Saturday, July 23, 2011

LTDF Day Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Lloyd Tour de France Day Two

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

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

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

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

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

The Lloyd Tour de France Day One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Blois, Blois, Blois

We arrived in the Loire Valley on Sunday in the rain. It didn’t bode well for our cycling trip but we tried not to dwell on it. We managed to give the car back to the salesman in Paris. He promised to try to sell it for us before we leave but said if he couldn’t he’ll buy it back. We’re not too worried. Tom in particular felt a lot less responsibility for the four bicycles than for the car.

While wandering around Blois the first evening, we came across a lovely manor and Tom stopped to take a picture. A few minutes later, two windows opened and two large gold dragon’s heads slowly emerged followed by another dragon’s heads from three more windows. This was probably one of the more surprising things to emerge from a manor on our trip. Eventually two claws and a tail also stuck out the window and strange music played. Rhys captured it on film. Apparently, the manor was a House of Magic and this was not an uncommon occurrence. The house is in honour of hometown boy, Robert-Houdin, the magician Houdini got his name from.

Less surprising was the Blois Chateau. It was built by Francois I, a French king whose emblem is a salamander. Back in the day, it was believed that the salamander could be reborn from flame. I’m not sure anyone ever tried this as there would have been many fried salamanders if they had. However, it tickled my funnybone to think of a king who thought of himself as a salamander. Of course, the other king who worked on the castle, Henri, had a porcupine as his emblem. Apparently, the fiercer animals had all been taken. So, the castle walls are filled with royal salamanders and porcupines. The best thing about the castle being worked on by Henri was that his first initial is H. This means the floors were tiled in H tiles, the walls were covered in H fabric and the fireplace mantles were plastered in fancy H emblems. My kind of place.

Remembrance Day

We drove from Brugges, Belgium to Arras, France, visiting the WWI sites along the way. This area was the “front” where the trenches were located during the war. The Germans had advanced as far as west Belgium and the allies basically drew a line in the sand that said the Germans would advance no farther. They fought the war for four years in this location. Ypres, the town the allies were determined not to let the Germans take was completed devastated. That was the bad news. The good news was that the Germans never did set foot in it.

We began in Ypres, pronounced “Eee-per” by the Flemish (Dutch), “Eee-preh” by the French and bizarrely, “Wipers” by the English. Wipers. Really? Although the English chose a strange way to pronounce the word Ypres, they spent a lot of time helping Belgium rebuild the city and felt a certain affection for the area. We spent a lot of time driving around the area locating various Canadian memorials. The directions are not well marked and it is a bit like some sort of car rally trying to do it on your own. We were armed with two maps which clearly showed the roads and locations but neglected small details like the NAME of the road. In Europe you find your way by the heading to the next village which sounds reasonable but in practical terms is confusing unless you know all the village and city names. It does make for an exciting day, however.

Our first stop was at the Passendale memorial. This is where 18,000 Canadians and British soldiers withstood the first gas attack. Two thousand are buried nearby. We next located where John McRae had written “In Flanders Fields”. Tom commented it was interesting that the crosses at the cemetery had been replaced by headstones. McRae worked nearby in a dressing station tending the wounded. He was a military doctor. We saw the bunkers that functioned as a dressing station. I’m not sure what it looked like 100 years ago but it was no picnic site today. We then found Hill 62, a hill the Canadians had taken after losing huge numbers of men and fighting for months. We toured through a private collection of memorabilia from the war and saw some of the trenches. The holes from exploded mines still around the trenches were sobering. The land all around the area is still lumpy from the divots blown out of it 100 years ago. Driving around the countryside searching for sites, we passed numerous military cemeteries. It drove home the sheer numbers lost.

Our main task of the day was to try to locate Tom’s grand uncle, Herbert Edward Kersey’s name on the Vimy Ridge Memorial and his great grandfather, John Lloyd’s gravesite. We had the name of the cemetery John Lloyd was buried in but just could NOT find it in any of the literature. Eventually, we stopped at the tourist information for help and the lady looked it up and then smiled at me. “The first step in finding a cemetery is making sure you are in the right country,” she said pleasantly. Apparently, Dury Crucifix Cemetery is in France near Vimy, not in Belgium near Ypres. She then printed off a bunch of directions and we were on our way.

By the time we reached Vimy Ridge it was early evening and raining so hard we could barely see the memorial from the car parking lot. It was huge; of that we were certain. We decided to come back in the morning. It was an excellent call as the day dawned bright and sunny. Vimy Memorial is magnificent. It sits high on a ridge (go figure) and you can see it for miles around. In the early morning sun it was spectacular and moving. A few Canadian soldiers were setting up for a parade later in the day and one was sitting on the memorial meditating. It was somehow fitting. We found Herbert Kersey’s name. He was Jean’s uncle and his body was never located. In tribute to him, his name is chiseled into this beautiful monument. The area around the monument is Canadian land, given to Canada in gratitude for their help during the war. It is said that Canada became a country on Vimy Ridge. Thousands of Canadian soldiers came to help during this war and Vimy Ridge was a particularly strategic location to hold. The Canadian battalions were the ones to finally take it back and hold on to it, losing many men and gaining the respect of our European forefathers in the process. Some of the land has wire around it with signs warning that there are still unexploded mines and to stick to the paths at all times. While taking a picture of this, I noticed herds of goats and sheep grazing behind the fences. No sheep or goats located missing mines while we were there, thankfully.

We wandered some more trenches on the ridge and located HUGE holes made by bombs. Tom figured the bombs must have been from British and Canadian pilots blasting the Germans off the ridge because the trenches seemed to move around the holes.

Afterwards, we drove to Dury Crucifix Cemetery. The cemetery is on the edge of a little village amongst wide fields of wheat. It is a picturesque, quiet setting in the middle of the beautiful French countryside. We found Tom’s great grandfather’s grave without a problem. The headstones all have greenery and flowers planted in front. They look well tended and the cemetery is undergoing some upgrades at this time. The French are taking excellent care of our fallen ancestors. We stood by the side of his grave for some time before we all decided we needed to do something more so we drove back to the store in the next town and bought flowers. The kids arranged them by their great-great grandfather’s grave. I wished we’d brought a Canadian flag to place there too. We found the register and signed it. All of the graves in that row and the next held the same two or three dates; so many dead men. What a terrible time for the soldiers: the terror of fighting one day and the pain of digging comrades’ graves the next. Seeing the headstone and his name was sad and sentimental. It will make Remembrance Day just that much more significant in the future.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Things we are looking forward to

There are of course, the generic things we are all looking forward to. Travel is fun but it is also isolating and we really miss our friends, family and perhaps most of all, Sparky. This is expected and a constant part of our lives. As we get closer to coming home, however, there are things we are looking forward to that were not as obvious.

For me, I am looking forward to visiting a grocery store and knowing what the food is by the picture and words on the label. It is amazing how many pictures of food are completely unrecognizable here, not to mention the language. Many labels are written in multiple languages: Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Czech. It actually isn’t all that helpful. I am also looking forward to knowing where in the store the different foods are located. We don’t just pops into the grocery store here. It is a full out effort to locate foods that look right, then identify the most likely items for consumption.

Another thing I can’t wait to do is cook with my own stove/oven and cooking utensils. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to flip food with a spoon, scrape skins off vegetables with a knife or chop cheese really fine to imitate a grater. Aren’t these utensils pretty obvious in the kitchen? Not in Europe. A lot of people use gas stoves here which took some getting used to as well. I’ve burned a lot of food on stoves that heat up slowly and continuously, never actually adjusting to an average temperature.

And then there’s washing clothes. Man, it will be wonderful to use a washing machine with instructions in English. We’ve met all manner of washing machines over here and one can never be too sure about where the soap goes. More often than not our clothes come through the wash with the same dirt on them. The soap seems to be gone but who knows to where? And I haven’t used a dryer in almost a year. We always hang our clothes to dry; always.

For Rhys and Julia the things they are looking forward to seem to centre more around food: Wendy’s fast food, rootbeer, apple pie, waffles with blueberries for breakfast, and Aunt Jemima syrup, for example. They also miss places and events like: Christmas at Grandma’s (either or both), Fort Langley, the movie theatre, the ice rink and swimming pool, and of course, the cabin, tubing, and Lick’s ‘N Splits.

They also are looking forward to some of the environmental surroundings we take for granted in Canada. For example:
not inhaling cigarette smoke everywhere you go. It’s really horrible when you are trapped in a small enclosed space with the smoker.
understanding the language spoken on the street. It is exhausting to have to translate, mime and otherwise work to make yourself understood so often. Spoken English becomes like music to your ears. Sometimes when I hear it, I don’t even realize it’s English until I realize the soothing effect it has on my brain. It is so effortless.
only fifteen stairs from bottom to top. Did we mention all of Europe is on a hill? We climb 200-400 stairs a day in some cities and that is not including the strangely steep roads.
the hot and cold taps being in a consistent location (left is hot, right is not). Sometimes, the hot is labeled incorrectly and sometimes it is simply placed on the other side. Who does this and is it done specifically for tourist accommodations?

For Tom, not having to hold down a button to shower, not living out of a bag, skating, Canadian dollars, being able to build stuff instead of just thinking about it are the big draws at home. He’s carried a little notebook for many months now, sketching and writing about the ideas he wants to take home. The house will be undergoing some sort of transfiguration in the next few years, becoming more and more medieval, I’m sure.