Posts Tagged With: France

Le Tour – Wrap up

So I know everyone has moved on to the Olympics already, but I finally got around to adding photos to the rest of my TdF posts.  So if you want to relive the magic (or just check out the photos), you can find them here:

Tour stage 14 – the finish at Foix

Tour stage 15 – near the feed zone out of Marciac

Tour stage 16 – on the Tourmalet foothills near Bareges

Tour stage 17 – the finish at Peyragudes

Tour stage 18 – the start at Blagnac

Tour stage 19 – ITT near Chartres

Also, I know I didn’t put up a post about stage 20 – the grande finale on the Champs!  I started one, but I was a bit tired and it never really took off.  Here’s what I had ‘saved as draft’…

“And finally, Paris!  I’ve only followed the final week, I haven’t been on a bike for a single kilometre, and I’m exhausted.  I can’t imagine how relieved all the riders, teams, media, caravane folk, roadies, crew, gendarmes, officials and everyone else must be to reach Paris after three weeks of this crazily fascinating race.”

Sounds like it was shaping up to be a top little post, right?!  But, like you, I’ve also moved on to the Olympics and so will satisfy the need to ‘finish’ the TdF series with ‘the last day in pictures’, herewith.

It was indeed a crazy week, filled with all kinds of awesomeness and memories I’ll keep for a long time.  Glad you all enjoyed reading along.  Vive Le Tour!!

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Tour chase day 6 – Stage 19 ITT

Jumped on the train from Paris to Chartres for the final ‘Contre la Montre’ of this tour – the stage 19 individual time trial.  The caravane again proved helpful for course location – this time I just followed the noise!

I wandered away from the town centre to a pleasantly uncrowded spot just over 3km from the finish on a long straight incline, made friends with the group of genial old locals who had installed themselves in the bar across the road for the day and who thought I should have been more excited that the first ever englishman was about to win the tour, teamed up with a passing Aussie called Greg who had a large camera and the start order saved on his phone, and settled in to wait for the riders to appear.

And now I understand why it’s so frustrating watching an ITT on television.  Very few of the riders had any press following them on the road.  There were no helicopters, and really only the last 5 guys had a motorbike camera with them.  For the bulk of the field, that means there is probably only a camera on them as they leave the start and arrive at the finish.  It must be nightmarish for the tv guys to put the footage together coherently, and then even harder to commentate on!

It was pretty good being in one spot on the side of the road though, as we got to see each rider come past individually over the course of the afternoon.  All kinds of interesting vehicles had been pressed into service to follow the riders – particularly the early guys at the lower end of the field.  The Mavic spares cars, several official skodas, some nameless rentals, and the odd caravane sponsor’s car came by bearing the riders’ names with the official team cars reserved for the top riders.  Also surprising was the number of riders being followed by a car without any spares on board – either bikes or wheels.  Obviously, for many, this wasn’t a high pressure stage.

The helpful old guys over the road, sporting a variety of free caravane hats and consulting the newspaper for the start order, made sure I was informed when any notable french riders were approaching, and also when any Australians were on their way.  I enjoyed watching them get very excited for their french heroes (Voekler – always gets the loudest cheer from the french fans), and in turn they laughed at me waving my flag and shouting shamelessly for all the aussies.

In between times, we all cheered for everyone else (Allez Allez!), marvelled at the shiny Astana time trial suits, tried to work out who had caught and overtaken whom, and generally passed a pleasantly lazy afternoon in another picturesque french streetscape.

Then finally, the top guys appeared.  Richie Porte, rampaging.  Tejay having overtaken Cadel.  Froome looking strong… and a far smaller gap than we had expected to Wiggins in the yellow, followed by all the press motos that had been missing earlier, and powering to an unequivocal win.  Impressive.

Scored seats on the packed train back to Paris in my own moment of victory for the day.  All set for the grand finale the following day – Stage 20 on the Champs-Elysees!

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Le Tour du Tour day 5 – Stage 18

On not nearly enough sleep after all the excitement of the previous day, I was up early again, this time to head out to Blagnac for the start of stage 18. Aims for the day were to find the Orica GreenEdge team bus during the ‘getting ready’ period, and see some of the sign-on, before watching them roll out for the day.

Not really knowing precisely where in Blagnac I might find Le Tour, Blagnac being a peripheral village of Toulouse, I caught the tram and followed the crowd. It turned out to be not that difficult – the Caravane was just passing by to start its journey as I arrived so I followed them and they led me all the way to the start line, the ‘village depart’, and all the festivities.

I thought the team buses must have been hiding somewhere else, as they were nowhere to be seen when I arrived. But actually they were just on their way – arriving in the wake of the caravane accompanied by all the team cars loaded up with squillions of dollars worth of bikes. FDJ have the only female bus driver, just fyi.

I got a wave from the GreenEdge support guys, and wished them a good day as they went past on their way in to the dusty field where all the teams would prepare for the day. Unfortunately, it turned out that access to the dusty field was for pass-holders only, and the GreenEdge bus was somewhere in the middle so I couldn’t really see them from outside the fence. On the upside, the BMC bus was on the edge, so I joined a bunch of other Aussies waiting to see Cadel Evans, including the Crikey Cadel Crocodile who had energetically perched himself on the fence, propped against a porta-loo, for maximum visibility. Well done that man. I was glad Cadel gave him a big thumbs up when he emerged from the bus – well deserved for such dedicated fandom.

I watched a bit of the signing on, and saw team Sky presented to the crowd as a unit and receiving a lot of handshakes from presumably important people. (I assume they were leading the teams classification that morning).

And without much ceremony, the riders were all rolling over towards the surprisingly small start area. The crowd was already a bit thick around there, so I skirted around back streets with a crew of other brisk walkers until we found a relatively uncluttered corner to watch them ride past, still in the neutral zone.

The trickle of official vehicles and press motorbikes turned into a stream, and finally the red Skoda with the white Depart flag flapping madly led the bunch around the corner and up the road, followed by team cars, more official vehicles, and, oddly, Mark Cavendish who had clearly experienced some kind of issue and was a fair way behind the bunch at the start. (Whatever it was didn’t affect his performance later in the day though… what a sprint!)

Finally the team bus drivers executed some more impressive precision driving and navigated their huge vehicles through the tiny french back streets and onward towards today’s finish. Another wave to the GreenEdge bus, and I was hurrying back through town to squeeze into a packed tram and return to Toulouse in time to hop on the TGV… next stop, Paris!

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Tour chase day 4 – Stage 17 – Or, “The Day Cadel Gave Me A Wave”

This day had been looming for a while.  And not just for the GC contenders.

I was facing the prospect of driving through the mountains to get anywhere near the ski-resort finish at Peyragudes. The possibility of having to park far away and walk for miles, possibly straight up the side of a mountain. The challenge of getting across to the right side of the track in order to pick up my pass and enter the VIP area. Getting off the mountain again along with everyone else, and driving back to Toulouse, hopefully still leaving some time for sleep that night. Doing all this without my tour chase buddy Liz, as the awesome Tour Team of previous days parted ways.

There were nerves. There was a contingency purchase of a topographic map in case of unexpected mountain-side orienteering. And there was a very early start.

As it often does, being up before the sun proved worthwhile.  As I drove out of the cloud in the valley and up the Col du Tourmalet, I was rewarded with spectacular views of the sunrise over the Pyrennees, and almost deserted roads. In fact, for most of the drive, I was only sharing the roads with a few cows, the odd campervan, and the municipal cleaners – walking the roads behind their trucks to clean up all the detritus left by yesterday’s tour crowds. I drove over the Tourmalet, the Col d’Aspin and up towards the Col du Peyrasude, following almost exactly a section of the stage 16 route. My respect for these riders continues to grow. Those are some big mountains. And fun roads to drive when I relaxed enough to enjoy it!

Reaching the final approach before all the roads were closed, I chanced my luck and drove up the mountain. I thought I’d made a terrible error when I found myself driving between the barriers in the final kms (visions of attempting a 20 point turn in front of unhappy officials on a steep slope… should I have tried to park in that one tiny spot on the side of a sheer drop between campervans?), but found salvation in the form of a helpful marshal towards the top. I asked him if I could turn around in the driveway he was guarding, and he told me I could drive right in there – it was a carpark about the size of a small airfield, hidden over the side of the hill! Hooray!!

Bleary eyed campers were emerging from tents and the ubiquitous campervans, a variety of flags and bunting was hanging from the ski lodge balconies, and all kinds of encouragement was painted on the road… Clearly the Tour was coming to town at Peyragudes.

As the cloud rolled across the mountain top, periodically obscuring and revealing the surrounding vista, I walked the final few kilometres to find the finish area and check out the layout for the day.  They were just taping down the finish line and measuring where to paint the ‘SKODA’ logos on the road. A tech guy ran cables to the finish-line commentary box, and erected speakers. Another team worked behind slow-moving vans to stretch the sponsors’ advertising banners over the roadside barriers. A jovial mob of about 50 tour roadies held their morning briefing on the track. A group of Japanese fans with Europcar flags spread groundsheets and took photos of each other as they staked out a spot by the finish line to cheer home their countryman.

After asking a couple of marshals, I decided I had sufficiently precise instructions on where to pick up my wristband for later access to the VIP area, and headed back to the village to absorb the atmosphere and watch the organised chaos unfold.

There was a roving band of minstrels, a lot of people wearing orange, sweaty amateur cyclists sporting more shaved legs than you’d see at a girls high school, the installation of the flamme rouge and the mountain points banner, and a young gendarme struggling to maintain control of his entry to the restricted area as the trickle of officials and absolutely-not-officials gradually turned into a torrent.   The official merchandise shop did  brisk business, as did the sausage sizzle.

News that the GreenEdge rep with the VIP passes was running late due to TdF traffic jams threw a small spanner in my carefully laid plans.  I now had to get myself to the VIP area gate on the restricted side of the track in order to pick up my pass.  Sadly though, you needed a pass to get to the gate where I was supposed to pick up my pass.  Difficult.  But not insurmountable.  It turns out that standing on the other side of the track, wearing an Aussie flag, and waving your arms about while yelling “Shane! Help!” is effective in these situations.

I teamed up with a couple of other groups of Aussies heading in to the VIP area and we eventually formed a crew of about 10 as we staked out our spot on the barriers at the final corner, about 70m from the the finish line.  They were a good bunch and we passed a pleasant afternoon watching the caravane, watching the crowd, watching the action on the big screen in the distance, watching the marshalls try valiantly to keep the track clear of frustratingly slow-moving official cars, and, at last, watching the riders arrive!

After all that climbing, they still came flying in to the finish.  Because of space restrictions, the team buses were parked back near the flamme rouge, and all the riders, after crossing the finish line and running the media gauntlet, simply turned around and rode back out along the edge of the track to get back to their teams.  And so, we got to see them all again, at low speed, and right in front of us!  As Cadel came past, sweat dripping from his chin, I gave him a big wave of the flag and a “We love you Cadel! You’re awesome!” (just utilising the royal ‘we’ there, or cheering on behalf of all Australians perhaps, except the haters), and he saw me and smiled and waved!!!  Huge highlight!   And all this after I’d met Robbie McEwen earlier in the VIP zone!  Brushes with Australian cycling royalty all round.

The day wasn’t over though until I’d gotten myself off the mountain, which I expected to take quite a long time given the nasty snarl of team cars + press motos + official skodas + caravane vehicles + gendarmes that formed almost immediately after the last rider crossed the line.  There was a system though, and, fortunately, two roads off the mountain – one being used by everyone official, and the other for the punters.  I only sat in the snaking line of traffic for about an hour, which was better than I expected, I made it safely back to Toulouse with only a couple of minor disputes with the Paul-the-SatNav-voice, AND found a spot to park in the same street as my hotel.  A winning end to another super day.

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Le Tour day 3 – stage 16

This is the blog-wrap-up of yesterday’s stage, which I wrote yesterday but had no wifi around to share it with you.  Today (stage 17) was EPIC – blog on that to follow.  Meanwhile, to catch up…

We enjoyed a restful rest day after stage 15 in the glorious Pyrennees involving strenuous mountain biking (Liz) and somewhat less strenuous wandering on one of the many local walking trails (me). We both came back with stories of stunning views in all directions, including up the valley towards the fabled Col du Tourmalet. From my walk I could see in the distance to the big switchbacks above the treeline, handily defined by an almost unbroken line of glittering campervans parked along the route, ready for the big mountain stage of Le Tour!

Stage 16 day dawned bright and sunny again. Great for spectating. Possibly less exciting if you were facing the prospect of riding over 4 huge mountains for the day! A stream of cyclists, walkers and campervans was heading up the road towards the Col du Tourmalet from early morning. Staying on the mountain itself meant we didn’t need to rush, and we eventually set out, sun-creamed and be-flagged, to walk a short way up the hill from our base in the village of Bareges.

It’s a friendly atmosphere among the crowd, with lots of smiled greetings along the way – valid in any language. The odd “Cadel Evans!” in varying accents came our way from those who recognised the Aussie flag, there was a bit of banter with the Brits, we learned what the Bretagne flag looked like by asking the girls carrying it, and in our turn informed a few people that we’re Australian (NOT English!) – “Vive L’Australie!”

We found a spot to park ourselves that met our criteria for the day – not too crowded, good views of the approaching cyclists, enough space to be off the road & safely out of the way without falling off a precipice, and a bit of shade to wait in. Win.

Text messages to parents with precise “where to look for us on the tv coverage” information all sent, we didn’t have long to wait before the caravane was upon us again. (Side note – my apologies – turns out I’ve been misspelling it. Should be ‘caravane’.) Another respectable haul of free stuff was thrown at us from the fast-moving vehicles. I think our total cap/hat stash now stands at 12. Undoubted highlight – Liz scored a cycling jersey – tossed straight to her from the PMU guys (sponsors of the sprinter’s green jersey). Not your average free stuff!

After giving a big cheer to the passing Orica GreenEdge car (and they were filming – might we be in a backstage pass video?!), we just had time for a baguette and some caravane-sponsored snacks before we were getting ready for the riders’ arrival. Mission for the day was to spot Cadel and give him a personal cheer, among general hollering for all the Aussies in the field and the GreenEdge guys in particular.

And so they came by! Having already come over one big col and being almost half way up another, the field was already quite spread out and moving along at a pace that made it really easy to see them all and pick out individuals. And they were so close to us! Once again, it was VERY exciting. We did see Cadel – still in the main yellow jersey group at that stage – and we gave him a big cheer while waving the flag madly. It was great to see most of the GreenEdge guys were still in big groups towards the front & middle of the field at that stage too. We cheered for every single rider who came past – especially those guys on their own – Allez, Allez, Allez! It was nice to see the GreenEdge car giving a bottle (and a sly boost back on to the rear of his group) to a rider from another team. Apparently it’s not all cut-throat out on the road… The lone Lotto rider, last on the course, on his own, a long way behind the closest riders and struggling badly, received an especially big cheer from all the spectators on our patch. I wonder if he made it to the finish?

After the ‘Fin de la course’ van went by, everyone hopped in their cars or on their bikes and made off down the mountain again. It’s surprising how fast people disappear after the race passes! All those keen cyclists who had huffed and puffed their way up the mountain earlier received their reward and came whizzing down again with a variety of flags, souvenir merchandise and caravane paraphenalia strapped to their backs and flapping in the wind.
We walked back down to Bareges and found a handy pub in which to watch the rest of the day’s stage. Easy to pick the variety of nationalities present as cheers and groans variously arose from the crowd for Voekler’s attack, Cadel’s difficulties, Nibali’s attack, Wiggins & Froome’s response, Voekler’s victory, and the Euskatel rider taking advantage of Vinikourov’s pedal clip issue to come in 3rd. All the frenchies very excited once again, and some long faces amongst the Australians.

Despite Cadel losing more time (AND my sunnies broke – bad day or what?!), we thoroughly enjoyed another super day out watching the travelling circus that is Le Tour.

(Apologies again for no photos – picture 2 aussie girls holding a large flag between them and yelling madly as colourfully clad cyclists pass by on a steep hill… got it?  So who needs photos?)

Edit – pics!

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Le Tour du Tour – day 2 (stage 15)

After the excitement of being at the finish line for our first tour stage, we opted for a more relaxed spot on the stage 15 route and set off into the glorious french country-side.

To get there, we hired a car.  (I almost scored a huge Europcar flag from the guy in the car rental office when I told him I was going to watch Le Tour, but apparently they keep them for small children.  Given that the flag would be larger than most small children I’d be interested to see how that works in practice.)

After a quick prayer for safety, several deep breaths and a couple of practice laps around the car park, we headed out from Toulouse for my first ever driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road experience.   I was very glad to have Liz along for the ride, as she fearlessly grappled with the sat-nav and the very large paper map, and gave occasional patient reminders that it might be a better idea to drive on the right-hand side.  She also made a very impressive phone call in french to our accommodation for the evening to confirm our arrival and check some details.  Driving on the right and french phone calls – huge personal victories all round!  Go team!

Passing fields of sunflowers, stunning views over checkerboard rolling hills, picturesque french country villages and mediaeval towns, we made it without incident to the little town of Marciac, drove along the yet-to-be-closed roads the riders would later use, and found ourselves a nice little picnic spot under shady trees on the first long slow rise after the town.

With not so many hours to wait, a shady spot to sit, lovely country views, a quality french picnic lunch, and far fewer people around jostling for position, it was a very pleasant afternoon!  Very soon anticipation started to build… more official cars and motorbikes cruised past, the official merchandise vans came by, as did the distributors of the daily tour caravanne newspaper.

Then the caravanne!  When we saw them coming in to the finish area of stage 14, it was a slow speed procession… not so out along the route!  They fly along, and the (harnessed-in) merchandise distributors in the back of cars and vans and trucks have some pretty impressive and accurate high-speed throwing skills.  We ended up with quite a haul including several caps, keyrings, large green hands, inflatable pillows, washing detergent, a fake foam phone, cigarette pouches, comic books, quite a variety of snacks and confectionary, vouchers we won’t use, and a useful folding bag into which we stuffed all the stuff.  The amount of waste that this event must generate is mind-boggling!

Thus fortified, we spent the next hour or so snacking on our free food and watching the ever increasing stream of official vehicles, media, gendarmes, team cars, VIPs…  As it happened, we ended up being right on the end of the feed zone, so I got to say hi to the Orica Greenedge guys when I wandered down the road to check out the 5 helicopters which had just landed in the hay-bale-spotted field, and the truck full of waving children – I’m sure they would have featured in the television coverage!

And finally, the race appeared!  We had a great view of them approaching up the hill from the town.  First the break of 6 (along with Claire the time gap girl on her yellow motorbike!), then the bunch about 10 minutes later, rolling fairly peacefully with Sky on the front as usual.  As they were going slowly, and we were right there, we could see them well and pick out faces and individuals… so exciting!  We cheered loudly for all the aussies, GreenEdge and BMC and waved our big flag between us.  There were more aussie flags further up the hill so hopefully they all felt well encouraged on our little stretch.  Liz scored an FDJ water bottle thrown out of the peloton, and we got a wave from Matt White & co in the GreenEdge car as they went past behind the pack – woohoo!

We thought it was over, but a few minutes later there was one more small group including Brett Lancaster.  Only found out later that these were the guys who had abandoned that day.  Not having much news access here, still not sure why.  Hope they are all ok.

Pretty stoked once again with our tour experience for the day, we hopped back in the car and drove into the spectacular Pyrennean mountain country, following part of the route the guys will ride on stage 16.  We’re staying part way up the route du Tourmalet, in a tiny village called Bareges.  The roads are scary to drive up – I can’t even imagine doing it on a bike (although there are plenty of amateurs doing just that!)

After 2 days of tour chasing, we’re very glad of a rest day, particularly in such a beautiful part of the world.  Looking forward to watching Le Tour hit the big mountains next!!

(PS – sorry no pics today – limitations of wifi connection.  Hope to come back and add some later.)

Edit – pics added!

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Touring at Le Tour

Today was the start of my “chase the Tour de France” week, in which I’ll be racing around the french countryside hoping to see the last 7 stages of the great bike race.  With my new friend Liz, whom I met while learning french in Toulouse, we headed out to Foix to watch the finish of stage 14.  Here’s how it went…

There was childish excitement when we arrived by train in Foix around 10am.  Foix has a pretty castle on a hill and stunning views of surrounding mountains.  The kind you probably wouldn’t want to ride a bike over, in my humble opinion.

We found the flamme rouge (the 1km-to-go mark) while there were still no crowds and jumped the barriers to take photos of each other underneath it.  Then we wandered in the direction of Centre Ville to find the finish (via a surprising amount of fruit juice and tasty artisan biscuits from a friendly shop owner who apologised profusely for initially thinking my flag was british).

Having found the finish area still suprisingly uncrowded at that time of the morning, we took up a spot on the barriers about 10m before the finish line, and settled in for the long wait.  The folding chair purchased last week has already proved useful.

During the 6 hours we waited there, we watched the making of a french movie about cycling (including guest appearances from french cycling royalty Bernard Hinault and Laurent Jalabert, and starring appearances from apparently famous french actors we didn’t recognise), battled with impolite barrier barger-innerers, picked up some useless freebies, then confounded the freebie distributers by trying to refuse any more (the yellow hat giver wasn’t to be denied though – lucky Liz!), saw a (non-tdf) cyclist take a nasty tumble and leave in an ambulance, got excited when the team buses arrived, watched a couple of dancing troupes, didn’t win any prizes by failing to answer trivia questions about tour sponsors, tested our french trying to decipher the periodic verbal race updates, saw the future of french cycling arrive in the form of a juniors race, spotted more cycling royalty (like Richard Virenque, and Mike Tomalaris… same realm right?!), waved like fools in the background of a few live camera shots (did anyone see us on Eurosports?), and welcomed the arrival of the publicity caravan as a sign that the race must be getting closer.

Turns out a lot goes on around the finish during the day that you never see on television!!

Text updates from mum watching on SBS in Australia were handy to clarify our sometimes muddy understanding of the french commentary.. particularly when there were repeated mentions of Cadel Evans “en difficulte”.

And finally, the riders arrived!  Whoosh…!  Luis Leon Sanchez, celebrating.  Well done that man – redeeming what has been an awful tour for Rabobank.  We stayed on the barriers and cheered right through to the guys in much later groups (like much of the Orica GreenEdge team!) who arrived looking decidedly damp, cold and tired, after all the formalities on the podium were already finished for the day.  Another amazing effort from every single cyclist.

And, just as quickly as they had arrived, the team cars loaded with bikes and the huge team coaches were on their way out again – off to get ready for another stage tomorrow.  As are we!

If you’re watching at home, tomorrow we hope to catch stage 15 somewhere between the feed zone and the intermediate sprint – hopefully less crowded than today!  Then we’re heading up into the Pyrennees for our own rest day – at Bareges, a tiny ski town half way up the Tourmalet where we’ll watch stage 16 on Wednesday.  If I can find wifi there, I’ll keep you updated as the adventure unfolds!!

Vive le tour!



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Some long overdue news from Toulouse

It seems I’ve been in France for 4 weeks already!  I know this because I just finished my first 4 week block of french classes.  And not a new blog post to show for it… tut tut.  So, finally, here’s a bit of an overview of what I’ve been up to during June.

I’ve learned lots of french!

Which is pleasing, as that’s the main reason I came here.  I’ve just finished a 4 week intensive course at the Alliance Francaise in Toulouse, and am about to do another one for the next 2 weeks.  An intensive course involves class time each morning (9am til 12.30 / 1pm) Monday to Friday.  That’s a LOT of french.  I’ve had a great teacher, and I’m sure I’ve learned more in the last 4 weeks than I learned in 4 years of french at school.

I still understand a lot more than I can say, but am hoping my conversation will improve in the next couple of weeks with more practice.  It’s quite exciting picking up the free local newspaper each day and understanding phrases that I wouldn’t have been able to decipher the previous day.  Also in “french language victories” this weekend I gave directions to (french) tourists who asked me the way to the river, and managed to answer someone who asked me some questions about my kindle.  So I must be improving.

I’ve joined in with the optional activities my school organises

During the afternoons, usually 2 or 3 times a week, the Alliance organises stuff for us to do so we can practice our french.  From watching a french movie with the french subtitles on to aid in comprehension, to a cheese degustation afternoon, a guided tour around town (and another in a neighbouring town), learning to cook french desserts, and a privately hosted visit to the local rugby stadium (really a temple of rugby – they are fanatical around here), they have all been fun and interesting.  These activites are also a good chance to meet students from the other classes and levels, and practice chatting with others who also have to think hard and speak slowly, often with much hand waving and improvised vocabulary!

I’ve enjoyed exploring Toulouse, and all the local festivites

I’m staying in the apartment of a local family, right in the heart of the very pretty old town and central to all the action.  I invested in a trusty (french) book of walks around Toulouse, and I’ve enjoyed wandering the warren-like cobbled streets admiring the many stunning facades around “La Ville Rose”, as well as heading further afield along the river (Garonne) and the canals, including the world-heritage-listed Canal du Midi – another engineering marvel.

I’ve been out to visit the Airbus A380 assembly site and marvelled at the size of the operation they run here (not to mention the size of the building where they can assemble and test 4 of these aircraft at once, under one roof… floor space the size of 22 football fields apparently.  And there are no internal supporting pillars!  Yep, the nerd within lives on.)

I’ve also enjoyed getting out amongst the masses for events like watching the french rugby final on the big screen with seemingly every single other resident of Toulouse  (they won!), or the France-wide “Fete de la musique”, where for one day of the year, every street corner, plaza, pub and public space is occupied by some sort of music making group – from the very amateur to the highly professional!  I started my evening with a free organ recital in the local landmark cathedral, wandered on to a couple of violinists playing spritely tunes to which locals danced in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jane Austen balls, passed a rock group, several rastafarian wannabes with speakers in vans, an excellent jazz ensemble, and finally the big stage in the main square featuring some very talented ‘new talent’, and some opportunistic brazilian drummers who filled the gaps between acts.  I piked and went home about midnight after about 6 hours of taking it all in… the people I live with were just preparing to head out.  They got home around 7am.  It was that kind of party.

I’ve enjoyed exploring a bit further afield with a couple of weekend / day trips

I spent a lovely weekend at Carcassonne – a picturesque walled city complete with castle, cathedral, and views over picturesque countryside all the way to the Pyrenees.  The reality looks far more like the board game than I had expected!  There’s even a river (although I didn’t see any dragons or volcanoes), and a history involving heretics, a pope-ordained crusade, and orders of inquisitorial monks.  I’m sure I’ll remember this next time I pick up 9 points for completing a monastery, although due to infrequent use I seem to have already forgotten the french vocabulary I picked up relating to castle keeps, sieges, and large catapults.

Yesterday I hopped on the train again and spent Saturday catching up with some friends holidaying in Bordeaux – where there just happened to be a wine festival happening!  How fortuitous.

I’ve planned to watch the final week of the Tour de France, and become quite excited!

After my second course finished in another 2 weeks, the big bike race will just be rounding the south-east corner of France and heading across this way to wind through the Pyrenees before heading to Paris for the big finale.  And I’m going to follow it!  I’m hoping to see the last 7 stages, so if you’re the kind of fan who watches the broadcast on SBS late at night, be prepared to watch out for me cheering from the side of the road (with all the other crazy tour fans).  I’m pondering a suitable outfit… so far I have a GreenEdge shirt and a large Aussie flag.  But in the last week I’ve started a survey of the local shops, and have found glittery hats, fluorescent wigs and a range of other horrendously eye-catching clothing items and accessories.  Watched stage 1 on french tv today – it’s quite a different experience watching the stage during the afternoon instead of the middle of the night (not to mention the french commentary… I’m sure by week 3 I’ll understand it all!)

I’ve eaten a lot of baguettes, pastries and chocolate

Because, after all, this is France.  Which is pretty much food heaven.  And it would be a crime not to make the most of the opportunity to sample the widest possible variety of the local cuisine, non?!

This is the street where I’m staying

View from the apartment window

Le Stade Toulousain are french rugby champions.. again!

Le tour de France de fromages – an afternoon of amazing cheese

Pont Neuf, Toulouse

Toulouse is called “La Ville Rose” for all its beautiful pink/red bricks. This is the ‘Capitoleum’ – effectively the town hall – modelled on the palace of Versailles!

Exploring Carcassonne (sadly no handsome prince appeared, despite my loitering in high towers)

And one more Carcassonne photo (out of the MANY), because it’s just so pretty 🙂

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Phrasebook triumphs

I know it’s been quiet around the blog lately… that could be because since my fab sister Vanessa arrived, the pace of tourist activity has been blistering.  Or it could be that I’ve just been a slacker about getting around to blog posts.

So, here’s a short summary of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen in the last few weeks…

I met Vanessa in Amsterdam in mid-April, where we enjoyed a lovely canal view from our hotel room at the top of some precipitous stairs.  We also enjoyed catching up with family, seeing the Keukenhof gardens in spectacular spring flower, the Speelklok museum of mechanical musical instruments in Utrecht, Anne Frank‘s house, canal cruising, and appelflappens (very tasty dutch pastry… we ate quite a few).

Then we headed to Belgium – more musical instruments along with waffles, amazing chocolate and a giant model of an atom in Brussels, then a sunny day (at last!) in picturesque Bruges proved perfect for more canal cruising, aimless wandering of cobbled alleys, and a free harp concert we happened upon.

Three days of touring the World War 1 battlefields of Flanders and the Somme region with our energetic self-proclaimed anarchist driver culminated in attending the ANZAC Day dawn service at the Villers-Bretonneux Australian War Memorial – a great experience to be a part of, even if it was perhaps the coldest I’ve been on this trip – including Russia.

We spent a few days in Paris (and have way too many photos of the Eiffel tower to prove it), before heading onwards to Italy where we enjoyed looking at very old things in Rome before coming down to Sorrento where we are enjoying a spectacular view over Mt Vesuvius and the Bay of Napoli from our hotel balcony.

We have enjoyed the best frites in the Netherlands, the best ice-cream in Paris, and the best gelato in the WORLD (apparently) in Rome, among other gastronomic delights as we eat our way around Europe.

There have also been several moments of phrasebook wonderment, which I thought it was worth sharing, as it’s always a bit intimidating being in a country (or several) where you don’t speak the language, but we are loving having a go.  Moments of glory include complaining about the mysterious case of the missing Kit Kats in french, an adventure in posting a parcel to Australia in italian, catching a local bus including asking the driver (a) if it stopped at our hotel, and (b) if he could tell us when we got there in italian, and asking for extra blankets, also in italian.  This last instance just occurred this evening, and Vanessa’s phrasebook italian was apparently so impressive that the response was also given in italian and the blankets swiftly appeared.  What a victory!  We’ve also massacred the various local languages ordering food, buying tickets, and gesticulating over souvenirs, and we are having a wonderful time.

Hopefully less slacking and more frequent blogging in weeks to come.  Thanks for popping by!

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