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Postcard from London

Since moving to France I have made infrequent trips back to the UK. Far fewer than I originally anticipated. This was my annual flying visit to the dentist and hygienist. Yes, they have those in France too – well not hygienists. My dentist is a personal friend and, in return for the occasional dinner, takes great care of my teeth. Meanwhile, my hygienist is simply one of the best in the business and well worth every pound I pay her. I initially planned the trip to also include a visit to my middle sister to ooh and aah over her remodelling of the family home.  However, it’s over budget and over schedule so that’ll be next year’s flying visit.

When I left Nice, the weather was warm and the sun was shining. We arrived in Gatwick to overcast skies. I immediately wanted to return. My beloved headed to Heathrow and a flight to Milan. Yes, I know it’s only three hour drive up the road from us, but the London trip had been booked before the trip to Milan. He returned the following day in time for dinner with my dentist. Meanwhile, I headed to my brother in law’s. I usually stay with my youngest sister but she was in France!

Having lived in London for over 20 years, there’s very little I haven’t seen. Like all great cities, it’s best enjoyed on foot. Curiosity got the better of me and  I decided to visit my old stomping grounds of Bayswater, Notting Hill, Marylebone and Mayfair. While much has changed, many of my favourite spots are still reassuringly flourishing. The weather was overcast and decidedly chilly though everyone around me was resolutely holding onto summer in short-sleeved or sleeveless outfits. Footsore but not weary, late afternoon I travelled  south of the river to my dentist.

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Once the condition of my teeth had been proclaimed stable – a good thing – we left by tube for dinner at The Frog, Adam Handling’s new restaurant in Whitechapel. It’s a wee bit tricky to locate but I enjoyed the scenic wander around E1 which has mushroomed since I left London. As I suspected, this is a hip, happening place favoured by the 25-40 crowd so we definitely increased the average age of the diners. The restaurant has a great vibe but more importantly an open kitchen and I was sitting in pole position. I left my beloved and my dentist to chatter about all matters dental while I observed what was going on in the kitchen.

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imageMy dentist is a fish-eating vegetarian while I’m a fish eating vegan so (sadly) the great value tasting menu was hors course. Nonetheless, the kitchen was happy to adapt two courses to meet the strictures of my regime. I had charred broccoli to start with followed by octopus! The title of the former dish’s title belied its delicious flavour while the main course was the best octopus I’ve eaten and I’ve eaten A LOT of octopus this year.

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The boys greatly enjoyed all their three courses. The portions aren’t large so you can easily eat three courses. It was a delicious meal and The Frog got a huge thumbs up from all three of us.

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I spent the following day at Cliveden catching up with an old girlfriend who I first met back in 1980 while we were both training to be chartered accountants. How time has flown! While she’s visited me a couple of times in France, her job and a demanding pooch preclude regular visits. We enjoyed a glass (or two) of our favourite beverage in the bar overlooking the manicured gardens. I find the main house a wee bit overpowering, so we ate in The Grill. Fortunately the sun was shining so we could walk off our admittedly light lunch by walking around the splendid grounds.

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My beloved was unexpectedly available on Thursday lunchtime and expressed a desire to visit the Whitechapel Gallery. The gallery is just up the road from where I used to work and often had off-site meetings there. My beloved is somewhat conservative in his tastes particularly when it comes to art. Would he be prepared to hang it on the wall or display it in the apartment? If the answer’s yes, then he likes it. However, much modern conceptual art is not for display in a domestic setting and it’s often intended to provoke. The gallery is small and having already been fed in its café, my beloved suffered the exhibits. I could tell he wasn’t won over when he likened it to the exhibition we saw in New York’s Guggenheim where a Colombian artist had poured concrete into a number of pieces of furniture, as a protest against the regime not the furniture.

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As I took my leave, I was tempted to smuggle my nephew’s dog in my handbag and take him back to France. Indeed Arnie seemed keen to join me after I’d told him the weather was soooo much better though I suspect this was because he’d been abandoned at his grandparents while his owners were enjoying two weeks in Barbados.  Before going our separate ways, we had brunch at Waterloo before my beloved headed to Paddington and a train for Cardiff and I took a train to Gatwick for my homeward journey. The few days in London had been lovely, despite the weather, but I was happy to be back home.

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Tourists view Puppy flower feature floral art by Jeff Koons at Guggenheim Museum  in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

Postcard from the Vuelta III: Bizkaia

We first visited Bilbao in Bizkaia back in 2011 when the Vuelta stopped and started in the Basque country for the first time in 33 years. No prizes for guessing why the Vuelta had avoided the area for a while. Fittingly, that stage was won by (former) Euskaltel rider, Igor Anton.We stayed in a small hotel overlooking the town which, by chance, was next to two great restaurants. I had thought of staying in the town this time around but my beloved preferred to stay outside since it would be easier to ride from there. He was right – and I don’t get to say that very often!

Although we’ve visited Bilbao a number of times, I don’t think we’ve seen most of the town. It’s one of the most prosperous parts of Spain largely thanks to its port and industrial heritage from its iron ore deposits. Though it’s now more reliant on the services sector and better known for its Guggenheim museum, on the Nervion river and  fronted by Jeff Kroon’s flower strewn puppy, which was opened in 1997 as part of the city’s attempts to revitalize the city. I’d say they’ve succeeded.

We left Gijon early on Thursday morning, right after breakfast, and headed to our new hotel to drop off the bikes and luggage before heading back into town to watch the conclusion of stage 12. The hotel was another converted Palace  – I could get used to this – situated on a golf course with all the amenities you could want or need. We had a light, spacious room at the rear of the property overlooking the golf course with a patio garden- perfect.

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After a delicious press buffet lunch in the NH Hotel, I interviewed Ashley House of Eurosport for VeloVoices. I first met him back in 2012 when I spent a few days with the Eurosport team at the Tour. We’ve bumped into one another on a regular basis at most of the Grand Tours, so an interview was long overdue. He didn’t disappoint.

 

We then bade the Vuelta a fond farewell and spent the last two days of our holiday enjoying the beach and riding around the incredibly undulating countryside. Friday evening, we ate in nearby Gernika-Lumo which was full of families enjoying themselves in the warm late evening. The sun was starting to go down which is why I’ve resorted to photos from Getty Images, mine were too dark and my beloved’s are still languishing in his camera! I’m sure he’ll download them eventually. In his defence, he’s been on a lengthy business trip ever since our return from vacation.

After a leisurely stroll around the town famously bombed and destroyed by the Germans with Franco’s blessing in April 1937 –   I found what looked like a great bar and restaurant. I wasn’t wrong, the diners on the next table confirmed it was the best in town. My father taught me well, I can sniff out a great restaurant at 50 paces! And, yes, I did eat more octopus!

Saturday evening, we returned to Bilbao to investigate another part of town. We followed a similar strategy to the previous evening until I espied a small restaurant (20 covers) at the rear of a wine shop and deli. The maitre’d explained there was only a 7-course tasting menu. My face fell as I explained my dietary restrictions but he assured me that chef would cook me something within those guidelines. He did, and it was absolutely delicious, and a fitting end to our wonderful vacation.

I can’t recommend northern Spain more highly for a fabulous, inexpensive vacation to suit everyone’s tastes. I haven’t recommended restaurants or hotels because those things are very personal and, frankly, it’s much more fun to find these yourself. I rarely book restaurants in advance unless it’s one where I know I’ll have problems booking a table. And, even in August, it’s possible to find hotel vacancies at short notice as we (thankfully) discovered in Asturias.  Also my idea of heaven is another’s idea of hell. For example, I do appreciate that octopus  – like oysters – is an acquired taste but I’d urge you to try it – just forget about those suckers and dive in

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Postcard from the Vuelta II: Asturias

Expectations were high for the remainder of our vacation, particularly after our previous hotels had spoilt us with spacious suites. We arrived in Gobientes late afternoon, after a pleasant stop for a seafood lunch in the middle of nowhere. Despite GPS and GoogleMaps, we had trouble locating the hotel. So I rang them for instructions. A combination of my Spanish and the hotel owner’s French had us driving round in circles for almost an hour. No one we asked had heard of the hotel and there were no road signs guiding us to it – not a good omen. We finally chanced upon it, about 400 metres round the corner from where we’d first rung, given our location and asked for instructions!

At this point neither my beloved nor I were in the best of humours. The hotel’s situation, right behind a working farm left much to be desired and bore no relation to the photos I’d seen or the glowing references I’d read. Its scruffy garden and terrace, where the owner was stubbing out a cigarette, didn’t inspire confidence. We checked in and then almost immediately checked out again. Our room, right next to the creaking front door, had a sea view only if you craned your neck out of the tiny bedroom window at an absurd angle. There was no air conditioning and the bathroom was another contender for my book of the world’s smallest bathrooms. Plus, it was at least 2 km from the sea and overlooked the main road. My beloved will not easily let me forget this booking disaster.

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Relieved to get out of there, we drove straight back to the centre of Gijon and the soothing presence of a traditional Spanish hotel for a couple of nights. We’d previously visited the town in 2014 and had fallen in love with its charms and lovely sandy beaches. Two further days of exploration unearthed a number of fantastic local shops, bars and restaurants where I launched yet another assault on the Spanish population of cephalopods (octopuses). Spending two days right in the centre of town made us aware of how much of the town we’d missed on our earlier trip. There’s a wealth of architecture across the ages, including Roman remains near the port. The town’s been around since 5000 BC and on the outskirts of town, to the south and west, and its the main port, you can clearly see its heavy industrial legacy.

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Our sanctuary for the following week was the same small, family run hotel we’d stayed in back in 2014. The house, once home to one of Spain’s steel barons, has been in the same family for five generations. The family now lives in its lodge while its guests enjoy the splendours of the beautifully maintained house and grounds, with a magnificent arboretum and a trampoline – a new attraction. I had to give the latter a go since I’d done a lot of trampolining in my dim and distant youth. I think it’s fair to say the hotel’s guest were somewhat taken aback by my skills while the owner’s grand-children were seriously impressed.

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Having visited Oviedo on both Sunday for the stage finish and Monday for the stage start, we rode there on the Vuelta’s rest day, ostensibly to find its statue of Samu Sanchez but we fell short. We should have asked Samu’s family where it was when we saw them on Monday’s stage start. However, his ream, BMC Racing, had no such trouble.

I will attest that there’s very little flat in any part of northern Spain and I was thankful for the granny gears on my Orbea as I churned up yet another incline, trailing in my beloved’s wake. It was a relief to join up with the Vuelta again and watch lots of fit young guys suffer on its inclines, particularly the one to Lagos de Covadonga. Of course, their suffering only starts on the really serious gradients, which I tend to avoid for fear of having to get off and push – so embarrassing!

Nine days in Gijon allowed us to fully explore its countryside and the surrounding area, with its many hills, beautiful sandy beaches, lively bar and restaurant scene plus any number of local watering holes. One of the advantages of cycling is that you find so many more places. We spent many an evening in a local restaurant which served inexpensive but fantastic food where many of the locals were sitting in its garden playing cards and ludo. Now, that’s a game I haven’t seen played for years but it’s obviously popular in Spain as a bar we went into in Ourense had three grannies playing a highly competitive game over what I assume were some G&Ts. It was also lovely just lazing in the hotel’s grounds and enjoying myself on that trampoline. It was a really restful break. Next stop the Basque country, Bilbao to be precise, for the arrival of the Vuelta a Espana.

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Postcard from the Vuelta I: Galicia

After attending 10 consecutive World Championships, I decided to take a break this yea – largely prompted by its location in Qatar. Initially, my beloved and I had decided to visit Montreal and Quebec, to watch their respective GP races, as part of a longer trip to New England. I had our whole itinerary mapped out, and then the Vuelta announced it would start Galicia and spend a significant portion of its duration in northern Spain. Plans were quickly changed, we were off to Spain.

To spare my beloved a long drive there and back, we flew to Madrid with the bikes and hired a car. We spent the first night in an excellent and inexpensive airport hotel, before driving the five hours or so to Ourense, in Galicia. We initially drove to one of Ourense’s many spas, the site of the Vuelta’s brief press conference with the leading riders who had the good fortune to be staying in its hotel. This was a few hours ahead of the typically relaxed team presentation which gave us time to catch up with some of the riders we know. Clearly, they were disappointed to discover I hadn’t bought any cakes with me but I promised them all plenty on their return, including samples of my new Musette Bar.

IMG_6631G5I’d booked a hotel in the old town of Ourense to better enjoy the many local bars, restaurants and the famed cuisine of the area, where the humble octopus looms large. We were given what can only be described as a suite with a generous outdoor balcony, bedroom, sitting room and a ginormous bathroom. I’ve slept in bedrooms smaller than that bathroom.

It poured with rain on Friday but, undeterred, we donned our anoraks and ventured forth to explore the old medieval town which is full of squares, churches and even an old Roman spa, with bars and restaurants aplenty. The architecture is fascinating with buildings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries built from an iridescent, creamy stone and decorated with beautiful wrought iron railings,  gates, lights and balconies, spectacular stone carved detailing along the roofline, above the window, doors and even on the facades.

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It’s a delightful mishmash of styles: Romanesque, Gothic, neo-Classical and Baroque which blend seamlessly along the oft tree lined streets. Statues and civic monuments abound in the attractive squares and plazas. The whole place is a veritable delight.The surrounding area is also well worth a look around, aside from its Roman bridge spanning the river Mino, there’s some charming villages on the outskirts, plus the aforementioned thermal spas.  Sadly we never got to experience any of those healing waters!

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We decided to take photographs at the start of stage one’s team time-trial which set off from another spa town late on Saturday afternoon. The riders descended the ramp against a backdrop of cascading water and a large lake. It’s fascinating watching how the different teams prepare and, based on what we did see, we weren’t surprised that team Sky won.

Sunday we decided to head for the finish in Baiona by way of Vigo, which my beloved had expressed a desire to visit. A desire stirred by Iberia’s in-flight magazine which he’d read on our recent trip to San Sebastian. It’s a fascinating place – well worth a visit – though I preferred the pretty seaside town of Baiona, which was buzzing in anticipation of the Vuelta’s arrival.

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imageMonday, a bit of a scorcher, we headed for the finish in Mirador de Ezaro, arriving well ahead of most of the spectators. We bagged a spot in front of the big screen, purchased plenty of liquid refreshment from the only vendor ( who later ran out of supplies) and applied the sun screen. The finish afforded a spectacular view of the ascent and the coast below. It wasn’t long before I was wishing I could dangle my feet in those cool Atlantic waters below and being grateful for the freebie Vuelta straw Stetson.

Race over we headed to our next hotel in A Coruna which we shared with the day’s stage winner, Alexander Geniez and his FDJ team, along with that of Ag2r. Frankly, after muddling along for days in Spanish, it was a relief to chat to someone in French. I doubt however that any of the riders were enjoying as much space as my beloved and I who were upgraded to yet another suite. This time we had a bathroom each; I bagged the one with the spa bath.

Early Tuesday, we drove to Asturias where we planned to spend the next nine days, dipping in and out of the race. We’d much enjoyed Galicia but had recently spent time in Castilla y Leon, plus we wanted to ride too. I’d booked a sea view room in a small, family run hotel, within walking distance of the sea shore, just down the road from Gijon. I hoped it would live up to my beloved’s expectations after the two generously sized suites!

 

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The Musette: Baked stuffed tomatoes with potatoes

My beloved is home for the summer which means I have to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. My challenge is to prepare things we can both eat without having to cook or prepare two different meals. My new regime  – fish-eating vegan – means I have had to broaden my repertoire – no bad thing. This week a recipe by Rome-based blogger Rachel Roddy in The Guardian caught my eye.

My other half enjoys stuffed vegetables called petit facis niçois, a popular local dish which uses forcemeat whereas this recipe uses rice. I’ve had to amend the original recipe to eliminate the cheese and reduce the amount of oil but, nonetheless, it was still delish and made use of plentiful local produce.

Ingredients (serves three)

    • 6 ripe, firm, fleshy, medium‑size organic red tomatoes
    • fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
    • 2 medium garlic cloves
    • 1 small dried red chili pepper (optional)
    • 6 tbsp short-grain brown rice
    • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
    • 1/2 kg potatoes, peeled and cubed

Method

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  1. Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set them aside. Use a teaspoon to scoop the insides – flesh, seeds and juice – into a bowl, taking care not to pierce the skin. Sprinkle a little salt in the cavity of each tomato and then put them cut-side down on kitchen paper towel so that any excess juice can drain away.
  2. Liquidise the tomato flesh, seeds, juice, garlic and chilli pepper. Add the rice, season  with salt and pepper, stir, then leave for at least 45 minutes during which time the rice will absorb some of the liquid and start to swell.
  3. Toss the potato cubes in the olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
  4. Sit the empty tomato husks in a lightly greased oven-proof dish or baking tin. Spoon the rice mix into the shells so they’re not quite full, then put the lids back on. Scatter the diced potato around the tomatoes.
  5. Bake at 180C/160C fan/350F/gas mark 4 for around 60 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft and starting to shrivel, the rice is plump and the potatoes golden. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before diving in and eating.

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Sheree’s Handy Hints

  1.  The tomatoes are the star of the show. Buy the very best you can find.
  2. You could add nutritional yeast to the tomato water to compensate for the loss of savoriness from the cheese but I didn’t feel it was necessary.
  3. My beloved decided to add a dollop or two of sauce vierge to his dish, a container of which was lurking in the fridge. It’s essentially fresh herbs, lemon juice, lemon zest, a clove of garlic, capers, cornichons and olive oil whizzed up in the liquidiser. It’s delicious on grilled fish and meat.

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Date Night: John Newman

When we lived in London, my beloved and I were serial concert-goers. Since we’ve moved to France, our outings have become less frequent for a variety of reasons. Generally, only during the summer months at the various festivals held throughout the department. I scan all the upcoming events to see if there’s anyone I would like to see. If there is, I book tickets. However, I often find that artists I’d like to see are inconveniently performing when we’re at the Tour or Clasica.  But there’s also plenty of freebies, where we’ll turn up and enjoy or leave surreptitiously if it’s not to our liking.

Just before we left for the start of the Tour de France in Normandy, I had spotted that John Newman, whose music we both enjoy, was performing in Monaco. I mortgaged the flat and bought two tickets. I’ve not previously seen him perform live but had watched his set at Glastonbury on the television. We parked at the Grimaldi Forum, which is the cheapest evening car park in Monaco, and walked the 500 metres or so to the Salle des Etoiles – Sporting Club of Monaco. Our brief walk took us past cars totalling millions of euros.

It was a lovely warm evening albeit rather humid, as it tends to be in Monaco. A recent acquaintance wearing a tux  greeted us at the venue – he was working the door. Our fears that we might well increase the average age of the audience were well founded though I spotted a couple of people who looked older than us. Turns out it was John’s mum, Jackie.

My beloved went to get the drinks: small beer, mineral water and a packet of crisps. “How much?” he asked. I guessed Euros 20,00. I was spot on. I had taken the prices from our beach-front bar in Cros-de-Cagnes and tripled them. In case you were wondering, the crisps were his dinner. I’d offered him a meal in the lounge bar of The Hermitage but we were too late leaving home solely on his account. But don’t feel too sorry for him, he’d had a splendid steak lunch.

Imagine this without the tables and chairs and only around 500 fans
Imagine this without the tables and chairs and only around 500 fans

I’m not sure how many the Salle des Etoiles, whose windows are indeed open to the stars, holds but it was largely empty. Suffice to say that I’ve never been to such an intimate concert. I easily managed to get into my favourite spot – front row, slightly right of centre and about arm’s length from the stage. Suddenly the ticket prices weren’t looking so exorbitant after all. I should add the toilets were magnificent. I’ve been in bathrooms smaller than the toilet cubicle.

The Sporting’s house band for the summer season, The Hometown Band, from Nashville Tennessee, opened the evening on time on a high. A seriously good 45 minute set. We then enjoyed a medley of presumably John Newman’s favourite Motown songs while waiting for him to burst onto the stage with his four-piece band and two backing singers. I didn’t realise girls still screamed at concerts. I should add I have never felt the need or desire to do so and I’m now far too old.

I think John was also probably taken aback by the paucity of the crowd and gamely encouraged plenty of audience participation. Many however seemed intent on recording snippets and tweeting them to friends unable or unwilling to stump up the ticket price. Me, I prefer to look, listen and enjoy though I’m happy to join in with the clap-a-long. I’m forbidden by my beloved to join in with the singing, my voice is guaranteed to clear anywhere pronto.

John Newman

We were not disappointed with the performance. The concert was well worth the ticket price. It was a tight, high energy set which had John in fine voice covering all his hits and latest number Olé, finishing with his greatest hit to date, Love Me Again, during which he and the band appeared to trash the stage. No encore!  I rather liked that instead of the usual baloney whereby the audience spend ten minutes demanding a pre-planned encore. We streamed out to discover the venue offered valet parking. You never got that at The Hammersmith Odeon!

On a more serious note, it’s been recently announced that John’s benign brain tumour has returned. He referred to it briefly during the concert and promised to continue making music whatever the outcome. We wish him well in overcoming this latest set-back and look forward to seeing him in concert again.

 

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Postcard from San Sebastian: 2016 City of Culture

Typically, our trip to the Clasica San Sebastian forms part of a longer trip but occasionally, like this year, we fly down. In the past we’ve flown to Bordeaux and hired a car. This year my beloved decided we would fly to San Sebastian (via Madrid) and stay in the centre, close to all the action. He booked the flight back in March and gave me the confirmations which I filed in chronological order in my big fat holiday file.

On the Sunday before we were due to depart for our five-day trip to San Sebastian, I took out the confirmation of our flight booking to check the luggage allowance. When I  entered my name plus the booking reference into the Iberia site, it advised me that no such reference existed on the system. Alarm bells started to ring. My beloved undertook a mercy dash to the airport to resolve the issue – several months in the dog house and complete removal of privileges at stake. He returned with a contact number and was put through immediately to an extremely helpful gentleman who obviously didn’t work in their call centre.

It appears that the bank rejected the payment despite more than adequate funds and my beloved correctly inputting the magic bank code he received on his mobile. We can only conclude that because he booked and paid for another Iberia flight, the bank willfully decided to reject one of them. We were blissfully unaware because we had a flight confirmation number. Fortunately, the man from Iberia was able to restore our booking – phew!

I had booked a room in a recently opened 10-bedroomed pension a few steps from the beach and the Old Town which was an ideal location and, thanks to triple glazed windows, blissfully quiet. It had everything you need in a hotel bedroom, nothing you didn’t, and all at a great price. I’ve already booked it again for next year’s race and given it a glowing endorsement on Booking.com.

Apart from watching the race, our intention was to further explore San Sebastian. Even though we’ve been here a number of times, we’ve not seen everything or even eaten in all of its wonderful bars and restaurants. Our days were spent walking along the beach and around the town, visiting its monuments, watching the race, sampling some old favourites and some new restaurants and pintxos (tapas) bars.

The hotel had an arrangement with an excellent nearby neighbourhood bar for breakfast, that also served some fabulous pintxos and local specialities, before deciding how to spend our day. The weather was better either side of the week-end and I like nothing better than strolling along the La Concha beach with my tootsies in the wet sand. The beach tends to be more crowded closer to San Sebastian’s Alderdi-Eder Park but there’s plenty of room further along or you can enjoy the extension of La Concha, in Ondarreta. Alternatively, if you like surfing, head to the beach the other side of the Urunea river, the Zurriola. So that’s three beaches to bronze on, swim, build sand castles, or whatever takes your fancy.

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One morning we walked the full length of two of the beaches to enjoy the civic sculptures at either end: Construccion Vacia by Jorge Oteiza and Peine del Viento by Chillida and Pena Ganachegui. Of course, had we been so inclined,we could have hired bikes and cycled on San Sebastian’s many bidegorris (bike lanes). We also walked up and along two of the town’s three hills: the Igueldo overlooking Ondarreta beach and Urgull overlooking the fishing port.

Saturday was spent watching the Clasica, one of my favourite one-day races which we first saw live back in 2011. While the organisation of the race and indeed the route is much improved, much stays the same including the enthusiasm of the fans. Many ex and current professional riders also come en famille to see the race. It’s just that kind of event. We spotted a number of teams the day before riding around and soaking up the sights and sounds. It’s a popular post-Tour race and generally won by a rider who’s shown good form in the Tour.

Sunday we’d set aside to explore the San Telmo Museum which includes a beautiful 16th century Dominican convent, decorated with canvasses illustrating the most important events in Basque history, among its many exhibition spaces. Aside from its temporary exhibitions, the museum presents an attractive journey to the very heart of Basque society from its origins to present day. The entrance fee is only Euros 6 and you get a Euro 2 reduction on a drink and a pintxos in the attached café San Telmo which has an excellent restaurant. I speak from experience.

Talking of restaurants, we’d booked to visit an old favourite Gandarias, in the Old Town, which also has an adjoining pintxos bar but sadly Kokotxa was fully booked for lunch and dinner – next time. On previous trips we’ve eaten at some of the many Michelin starred establishments but we’ve never eaten badly anywhere in the Basque country. Just follow your eyes and nose and you won’t go wrong.

We also had a wander around the town’s two markets in La Brexia and San Martin. Given half a chance I’d have brought back lots of Basque goodies but there was only so much space in my luggage. And while we’re on the subject of luggage, mine is currently still unaccounted for. My beloved’s turned up the following day but they’ve yet to establish the whereabouts of mine. I can only conclude it’s ticking off a few places on its bucket list. Meanwhile, I’m holding onto the thought that airlines rarely lose baggage, just misplace it for a while. But, just in case, I’ve already prepared a detailed list of its contents and their value.

Friday postscript: According to Iberia’s missing luggage tracker, they have tracked down a Tumi they think might be my missing bag.

Monday postscript: My bag’s back, no idea where it’s been, but am very grateful for its return.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.