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Postcard from the (De)Tour

Last year, on the way  to the Amstel Gold race, we ate lunch in Macon. It was a delightful place and, as we didn’t have time to look around, we resolved to return. The start of this year’s Tour de France in Normandy gave us an opportunity to do just that. It’s a good 12-13 hour drive from home to the Tour start, which we broke up into more manageable chunks. Finally, my beloved has agreed that we shouldn’t drive much longer than 4-5 hours each day.

This turned out to be a great resolve as we had to take my Smart rather than hire a (manual) car from RenaultRent as my beloved had to “pop” back to UK for a couple of days for a client conference.

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Macon

We left Tuesday morning, had lunch en-route and an overnight stop in Fuisse, some 5km from Macon, famed for its Pouilly-Fuisse wine. The countryside is glorious: gently rolling hills covered in regimented lines of bright green vines, warm honey-stoned houses nestling in the valleys and the odd herd of creamy coloured cows chewing the cud.

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After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we continued our journey. Passing through Charolles, home to the famous Charolais beef, we saw plenty of cattle grazing or, more ominously, sitting on the lush green grass. As we headed into the centre of France and endless vistas of the countryside, I was reminded once more of the size of France. Something we tend to forget living in the highly populated Cote d’Azur.

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Wednesday, we stayed not far from Le Mans in a hotel that’s been frequented by the greats of the motor racing world and whose names now adorn the hotel’s theatrically decorated bedrooms.

Chartres-sur-
La Chartres

A gentle stretch of our legs around town and we were ready for a pre-dinner apero or two. I woke to birdsong and a drive to Le Mans to drop off my beloved who was heading to Bradford via Paris, returning lunchtime on Saturday. I meanwhile headed to ASO HQ at Saint-Lo and the Tour de France team press conferences and presentation.

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Ducey

I’d booked a hotel for four nights convenient for the run-up to the Tour and the first three stages. There’s nothing worse than having to change hotel every day, just ask any of the riders. The weather had gotten worse as we drove further north. It was over 10 degrees colder and leaden skies hid the sun. I broke out the woolies and wet weather gear.

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Le Grand Depart at Mont Saint-Michel and you may be wondering “Where’s the peloton?” Unfortunately, my beloved’s train arrived into Saint-Malo at about the same time as the peloton set off from Mont Saint Michel. I couldn’t be in two places at once and the former was a good hour’s drive from the latter even without the Tour traffic. Simples! I had a lie-in and headed to Saint-Malo to collect my beloved. It was lunchtime, so we stopped to eat oysters and mussels in a restaurant along the seafront. It was full of French families and had white tablecloths and napkins – two sure signs we were in for a great lunch. We were not disappointed.

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Saint-Malo
We walked off lunch wandering around the old town which was heaving with tourists – too chilly to sit on the beach – before heading back to Mont Saint Michel to have a look at the recently built bridge (2014) across the causeway. We didn’t tarry long, as you can see from the photo above, the clouds had closed in and the strong wind was keeping the rain at bay. At about the same time, Mark  Cavendish was picking up another Tour stage win and his first ever yellow jersey, confounding all his doubters.
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Two stalwarts of the Tour Village: The Poulidors and the Barbershop
Sunday dawned cold, grey and wet. After an early start, we took refuge in a local restaurant awaiting the arrival of the team buses in Saint Lo. My plan had been to ask a number of supporters who they thought would win the Tour. Taking shelter in the same cafe were a dozen or so youngsters from a cycling club in Perier wearing their wet weather cycling gear. Unsurpringly, in a show of unity, they were all backing  French riders Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet. Fortunately, the weather was much improved for the start in Granville where the crowds were out in force, many of whom had just nipped across the Channel for the first three stages.
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Yellow glow in Granville
We then waived a fond adieu to the Tour and headed down memory lane to a hotel in Carnac which we first visited over 20 years ago. We had responded to an offer in The Sunday Times whereby we stayed at the hotel for free but agreed to eat every evening in the hotel’s restaurant. The hotel was a charming and slightly eccentric run family affair with an excellent restaurant where we held good on our promise and ate our way through their tank of lobsters. The following year, the hotel invited us back on the same basis and we once more pointed the digit of doom each evening at the occupants of its lobster tank.
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The beach in Carnac
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Around Carnac
This time around, we were keen to see if the hotel was still charming – it is – though there’s now a much greater choice of restaurants where we wreaked havoc on the local lobster population, along with the oysters and mussels. It was a delightful and restful sojourn, just what we both needed.
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Our days were spent walking along sandy beaches and around the local neighbourhood admiring its property porn and truly magnificent hydrangea bushes which seem to love the Atlantic air.
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Savonnieres
My beloved had expressed an interest in visiting the Chateaux of the Loire Valley – more property porn -on our return journey. Sated with seafood, we headed to a bijou B&B just outside of Tours for our whistle-stop tour of the area. With just a day to spare, we passed the time in the magnificent gardens of just three chateaux. All three were jam-packed with tourists but the gardens were blessedly calm as the hordes of visitors oohed and aahed over stately splendours indoors. We, meanwhile, were finding our way round mazes and marvelling at the symmetry of the formal gardens and box hedging and lusting after the potagers and herb gardens. There’s many more places to visit so we’ll be back!
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Amboise
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Amboise
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Chenonceaux
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Chenonceaux
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Villandry

Neither of us was tempted to bid for one of these glorious properties – far too many windows to clean! Though a casual glance in a local estate agent revealed we could sell our apartment and with just 50% of the proceeds acquire our own, fully-renovated, mini-chateau with 10 bedrooms! Unfotunately, all that rich agricultural land and lush pastures induced a severe case of hay-fever in my beloved so here endeth our dreams of a mini Versailles.

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Finally, it was time to head for home via Montpellier taking in the finish and start of two further Tour stages. As we drove there, we knew the peloton was going to face some echelon action as my Smart was visibly bobbing in the wind – it’s not the most aerodynamic of cars. Before bidding a fond farewell to the Tour, I managed to catch up with a few more acquaintances and contacts to set up some interviews post-Tour. Generally, I try not to get in the way of the other 1,999 journalists who earn their living writing about cycling. I’ll be content watching the action on the television for the next 10 days or so.

My parents to the left with dear family friends to the right

Daddy’s girls

You have to feel for my late mother – three daughters and we were all Daddy’s Girls! So I could appreciate why her first words to me were always: “How’s my son-in-law?” She doted on my beloved and the feelings were reciprocated. But to return to the point of today’s post, Father’s Day. A day which always conjures up fond memories of my wonderfully kind father, our happy times together and, more importantly, his many pearls of wisdom.

My two sisters and I spent an unexpectedly lovely Father’s Day with him in 2013. We didn’t realise it was to be our last. My youngest sister had made an unexpected trip to France with him to join my other sister and us for a week in the sunshine.  Unlike many of our previous Father’s Day lunches, this was decidedly low-key. My Dad and his three girls ate a light lunch I’d prepared and discussed what he was now going to do with his time. My mother had died in early January and, after getting her affairs in order, my dad was looking forward to what he hoped might be a few years of doing all the things he’d put on hold to care for her. He had already planned a cruise to St Petersburg and the Baltic States with dear friends in August, while I was hoping he’d come and spend the more inclement British months with us on the Cote d’Azur.

Over lunch, we also reflected on earlier Father’s Days when we’d gathered together for a celebratory lunch, often at a hotel in the Cotswolds, Oxford or at Le Manoir. Luncheon out en famille and not a gift was always my father’s preference. Something we’d been denied in recent years as my mother’s condition had worsened, so it was a real treat to have this unexpected opportunity to share Father’s Day with him.

Mid-week I drove him down the coast past Saint Tropez, to Cavaliere-sur-Mer,  where we’d spent our first foreign family holiday when I was only four years old. Unsurprisingly, given it was so long ago, the place was unrecognisable but we found a lovely Relais & Chateau, Tuscan-style hotel on the seafront where we enjoyed a light, leisurely lunch watching the sunshine dance on the water and chatting about anything and everything. Sunday we enjoyed lunch together with my beloved, a cosy threesome at our favourite local restaurant which has breathtaking views of the countryside, a neighbouring walled village and the sea. Whenever we eat at that restaurant, we think back on that lovely light-filled luncheon which seemed so full of promise.

My father (far left) holding FA Cup in 1957, the last time Villa won it.
My father (far left) holding FA Cup in 1957, the last time Villa won it.

Often when we eat at a new restaurant, we’ll say to one another “You know who’d have liked this…..” We are of course referring to my father who also instilled in me his love of dining out. But he wasn’t just my father. My beloved lost his father when he was 22 years old and he’d become very close to mine, after all he’d been his father-in-law for over 35 years. So we both miss him and never more on Father’s Day.

Header image taken in Mougins in 2009 with my late parents on the left and dear family friends on the right.

during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Spain and Turkey at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 17, 2016 in Nice, France.

Viva Espana

Yesterday evening my beloved and I went to watch a live Euro 2016 match.  We already knew first-hand what happens to the traffic on a match night at the Allianz Riviera stadium during the Championships – gridlock. So we set off three hours before kick-off. We parked easily enough at the Municipal Markets (MIN) Park & Ride, our usual parking spot for any OGC Nice home match before paying Euros 3,00 each for a return bus ride to the stadium. I wouldn’t have minded but the bus dropped us off about two kilometres from the stadium. Fortunately, the sun was shining, I was wearing comfortable shoes, looking forward to seeing Spain v Turkey and we had plenty of time on our hands.

The security was spot on. It’s the first time I’ve been properly searched before entering the stadium. There were a few fans milling around outside where a couple of stands were selling cold beverages, hot dogs and sandwiches. We skipped the refreshments and headed to our seats. We were in the Spanish end of the stadium, behind the goal, usually home to OGCN’s Ultras. It’s a great spot and not bad for Euros 55,00 a head. We splashed out on a couple of bottles of water. The catering is much improved by comparison with the old Stade du Ray but it’s essentially beer, cold drinks, French fries, hot dogs and sandwiches. I feel they’ve missed a trick for tonight’s match, they should have laid on kebabs and tapas.

during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Spain and Turkey at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 17, 2016 in Nice, France.
Opening ceremony

Three of the Spaniards wore long-sleeved shirts and sported over the knee socks. Wise move, it got chilly when the sun went down.

SPAIN
SPAIN

As the “away” squad,  Turkey had to wear their fashionable tie-dye turquoise shirts.

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TURKEY

 

The Gamemaker Iniesta
The Maestro, Andres Iniesta

You’ll have read the match reports. The Spanish played a mesmerising game orchestrated by Iniesta. The Turks’ Plan A contained the Spanish for the first 30 minutes though you felt it was only a matter of time before Spain broke free and scored. Thereafter, the Turks were far too static, seemingly bereft of further ideas. Clearly, no Plan B. Or maybe, they too were enthralled by the skills on display. Did Spain really only enjoy 67% of possession? It felt like so much more.

But it wasn’t just on the pitch where the Spanish scored. Their fans really dressed for the occasion. I lost count of the number in fancy dress.

A few aging matadors
Ole!

I saw plenty of  fans wearing those spotted dresses more usually seen on flamenco dancers. Here’s one of them.

A few senoritas
A few senoritas

The Turkish fans had weight of numbers of their side and, thanks to Euro 2016 sponsor Turkish Airlines, had plenty of flags to waive. Despite the body searches, a few managed to smuggle in flares which they set off at the end of the match. That aside, there was no trouble either inside or outside of the stadium.

Post-match flares up the Turkish end
Post-match flares at the Turkish end

As we made our way back to the buses, some two kilometres down the road, under the watchful eyes of the riot police, the mood was one of celebration. We’d just enjoyed a fantastic display of football. Maybe the defending champions would successfully retain their title after all. Oh, in case you’re interested, Alvaro Morata, who scored two of Spain’s three goals, was my man of the match.

Morata, man of the match
Morata, man of the match

All images supplied by Getty Images

iPad

Stay calm, count to five and exhale

Just over three years ago, my beloved bought me an iPad mini. I was sceptical at first but it’s become an indispensable part of my life. It goes everywhere with me. It’s the first thing I reach for when waking up and the last thing I look at before going to sleep. Just in case you’re starting to feel sorry for me, please remember my beloved travels a lot so I’m often home alone.

This morning the screen froze while I was reading a newspaper online. I rebooted but it just returned to the frozen screen. Initially panic set in as I thought this might mean a trip to my local Apple Store where I knew I would encounter lots of indifferent Gallic shrugs, little assistance and be advised there were no appointments for the next three weeks. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! Instead, I googled the problem and found plenty of advice to help me through the few steps needed to resolve the issue – phew! Crisis averted.

It’s amazing how dependent we become on these devices. I can honestly say it’s the best present he’s ever bought me. Regular readers will know he’s not a giver of great presents so, much to his relief, I have banned him from buying me gifts. Indeed, my blood runs cold when he utters the words “I’ve bought you a little something!” That’s because we’ve been together for 40 years and I can count on the fingers of one hand all the really great things he’s bought me.

Yes, I know I sound ungrateful, but I hate to waste money. You have to understand that my beloved gives very little thought to the actual purchase and is far more likely to buy something he’d like. Also, purchases tend to take place in airport duty-free while he’s rushing to catch a plane – not necessarily a conducive environment.

Unfortunately, my beloved has a hard act to follow. My late father was a purchaser of great gifts par excellence. He would spend hours trying to find the right coloured scarf to go with an outfit, or handbag or a piece of jewellery to delight or a beautiful handkerchief. Gifts don’t have to be expensive but they do need some careful thought as to what would please the receiver. He’d buy things throughout the year for little surprises, birthdays and Christmas, never once disappointing any of his four girls. My beloved is never going to assail those dizzy heights.

Indeed, my beloved will only go shopping if we’re going to buy him something. I generally don’t allow him to shop on his own, he’s very susceptible to the charm of the shop assistants and I’ve long suspected he’s colour blind. His distressed purchases, when the airline misplaces his baggage, bear witness to this. Recently we’ve been shopping to feed his recently acquired lululemon addiction. His latest purchase was four pairs of ABC pants (trousers) which are great for today’s smart casual dressing, and they’re washable.

But I digress. Usually, if  I entrust him to buy something from the airport, I specify what he should buy. I find it’s much safer that way. He was recently entrusted by a group of businessmen with purchasing gifts for the two Chinese ladies who’d accompanied them on a recent trip to China. Needless to say, I helped him choose the gifts otherwise I dread to think what they would have received! I also keep a stock of gifts suitable to give to clients, particularly those in the Middle and Far East, where an exchange of gifts is typical.

You can guess which ones I've kept and which one has gone to the charity shop!
You can guess which ones I’ve kept and which one has gone to the charity shop!

My favourite gifts to give and receive are consumables. French goodies go down very well while I’ve recently, and gratefully, received white tea, imperial rice and a selection of Indian spices. I’m still using up all the liquid and alcoholic gifts Richard has received over the years, most of which end up in my cooking. I suspect we may never exhaust all of them. Likewise, our local charity shop has been the “lucky” recipient of many of our unwanted gifts.   How many daggers mounted in picture frames does a girl need – none!

My last employer had a catalogue of corporate gifts, the Swiss Army knife being a particular and always welcome gift. I recall giving the all-singing, all-dancing version as a birthday present to a senior executive with whom I was negotiating to acquire a plot of land for the company. My birthday was later that month and he reciprocated with a wholly unsuitable gift – perfume and matching body lotion by Gianni Versace. I opened the gift at a table surrounded by our respective advisors and you could hear a pin drop when I revealed what was inside. I think I murmured “How thoughtful”  while appreciating my beloved wasn’t alone in buying unsuitable gifts!

Giro 2016 trophy

Postcard from the Giro d’Italia

My beloved and I consider ourselves fortunate to often combine work with pleasure. We spent the European mid-May Bank Holiday week-end in Tuscany watching the Giro d’Italia and cycling around the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Although typical wet Bank holiday weather was forecast, the weather was better than anticipated, with rain falling either overnight or just in the late afternoon.

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We stayed in a hotel we had first visited back in 2005 while spending time with one of my beloved’s German clients, who has a house in Chiantishire. Over several subsequent trips to the region we’ve spent time in a number of  Tuscan towns and have always been delighted with the food, wine and culture on offer plus the cycling, on undulating roads with little or no traffic, has been fantastic.

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On Saturday, after a quick ride, we headed over to Arezzo, the finish town for stage 8 of the  Giro d’Italia which included some of the (in)famous Strade Bianche. We made the mistake of steering clear of the motorway in preference to the country roads and found every which way was blocked by the race some 4km out of Arezzo.

Undaunted we elected to walk only to discover later that the finish line was actually 8km away. Now I usually love a brisk walk but found this tougher than anticipated in the warm late afternoon sunshine. We arrived at the finish the same time as the tail-end Charlies. More significantly, we arrived at the Accreditation Centre seconds after it was supposed to close to discover everyone had packed up early and moved on. Neither of us could face the hike back to the car so we took a taxi.

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By this point in the proceedings, and having missed lunch, my beloved and I were both famished. On the way back we stopped off in the town where we’d stayed during the 2013 World Championships. Our good humours were revived with an Aperol Spritz at a nearby bar followed by dinner at an Osteria, both of which we’d previously frequented. The owner of the Osteria, who runs front of house, remembered us and his wife duly whipped up a truly delicious meal. Sated, we could finally laugh about our afternoon of mishaps. I slept well that night.

After misfiring on Saturday, we had to collect our accreditation at the start of Sunday’s time-trial stage but this process wasn’t without its tribulations. I was fifth in the accreditation queue but those ahead of me hadn’t pre-registered. The convoluted process took over an hour, added to a further 30 minutes waiting for the accreditation staff to turn up. I managed to while away the time chatting to the other journos and former pro Paolo Longo Borghini, who’s now responsible for rider safety at the Giro, and part of RCS’s management team.

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Next up, and more importantly, I had to deliver my cakes to the respective teams before we headed to the finish in nearby Greve in Chianti with our wet weather gear. Yes, the sun was shining but we’d seen the weather forecast. Most of the peloton would be getting a soaking.

Monday’s rest day involved a recovery ride around the glorious Tuscan hills. We were fortunately back before the afternoon downpour and ate a superb meal in a nearby bar packed with locals. It was so filling we only needed an ice cream from gelateria for dinner where I was delighted to discover they did two flavours of vegan ice cream (coffee and raspberry) which, in the interests of research, I just had to try.

The Mighty Boz
The Mighty Boz

At the start of Tuesday’s stage in a suburb of Florence, we caught up with staff we know at Bardiani-CSF and evaluated their riders’ chances of a stage win. My parting comment was “I’ll keep my fingers crossed, who knows, today could be the one!” Prophetic or what? One of their promising neo-pros, Giulio Ciccone, won the stage.

Impressed by my cakes, one of the Sky boys challenged me to come up with a bar for their musettes. They gave me one prepared by the wife of one of soigneurs. It was okay but rather dry and tasteless. I shall be working on it this week and will return to the final few stages with a much improved product, along with some of my brownies.

Go, Joe, go!
The King of Utah, Joe Dombrowski
Cannondale's chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!
Cannondale’s chef and crew enjoying my fruit cake!

After watching the peloton depart, we headed to a town we’d never before visited. Yes, this was our maiden trip to Bologna, a town about which I had little or no expectations but it blew me away. We stayed in a delightful, modern, three-roomed bed and breakfast in the old town, just a short stroll from the main attractions. Before checking in, we had lunch in a restaurant nearby which had been in situ since 1957. If it’s lasted that long it’s got to be good – right? Absolutely! We enjoyed yet another magnificent meal in a family run neighbourhood institution. The owner had passed away in 2007 but his widow still helps out while the three children now run the restaurant.

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Much to my delight, the restaurant featured an old childhood favourite, the sweet trolley. I couldn’t indulge but my beloved had the house speciality Zuppa Inglesi. He proclaimed it “nice” but a pale imitation of my and my late mother’s rum soaked trifles. Then it was time to walk off those calories around the magnificent old town whose monuments are build almost exclusively of brick, many dating from the 14th century. Some of them are very tall, underlining how wealthy the city was in former times.  The shops are under attractive stone porticoes which have beautiful frescoed ceilings and wrought iron lights, clocks and shop signs. This is one of the most beautiful cities in northern Italy and deserves to feature more prominently on tourists’ itineraries. I shall return particularly now I know how close it is to Mugello, home to last week-end’s Italian MotoGP.

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The following day we headed directly to the Giro stage finish in Asolo, the Pearl of Veneto, where one of my dearest friends lives. A fabulous cook, she whipped up a delicious feast for lunch which we enjoyed before watching the peloton stream through Asolo’s beautiful old town in dribs and drabs. Dinner at a local restaurant followed, before we headed to our hotel for the next few days in Pordenone.

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From time to time my beloved works with a company based here. We know the town well but haven’t visited for a while so it was good to renew our acquaintance with our favourite restaurants and watering holes. Thursday’s stage hugged the Venetian coastline though Wednesday’s warm sunshine had retreated behind clouds and heavy rain. We went to the stage start but when it’s pouring down with rain it’s difficult to do much more than wave at the riders one knows. Understandably, no one wants to spend a moment longer than necessary in the inclement conditions.

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Friday’s stage started close to Udine in a medieval border town and fared better weather wise though the boys were looking nervous as the stage heralded a triptych in the mountains before another difficult week ahead of the finish in Turin. I promised to return in the Southern Alps with more baked goods to see them through the penultimate day of climbing.

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Saturday we headed to Trieste to meet with potential Slovenian clients. We’d briefly visited the city when the Giro d’Italia finished there in 2014 but hadn’t been able to have a good look around as we needed to get back for Cannondale’s farewell Giro party. It was good to get another opportunity to visit this fascinating town which still bears the influence of its former occupiers, the Austrians, on its buildings and cuisine. Sadly, I couldn’t find a cake shop doing vegan equivalents of any of the delicious Austrian treats.

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It was a great trip. The Giro is a beautiful race and I love the way the Italians embrace it by decking themselves, their children, pets and shops in pink. It’s much more an individual and not a community effort and, as you might expect, it’s generally done with great style and panache and much reverence for the Giro’s history. I consider myself fortunate to live only 45 minutes from the Italian border.

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Differing fortunes

Yesterday evening, my beloved and I made one of our all too infrequent trips to the Allianz stadium to watch OGCN’s last home match of the season. It was a six-pointer against St Etienne who were one point and one position ahead of us in the league. Both teams are fighting for an all-important place in the Europa Cup.

That OGCN, a team which has spent the last few seasons defying the odds to remain in the top league, was in contention for Europe was nothing short of a miracle. A miracle wrought by the manager Claude Puel and two of the league’s leading goal scorers. Hatem Ben Arfa, who has risen like a phoenix from the ashes at Nice and who’ll no doubt figure strongly in the French squad for this year’s Euro Championships, and Valere Germain, a player on loan from neighbouring AS Monaco.

While qualification for Europe won’t help us retain the services of either of those three, it will help us attract reasonable replacements. Barcelona FC are eyeing up Ben Arfa, while AS Monaco, who were thrashed 6-1 away from home yesterday evening, will surely welcome back Germain with open arms. After all, he’s scored more goals than any of their first team players this season. Unhappy wealthy football club owners will undoubtedly also be eyeing up Puel, and the success he’s brought to OGCN, before bringing out the big bucks to tempt him away. It’s inevitable!

Of course, Nice have other players, such as Ricardo and Mendy, who will also no doubt have attracted the attention of richer clubs so once again the 2016/17 season will be one of rebuilding the team, but it’ll be much easier to do it from a position of strength with a place in the Europa League.

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Coincidentally, we won yesterday’s match 2-0. A tight and exciting goalless first half but then the Greens lost their heads and two men in the second half allowing Germain to strike twice in quick succession in the last 10 minutes of play. The fans were ecstatic. We had flares and a laser light show to bring down the curtain on a very successful season.

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A total contrast to the fortunes of my beloved Aston Villa who were ignominiously demoted without a whimper to the Championship. The clear out of dead wood has already begun and the quicker someone relieves Randy Lerner of his ownership of the club, which has stagnated under his stewardship, the better. Surely, there must be more Thai billionaires who’d like to have their own football team?

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Top fuel

I haven’t written much about my own cycling recently – not that there’s been much to write about! I first got back on the bike at the end of August and what a shock it was. It was like going back to when I first learned to ride my old mountain in early 2007. At first, it was a struggle riding my Cap d’Antibes loop and I couldn’t even manage the climb back up the Domaine. Very humbling!

Since then it’s been a bit stop-start, largely due to travel, the weather and any other excuse I could summon up. But I’ve gone back to basics – little and often. I’m still a long way off my best but I’m enjoying riding (on my own) again and I can now easily ride all the way back up to the apartment. And, as this month heralds much warmer weather, although I’m still wearing my 3/4 bib-shorts and long-sleeved jersey, I’m hoping to lay down a solid base that’ll allow me to rediscover all my favourite routes and climbs this summer.

Of course, before I head out for a ride I need to ensure I’ve properly topped up the tank. Initially on my new regime, which frankly is fast becoming my new permanent way of eating, I struggled most with breakfast. That was until I discovered avocado on toast in Australia. I can’t eat any animal fats and therefore have to make sure I get an adequate daily serving of vegetable and fish oils. I’ve always enjoyed avocado in salad, or with prawns, but never realised how delish it was on toast. More so for me since I can’t have butter or margarine and I’m not overly fond of nut butters, jam or honey. I find the first too claggy and the other two, too sweet.

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The trick is to use a perfectly ripe avocado, not as easy as it might seem. Pick one which still has its stem intact. If the avocado is ripe, you will be able to pull the stem out very easily. If the stem is already missing, hold the avocado in your hand and gently squeeze it. An unripe avocado will feel like a stone. An over-ripe avocado will feel loose under the skin. A ripe avocado will feel the same as if you were to squeeze the palms of your hands.

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I like to mash my avocado with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a teaspoon of ground coriander, a teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon (or lime) juice, a pinch of pepper and half a teaspoon of salt before piling it onto toasted spelt or sourdough bread. I might even top it with a few radishes, cherry tomatoes or freshly chopped coriander.

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If I don’t have any ripe avocados, I’ll pile chia jam onto my toast. Gently warm 500 grams (1lb) of chopped fresh fruit, in this case strawberries, juice of a small orange or lemon and a tablespoon of maple syrup either in a saucepan on the hob or in the microwave, just to help breakdown the fruit and extract its juices. When the fruit mixture is cool, I add two tablespoons of chia seeds, mix, pop it into a jar and place in the fridge overnight to set. I make it only in small quantities though it’ll happily keep for a week or so in the fridge.

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I’ll wash my toast down with a smoothie. Looks like a latte doesn’t it? But it isn’t, it’s a smoothie made with a glass of unsweetened almond milk, a teaspoon of turmeric, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a small frozen banana all whizzed up in the liquidiser. Then I’m good to go.

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Postcard from Pais Vasco

Despite the wet and windy weather we had a great time watching the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Typically, the weather was fine both before and after the race.

Fine weather in Pais Vasco
Fine weather in Pais Vasco

With this year’s race falling after Easter, I thought I’d have no problem booking our usual hotel in Getaria.

Getaria
Getaria

Sadly, there was no room at the inn and I had to look elsewhere. That’ll teach me to give it glowing reviews on booking.com! Instead, I decided to head for the hills and picked a hotel slap bang in the middle of the race’s parcours. My beloved said I’d found possibly the wettest spot in the entire Basque country – no mean feat! However, he also agreed it was a wonderfully relaxing place with a fabulous restaurant and great WiFi.

Home from home
Home from home

We typically go the start and finish of all the stages but this year there was no WiFi available in any of the press rooms which posed rather an issue for us. On the wetter stages, we watched the riders set off, found somewhere for lunch and then headed back to the hotel to work and watched the stage conclusion on the television. Usually, we eat lunch in the press room but the lavish pintxos buffets were much more modest this year. I like to think that savings made on the press pack were expended on better safety measures for the riders.

Lesaka
Lesaka

In any event, it gave us an opportunity to try out a number of restaurants’ midday menus which are typically 11-15 euros per head for three courses, including wine, water and coffee. I fared well, though I often had to skip dessert, with plenty of mixed vegetable platters, salads and assorted fish dishes. I even found a restaurant in Lesaka which served a quinoa salad!

This year’s race visited regular stage venues such as Etxebarria, Markina-Xemein, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Eibar with a couple we’ve not previously visited during the Vuelta such as Lesaka (in Navarre), Orio (a fishing village just outside of San Sebastian) and Gerrastatxu (a new summit finish). That said, we did spend a memorable vacation in Orio a couple of years ago and welcomed the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the town.

This year’s edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco seemed particularly tough and, of course, the biting cold weather and rain made it even more treacherous. Tension was maintained until the final stage, a hilly time-trial won by Alberto Contador who also took the overall. He’s a very popular figure in Spain even in the Basque country where they have plenty of their own riders to support. He delighted the crowd by saying he might not retire at the end of the year.

Tolosa
Tolosa
Basilica
Basilica

On our travels we also visited a couple of new places, such as Tolosa and, in particular, Azkoitia and Azpeitia with their magnificent churches and basilica, many honouring Inigo de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

San Sebastian
San Sebastian

We also found time to have a quick wander around the old town of San Sebastian, to which we’ll return at the end of July for the Clasica San Sebastian. But that’s not all. We’ll have a third visit to the Basque country, to Bilbao, in early September during the Vuelta a Espana.

 

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Postcard from Laval, Midi-Pyrenees

I finally managed to persuade my beloved to drive down to the Basque country over two days – so much less stressful. When I drove down on my own in 2014 I stayed in St Gaudin, but this time we stayed just outside of Toulouse in a delightful spot on the Canal du Midi. It’s not an area either of us knows particularly well, though we’ve previously stayed not too far away in Figarol, Carcassonne and Castres.

It’s a rich agricultural area bordering the Canal du Midi, a 17th century marvel of engineering and UNESCO World Heritage site, with plenty of pretty villages, some dating back as far as the 12th century. Spring was definitely in the air, though not as far advanced as on the Cote d’Azur. A recent wet spell had produced lush and verdant hedgerows with all manner of pretty flowers. My mother would probably have told me they were weeds, but they were lovely pink and mauve flowers. The Canal was devoid of boats, only a few ducks enjoying the solitude.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take a step back. We had set off at a reasonable hour in the pouring rain and stopped in Lattes, just outside of Montpellier, for lunch at a restaurant that had clearly been constructed in the 70s. It had that all desirable small a la carte and a divine lunchtime menu, much enjoyed by the large number of diners – mostly business people and retirees. The dining room overlooked a splendid garden and pool, an oasis of calm and tranquility. The chef kindly adapted his recipes to exclude anything I’m not allowed to eat. It was superb. I had of course booked before we’d left home. You know I don’t like to leave it to chance.

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We arrived at our overnight stop with plenty of time to enjoy a stroll (aka a very brisk walk) along the canal in search of dinner. We didn’t want too much to eat but, if my husband doesn’t eat three square meals a day, he’ll expire. Obviously, we’ve not been able to put this to the test, just in case he’s right! We found a small pizza restaurant in neighbouring Villefranche-de-Lauragais, village which has a splendid bell tower dating back to 12th century. The pizza place was doing a roaring local trade  and I ate the best vegan pizza ever.

MP3

MP2

Our Chambres d’Hotes, highly recommended on booking.com, was part of a beautifully converted barn attached to the owner’s house. Our ground floor room overlooked the gardens and was not far short of the proportions of our own at home with a divinely comfortable bed. As usual I slept like a log and awoke to a fantastic breakfast. Definitely one to visit again, maybe on a weekend away as the area has some beautiful villages full of buildings with architecturally interesting features.

MP1

Not in any rush to leave, we responded to our outstanding emails before turning the car towards the Pyrenees. We were rewarded with clear blue skies, not a cloud in sight, atop brilliant snowy white peaks. The Basque country was only a hop skip and a jump away