Travel diaries, France. Food, wine and cycling in Provence.

It sounds so good; a week of warm weather, fine food and wine, a bunch of great people from around the world and some pedalling. Will the reality be as wonderful as my overly-romantic imagination suggests? Come with me and find out! 

“Where is it?” is a good question to start. It’s where the Rhone River meanders towards the sea. The small city of Avignon is an important historical centre. During tough times in Rome, several Popes lived here because it was safer and nicer (The local wine and women were the big attractions for Popes back then. Naughty Popes!).

  
This diary entry will be in a new style – a whole week at once, and mostly told by the camera. Ready? Let’s start at the start in Avignon, getting off the fast train (the TGV) from London. Clockwise, this is the Hotel les Cedres, a rustic and comfortable place on a hill overlooking Avignon, a cafe in the old city and a view from outside. For a city of Papal housing, the place is quite modest in size and decoration.

   
The cycle tour started the next day. A couple of lads named Bernard and Pete from Chain Reaction tours ran the show, with Pete leading the way. We rode north from Avignon to Orange (pronounced “oar – onge”, and preferable roll your “r” so that you sound like a purring cat).

Next, some happy snaps from the trip to Orange (roll that “r”), and something that looks a lot like the Arc de Triumph.

  
Next day, we check out the Roman theatre in Orrrange. It is big, it is in great condition, and there’s an excellent audio tour. After a picnic lunch we carry on to Uzes for coffees, beers and a visit by an official Tour de France tractor. Fantastic. That’s Laura, from Santa Cruz, California. Smart, sassy and pretty.

  

The hotel room in Uzes was interesting. It was so small that I bought a cat to see if I could swing it, but it died of heat exhaustion before I got a chance. No air con. It is 30 degrees outside but it was more like 40 (105F) in my room. Fortunately, there were no curtains in my East-facing room, so the carcass of the dead cat was automatically re-heated in time for breakfast. 

Did I mention that the WiFi didn’t work? My family are beginning to wonder if I’m alive. Maybe they’ve seen the cat on the news?

Before I can say “Coffee and two croissants”, we are on the road again.

The Pont-du-Gard (Wikipedia) is a Roman era aqueduct – an amazing feature – and we have a picnic underneath it for lunch. Our leader Mr Pete McGee knows the local produce and delivers a hell of a good feed for next to nothing. Everyone overeats. Yumm. Then I go to sleep on a rock, providing visual amusement and holiday photographs. Just a guy asleep on a rock. Nothing to see here, folks.

To some degree (pun) we are all affected by the heat, though team Australia can do ok as long as I drink lots. Team Ireland (Siobhan and Daniel) are very uncomfortable. Every piece of shade is enjoyed. Giselle, from team Brazil, looks very comfortable in the photo below. Strange.

  

On to Beaucaire, which is nice enough and a much better hotel room.

Thursday 4th June 2015. It’s warm again, but the riding is lovely on the way to St Remy. 

  
  
  
Next day and it’s open farming country and easy riding until it gets hot. Lunch is another picnic, facilitated by Pete. For a few Euros he puts on a hell of a good spread.

We climb a little to a nice fort village to have a cool drink. There have been so many that I can barely recall them. Could it be Gourdes or Menerbes?  Just as well I’m using the GPS application OruxMaps to record the cycling paths. When I get home, it’s a just click of a button to see each day’s ride on GoogleEarth. Wherever we were, the day ended in Roussillon, where the ochre cliffs are a feature. See the photo of Laura and Pete, bottom right. To the left is Sylvia, a member of team Brazil.
  
On the last day we complete the loop by returning to Avignon. Before leaving Roussillon, we take lots of photos; the last day has arrived almost before we started. The cycling is good, with quiet roads, warm weather and just a couple of hills. Lunch is very nice, among hills and water wheels and cold clear spring water, but the last 20km (of about 50) involve traffic and car exhausts until we find ourselves on the Rhone River and next to the Pope’s house. 

  
So that’s it…..my French cycling adventure. It was a great thing. Unfortunately, the photos don’t convey the laughs, the food, the wine, the moans (hills) and the sweat. Also, I have forgotten so many bits of the story that this is only the barest of bones of what actually happened. Somehow I have barely mentioned team Canadia, who quietly spun their way along the roads with no fuss. 

Would I recommend a trip like this? As a holiday, I’d give it an 8/10. As an adventure, it’s a 3/10. More like ham and apple pie than buffalo and tamarind.

A huge thanks to Chain Gang and my fellow travellers, for making every day a lot of fun.

Au Renoir. Bloody spell checker. Au revoir!

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Travel diaries, True and False. London calling.

Dear readers, it as been the most exciting of times. Flying from Rome to London to stay with Rosie and her partner Kyle (that’s them below on the right). After just a few days, London has shown me some great sights and been quite familiar to an Aussie chap like me. 

Dinner at a typical pub. Next day, a lifelong dream of mine was fulfilled by visiting the Museum of Natural History. If you are interested in nature, this is a place to visit.

  

Kew Gardens. Giant lily pads, a tropical house and a tree-top walk.

 
And the Museum of Natural History.

  
Clockwise…Top, right – that’s a dodo skeleton, and a Pleiosaurus below, and Rosie and I posing in front of a Diplodochus (named Sophie), an Archeopteryx and top, left is a meat eater (maybe an Allosaurus?). 

The Archeopteryx has a special place because for years scientists believed that birds evolved from dinosaurs. “Pull the other one, you nitwits” said the creationists. Then, just two years after Charles Darwin published “On the origin of Species”, a feather was discovered that seemed to support the “dinosaur to bird” theory. The feather was 150 million years old. Millions of years older than any bird. And it was a really good, flying type of feather. Well, to cut the story short, a very detailed fossil of a winged, feathered dinosaur with lots of small teeth and a beak was discovered and sold to the Museum of Natural History, where I photographed it (bottom left). Creationists around the world responded to the discovery by saying “Oh no. We really up shit creek with no paddle”. Actually, that’s what they thought, but what they said was “It’s not real because it’s not in the Bible”. The fossil is possibly the most valuable and most important exhibit in the Museum. A breathtaking thing for a biologist like me to see. Ok, that’s enough of talking about a famous rock. 

Looking back, I’ve enjoyed London a lot – more than I expected, and even better to be able to spend time with Rosie and Kyle. It has ended too soon.

I left London this morning, taking the TGV fast train to France (averaging over 200 km/hour) and I’m finishing this blog under an olive tree in Avignon, southern France. Tomorrow it’s cycling in Provence. What a life!

A biento. Ciao. Tam biet.
 
   

 

   

  

Tales of travel, True and False. Rome; where Baroque is beautiful (plus the Pantheon is perfect)

It would surprise few people that Rome is a city with masses of art on display. From London to Beijing and from Moscow to Wellington, we learn as children that Rome has been the centre of the (Roman) Catholic World since Christ was fullback for the Jews. And it was the Baroque when there was high tide of a flood of work by a cavalcade of artists. From 1600 to 1750 the Baroque involved simple and clear depictions of people, horses, Christ, Saints, pagan gods and more; in a style that usually attributes power and glory to a Christian God.

My first visit for today was St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where both St Peter and St Paul are honoured. Lots of it was built in the 14th to 18th century after the Popes left France (Avignon) and returned after a hundred-year absence to Rome. Why were they in Avignon? Just because they could. At this time, the popes were wealthy or powerful and probably both. A few were religious men, but all were ruthless men. Pope Innocent IV had a thing for hanging out in Lyon in the late 1200s and Pope Clement V moved to Avignon in 1309 and never went back to Rome. His successors liked Avignon as well, and they built a huge palace to live in. But it wasn’t as secure as the Roman palace and fortress, so back they came. Riches and taxes and booty were flowing to the church at an unprecedented rate (Catholics were invading both South America and Africa at the time). The photos show the magnificent courtyard and entrance to the Basilica.

  
The art of the Vatican. Long before they were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Leonardo, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Donatello were important artists and innovators of the Rennaissance and the period leading up to the Baroque. The sculptures of Michaelangelo are particularly eye-catching and beautiful. In St Peter’s, the Pieta (Mary and Jesus, finished in 1499AD) is said to have been so good that nobody believed that a 21 year old Michaelangelo could have created it. So he carved “Michaelangelo did it!” across Mary’s boobs to prevent any confusion Clearly this was the work of a young hot-head.  

  
 The photos above show the huge brass canopy and gold ornaments and beautiful mosaics and signs at the altar (supposedly above the body of St Peter). 

The photo top right looks like a mistake, but it isn’t. It is a fairly insignificant looking red dot. But it is interesting for two reasons, the lesser of which is that red marble isn’t common. Dark red marble like this is rare, and I believe that this piece may have come from Egypt. The second reason is that it marks a turning-point in history, where the first Emperor-King of Europe, Charlemagne, aka Charles the Great, was crowned. There are stories that he didn’t want the job – that the pope swindled him and slipped the crown on him before he could run away. Who knows? But change history it did. He became known as the “Father of Europe”, because he united Europe under the Roman Catholic Church. He has the first Imperial ruler since the end of the Roman Empire (four hundred years before). It seems that the plan (or swindle) of Pope Leo III worked out very well. 

Out of the Vatican and off to Navona Square, where the statues are more accessible. The first thing I note is that Navona Square isn’t square – it is an oval. Back in the day, they raced horses around here, so an oval course is much more practical. It has three wonderful statues as fountains, as you can see in the photos. I can think of no better group of statues in all of Rome than Neptune and his maidens. They are superb. 

  
Onwards towards Trevi Fountain, but first I stop at The Pantheon. Wow. It is in a class of its own. The facade and dome are original Roman work, including the HUGE granite columns at the front. Unfortunately, the Christians decided that those pagan Romans were a bad bunch and stripped every image and motif and script from the interior. No sense of history those Roman Catholics. 

Almost to Trevi Fountain…just time to check the column of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome in the 2nd century. It’s 40 metres of marble column, carved with the life story of the man. A vast amount of work went into this. 

  
Finally…Trevi Fountain. Oops, closed for restoration. Nevermind. 

On the way back to my hotel near the Colosseum, I pass the largest monument in all of Rome. The truly impressive Altare della Patria (Father of the Nation, or something like that). If I had to choose one thing to see in Rome it just might be this, ahead of St Peter’s Basilica (by a whisker). It is unique, solitary, vast and artistic. 

 
The last stop on my way home was at the Forum. Where Julius Caesar and others spoke to the people of the Empire. Although it is mostly in ruins, there remains a feeling here of the importance of the location in the history of the world. Imagine the discussions; about Hannibal bringing warriors mounted on elephants to fight Rome; about Nero confiscating land to build monuments to himself; to praise Julius for conquering Britain and its barbaric tribes. For 400 years the Roman Forum and the Senate were the powerhouses of the largest Empire to ever rule. 
Well, that’s about it. I’m back at the hotel and exhausted. My big day out in Rome was special. If you get a chance, have a look. For sure.

Off to London tomorrow. Ciao and good night.

Travel stories, true and false. Unpacking Italy.

Been in Italy a week now. I’m no expert, but I’ve learned is that…

  • Italian food tastes better than what you order from the menu.
  • Italian food tastes way better than it costs.
  • The coffee is consistently good. 
  • The taxi drivers take great risks. With other people’s lives.
  • The planes and trains are never on time.
  • The information counter doesn’t have any.
  • If two words are enough, Italians will use six.
  • Italian sports cars and their drivers are beautiful.
  • Italian wine whispers “drink me” all night long.
  • Speaking poor Italian is comedic and enjoyed by everyone.

Grazie, Ciao! 

Bicycle diaries, Italy. The Museum of Galileo in Florence.

Also known as the Museo Galileo, this is a place for anyone who ever contemplates the strange history of science, maths, engineering, medicine, astronomy. The world, basically. It’s a story of how we got to today’s understanding of where and what we are. With collections of maps and instruments and models, it covers lots of topics in lots of different ways. One room has dozens of wooden circles within circles, showing the celestial movements of the known universe in 1600 (the Earth is at the centre, of course), and around the corner is a model of a breach birth (wow). But enough of my raving, here are some photos; 

   
And a telescope that is several metres long, a Van der Graff generator for making high voltage electricity. So many high quality exhibits. But perhaps best of all in my opinion, a long ramp for rolling balls downhill. There are bells placed at ever-increasing distances along the decline. Surprisingly to fresh students of science, the bells ring out with even spacing…bing…bing…bing, proving that the ball is getting faster and faster. Acceleration due to gravity is constant, but the speed changes. Large and small, light and heavy, they all sound the bells in the same way. Hats off to you Leonardo. Pure genius. In an era before cameras, it seems so clever to me to use sound/music to represent movement.

  
 You might want to see some early electronic devices, or a map of the world. The models of childbirth are fascinating if a little too realistic. But I suppose it was important for doctors to train with dummies before dealing with real mums.

  
This is just a small percentage of what is on offer at the museum. For a few Euro I was enthralled for more than two hours. Somebody less intrigued with science or interested in the art and history might only spend half an hour, but I am sure that they would be quite impressed too.

That’s today’s blog done. And the Tuscan/Italian bicycle trip and diary comes to an end. For now, at least. In a week I an riding in Provence, France.

Cheers and ciao to you all.

Bicycle diaries, Italy. To Florence with mishappence and serendipity.

it was a lovely breakfast. The coffee in Tuscany is a consistently good quality. The croissants are sweet and a bit flaky. It is a pity that the weather isn’t as good as the food. Today is rainy and cold.

Just a few seconds before departing I realise that our leader Radu (the rapid one) is wearing a LOT of warm clothes. So I panicked and grabbed an extra sleeveless cover-thingy from the van. Without which I might not have lived to tell the story.

Maybe it’s because I don’t ride in the rain very often. I don’t like rain when I’m cycling, and this rain seems quite cold. It gets worse and colder…. There’s a long downhill at the start today. Several km of downhill. But let’s be positive. Who knows what it will be like?

It is a brutally freezing cold downhill. So cold I go very slow to keep the wind under control. Slow, slow, slow. By now I am so cold that I start to pedal hard. Even the non-cyclist will realise that this doesn’t seem to make sense. Pedalling hard downhill, but going slowly? Yes, because I have brakes. Big fistfuls of brakes, just to make my legs work hard. But it’s too late. Even several km of uphill fails to warm me up, so I strip off my wet kit, find a dry jumper and jump in the van. Then Sarah jumps in, too. She is probably colder than I am. Nothing of her. I have more body fat than she has body. How her ancestors made it through the ice-ages is a mystery to me.

In the next town we huddle in a coffee shop, I ordering multiple hot chocolates and coffees, and our resourceful leaders call for more coffees and a bus. So the last 30km of riding is replaced by drier, warmer, safer conditions. After 350 km, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe come back next summer? Hmmmm….

But This is becoming a long and wordy post, so I’ll stop now and paste some photos of Florence (Firenze). 

   
 

Some notes about the photos. That’s Victoria laughing like a drain, it’s the Arno river that runs through the city (and Pisa), and yes, the Statue known as David has got freakishly big hands. They look ridiculous. And his right arm is too long.  Your elbow isn’t next to your hip bone, is it? His is! Weird. Just weird. Ok, so people adore this statue. I’m sure they see something in it. They wouldn’t just be adoring it because they’ve read somewhere that it’s really good….would they? People aren’t like that, are they? Phffft! 

Me? Hey, I’m just saying what I think. And here’s some more thoughts.

They say every cloud has a silver lining. It might be true (or not), but today the rain and clouds and a quick bus trip meant that I had some extra time in Florence and visited the Galileo Museum. Ask me how good it was. Go on. 

It was SO good. I could go there every day for a week. Yes, I’m a nerd. A big fan of medieval science and scientists. So, in celebration, tomorrow’s post will be 100% about the Galileo Museum [Excited shivering. Or am I still cold?]

Ciao from Firenze.

Bicycle diaries, Italy. Tuscan, Etruscan, down and back up, round and round. It’s all a cycle.

Hi ho readers. It’s day…something….of the Tuscan odyssey with Exodus tours, and it’s all going very well. The weather, as you can see below, was mostly good. A splash of rain but the day was quite warm. Everyone was having buckets of fun.

The day started with a descent of 18km – yes, 18km – of good quality road. Sailing along at about 30km/hour for no effort is just the sort of cycling I could do all day. Unfortunately, Tuscany is known for its rolling hills, so what goes down must come up. Especially as it was a circuit ride today. There’s some mathematical principle about that. 

Today’s lunch stop was at a delightful UNESCO- listed town (San Gimignano) perched above the countryside. Seriously, you have to check out that link. It is beautiful.

  
Not many photos today because the cycling was too much fun. Clockwise from top left is the Hotel in Castellina di Chianti, a distant view of San Gimignano over the vineyards, a lane near the lunch stop, most of the group (L to R, Kelly, [unknown with head down], Linda, Vicky, Brian, Liz’s back, Sua, Pam. Julie and John), Liz the Leader. In the centre the very entertaining Vicky (“shopping is my middle name”) and Brian (super rider and funny as a monkey).

To end the day, there was an optional climb of about 7km back to Castinella di Chianti. Five of our thirteen riders rode up. I was the slowest, but not too far behind. It was quite a good fun ride, with only a few parts of 7 or 8 percent slope. Most of us could have made it up, but it was at the end of the day.

We cycled the mauve line. About 70 km and 1300 metres of ascent. Yay for us!

  
Ciao for now