Friday, 27 July 2007

Vacances en plus

Because of the cloudy weather forecast, Tuesday's special treat got postponed until Wednesday. Still, Tuesday itself wasn't wasted since we headed over to nearby Foix for a mooch. Unfortunately Jac had succumbed to a tummy bug, and eventually retreated back to the car. Alice and I, however, enjoyed a walk around the charming chateau, and visited a farmers' market and picked up some foie gras. Lovely town.
While in Foix we heard about an underground river complex nearby, and decided that since we were in the area... Absolutely wonderful experience, though no photography allowed so I only have a few postcards to remember the experience by. Back to Saint-Girons in time for an evening meal. Again just Alice and I, we found what looked like a roadside café, which served a not-too-bad pizza, though they mucked the order up slightly.

Wednesday began a beautiful day, with not a cloud in the sky. Perfect weather - especially to go and take a peek at the mountains in a light aircraft. What an experience! To try to describe it would not possibly do it justice, though fortunately I took lots of amazing photographs along the way. What a way to spend an hour! All I can say is that the pilot is a lucky man. Because we flew quite early on, there was still time to check out Saint-Lizier before lunch. A beautiful old hillside town, seemingly with every view being framed against the backdrop of the Pyrenees. Magnificent.

From this point, things definitely took a turn for the worse. We headed back for some lunch in Saint-Girons, and within an hour of this I was feeling very poorly indeed. We'd gone back to the hotel but literally all I could do was lie on the bed with a tummy ache. Of course, this was double trouble because it also disrupted plans I'd made. To cut a long story short, I ended up seeing lunch over again in the bottom of the toilet. At least having been sick I felt well enough to go out, although this was Wednesday and I've not felt quite right since.
Out, eventually, alone, on a beautiful circular tour culminating on the Col de Portet d'Aspet, which is well-known to anyone who knows the Tour de France, and in fact was riffen by the cyclists on Monday, after they'd sprinted through Saint-Girons. Spectacular, lush, green countryside - I have to say not at all what I'd generally consider to be a mountain pass. I stopped to pay my respects at the memorial to Fabio Casartelli, who crashed and died on the descent in 1995, aged just 25.

I remember this well because I happened to be staying with Isabelle at the time, and the five or six hours live coverage on French tv was novel to us (we made do with a half-hour roundup in England), so I happened to see the immediate aftermath. Even at 25, Casartelli already had an Olympic gold behind him - a sad loss.
Turned north / north east to complete the circuit, stopping off in Aspin for a cool, refreshing Orangina (and a toilet break!) and arriving back at the hotel via the local Champion.

Our last day, we quit the hotel early to spend a couple of hours in Tolouse before we flew home. Alice initiated an argument which meant that none of us spoke to each other for the trip up there, and while we papered over the cracks in Toulouse it still meant for a stressful day. Add to that the enormous queue to check in when we finally got to the airport,I had to have words with some guy who just decided to push his way past us on his way onto the plane. Now, I know we'd all get on the plane anyway, but it was just rude and I didn't feel like putting up with it.

To make matters worse, Alice played up on the plane, whining like a toddler, and so any hope I'd had of getting a little sleep went straight out of the window. Plus, of course, we went from 30 degree sunshine in Toulouse back to 13 degree rain and cloud back in Bristol.

To cap it all, we were greeted by a real "jobsworth" woman in immigration. Really, I feel I ought to complain. Alice was walking ahead of us and so I gave her her passport and told her to wait by the baggage reclaim. This obnoxious woman, presumably from Immigration, said to me "she has to stay with you". Put off by the tone, as much as anything, I asked why. "Just because", came the reply. Ignorant bitch. It is a classic case of putting someone in a uniform.... Especially with all this terror rubbish at the moment, they feel they can do as they please.

Still, once we were through the airport, there was a chap waiting with the car, which was good. The only thing left was the interminable drive back home, complicated firstly by the route strangely being reprogrammed such that we ended up headiing toward Weston-super-Mare (the opposite direction) - Jacqueline denies all knowledge. Then, losing first the GPS device and then the GPS signal, so we didn't know where we were headed. Then, once we'd found the receiver on the floor of the car, the battery on the PDA giving out altogether. Fortunately by this time I could pretty much remember the way back. The only other event of the journey was travelling at 60mph down this road and at very short notice seeing a sign for a ramp - although I jammed the brakes on the car seemed to hit it at a hell of a speed. Fortunately it felt worse than it actually was, and the car drove home without any ill effects.

Got home after about 2 hours (mental note never to fly from Bristol again), and I slept well last night. When I woke this morning, my tummy was still sufficiently dodgy that I just turned over and went back to bed, telling the clients that i'd be recouperating today. After all this holiday nonsense, I need a rest!

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Live and Direct

There's this strange sensation on my face. It feels a little pink, and strangely warm. Could it be???? Ah, yes, I remember. Its sunshine!

While the rest of the UK is seemingly underwater, we are counting our lucky stars, nestled in the Pyrenees in the picturesque town of Saint-Girons. We're taking a couple of days away to watch one of my favourite sporting events, the Tour de France.

The first stage I saw was in Paris in '98, with Marco Pantani coming home in yellow. After that, a massive gap until we saw the Prologue just a couple of weeks ago in London. Hot on its heels, we're down here to see a true mountain stage in the midst of some wonderful scenery. As it happens, although yesterday was a mountain stage (2 category 2 climbs, 2 category 1 climbs, and 1 hors-categorie climb) we actually chose to watch close to the hotel, since in Saint-Girons there was an intermediate sprint. We were lucky, since le tour passed immediately in front of the hotel (La Clairiere - very pleasant for a one-star hotel), so we only had to leave the room fifteen minutes before the caravan was due.

For all I've seen the tour three times, this was the first time seeing the caravan. This is basically a stream of trucks and floats, advertising anything you might imagine, which pass down the route in front of the cyclists. On their way, they throw out all kinds of freebies. So we ended up with a whole bagful of things. For caravan "virgins", we soon learned that there were good places and bad places to stand, and it was infuriating that the kid just 10 metres along the road was accumulating gear at a much faster rate than us. So, we repositioned ourselves a little close to a roundabout, where of course everything had to travel that little bit more slowly. But it is all a bit of a lottery - Jacqueline would have loved a baseball cap but unfortunately it was caught by the guy next to her, probably we caught things that other people would have loved to have. Still, all in all great fun as long as you don't allow yourselves to get too disappointed.

Having been warmed up by the caravan, we strolled on into the centre of Saint-Girons and eventually settled into a nice spec, just 10 metres or so from the sprint line. An hour's wait (interminable for Alice) and the leaders raced past. Unfortunately at this point the camera refused to work (probably not the camera's fault, more likely a lack of brain-to-hand coordination!) and unfortunately the one shot I did get had a big green "hand" placard in the middle of the shot! However, all was not lost, since this was a breakaway of a dozen or so riders (including Vinoukourov, the eventual winner) and the main peloton was yet to pass through. Ten minutes later and I made no mistake - the camera has this high-speed mode, allowing me to shoot 7 shots per second, and as soon as the peloton came into view I started snapping Around 200 shots later... So hopefully one or two of them will look good.

Now, after Saint-Girons, those poor guys still had another three or four hours cycling to do, and four of the five peaks still to climb. So, I had a mad idea to try to catch up with them again at the finish. According to TomTom, we could make it, however as we neared Loudenville, the gendarmes had other ideas. 10km (or 5km, or 6km, depending on which gendarme I asked) from l'arivee, they were turning all cars back and only allowing people through on foot. Although we were able to park quite easily by the side of the road, it soon became apparent that we were never going to make it with a seven-year-old in tow. Admitting defeat, we turned tail for a town called Arreau, where we ate a belated lunch.

Although we passed through some beautiful scenery, indeed we could see snow-covered peaks in the distance, in truth the weather was starting to cloud over even before we left Arreau, and certainly by the time we arrived back in Saint-Girons, the cloud had turned into rain, weather which I guess is quite prevalent here. Home to a quiet night in the room, via Intermarche and MacDonalds.

This morning we have sun and blue skies once more, though there is quite a stiff breeze making it a little chilly. This afternoon, we have another treat in store - more later!

Friday, 20 July 2007

Wet Wet Wet

We're having an unbelievably wet summer - I looked at the weather station when I got up, and saw that there had been 13mm of rain already today.

Life is more interesting at the moment, since I am closely following the Tour de France. I started off at the opening ceremony on Friday 6th, then we came back up to London the next day, en famille, to watch the prologue - as Mother Nature would have it, a beautiful sunny day and a wonderful atmosphere to boot. Sunday saw the tour head down toward the Kentish coast, though we watched the stage courtesy of Eurosport. Since then I have contented myself by watching the highlights show each day - yesterday's stage went from Marseilles to Montpellier, and there were some wonderful aerial shots of Arles  along the way. If I were pushed, that part of France would be very close to the top of my "favourites" list.

On the subject of the Tour de France, however, it is only going to get better, since on Sunday we will fly down to Toulouse, and thereon drive down to the small Pyrennean town of St Girons, where we will watch Monday's stage. Tremendously exciting.

As well as being a nice little "jolly", I do feel I could use the break at the moment. Since we returned from the main holiday I have spent a lot of time at the clients' and worked plenty of overtime, all toward trying to meet a deadline that I told them several months ago was unachievable. Hey, ho. I think I could be developing itchy feet syndrome once again.

Straight off the back of our Tour de France visit to London, we headed back again the very next weekend, this time to meet up with a friend of mine, Martin, and his family. We met up at Camden Market, somewhere I haven't been since around 20 years ago. I used to love it up there, but having aged somewhat I now find myself uncomfortable among that many people. Still, following a stroll along Regent's Canal we then headed back to Martin's house where we enjoyed a sumptuous barbequeue. Wonderfully relaxing day - even Alice's overly high spirits seem to have been tolerated.

Ah, well, the rsi is starting to kick-in now, I'll call it a day. Must write some more from France.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Fading Tan

Its now two-and-a-half weeks since we came back from holiday :-(

In that time, I don't think we've had a single rain-free day :-(( The faint tan lines I acquired in France look more like I've forgotten to wash.

Last weekend was typical. Saturday, we ended up going for a walk over at Bolderwood - A took her bike, J her new shoes (with which she is still elated) and I took a pair of binoculars I've bought on eBay. (They feed the deer at Bolderwood, and there is normally a good opportunity to see lots of deer, albeit at a few hundred yards distance. This time of year, the stags' antlers are just about ready, so they looked very regal.)

Tippled down with rain, but at least we can confirm that J's swanky £90 Merrell shoes are indeed waterproof, and comfortable as anything, so she says.

More encounters with deer on Monday, this time driving home from a restaurant when I nearly hit a couple of them! Fortunately it was raining and I was driving quite slowly, I decided against continuing the chase cross-country! We'd been out to celebrate the birthday of a friend (sans Alice, we've found a new babysitter!) at an Indian restaurant. We've never been to this particular restaurant before but must have passed it hundreds of times and have more than once said "we must try that place sometime". So now we have!

Also went out to eat Sunday, in celebration of J's birthday the day before. Ended up at the Fighting Cocks at Godshill. I went there once about 10 years ago, but this was the first time since. Despite the "lived in" decor, the food was really quite good, and I had a very enjoyable lamb roast.

Have not been near the garden since our return from holiday, despite a newly-serviced mower sitting in the garage. Maybe this weekend...

In the meantime, been working a lot at the clients, which will at least improve the bank balance a little (overspent by around £1000 in France - unbelievable!!) 43 hours last week (probably a short week to many people, but quite a lot longer than I can usually bear to spend with the clients!) Same again this week, boring...

More soon.