Monday, July 24, 2006

Tour de France - Stage 20 - Champs Elysses

As we previously mentioned, we really wanted to see the Tour de France while in Europe. A couple of weeks ago we watched stages 7 and 8 in the Brittany region in western France. Now, as the tour drew to a close, we were in Paris to see the final stage.

Without a real plan as to the best place to see the stage, we made our way to the Champs Elysses and found a place with a good view in both directions. It was a hot summer day in Paris. Not hot like a Queensland summer, but still warm enough when you are sitting on a black road. We setup camp around 11:30 and kept ourselves amused until something happened.

The tour caravan came past at about 3:00. It was the same as the one we had seen a couple of weeks earlier, except that the people on it looked very relieved to have finally hit the Champs Elysses and didn't have to do this too much longer. There were no freebies this time, either because they ran out or because everyone couldn't be bothered.

Competition for a view was fierce. We were second off the rails with short people in front, so we did quite well. Others were just plain rude about it. One fellow used his child as a wedge to get onto the rail - ask some sucker if your child can be on the rail an hour early, then once the riders come push your way through to the front under the pretence of rescuing your child from being crushed!

About an hour later we heard the TV helicopters overhead and the cyclists made their way up from Place de la Concorde for the first time. As expected the yellow jersey Phonak team of Floyd Landis led the peleton. The peleton was moving fast. Real fast. The Champs Elysses isn't a flat road, it rises steadily up to the Arc de Triomphe, but these guys make it look like a downhill. As the 8 laps progressed breakaways formed, but were quickly reeled in, and the pace consistently rose.

In the end it turned out to be a sprinter's finish, with Robbie McEwan, Thor Hushovd, Stuart O'Grady and Erik Zabel fighting it out. Go Aussies! In the end Hushovd won the sprint and stage with McEwan and O'Grady closely following. Maybe next year for an Aussie 1st and 2nd in Paris. McEwan retained the sprinters jersey.

As the last lap went by we made our way down to the podium, along with plenty of others. Hushovd got his stage prize, McEwan the green jersey and Landis the yellow jersey. And then it was over. Masses of people flocked to public transport or gave up and walked. The Tour de France had come to town and was now being rapidly disassembled.

It was a great day for us. We really enjoyed the tour.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Paris and River Cruise

Kelly and I were going over to Paris to watch the last stage of the Tour de France. Since we had already had a trip to Paris we were hoping to take it easy. We flew into Paris on Saturday morning and went to our hotel. Kelly had seen the outside of the Opera house in her trip over with Karenlea and wanted to see inside, so that was our first stop in the afternoon.

As you can see from the photos the Opera house is really quite grand, but it doesn't have that self-important feeling that comes with a palace building. We also visited La Madeleine, a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Not only is the interior eerily beautiful, the building itself is huge and looks directly down a hill to the Place de la Concorde. It is one of the best best buildings in Paris.

That night we decided to take a dinner cruise on the Sienne and see all of the sights of Paris from a different angle. It was a wonderful cruise - a full three course meal, champagne, red and white wine, glass top boat and a nice sunset. I had an escargot spring roll for entree, Kelly politely refused my offer to share. The cruise lasted for 3 hours and went from the Eiffel Tower, up past Notre Dame and back again. In between meal courses you could watch the sights go by or stroll out to the back deck and look at the people going past, enjoying a summer's evening.

After the cruise we walked back up through Trocadero and sat and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle. We enjoyed our day in Paris and were looking forward for the Tour de France stage the next day.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Toast Festival

The Toast Festival is a festival of Australian food, wine and entertainment that happens during the summer in London. This year it featured Roy and HG and Paul Kelly. Roy and HG commentated a sandwich making competition and Paul Kelly put on an acoustic set. Blair McDonough, from Neighbours and Big Brother, was one of the sandwich making contenders.

Kelly, Karen and Dave went along to the festival. It was an afternoon of relaxing in the London sunshine and having a few wines. Kelly even got a photo with HG!

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Toast Festival
Sep 30, 2006 - 4 Photos

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Jono, Liam and Zurich

Jonathan was on the Switzerland leg of his European trip. The previous weekend Kelly and I went over to western France with him for two stages of the Tour de France. This weekend I flew over to Switzerland to meet him in Zurich.

Flights into Zurich were exorbitant - well over £350 return - so I took a cheaper option and flew into Basel-Mulhouse, which is in northern Switzerland, on the border intersection with France and Germany. I landed early Saturday morning and took a one hour train south-east to Zurich. The train trip was amazing. There were little Swiss villages and houses all through the valleys. Jonathan was catching a train up from Interlarken and we met at the Zurich Hauptbanhof that morning.

First thing was to get to the 'hotel' to drop off Jonathan's gear. I use the term hotel loosely. Hostel accommodation was not very cheap in Zurich and not very available. So instead we got a room in an ETap. ETap is part of the Accor chain, but it is bargain basement prices. Kelly and I had previously stayed in one in Germany over Easter. It is a room and it is clean, but it is basic. For all my griping though, I think Jonathan found it to be a step up from some of the hostels he found himself in over the previous week!

Armed with our 24 hour tram pass, we set off for the 2 hour walk around the main sights of Zurich. We walked around the old and new towns, along the river and the lake. Zurich is a compact and very welcoming city. Once we got down to the lake we found some lunch. We just had to have Bratwurst and bread - partly because nothing else was readily available. With Zurich being set on Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), we did a one hour cruise around the northern part of it. Recreation seems to be a big thing - the lake had numerous beaches and parks where people stretched out in bathers and swam on the edge of the lake. It looked so tempting.

One of the great things about just walking around a city is that you sometimes stumble across great surprises. We walked up the east side of the town and found a little square that was having some sort of party. It was a fund-raising BBQ for the local fire brigade. They were selling (yes) Bratwurst and other sausages, beers and wine. Providing the entertainment was a local accordian player. This was a fantastic place to stop and soak up the atmosphere. People just continually came and went, stopping for a beer or two and a chat. It was amazing.

That evening we bought a few snacks and sat down on the shore of the lake. The drinks we bought were Oettingers - only 80 centimes (about 80 AU cents or 35pence) for a 440ml can - bargain! We caught a tram up to the lookout, but there isn't much to see. At 11pm we find some dinner in the main street and then head back to the hotel.


On Sunday we hired a couple of bikes. The bike hire is free, but they take your passport as deposit - cringe. Bikes are a great way to get around and see lots in European cities. We catch a gondola up into the state forest on the mountains on the east side of the town. This is a recreational area that we cycle around and climb the lookout tower. We got a little lost riding back into town, but it was downhill! The brakes were burning (don't worry, they were hire bikes), and we had no idea where we were going, so we just headed downhill until we found the river again.

It was a warm day, so we rode down to the lake and found a beach where we sat around and had a swim. The water is so clean, since it is snow melt runoff. We ride back into town, have a coffee and return the bikes. I have to catch a train back to Basel to catch my flight. My train ticket isn't valid for the return journey, but I sweet talk the woman into reissuing it (saving 35 CHF). Jonathan was heading south out of Switzerland to Milan in Italy that night, so we parted ways at the train station.

I just make it back to the airport with 5 minutes before checkin - it was really touch and go. However, as usual the plane has been delayed for 90 minutes. Once I do get on the plane the captain's first words are "Ladies and gentlemen, please take the nearest seat, abandon all loved ones. We need to take off in the next 10 minutes otherwise we all stay here until the morning." He wasn't joking - there is an 11:15pm curfew on the runway. We endup taking off in time after the quickest of safety demonstrations and I'm back home in London by 2:30am.

Jonathan and I had a fantastic time in Zurich. I don't think that it would have mattered which city we went to, we just had a great time doing stuff. Makes you want to travel around for a living....

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Jono and Liam in Zurich
Jul 16, 2006 - 24 Photos

Monday, July 10, 2006

France - Rennes and Fougeres

For the weekend Kelly and I went over to France and met up with Jonathan for two stages of the Tour de France. On the Saturday night we stayed at the town of Rennes. It is a medium sized town that was in party mode for the arrival of the tour. The town square had a concert in the evening and there were traditional French movies late into night in front of the town hall. We had a nice dinner in a cafe near the town square. The cafe culture of France is just so laid back and relaxing.

On the way back to Paris on Sunday we stopped in the town of Fougeres. It is a small town a couple hundred kilometers west of Paris. It has a large castle which is perched on a rocky outcrop in the centre of the town. We had a look around and some food before heading to Paris only just making our flight.

Tour de France Stage 7 and Stage 8

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Rennes and Fougeres
Jul 9, 2006 - 16 Photos

Tour de France - Stage 8 - St Meen le Grand

This morning we woke up in our accommodation in Rennes. Sunday is a funny day in France. If you are looking for an early start and a bit of breakfast you are way out of luck, unless you get breakfast at your hotel. Having already experienced this in previous trips through Benelux and Paris we stopped at the first McDonalds that presented itself on the road to St Meen le Grand - the starting town of Stage 8 of the 2006 tour.

Stage 8 is a normal road stage of 200.5 km down to Lorient in the south of the western tip of France. Road stages present a different start to a time-trial. While the TT is an all day event for the starting town, a road stage is a short morning sprint. This didn't deter St Meen le Grand though. The whole town was a carnival atmosphere. We walked into the town from the parking area past houses that were decked out in tour supporting colours and decoration from top to bottom. The team bus enclosure was a more guarded area this day and we were unable to get much of a view without passes. We watched a bit of the official sign-in where the riders clunk up to the stage in their cleats and then avoid slipping down the wet stairs on the way down.

Apart from the cyclists, the other main event of a stage is the promotional parade. All of the official major and minor sponsors of the tour drive along an hour before the cyclists and through free, somewhat useless, marketing trinkets at you. The sheer uselessness of the objects doesn't stop people from clambering over their own offspring and grandmothers to get. The moment it hits the ground feet stomp on it, people dive on it, until one person emerges with the tightest grasp on it. Our team was well composed - Jonathan was the quick-reflex catch man, Kelly was the behind the crowd runner and Liam would go down low covering the ground. What are we going to do with all of the stuff that we got?

Anyway, an hour later the cyclists actually start out. We found a place about 800m after the start, on a wall on the small hill up into the centre of town. This gave us a good look over the bunch as the crawled up the hill. The bunch was led by the jersey wearers - Honchar, McEwen, Pineau and Fothen. Everyone else followed behind chatting to their neighbour or adjusting this or that piece of clothing. The real racing wouldn't start at least until the other side of town and probably not for a few kilometers after that.

Walking up into the centre of town, Jonathan stumbled across another sausage and crepe stall and we had a bit of lunch. The town was still abuzz as the tour had come and gone, but that wouldn't stop the party for the next couple of hours.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Tour de France - Stage 7 - Rennes

One of the things that we definitely wanted to do on this trip this year was to see some of the Tour de France. The second weekend of the tour gave us the opportunity to see two stages without doing too much driving around.

On Friday afternoon we flew into Paris and met Jonathan at the airport, he had already caught the Eurostar to Paris on Thursday and spent the day looking around. We picked up a car and set out west towards the Bretagne region. After negotiating the Paris ring roads, belting rain, flooded roads and Parisian drivers, we ended up on the A11. Driving in France is not a bad experience. The main motorways (Autoroutes) are well maintained and the speed limit of 130km/h is not unwelcome. We drove west for 3 hours until we found our first night's accommodation in Laval.

On Saturday morning we drove into Rennes, the town where Stage 8 finishes. Stage 8 is an individual time trial that starts in a little town called St Gregoire four kilometres to the north of Rennes. Rennes is not a huge town, but with all the road closures we had a bit of trouble finding our way to St Gregoire. Once there though, we were greeted by a little town that had been completely taken over by team buses, corporate areas and the race. The sleepy little town had awoken to a mass of people and a carnival like atmosphere. Fortunately the team busses were strung out along a narrow road in the town - so even though we didn't have passes to get into the team area, we were close to the mechanics and team busses.

We hung around and watched a few of the starts before making our way along the route back to the car. It is just an amazing sight to see the riders winding up their gears and settling down into a rythem that they are going to maintain for the next hour. They really are machines. On the way Jonathan found a stall that sold local sausages wrapped in a crepe. They were really tasty and we finished off a few of them for lunch.

We drove back into Rennes to find the finish line. Luckily we were able to park right at the 400m mark from the finish line. The crowds on the edge of the barriers were generally four to five people deep. We walked around and watched a few riders come up the finishing straight before heading down towards the media finish area. As soon as each rider crossed the finish line they were mobbed by media. Photographers and reporters shoved each other to get photographs and shove microphones into faces. A lot of the riders aren't too interested in talking to the media after the stage, especially if they posted a bad time. These ones would just ride straight through the media without stopping - this included some of the big names - Landis, Hushovd, Evans.

Results for the day: Serhiy Honchar won the time-trial stage and took the Malliot Jaune. Robbie McEwan kept his Malliot Vert. We watched the presentations. Robbie McEwan didn't want to talk to the media today and after receiving his jersey he weaved off through the crowd and was picked up by his waiting car.

And then it was over. As soon as the last official stepped off the podium, the cranes had already removed the finish banner and the barriers were being picked up by a truck. Hundreds of tour roadies streamed out of somewhere and each got to work on their specific job like a pack of worker ants. Everything was torn down within the hour and packed up into the waiting trucks, ready to roll out to the next town that the Tour de France tornado would blow into. As for us we walked back to the car and set off to find our nights accommodation.

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TdF 2006 Stage 8 - Rennes
Jul 8, 2006 - 28 Photos

Monday, July 03, 2006

Windsor Castle

Kelly, Liam and Jonathan, along with Kate took a day trip out to Windsor Castle. The castle is in the town of Windsor, not too far west of London. Windsor is set on the southern side of the River Thames, and across on the north of the river is Eton - the one with that famous college.

The castle is the largest and oldest occupied fortress in the world. As you walk through the town up to the castle it is not hard to appreciate that. The grounds and buildings would have been an ominous site as they were approached from below. These days the castle is the Queen's main residence and it is her most favoured.

We each got an audio guide and did the tour through Queen Mary's doll's house and the State Apartments. The apartments are the public third of the castle, and they have halls, bedrooms and functions rooms such as St George's Hall. Most of these rooms are still in use. The rest of the castle is the Queen's private residence. We didn't get to see St George's Chapel as it is shut on a Sunday.

One of the rooms in the State Apartments was the Queen's private chapel which was destroyed by the 1992 fires. We managed to get through the tour of the state apartments, but just as we were leaving the fire alarms went off. The apartments were evacuated and fire engines could be heard climbing up through the town and into the grounds. We were quickly ushered out of the grounds and back down into the town.

Jonathan, Kelly and I went down to the River Thames to have a look around. The area of the river around Windsor is teeming with birdlife. Mostly there are swans and pelicans, fed by the amply supply of tourist's bread and food pellets. We took a river boat tour up the Thames, which gave a different view of the castle and showed just how prominent and dominating it is over the area.

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Windsor Castle
Jul 2, 2006 - 13 Photos

Sunday, July 02, 2006


The summer sporting festivities had begun. The world is in the grip of World Cup fever. Aussies all around the world are rallying for the seemingly impossible - a place in the Round of 16. However there is still another little sporting event in London that might be worth a look... Wimbledon.

Wimbledon tickets are hard to come by at the best of times - there are ballots, many corporate tickets, freebies etc. For mere mortals the way to secure a ticket is to line up on the day and hope that you are one of the 6000 that can get general grounds admission. That is us this morning. Our dedication to tennis was not so great that we would camp out, but there were plenty of people who did. At 5:45am Jonathan, Kelly and Liam jumped in the car with Dave to drive out to Wimbledon. After parking we started the long walk back along the line towards the end of it. The line snakes many times across the length of Wimbledon Common. We joined the rear of the queue around 7am we are issued our queuing card - number 2500. There are only 2500 people in front of us... in the north queue. By all indications the south queue should be similar. There should be a good chance of getting a ticket. By 10am the queue starts moving and we snake out of the common, through security and the ticket office, and secure our ground pass.

There are a couple of Aussies playing today. Ley-ley is second up on Court 2, so we join the queue to get into that court. A few famous faces walk past us in the queue - Andre Agassi coming back from a warmup on the outer courts and Rolf Harris (in a bright blue suit) on his way to the centre court restaurant. Jonathan indulged in some true Wimbledon food - strawberries and cream, washed down with a cider. Lleyton enters the court and we are still 20 people from the entrance to the standing area, so we listen to the first set from outside. By 2pm we finally get into the standing area of the court and get to see the last two sets of the match that Lleyton breezed through in 3 sets.

Next on court 2 is Venus Williams, so we stay for a bit of that match. The afternoon is whiled away watching various other matches around the outer courts.

In the evening there is a mixed doubles match with some Aussies. The "Wayne-train", Wayne Arthurs, and Alicia Molik are up against a Swedish pair on court 13, unlucky for some. They play well in the first set taking that, but begin to crack, losing the second set. The third set is close - in the fading light of 9:30pm - but it eventually goes the wrong way for the Aussies and their mixed doubles campaign is over. All that is left to do is exit and head for the car. Wimbledon is a great day out. We had plenty of fun getting around the courts, watching the games, sitting on the hill and eating strawberries and cream.

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Jul 1, 2006 - 16 Photos