French Riviera: Must See Places

Most of us can only dream about where we’d like to visit next however I would encourage you to do more than just dream. Plan and prepare for when we can all travel again. I’m conscious that many of you only have a few days to spare for my part of the world, so where would I encourage first-time visitors to the French Riviera to go?

These places are in no particular order and can all be easily reached using public transport – train, tram bus.

Nice

Obviously I would have to say start with Nice, an all year round destination, about which I have already written one or two (slight understatement) posts. It overlooks the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. Start with a climb up (or take the small train) to La Colline du Château (Castle Hill) to see what I’m talking about. Once you get to the top, you’ll have panoramic views of the Baie des Anges, the Old Town, Promenade des Anglais and the city’s varied and vibrant architecture. And while a few crumbling walls are all that remain of the namesake castle on the hill, there is a verdant park that’s perfect for an al fresco picnic lunch.

Any sightseeing should include a trip to Nice’s colorful Vieille Ville, or Old Town, which is a delightful maze of narrow streets full of lively restaurants, galleries and shops. There are cafés dotted all around the Old Town’s many squares, so take the opportunity to sit down, coffee (or rosé) in hand, and people-watch the day away. For a more active visit, spend some time strolling along the Promenade du Paillon, the city’s public park and botanical garden that links the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art with the Promenade des Anglais.

Menton

The town of Menton has all the beauty of the better-known coastal villages, but a fraction of the crowds. Its half-dozen beaches are all but empty in the off-season, and boutique-filled alleyways are relatively tourist-free. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, exceptional gardens, and quality Italian cuisine due to its position on the Franco-Italian border, it’s an ideal spot for a day trip. (For an unparalleled Provençal gastronomic experience, however, head to Mirazur, chef Mauro Colagreco’s triple Michelin-starred spot that earned the number one title in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2019.) In February, the town holds a magnificent Lemon Festival, a celebration of spring and a throwback to the town’s past, when it survived principally on citrus production.

Antibes-Juan les Pins

Beyond the megayacht boat porn and picture-perfect beaches, Antibes is a draw for its literary and artistic history. It was at the Villa Saint Louis (now the popular Hotel Belles-Rives) in Juan-les-Pins that F. Scott Fitzgerald took up summer residence with wife Zelda and his daughter Scottie in 1926 and began his work on Tender is the Night. The enclosed mansions and dramatic villas lining the shore that once fascinated Fitzgerald are still very much a part of the landscape, but there’s local charm to be found, too. Stroll around old Antibes, through the Cours Masséna, a Provençal food market, and up to the Musée Picasso, the first museum dedicated to the artist. Formerly the Château Grimaldi, the stronghold was Picasso’s home and workshop in 1946 and remains one of the commanding cultural draws of the resort town.

Cannes

Long before it was synonymous with the International Film Festival and earned its reputation as a playground for the world’s dizzyingly well-heeled, Cannes was a shimmering, seaside destination made for resting and people-watching  – something that still remains true. But it also offers extraordinary views and culture. Climb the winding staircases and pass the pastel-coated homes in Le Suquet, the city’s old quarter, and you’ll end up at the Musée de la Castre, a home for ethnographic art in a medieval fortress overlooking the marina and the Croisette. For restorative beaches and landscapes free of crowds, take a 15-minute ferry ride to two of the Lérins islands off the coast: Ile St. Honorat, known for its working monastery and forest groves, and Ile Ste-Marguerite, the spot for hidden coves and beaches.

Eze

Nestled into craggy cliffs high above the sea, the medieval village of Eze is a delightful step back in time. The well-preserved stone buildings, winding alleyways, 14th-century chapels and dramatic Mediterranean backdrop make this tiny village seem like a movie set. The dramatic views are best earned by taking one of the many hiking trails, like the famous Nietzsche path, that connect the the town and the summit, which sits over 150 metres (1,400 feet) above sea level. At the top, is the town’s medieval fortress, which you may recognize from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, surrounded by the Jardin Exotique, a desert garden brimming with succulents and exotic florals.

Grasse

Grasse (visit write-up coming soon) is a quiet, pretty medieval village that also holds the distinction of being the world’s perfume capital. While famous perfumeries like Fragonard offer free tours of their factories, the real reason to come here is to take in the near-endless fields of flowers that dominate the area’s hilly landscape. Come August, the town plays host to the Jasmine Festival, a three-day celebration of jasmine, one of the two flowers to have dominated local perfume production (the other is Damascus rose). Grasse is conveniently located between Cannes and Nice, so a quick stop here is worth your while, if only to smell the flowers.

Monaco

Bordered by France on three sides, the petite principality of Monaco is a bastion of glitz and glamour. While it’s typically known as a playground for the ultra rich, those short on cash can still enjoy themselves. Its easy enough to walk around to view stately sights like the Prince’s Palace, Fort Antoine and Monaco Cathedral. Don’t forget to take some time to observe the luxurious yachts in the harbour (or, even better, make friends with someone who owns one), and wrap up your trip with a spin at the Monte Carlo casino.

I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration for your next trip to my part of the world.

One from the vaults: 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 strolling 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 I 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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French Basque Country: Espelette and…………..

So where next? Can I suggest Espelette (Ezpeleta in Basque) a delightful village situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees to the east of Saint Jean de Luz, and south-east of Biarritz below the Mondarrain mountain.

The village is famous for its chilli peppers and those grown in this region even have an appellation controlée to vouch for their authenticity. After the harvest at the end of summer the picture-perfect traditional Basque white-washed houses with either red or green shutters feature drying piments and the effect is wonderfully colourful.

It’s a real pleasure to stroll down Espelette’s streets to take in the unique scenery and visit its many stores and boutiques selling not only the famous peppers but also many more local products such as chocolate and cheese. Espelette can sometimes get a little crowded, especially during the summer high-season and on bank holidays, but the views are still awesome. There is a reason why so many visit this place – it’s just so charming.

The origins of the Espelette Pepper date back to 1650 when a Basque sailor who had been traveling with Christopher Columbus brought some chili peppers back to the Basque Country. These peppers were first used medicinally and then later for conserving meat and ham. Over time, they have become a cornerstone of Basque cuisine. Although it is called “Espelette Pepper,” it is actually grown in 10 villages of the region, among them Ainhoa and Espelette. The European Union has even granted a protected designation to the Espelette region which means only peppers from this particular area can have the name Piment d’Espelette.

The peppers are so important that there is even an annual Espelette pepper festival that is celebrated during the last weekend of October which includes Basque dance exhibitions, traditional music concerts, parades and Basque sporting competitions.

At one end of the main street is 16th century castle that is now the village mairie (town hall) which also houses the tourist office and exhibition spaces for:-

  • chilli peppers around the world
  • local Agnes Sauret the first lady to win Miss France (1920)
  • local Armand David, an intrepid 19th century explorer

The local church of Saint-Etienne has a typical Basque interior with three levels of wooden galleries going round the walls and a very decorative 18th century altarpiece. It’s off the tourist path. Indeed, this part of the town is often over-looked by visitors but it’s very peaceful with a gentle stream flowing nearby. You can also see the grave of the first Miss France who’s buried here.

There are several other villages nearby which also have similar Basque architecture to Espelette and are equally charming to visit, including Sare and Ainhoa which are both listed among the most beautiful villages in France.

The surrounding countryside of low mountains is perfect for exploring, preferably by bike. Or, you could take a small train that climbs the mountain at La Rhune for a different view across the countryside.

Alternatively, just 8 kilometres (5 miles) from the Spanish border, you’ll find Saint Jean Pied de Port one of the traditional starting points of the Way of St James (the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela). It’s a delightful walled town and Unesco World Heritage Site with numerous gates.

Frankly, I could go on for ever as there are so many pretty picturesque towns, many of which we’ve visited on our bikes. But don’t just take my word for it, come and see for yourself!

French Basque Country: Bayonne

If things had gone according to plan, I’d now be enjoying a vacation in my beloved Basque Country but as I’m not…………………….let’s return to my series about the French Basque Country.

A mere eight kilometres (5 miles) from Biarritz is the wonderful town of Bayonne which we’ve visited a number of times, the last one being on a Saturday in 2018 on our way down to San Sebastian.

Bayonne (“Baiona” in Basque) is located at the northernmost point of the French Basque Country where the Nive and Adour Rivers meet. It’s renowned for hosting one of the largest French summer festivals, called the Fêtes de Bayonne. This is the French version of Pamplona’s San Fermin (Running of the Bulls) and attracts more then one million visitors annually. It may not have been that particular festival but the town was full of people who’d dressed up and were playing medieval games.

Even though Bayonne is technically a city, it feels more like a large town. A stroll along the Nive River which separates the two main neighbourhoods of the city, Grand and Petit Bayonne, is both beautiful and relaxing. The buildings are decorated in a lovely mixture of Basque and French architecture, each adorned with colourful wooden shutters. Both sides of the waterfront are lined with bars and restaurants and make for great places to stop and take in the most beautiful views of the city.

Thanks to the Adour River which connects Bayonne to the Bay of Biscay, the city was well positioned and grew wealthy with the help of the whaling and cod industries. This influx of money helped finance many of the city’s buildings, including the massive gothic cathedral.

Because of Bayonne’s commercial importance and its close proximity to Spain (aprox. 30 km [19 miles] away), the city features many fortified structures. Most of the original wall that surrounded the city is gone but it’s still possible to see some of the remnants when wandering through its streets. Some other examples of the city’s defensive structures include the Porte d’Espagne, Château-Neuf, Château-Vieux and the citadel. Unfortunately, most of the fortifications are closed to the public, however, it is possible to view them from the outside.

Grand Bayonne is the more commercial part of town but also its ancient beating heart where one finds the Sainte Marie Cathedral, which dominates the city’s skyline. The construction of this gothic cathedral started in 1213 though it wasn’t finished until 17th century (with exception of the north tower, finished in 19th century). Alongside the cathedral is the cloister, which dates back to 1240 and  is one of the largest in France.

Not far from the cathedral, you will find the Château-Vieux (Old Castle). Built in 12th century by the Viscounts of Labourd. This was originally the official residence of the governors of the city (including Edward, the black prince). It’s still owned by the military and is therefore not open to the public.

The impressive Town Hall of Bayonne (La Mairie or L’Hôtel de Ville) is located at the intersection of the Nive and Adour Rivers. It was built in 1843 in neoclassical style and was originally home to the customs office. The six statues on the roof represent the economic and artistic activities of the city. Apart from the town hall, the building also houses a theater and a café with a nice terrace in the square in front of the building.

Next to the Nive River is Bayonne’s covered market called “Les Halles”. This is the perfect place to discover the area’s bounty and particularly the lovely gâteau Basque. The market and its surroundings are especially busy on Saturday mornings, when local producers gather there for an open-air market.

Bayonne also has a botanical garden, called Jardin Botanique, located at the Avenue du 11 Novembre (next to the Tourist Office). It was opened in the late 1990s and it stands on top of a bastion between the cathedral and the ramparts.

Apart from wandering through the streets of this beautiful neighbourhood and enjoying its architecture, in Petit Bayonne, you can visit the Basque Museum. Founded in 1922, it contains a nice collection of Basque and local French history. It is located in a small palace from 16th century called “Maison Dagourette.”

Another interesting museum located in this same aea is the Bonnat Museum. It is named after the local realist painter, Léon Bonnat, whose own work makes up most of the main collection. It was due to reopen in 2020 after extensive renovation works.

Sitting in the highest point of Petit Bayonne you will find the Château-Neuf built in the 15th century by Charles IV. This massive building now belongs to the university and is again unfortunately closed to the public.

From Petit Bayonne, it is possible to cross the Adour River via the Pont Saint-Esprit to the neighborhood of Saint-Esprit, where the citadel and train station are located. This neighborhood was originally part of Gascony and therefore different from the rest of Bayonne. It was settled primarily by Jews who had escaped from the Spanish Inquisition at the beginning of 17th century.

The Jews contributed much to Bayonne’s growth particularly through the introduction of chocolate which first gained its foothold in Bayonne and then later spread to the rest of France. Today, there are still many chocolatiers found in the city, such as the L’Atelier du Chocolat which has a workshop on the far end of Saint-Esprit. Well worth a visit!

One from the vaults: Home sweet home

I’ve really dug deep with this one. It’s from June 2009 when we decided to take a cycling vacation in Seefeld Austria. Sadly, the weather did not co-operate! When I first started blogging, I made little or no use of my photographs. But if you want to see photos of Seefeld and the surrounding area, there are plenty of other posts on my blog.

Sunday was the final day of our vacation and it was still raining, or should I say pouring. Undeterred by the climatic conditions, we have however had a most enjoyable vacation. Most days we have waited for a lull in the precipitation before venturing forth on our bikes, muffled up like Michelin men in rain jackets, leg and arm warmers. It’s warmed up as the week has progressed, although the surrounding mountains still have a dusting of snow.

During the week, we have ascended and descended all the surrounding hills, several times, most of which are an average 10% gradient.  I foolishly made the mistake of buying my beloved husband a book on rides in the surrounding area enabling him to seek out the highest climbs. However, we have also ridden along the valley visiting some of the villages perched part-way up the hills.

Now, we’ve seen plenty of cyclists out and about in the valley but, surprisingly, have not passed any, or indeed been passed by any on the climbs. Slogging back up one of these from the valley on Thursday, I was delighted when it levelled out at 7%. Yes, I know I can’t believe I even entertained that thought, but I did. Of course, it’s been great training as most of the climbs near us are only 7% average gradient.

I have a routine when cycling with my beloved. I always carry the cash, the mobile and the keys. I reckon that the combination acts as a powerful disincentive for my husband to misplace me. Equally, I don’t trust him not to lose any one of them should I be foolish enough to entrust him with them. History greatly supports my fears.

Nonetheless, my beloved managed to lose me on Friday in nearby Mittenwald, Germany. I searched all over for him, without success and as soon as the heavens opened (once again) I headed back across the border into Austria. It was cold and wet and, having climbed back up to the valley, I time-trialled home while passing cars regarded me with considerable disbelief.  My husband trailled in over an hour later looking (or so I like to think), a bit sheepish.

I am of course questioning why on earth did we decide to have a cycling holiday in Austria? Why did we not stay at home and enjoy the warm, sunny weather so ideal for cycling? The answer is my beloved. If he takes vacation and stays at home he keep straying into the office to answer a few emails or answer the phone and several hours later he’s still in there. From time to time, I need to ensure that he has a complete break. Conversely, my holiday starts when he heads off on a business trip. Roll on Monday!

One from the vaults: Postcard from the Giro d’Italia Part II

Here’s Part II of our trip in May 2016 to watch part of the Giro d’Italia.

At the start of Tuesday’s stage, in a suburb of Florence, we caught up with staff we know at team 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 promised to work on it the following 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 built 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 clients from Slovenia. We’d briefly visited the city when the Giro d’Italia finished there in 2014 but hadn’t time to have a good look around as we needed to get back for Cannondale’s farewell Giro party. It was great 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 those delicious Austrian cakes.

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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 of an individual and not a community effort and, as you might expect, it’s generally done with great style, panache and much reverence for the Giro’s history. I consider myself fortunate to live only 45 minutes from the Italian border.

One from the vaults: Postcard from the Giro d’Italia Part I

It’s May, It’s time for the Giro d’Italia. But not this year. So I’m dragging out one of my many posts about our various trips to Italy to watch the Giro. This one’s from May 2016, part II follows later.

My beloved and I consider ourselves most fortunate to often be able to 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, it 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 to die for in Chiantishire. Over several subsequent trips to the region we’ve spent time in a number of  Tuscan towns and have always been delighted (typical British understatement) with the food, wine and culture on offer. Plus the cycling, on undulating roads with little or no traffic, has always 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 later discover that the finish line was actually 8km from where we’d left the car. 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 from the stage. More significantly, we arrived at the Accreditation Centre seconds after it was supposed to close only 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 accreditations at the start of Sunday’s time-trial stage but this process wasn’t without its tribulations. I was fifth in the queue but none of those ahead of me had 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.

 

The Mighty Boz
The Mighty Boz, aka Ian Boswell

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 the 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.

French Basque Country: Biarritz

I have waxed lyrical many a time about the Spanish Basque Country. Now’s the time to bang the drum for the Basque Country in France which I love just as much as its Spanish neighbour. It’s not just about beautiful landscapes and great food either, its culture is as fascinating as it is a little mystifying because the French Basques share the same language, culture and traditions as those of the Spanish. They too have managed to maintain a buccolic, country lifestyle but this time among those dark satanic hills of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

We’ve often stayed in the French Basque country en-route to Spain and I’m going to start with probably the jewel in its crown Biarritz which, by comparison with the French Riviera, is a relatively bling-free coastal getaway.

Napolean III transformed Biarritzm formerly a fishing and whaling village, when he built a summer palace for his Pricess Eugenie (now the Hotel du Palais). Just like that the health benefits of sea bathing became fashionable among European nobility who descended on Biarritz for the season in the late 1800s. Screenwriter Peter Viertel had a similar impact when he visited in 1957 to film The Sun Also Rises. Impressed by the waves, he sent for his surfboard from California and single-handedly introduced surfing to Europe.

The focus of Biarritz is the Casino Municipal, on the Grande-Plage. The loveliest places to stroll around are the streets between there and the Plage du Port-Vieux. Just beside the Plage du Port-Vieux, the most sheltered and intimate of the beaches, a rocky promontory sticks out into the sea, ending in an iron catwalk anchoring the Rocher de la Vierge, an offshore rock adorned with a white statue of the Virgin, which has become Biarritz’s trademark. Just below is the picturesque harbour of the Port des Pecheurs, backed by tamarisks and pink and blue hydrangeas. Beyond lies the Grande Plage, an immaculate sweep of sand that stretches past the casino, all the way to the lighthouse on the Pointe St-Martin.

Another icon, the lighthouse was built in 1834 and stands 73 metres above sea level overlooking Cape Hainsart (so called because of the oak trees which surrounded it in the past). It marks the boundary between the sandy Landes coast and the rocky coast of the Basque Country. It’s a climb of 248 steps to reach the top but it does offer an exceptional panoramic view of Biarritz and the Basque hinterland.

Also located in the Port-Vieux, you’ll find the neo-gothic Sainte Eugenie Church aka Imperial Chapel also built during the reign of Napoleon III in 1864, on Empress Eugenia’s request, in a Roman-Byzantine and Hispanic-Moorish style. In other words, a bit of a mash-up. It’s dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and was listed as historical monument in 1981. While, the more centrally located Orthodox Alexandre Newsky Church (above) was built in the Byzantine style by Biarritz architect M. Tisnés. Inaugurated in September 1892, in the presence of members of the Russian imperial family, it has been classified as a Historical Monument since June 2015.

Biarritz has a beautiful red-brick covered market, Les Halles, fresh of façade after a complete renovation. Outside, fat seagulls circle, hopeful of a fishy morsel. I love wandering around markets and always make a point of checking out the produce. Here it was so fresh and beautiful, it looked as if it was sculpted from marzipan. At lunchtime, we enjoyed a few freshly shucked bivalves at an oyster bar.

As one might expect, Biarritz has a lively restaurant scene and plenty of nightlife to satisfy even the most dedicated of party goers. I appreciate that I haven’t even touched on many of its other charms such as its surf culture, golf courses, beautiful coastal walks and cycling highway – we have done that – but maybe this is enough to wet your appetite. Further towns to follow………

 

One from the vaults: Postcards from the Basque Country – Part I

I did say that I wouldn’t recycle too many cycling posts but, frankly, I’m having severe withdrawal symptoms with there being no live racing, anywhere. Ahead of what would have been this year’s Tour of the Basque Country, I’m recycling one from April 2013 which is lacking my trademark photographs – apologies! However, my husband provided plenty from the race for VeloVoices.

I know, I’m back home and I’ve not sent my postcards! We’ve all done it, haven’t we? But, to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve had any real opportunity to write about the trip and not the race which you can read about over on VeloVoices. Well apart from the shenanigans with the Russian visa application.

First up the weather was initially much better than anticipated meaning my beloved was able to ride for the first few days and I even accompanied him despite his unerring ability to find every steep climb in the neighbourhood. Admittedly that’s not difficult in the Basque country although this time he succeeded in finding one or two of the longer, more taxing climbs.

Of course, when I say I rode with him, I meant I trailed behind him. My beloved, despite our lengthy marriage, constantly fails to appreciate that if he runs, skis or cycles with me I’ll make an effort to keep up. Disappear 500m or more up the road, leaving me to my own devices, and I’ll amble along admiring the countryside or get into conversation with other cyclists. As a result, we rarely cycle together.

The first Saturday morning dawned bright, albeit overcast, after Friday’s torrential downpour,and my beloved wasted no time in hustling me out the door though, half-way into our ride, the heavens opened again and we turned tail and fled back to the warmth of our small family-run hotel.  In the afternoon we drove into Navarre to watch the GP Miguel Indurain where conversely the weather was dry with a chilly wind. The race weaves loops around the pretty old town of Estella where, after a truly magnificent lunch, we exhorted the peloton, surprisingly split into a multitude of small groups up the final climb.

Sunday morning we opted to further explore the countryside on two wheels. The sun shone although there was still an early morning nip in the air. The scent of word-burning fires, the bright lime-green shoots on the trees, the blossoming hedgerows, the sound of dogs barking and the tinkle of bells around the necks of goats and sheep gave everything a distinctly alpine feel but then we were riding at around 600-900m and some of the hills still had traces of snow.

I love riding in the Basque country where cyclists always seem to outnumber the motorists who keep a respectable distance and toot in a friendly and encouraging fashion as you labour up yet another of those steep, sharp inclines. Sunday was no exception and we saw many groups from the local cycling clubs, I even cycled and chatted with a few of them after being abandoned by my beloved. Ride over, we settled down to a plate of tapas, a glass of red wine and, on the big screen, the rigours of racing over the cobbles in Belgium in the Tour of Flanders.

Monday dawned bright and fair, again contrary to expectations, as we headed over to Elgoibar and the start of one of my favourite races of the year: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Accreditation secured, we headed to the team presentation and sign-on where I was able to catch up with a number of friends who were riding in the race. There’s nothing nicer than watching and encouraging someone you know. Our early start also gave us an opportunity to catch up with friends old and new in the press corps.

This race is extremely well attended by the bike loving Basques. The biggest cheers, not unnaturally, are reserved for the “home” team of Euskaltel-Euskadi and their lead rider and defending champion Samu Sanchez who obligingly had his photograph taken with hordes of dark-haired, dark-eyed moppets: inspiring the next generation. It’s also very evident that former winner Spaniard Alberto Contador is popular with the on-lookers.

The appreciative and knowledgable crowd also welcomes “old friends” such as Jens Voigt who was awarded a plaque in recognition of his support of this race. Conversely, Sky turning up with only six riders, and failing to attend the team presentation, was seen as disrespectful. As the race progressed, they made a point of arriving more punctually for the sign-on except for their gregarious bearded Basque Xabier Zandio who was an early starter most mornings. By the time they started winning stages, they were forgiven.

I love watching the pre-start interaction with everyone milling around the team buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of their heroes, a souvenir or two or just checking out the bike bling. Likewise those five minutes or so before the race starts where some riders wait patiently, composing their thoughts before the day’s challenges while others chat with their compatriots on other teams, no doubt comparing their experiences of the previous day’s racing.

The Vuelta al Pais Vasco follows a similar pattern most years, with the first and last days of racing centred on one town and the four stages in between setting off from the previous day’s finish town. It all takes place within a relatively confined geographic area allowing the teams to spend most of the race based in one hotel, close to the action, thereby avoiding long transfers and early morning starts. I think this is recompense for the fact that several stages take place in the freezing cold rain. This year’s been no exception, the rain started in earnest on Thursday with the Eibar summit finish shrouded in freezing fog. Friday morning we awoke to find a blizzard blowing. Why did no one tell me the locals’ nickname for Vitoria-Gasteiz is Siberia?? (to be continued)

Yet another Postcard from Dubai

It’s early February  – bear with me here – and this year, just like the last few years, we’re enjoying some sunshine in Dubai. My beloved is here for the dental exhibition, an opportunity to meet with a number of his distributors, largely local dental professionals and the company’s Indian partner. I’ve topped and tailed this business committment with a few day’s vacation.

We may still have spritely springs in our steps but neither of us are spring chickens – much as it pains me to admit it. We may look and act a lot younger but we both admit we are slowing down and it takes us longer to recover from things like jet lag. However, there’s nowhere nicer to recover than in the hotel we rather regard as our home from home in Dubai.

However, despite this being a catch-up post, I am getting ahead of myself.

The week before we left for Dubai, my beloved returned from one of his tiring, whirlwind business trips to London. We’d spent the Saturday shopping and lunching over the border in Italy. Sunday he’d ridden with the cycle club and had returned pretty tired out. The following day he was running a fever and his right leg was red, hot and swollen. I diagnosed an insect bite, an area where I have ample expertise. Mind you, that didn’t account for the man flu-like symptoms. Fast forward a few weeks and he’d no doubt have been claiming a Coronavirus infection.

Thursday he was feeling well enough to brave the doctor who organised a scan of his veins and a blood test to confirm my diagnosis. He’d been bitten by a tick in the UK, most probably while staying at his brother’s, and had symptoms not that dissimilar to Lyme’s disease.

Cue ungents, antibiotics and hourly inspections of his right leg to confirm he was indeed getting better. Consequently, I was pleased he’d have a few days relaxing in Dubai before the exhibition. We stayed at our favourite hotel, close enough to the World Trade Centre and the Metro but which also gives us access to the Jumeirah Beach Club. My beloved loves heading down there to swims laps in the pool and work out in the gym. I like walking along the damp sandy shoreline. So we were both happy bunnies.

Of course, while my beloved was busy at the exhibition, I did what I wanted to do. This generally involved exploring new areas of Dubai, having a spot of head to toe pampering and spending many hours in my favourite bookshop.  I was keen to see how the Museum of the Future directly opposite our hotel plus the renovation and redevelopment of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel site were progressing, visit a few of our favourite places but generally spend plenty of time catching up with new (to me) places in Dubai, plus a spot of relaxing and reading. Sometimes just doing nothing much can be very satisfying.

Before booking our hotel, I always shop around. This time I scored a great deal which included breakfast. The hotel’s breakfast buffet is superb, so superb, we went without lunch and only needed a light bite early evening. Sadly this meant no Friday brunches but it was probably much kinder on our waistlines. I’m pretty sure not eating between 9pm and 6am doesn’t really count as intermittant fasting. We generally regard our stays in Dubai as a welcome opportunity not to drink any alcohol but, with my beloved still on antibiotics, it was obligatory.

Here’s some of the new places I visited in Dubai

City Walk

There aren’t too many neighbourhoods in Dubai where you can easily and enjoyably meander on foot. Yet City Walk – located on Safa Rd between Al Wasl and Sheikh Zayed Rds at the Dubai Mall interchange – is one such place, with the developer striking the right balance between pedestrian walkspace, high-end retailers, restaurants, hotels and residential. We first visited back in 2018 but, like everything in Dubai, it has grown.

I like wandering around the place because it has a very European feel with its walkways, wide boulevards and low level apartment blocks with retail on the ground floors. Tree lined avenues and a collection of contemporary streetart murals and an open plan layout enable it to host regular community events. City Walk is also a bit of a foodie haven with around 70 cafes and restaurants. The eclectic nature of the offerings in the area means there are activities to enjoy no matter your age, background or interests. City Walk also boasts Green Planet, a stand-alone bio-dome.

Alserkal Art District

Located in the AlQuoz industrial district, Alserkal is an edgy arts hub with cutting edge galleries, design stores, pop-up spaces and an outdoor cinema. Its bold brutalist centrepiece is Concrete, an events space designed by Rem Koolhaas which has moveable walls allowing the space to be reconfigured around a central courtyard.

Alserkal brims with the unexpected and inspiring: a willy Wonka chocolate factory, a farmers’ market, sneaker and vintage stores, cafes and restaurants. Opposite lies the Courtyard a collection of shops and caves with Arabian fantasy facades and tinkling fountains.

This is where I was assured Dubai’s hipsters hang out though I’m not certain I saw anyone fitting that description! It’s a huge area to cover and I barely scratched the surface.

Kulture House

Kulture House on the Jumeirah Beach Road is what’s known as a multi-faceted concept space, aiming to facilitate a collision of different cultures. The venue houses a charming café, a fair-trade gift shop, a florist and an art pop-up featuring work by local artists.

The interiors of the converted Jumeirah villa are vibrant, bright and very much a reflection of that melange of cultures. A hearty breakfast prevented me from sampling anything in the cafe, though I was tempted by its wide-ranging and delicious menu.

Jameel Arts Centre

I also headed over to the Dubai Creek to see the Jameel Arts Centre. A cluster of gleaming white cubes, the galleries are built around courtyard gardens filled with desert plants. This aims to be one of the a leading contemporary art institutions for the UAE and the Middle East. It appears to have a very hands-on approach through nurturing artists to produce work from and about the region, and then encouraging its audiences to engage actively with the artworks.

Next door to the centre is the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park, the UAE’s first open-air art and sculpture park designed to balance the rippling water of Jaddaf Creek with the stacked geometry of the Jameel. Designed as an active and lively outdoor gallery space that welcomes community engagement, the Park transitions seamlessly from the open walkway around the corniche and features a children’s playground, zones of fixed furniture with speciality tables for board games or chess, as well as an area for food trucks, plus an amphitheatre.

Miracle Garden

Every year from mid-November to mid-May over in Dubailand, there is a massive space full of the scents of millions of flowers in a myriad of bright colours. The garden, with its 150 million flowers in full bloom, is stunningly arranged. The Garden’s  breathtaking landscaping has two Guinness World Records: the largest vertical garden in 2013 and world’s largest floral sculpture (an Airbus A380) in 2016. The garden is reimagined every year and attracts plenty of visitors. I should’ve allowed more time for my visit – next time!