My first trip to Europe. I was most amazed overall by the age. I flew into Turin since it was very close to Alpe d'Huez. This allowed me to spend time with my Italian friends I met while working the Tethered Satellite in the early 90s. Walking by a rather unimpressive cathedral, next to an excavation site, my friends nonchalantly mentioned the shroud of Turin - I had no idea it was actually in Turin! At my request, we entered and saw where the Shroud is safely stored. I stuffed the donation box with Euro.
We walked and walked the streets of Turin. So many of the buildings had new facades constructed years later - they moved windows, reinvented the style of the buildings - just got tired of looking at the same building for hundreds of years, I guess. We ate incredible meals - in one restaurant the entire ceiling was covered with living grape vines loaded with grape clusters. A favorite pasta shop of my friend's had a man working in the back.
The next stop was an incredible montestary in Italy. It was built into a mountain top - amazing construction and architecture. The inside was equally beautiful with hand painted frescoes. There is a great story of a young Alda who was lovestruck and tried to commit suicide by diving off the tower. The angels caught her and saved her. She was so amazed by the event, that she spread the story all over town - trying to convince the townfolk her story was true, she jumped again - this time to her death. They say they never found her body - it would have been a pretty ugly fall on the rocky edge of the mountain...
Along the road there were little prayer stations - travellers in the old days could stop in. While the practice doubtfully continues today, this little one was right in someone's yard. Inside is a wonderful frescoe.
We cross over the border into France with no ceremony at all and visit a town built inside a fortress. For the first time I see the colorful French window and my love for narrow streets blossoms like the flowers adorning the window sills. It consists of only three or so streets and there is a small chanel cut down the middle of the street with water running down. In the old days it was designed to distribute the trash out of the small, fortressed city. Now it serves as a lovely water source for dogs and bored little boys. Some people still live and work within this self-contained city. We sat on a stoop and had crepes from a street vendor, quite possibly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. The cool air-conditioned air from someone's house crept out from beneath the door behind us and cooled us as we sat. How perfect are the skis sitting outside the door, even in the summer.
ALPE D' HUEZ Tour de France 2004
Along the road we watch the glaciers of the Alps come into view and stand over the road. The closer we get to Alpe d'Huez, the more traffic we see. We start seeing campers on the side of the road. I begin to worry because I am not expecting many people 3-1/2 days before the time trial. We decide to drive up the winding 21 hairpin curve road. Campers already line the road. I see few spots flat enough to pitch a tent. As we drive the 15km (having foolishly thought I would hike it with a 45 pound pack), I get a feel for the history of this route - I watch as we make each turn to see who of the winners each turn is named after. The history plays out in front of me and the legend begins to take heart. After reaching the summit, I pick a place that is not too far from the top and has plenty of room. I had seen it in the photos before I came - a German/Dutch hang-out, Turn 3. Renata and Aldo deposit me on the side of the road and the true adventure begins.
At first the roads are clean (freshly paved to cover all of last year's painting) and there are few of us waiting. The campers continue to arrive (or cars loaded with water, beer, and Dutchmen), and the road painting begins. The ever so present dressed up freaks make the walk giving all of us waiting something to look at. Cyclists continually make the climb themselves, even after dark. Another American spells out a big 6 on the mountainside with rocks and I make a smaller homage to "Lance" by my tent, foolishly thinking I will see this later in the helicopter coverage on tv. I have a 2km walk up the hill to town for a real bathroom and a pseudo shower at the local pool. The thing about the painting is that the road is still open to cars and all we had was oil based paint - so you continually try to redirect the cars around your freshest paint. But as you see, it all eventually blends together because EVERYONE is painting on the road (over other paint jobs at times) and the paint just can't dry with all the traffic. I paint Lonestar Lance and a nice "Hook'em" just for our Longhorn fan thinking he will enjoy it on the ride up. Hah! He never looked down - just straight ahead - focused on his sixth consecutive tour win and the ass-kicking of Ivan Basso that day.
On race day, thousands of people walk up and crowd turn 4, 3, and 2. They say a million people were on that 15km stretch of road that day (Million Lance March). In fact, they took a satellite picture.
I claim my spot and sit there for the next five hours or so waiting for the caravan, and then the first time trialer. I snap pictures of the riders for hours, some easily riding up , some laboring so hard you think there is no way they are a professional. Supreme climber Richard Virenque, suffering Frenchman Voekler who has won the heart of all the tour this year, that awful Ulrich, and then what's this? There are two riders coming - is it possible Lance has caught up to Ivan Basso who started a full two minutes prior to Lance? Both pace cars are sitting back and Lance is on Basso's tail - never looks down, just right at Basso. He passes him on the next turn. Le Monster American!
We gather at one of the camper's TV and watch as Lance blows away the competition AND takes the stage win. And then, it is over. Everyone (all x million - they even took a satellite picture during the race) who has made their way to this famous mountain climb disperses. After walking down part of the mountain, I finally catch a ride with a couple of old German guys and we head to the next stage.
The Cols Tour de France 2004
I didn't have the heart to tell the Germans I was riding with that there would be no place to park along tomorrow's route this late. They drove and drove, we got stuck, pushed the RV out, and finally went back in to one of the towns and found a park to sleep in. The next morning my Germans decided to go home instead of following the tour any farther and told me to find another ride. I packed up my stuff and headed over to the road on the route. I picked a nice spot with a rock wall to sit on and again waited for the tour to come by. The older French women nearly knocked me down fighting for the cheap crap the caravn threw out... and they weren't giving it to those cute boys! This town was in between the the two big climbs of the day and by the time the riders got there, they were already split into many, many groups. I watched Lance (standing out in yellow now) ride by cloaked in a protective "V" of Postal riders. He had already guaranteed the lead and did not need to risk anything on a climb. You can see the camper lined glistening roads all the way up the Col from the little town. After the race I crossed the road and stuck out my thumb. The yellow LiveStrong bracelet on my wrist no doubt helped in finding my next ride from two Americans in a nice Mercedes rental. We chatted all the way to Grenoble including a stop at a cafe/bar in a little town on the way to catch the end of the day's stage where Lance ended up adding to his lead by blowing away one of Ulrich's teammates in a last second finish line sprint.
After a relaxing evening in a hotel in Grenoble - complete with bath tub, hot water, and spa jets (that was nice after three days on the side of a mountain), I rode a train down south to Arles on the edge of Provence. This quaint town is where Van Gogh spent some of his last years in - probably his most productive years. I spent less than 24 hours in this town and it was quite possibly the most fun I have ever had. There was so much to see in this history rich town, around every corner something exquisitely beautiful! Upon depositing my pack in room 14 at Hotel Gauguin right around the corner from where Van Gogh settled in his very first night in Arles, I headed out on foot. Amidst the charming beauty of the small town, the first thing I saw was a Roman Amphitheatre built in the first century that housed a city in the seventeenth century. Nearby were ruins of a Roman Theatre built in 12 BC where only two of over 66 columns of the stage was left standing. In fact, around the corner within those grounds is a pile of exquisite stone pieces - a makeshift quarry since the fifth century for what is left of the historical rocks that have fallen off over the years and not been stolen for other building projects.
More views of the town
Being a Saturday, I ran across a wonderful morning market. It was your typical farmer's market with fresh produce, cheese, sausage, plants, and crafts. Never quite got into the whole ugly sausage thing... They even cleaned the streets completely once it was over - quite an impressive system.
Typical images of public water fountains and bicycles. There was an incredible cemetary with grand tombstones. I was not supposed to take pictures - though, it was so beautiful I had to sneak a few. Out of respect, I have only posted a couple of shots that are indescript to give you an idea of the style of the cemetary.
A wonderful part of the town were the many homages to Van Gogh. I stood in the exact places Van Gogh set up his easel to paint. There were 11 places around town where an easel was set up commemorating a given painting. On the ground were little tile placques you could search out and follow the paths to find the next spot (although sometimes get completely sent on a wild goose chase). I ended up finding the map and key on the way to the train station but was able to find 7 of the easels on my own. The hospital at Arles where he stayed at one point has redone the exquiuste garden, Starry Night over the Rhone gives a really nice view looking back on the town, Cafe at Night was the most moving (you could see details from the painting still on the buildings), the Yellow House Van Gogh once lived in which is now gone (but you can see many other structures from the painting). What a fun treasure hunt!
Alyscamps was an old graveyard dating back to the first century BC, so desirable as a final resting place they shipped bodies from all over Europe to be buried here so they could be close to the Tomb of St. Genesius and other saints. By the early fourth century there were already thousands of tombs necessitating the stacking of sarcophagi three layers deep. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted the same walkway with surprisingly different approaches. Eventually, the graves were looted for the sarcophagi and I don't know where all the bodies went - the crypts are all empty.
My fetish with colorful windows and doors continues to blossom.
Paris Finish Line and Number 6 Tour de France 2004
I stayed at the Hotel Armstrong. Armstrong stayed at the Hotel Crillon which was lit up with the Texas flag flying above. This is the hotel that Armstrong always stays at and I had heard they flew a Texas flag when Lance wins - but was surprised to see it already flying. We lined the streets early that Sunday morning, staking claim to our spots. I picked one not too far from the finish line - but more importantly across from a monitor since most of the day's race would take place outside of Paris and was mostly ceremonial. Livestrong bracelet sales were brisk. Once the Tour descended upon the Champs Elysee, they were going fast - there was still the sprinter's jersey to decide. They were just a blur as they went by. After the race several of the Robobank riders came over to the grandstand by us to see their families. Check out the worn out bicycle shorts on the one guy!
PARIS The City
Some views of the city itself
Making art of art The Louvre
The Catacombs are an amazing thing. I expected one wall of these bones. There was hallway after hallway below the ground stacked full of bones. They relocated all these cemetaries to here keeping only the marking of the cemetary when available - stacked a wall of femurs and skulls, sometimes making a heart or a design, and then threw all the rest of the bones behind them. Walls and walls of bones, sometimes 25 feet back. There were also quotes warning you to be careful and live life right.