. We had a lovely walk along a canal to the youth hostel.

We were very excited to take the Eurostar but in the end the trip through the chunnel took 20 minutes and was dark. We tried not to think about the ocean liners hundreds of metres over our heads. We were in second class and the seats were not the roomy, spacious ones I had seen advertised in the train museum last August. It was actually quite close compared to other train lines. However, we made very good time between the two cities and had a whole extra day in London because of it.

We wandered Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum, down Whitehall Street to see Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Parliament buildings and the London Eye. We spent several hours inside the British Museum but only wandered the outside of the rest of them. We returned to eat at two of the places we remembered had fabulous food but both disappointed. I guess you can’t go back. The weather was cooperative both days even when it wasn’t supposed to be.

We spent some time feeling sentimental. We began our year here and we end our year here, walking the same fabulous streets and seeing the same wonderful sights. Many have wondered where the time went but I feel I have lived a year. It doesn’t feel like a long year but it doesn’t feel like the blink of an eye, either. It feels like a full experience, like something grand has happened and I was there. Sometimes I feel like the daily life I lead is small and that my efforts to “make a difference” are mundane. Each day has a pattern and they all blend into each other to make a life filled with people, events and settings that create a steady rhythm. It is familiar and pleasant and safe.

This year, I stepped out of that rhythm and created something different. Together, my family and I heard hundreds of different life rhythms, never completely joining in time to any one. It was exciting, exhausting and enriching. There is a beautiful blanket of life out there, woven together. I feel so fortunate to have had this year to experience a bit more of it. I am looking forward to coming home and fitting back into my corner of existence but I know I have an explorer’s heart. The beautiful world calls to me.

Monday, July 25, 2011

LTDF Day Six and Seven

We started the longest ride in the world with beautiful blue sky and sunshine! It wasn’t exactly hot outside but it was dry and the sun could be seen clearly. Our goal was to ride from Loches to Azay-le-Rideau, a distance of 60 km. We figured that at about 10 km/h, it would take us 6 hours of riding time. There were no chateaux to speak of in between so it was 6 hours of solid riding time.

The first 20 k went very smoothly with hardly any effort. We were definitely getting better at the whole ride thing. I had even managed to get into the 2nd crank gear (that’s cyclist talk for “front wheel gear”) and felt pretty good about it. We had shopped for snacks before we left so the baskets were filled with goodies. This proved just too tempting for the children and by the end of the first 20 km, they had eaten most of the snack foods.

After the second 20 km, we felt good and stopped for lunch at a cute little place tucked in behind the City Hall. It is amazing how much more pleasant riding a bike is when one’s underwear is not wet. Forty kilometers is a fair bit of riding and we all felt good, especially after some lunch. Sixty kilometers is a whole different story.

After 50 km, my knees began speaking to me in a very fierce voice with each crank of the pedal. Tom also had decided fifty kilometers was enough and the two of us commiserated as the children seemed to gain speed. At one point, I mentioned how tired I was and Julia replied that we were all tired and then picked up speed and roared off. I did not take this to be a good example of her exhaustion. I kept my spirits up by counting down the kilometers on the roadside markers until we finally arrived in Azay le Rideau. We spent the next few hours recovering in our very comfortable room. We decided we could see the chateau the next day.

Today dawned grey and threatening. We decided to see the Azay chateau first and then begin the day’s outing. The chateau was quite lovely situated on an island in the river. It was built by the King’s financial advisor who had to leave suddenly when the king discovered where the money to build the chateau was coming from. So, the king got the chateau and gave it to someone else he liked more. The 1500’s must have been a real time of construction up and down the valley because it seems like all the chateaux were built right around the same time. Obviously, France was doing well.

We rode to Langeais chateau next and managed to arrive just as the rain began. This one was very well presented with interesting tidbits of information. For example, not many people had furniture before the middle ages. It began from the need for chests. The nobles of the day would travel from home to home to keep control of their land. It was always a good idea to make sure the people working for you knew what you looked like. Because they traveled so much, they needed chests to load up their goods. The chest became a sign of wealth and other furniture was derived from the chest. The chair was a small chest with back support that could be taken apart and reassembled at the next home. The bench was a longer chest with a back. The credenza was a chest with long legs. All of these were designed to store the goods that the nobles moved from house to house.

Langeais was the sight of the marriage of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany. She was only fourteen at the time. Gads. This was such an important moment in Loire Valley history that they had a whole room devoted to wax figures of the key players at the wedding. I guess the French pulled a fast one and scooped up Anne before her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor could be consummated. What really struck me (no pun intended) was that Charles VIII was so short! This is the one who died after hitting his head on the door jamb. What was he doing? Jumping up and down as he went through?

Another curious tidbit we picked up is that in the French deck of cards, David (of Goliath fame) is the King of Spades, Alexander the Great is the King of Clubs, Caesar is the King of Diamonds and Charlemagne is the King of Hearts. It didn’t explain how each one got to represent that particular suit but it was interesting none-the-less.

We stopped for lunch at the nearest grocery store and then headed off for Villandry, the sight of our final chateau of the day. Just before we reached Villandry, the Heavens opened and drenched us quite thoroughly. The saving grace is that it was warm. Ironically, we had cycled to this chateau to see their gardens and not the inside but as we dripped up the front walk, we made a quick decision to see the interior as well. It was a good call because by the time we got back outside, the SUN had come out. We dried off quite quickly and enjoyed a hot, sunny rest of our day.

The gardens were spectacular, with lots of well manicured hedges around brightly coloured groups of flowers. There was a labyrinth which we mastered and many beautiful floral displays. After dawdling in the sunny gardens for as long as it took to dry, we hopped back on the bikes and cycled the 13 km back to Azay. We arrived home around 6 pm so it was another full day of weather and sight-seeing!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

LTDF Day Five

Chenonceau to Loches, 32 km. It was supposed to be one of our harder days but actually the ride was quite pleasant. We are no longer in pain. Best of all, the sun came out today! We rode for 3 hours in the sunshine! All right, it wasn’t clear blue skies but those clouds were flat, white and stretched unthreateningly across the sky.

We started the day with very little cash and discovered there is a tourist site in France that does NOT have a bank machine. It is called Chenonceau. The nearest cash machine was 6 km in the wrong direction. Along our ride, the nearest machine was in Loches, our destination. So we frugally chose some pastries and water, suddenly feeling very hungry.

We passed a beautiful B&B that we stopped to take pictures of but neglected to record the name. If I ever come back, I want to stay here! We also rode through s couple of really lovely little towns. The whole town had flowers and ivy growing on the fronts of their homes and in and around the streets. We were charmed. The animal of the day was "deer". We saw one springing through the fields away from us at high speed.

When we arrived in Loches, we found a bank and after touring the town, we split up and found food we wanted to eat. Julia and I wound up at the grocery store to buy a tub of Hagen-Daaz and spoons. We managed to snorf down the entire tub without too much effort and justified it with the long bike ride we had just taken. We then filled our bags with more food for our marathon ride tomorrow.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

LTDF Day Four

I was actually looking forward to getting on the bike again. It felt good after the day rest and we knew it was only a 7 km ride. The other two days were 45-60 km days so today would be a piece of cake. We started out from Amboise with a light grey sky but no rain. It makes a big difference. On our way out of Amboise we stumbled across the market so stopped to enjoy a few snacks and purchase a new scarf for me. We couldn’t find the route and cycled round and round until we finally saw the cyclist signs and we were off.

About an hour of riding later we stopped to consult the map. Surely we should be there by now? We were headed for some town named Montlouis and couldn’t find it anywhere on the map. As I folded the map back up, proclaiming it useless, I noticed Montlouis. It was on the map all right; about 7 km in the wrong direction. So began a rather long adventure through the countryside, over farmer’s fields, down busy streets and along rutted lines that looked more like deer trails than bike paths. We eventually picked up the bicycle path again and heaved a sigh of relief.

It was at this point it began to rain. No, there was no thunder and lightening, only the familiar feel of my clothing soaking through to the bone. We discovered the bike trail we had picked up wasn’t really a bike path at all but more of an alternative in times of need. We waded through deep puddles, negotiated inch deep mud, waved to the Romani (gypsies) regarding us with suspicious looks as we rolled through their encampments. What were they doing on the bike path? We knew we were heading in the right direction, however, so we persevered and gritted our teeth to prevent them butchering our tongue as we bumped over roots and stones for several kilometers.

I just want everyone to know this WAS NOT my vision. When planning this trip several years ago, I foresaw a pleasant glide down smooth paths, past glorious fields of sunflowers lifting their faces to the hot sunshine. We would be dressed in tank tops and shorts, our bodies slathered in sunscreen, our eyes covered in shades. We’d complain about the heat and be thankful for the cool breeze that whipped our hair back as we flew along.

Finally, after three hours and at least 20 km, we saw the chateau in the distance and knew the ride was coming to an end. We checked in to our hotel, parked the bikes in their shed, picked up some food and headed for the chateau.

Chenonceau is the grandest chateau in the valley and it had some great stories to share. Henri II gave this to Diane de Poitiers, his favourite female. Catherine de Medici, his wife, was less than pleased, bided her time till he died in a jousting tournament accident and then took the chateau back. The chateau is truly picturesque, built right over top of the River Cher. The couple who built it in the 16th century had their motto carved into a few places: “If I get to the end of this construction job, I will be remembered”. You have to love people with a sense of humour. Lots of the rooms had been restored and the tour seemed to go on a long time.

Some notable stops included: the gallery over the River Cher, the kitchens, Louis XIV’s drawing room, Louise of Lorraine’s bedroom and the vegetable/flower garden. During the Second World War, the River Cher was the line of demarcation between the occupied north and the allied south. Because the chateau spanned the river, one end was on the Nazi occupied side and one end was not. The Résistance used the gallery to help many people escape to the free zone. Meanwhile the Germans kept artillery handy should they need to blow up the chateau at any time. WWII was not the only threat the chateau faced. During the revolution, the owner was a certain Madame Louise Dupin. She was a smart lady who entertained many intellects of the day at the chateau. Her kindness and generosity were widely known and these personality traits are believed to be the reason the chateau was spared. Her picture hangs in Louis XIV’s drawing room at the chateau along with a HUGE painting of Louis XIV in an eye-popping frame. It was a gift from Louis to his uncle.

Louise of Lorraine’s bedroom was bizarre. Her husband, King Henri III was assassinated in 1589 and she spent the rest of her life in mourning. She lived at the chateau surrounded by nuns who all wore white so she became known as the “White Queen”. If they had seen her bedroom they would have called her the “Black Queen” because the entire room is painted black with black drapes and black décor. It is creepy.

We toured the kitchens which were located in the bottom of the first two piers that support building over the river. There are stairs in between the two sides to get from one pier to the next. In between is where the produce barges would pull up to deliver food. The kitchens were very well presented with butcher blocks, pots and pans and spits in the fireplaces.

The last place we wandered was the gardens. They had some neat ideas, like apple tree hedges. The trees were only knee high and circled the garden plots. Isn’t that bizarre? We definitely need to try that. They also had beautiful rows of flowers and vegetables. They had planted tomato plants and put a trim of marigolds around the base. It was quite lovely. They had all sorts of gourds and squash, some snaking around the lattice work or hanging from the top.

The best part of the whole day was the fact we weren’t sore! Hallelujah for small blessings!

Amboise

We took a blessed break from our cycling today (in keeping with the Tour de France) and enjoyed the town of Amboise. We visited the chateau, saw the home Da Vinci lived in for the three years before his death, shopped along the little streets with Mick Jagger and enjoyed the day.

The chateau here has quite a bit of history. The Valois kings, who proceeded the Bourbons as leaders of France must have held the court here. It wasn’t until later that the court moved to Paris and then Versailles. Anne of Brittany lived here with her husband, Charles VIII. We remember her because her marriage to Charles meant the area of France known as Brittany joined France. She wasn’t too thrilled with the marriage and several concessions were made, including that roads in Brittany would never be taxed. This was a serious contract because the roads in Brittany remain toll free even today. As drivers, we appreciated Anne’s canniness. We remember Charles VIII because he hit his head on a doorjamb while walking to watch a tennis match with Anne and died some hours later. Tall, but not swift. Sadly for Anne, the contract with France maintained she had to bear a child with the king and since Charles died, she was forced to marry his successor.

The Chateau Amboise also saw Leonardo da Vinci when Francois I (salamander boy) invited him to stay there. Leonardo moved his residence (along with the Mona Lisa) to Amboise and lived in a large house close to Francois I, called “Clos de Luce”. I don’t know who Luce is ‘cause it was “close to Francois” as far as we could see. In fact, there was a secret tunnel beneath in his house that led directly to the Chateau so the king could come and go as he pleased. Francois I REALLY liked Leonardo and was at his deathbed when he passed away.

The Clos de Luce was lovely but it was the park behind that was really fun. They had taken many of the inventions Leonardo drew in his sketchbooks and built models of them. There were smaller models in the basement of his house but then lifesize models were throughout the park. We paddled around in the paddleboat he invented. We worked the Archimedes Screw he was fascinated with. We tried to get his swivel bridge swiveling but I think it was more of a visual thing. In all, the park was lots of fun and would have been the high point of the day if we hadn’t bumped into Mick Jagger.

We were strolling up the main drag popping in and out of the stores when I heard a loud voice with a strong British accent. I glanced over and thought, “Wow, that looks like Mick Jagger” and turned to Tom to tell him. Tom ran back down the street to check it out and sure enough, it WAS Mick Jagger. First Rick, now Mick! So we move in odd circles or what? Mick was wearing a lavender sweater, baseball cap and sunglasses. He was with two boys about 10 years old or so and another older male. I had looked hard at the other male to see if I recognized him but he didn’t ring any bells. Julia wanted to see him so we turned around and strolled back up the street until she could get a look. By that point there was a buzz in the street and we could hear other people talking about him. Little groups were forming as people waited to stare. It must be really frustrating to be constantly living in a fishbowl. We discussed asking him to sing “Ruby Tuesday” for the camera so we could bring it home to Ruby but decided he might not take to that too well. Sorry Ruby.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Lloyd Tour de France Day Two

We hopped on our bicycles slightly less enthusiastically this morning. It was not raining and we were all extraordinarily grateful for that small miracle. I had spent the morning blow drying our shoes and the sleeves of my under jacket so we could start the day dry. When we arrived home the previous night we devoured three pizzas without much discussion and retired for the night. This morning we were ravenous again and hit the boulangerie first.

Tom and I were hearing various body parts speak to us. The children seemed oblivious to pain. Today we wore our backpacks because we were moving from Blois to Amboise. After about half an hour, Julia and I bungee strapped our backpacks to the rack in back of the bicycle. This was MUCH more comfortable. After about an hour and a half, Tom stuffed his into the panniers. By the time we reached the chateau, Rhys had rigged his rack so two backpacks hung off the sides like panniers and we all were no longer carrying packs on our backs. It’s the shoulders.

The Chaumont Chateau was quite lovely, situated right on the Loire River. It was built in the 1100’s as a defensive structure and revised around the 1500’s. Its claim to fame is the gossip surrounding it. Diane de Poitiers was a lovely lady who became the king’s mistress. He set her up in a gorgeous chateau called Chenonceau, situated in the Loire Valley. She had an eye for décor and fixed the place up well until it was generally acknowledged to be the most beautiful (like her). Meanwhile, Catherine de Medici was the king’s wife. She was a powerful lady with many connections. She bided her time until the king died and then gently suggested Diane might want to trade Chenonceau for Catherine’s less lovely, Chaumont. Diane moved into Chaumont, proving she was not stupid.

Chaumont had nobles living in it until the late 19th century. One of the wings showed the way it had looked when Catherine and Diane would have lived there and one showed how it had been renovated for the family in the 19th century. My favourite room was the “princess’ bedroom” which had a gorgeous view out over the river and cute little turret rooms in the corner. It had pink fabric on the upper part of the walls and lavender paint covering the wainscoting and truly looked like a room for a princess.

As we strolled back to our bicycles, Tom and I shared a sad moment of realization that we were going to have to force our bodies back onto the damn bicycles. Another two and a half hours of torture brought us to Amboise. Did I mention the children were in fine form?

The Lloyd Tour de France Day One


We picked up our bicycles the evening before our big ride, very excited. The bikes were easy to ride and fit us all perfectly. Julia and I have a basket on ours and Tom has panniers on his. This gives us the extra space we need for carrying lunch, maps and so on.

The next morning it was raining. Sigh. We dressed warmly, put on our Gore-tex jackets, helmets and safety vests and away we went: Captain Safety and the Caution Cadets. It is not the law that you have to wear helmets in France so few wear them. You also are not required to wear a safety vest, but you must have one with you at all times in case of an emergency. You also have to carry one in your car for the same purpose.

After the first hour of cycling, we were wet. The rain had waffled between drizzle and harder with a driving wind blowing it in various directions at various times. My glasses were almost useless as I had no wipers and the rain streamed down them onto my nose and off.

After two and a half hours, we reached the Chambord Chateau. Now we were soaked. The rain had somehow worked its way up my pant legs to my underwear and into my shoes and socks. When your feet are on the peddles and your butt is on the bike seat, it is difficult to contemplate how it happened but it did. I was completely wet to the skin. Only my shoulders and chest were dry under the Gore-tex jacket. Even my sleeves were wet, though, as the rain had somehow blown up them.

We entered the chateau and headed for the bathroom, making squishing sounds as we went. We spent several enjoyable minutes by the hand dryers taking the edge off before entering the chateau. Chambord is the largest of the chateaux in the Loire Valley with 440 rooms and almost as many fireplaces. You’d think it would be a bit warmer inside but apparently the middle of July does not warrant heat from the fireplace. I can attest that the middle of July in France certainly DOES warrant heat from the fireplace. We dutifully climbed the spiral staircase. It is two staircases spun around each other so you can have people going up and down but not meeting each other. At the top are terraces to look out over the property. It is probably really, really beautiful but as soon as we stepped out into the icy wind and felt it blow through our wet clothes, we lost interest. We actually stopped for a hot chocolate before venturing out into the downpour again. I can barely believe we pushed on. We were all very cold and the fastest way home was NOT to the next chateau.

The chateau has 20 acres of land surrounding it so the first part of our ride was through the king’s hunting grounds. The land is walled (32 km of wall) to keep the riff raff out. This was the king’s winter hunting lodge. They only used it in winter because it was easier to see the game when there were no leaves on the trees. They also had “beaters” who would stand at the walls and beat the bushes to flush the wildlife towards where the king and nobles were standing with their guns. Very sporting. To their credit, they DID believe that they animal population had to be kept in check for its health. The grounds are still stocked with wild boar and deer though today it is a sanctuary for animals. We actually saw a wild boar! It went racing through the underbrush. Rhys and Julia got a really good look but I only saw its tail end wiggling away. It was fast!

After about a soggy half hour, we came to a covered area in the middle of a village and stopped to eat the sandwiches we had bought that morning. It was a toss up between stopping to eat because we were hungry and continuing to ride because we were cold. Rhys convinced us hunger was the more important need. We rode another two hours and the rain did lighten marginally and the temperature increased by a few degrees.

When we reached Chateau Cheverny we were not quite as soaked nor as cold, thankfully. The sun was peeking out every so often and it lifted our spirits considerably. We traipsed through their elegantly furnished rooms looking like something beaten from the bushes of Chambord. It truly was a lovely place and one wing is still occupied by the owners. They are descended directly from the original owners 600 years ago. Their family photo was on an end table and they look like a nice average family. They are about our age with kids the same ages as ours. I think it is odd they live in an apartment in a castle overrun by tourists most of the time.

The best part of Cheverny was the sunshine, although the dog kennels came a close second. They own about a hundred dogs and it was a riot watching them. It looked like that Dr. Seuss book, “Go Dog Go!” Many of them have a V shaved into their fur to show they belong to the family. We dawdled here as long as we could manage before hopping back on the bikes for the 20 km ride home.

We managed to lose Tom in the last ride. He stopped to take pictures and we kept riding. When he raced to catch up, he missed one of the signs to turn and raced off in the wrong direction, only realizing his error when he reached a highway. Then he raced faster trying to make back time and by the time he got to us, he was very tired. We were all very glad to see him, however. I had been trying to decide how we would transport his body back if he was lying in a ditch somewhere or what the rest of us should do if he truly was lost in the wilds. I was confident he would be fine. He had all the money and ID.

In all, we rode about 55 – 60 km our first day. The paths were mainly off road, deserted and flat. I think I could have ridden about 10 km less and been quite comfortable. Though the ride wasn’t hard, the saddle became increasingly more uncomfortable as we went. We rode for about 6 hours total and that last hour was a push.


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